A key figure in the Mormon Church failed in his leadership of two handcart companies, allowing them to leave Liverpool, England, much later than was recommended, a historian said Friday in Casper.
Franklin D. Richards, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was responsible for the late start of the Martin and Willie handcart companies from England in 1856, according to trail historian Lyndia Carter of Springville, Utah.
Those two handcart companies found themselves trapped in Wyoming when a sudden blizzard stranded parties at Martin's Cove and Rocky Ridge.
"Richards must bear the blame and shoulder the responsibility," Carter said at the national conference for the Mormon History Association. "Richards' faith blinded him to reason. He hoped and prayed that God would postpone nature."
Carter said that Richards' decision to allow the companies to leave nearly two months late resulted in a terrible catastrophe that lead to much death and suffering.
"Like dominoes lined up, all it took was a little nudge by nature for the whole thing to go wrong," she said.
Carter was one of more than 100 presenters gathered at the Parkway Plaza for the annual conference, held in a different location every year.
"This is the biggest turnout we've ever had," said Larry King, the group's executive director, noting that nearly 600 people were in attendance. "We like to choose locations that are significant to Mormon history. We chose Casper this year because it is the sesquicentennial of the handcart migration tragedy."
King said three bus loads of participants traveled to Martin's Cove on Thursday and several took buses to Fort Laramie and Fort Caspar.
Howard Christy, professor emeritus at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said he was startled during his visit by how much historical information at Martin's Cove was inaccurate or misleading.
"It's important to clarify the record," Christy said. "There is still a profusion of misinformation and apparent errors in historical accounts, especially in the signs at the visitor's center and along the trail at Martin's Cove. Some of the signs are terribly misleading."
Christy said many of the errors -- such as how many people actually died at the cove -- are common throughout Mormon historical records and he is appealing the church to correct them.
Philip Barlow, current president of the Mormon History Association, said the conference operates independently from the church and attracts academic, governmental and religious leaders who seek to understand the Mormon past.
"It's important to create a dialogue with people who have different perspectives so we can explore and debate evidence," Barlow said. "Religious faith doesn't let you off the hook when you have tangible evidence."
The conference continues through Sunday.