No one knows how many tens of thousands of graves lie beside America's wagon roads to the West. But one grave near the great stone castle of Scott's Bluff in Nebraska has become part of the legend of America's overland trails. Rebecca Burdick was born December 16, 1802, at Cayuga, New York Her father Gideon had been a drummer--in George Washington's army. She married Hiram Winters in 1824 and bore five children.
In 1833, the Winters and Burdick families joined the Latter-day Saints and followed the religion through all its trials in Ohio, Illinois and Iowa. In September 1846 they helped build breastworks for defense of the "City of Joseph," and Rebecca's son Oscar fought in the Battle of Nauvoo. A companion recalled the "anguish and suspense of those dreadful hours" wives and mothers spent waiting on a porch for word of the outcome. The Mormons lost and agreed to abandon the city in a few days.
The Winterses spent the next six years in Iowa and set out for Utah in 1852 with the James C. Snow party. On the way, cholera struck the wagon train. It is impossible to know the terror this mysterious disease once held: people could be healthy in the morning and dead of cholera by dark. Or they could linger for days in unrelieved misery. By most reports, Rebecca Winters selflessly nursed the sick as her party struggled up the Platte River. According to one account, after days of trying to relieve victims of the disease, she at last threw up her hands in despair, and "from that moment she was stricken down." She died on August 15, 1852.
"Dig deeper, boys," William Hawley was said to have told the men burying Winters. "No wild animal shall disturb this grave." That night, five-year-old Ellis Reynolds (who later became Utah's first female physician) held a candle while her father engraved "Rebecca Winters--Aged 50 Years" on an iron wagon tire to stand as her headstone. For years the journals of overland travelers recorded seeing the marker.
According to legend, in 1902, surveyors for the Burlington Northern Railroad "stumbled into a clump of sagebrush" and found the grave. "'Turn back,' said the leader. We cannot desecrate the last resting place of a pioneer mother.' So they made a detour of several miles to leave the grave in its peaceful solitude." Or, as Anne McQueen versified a few years later:
Boys, said the leader, we'll turn aside
Here, close by the trail, her grave shall stay
For she came first in this desert wide
Rebecca Winters holds right of way.
The facts are more interesting. Norman DeMott homesteaded the land in 1886, and for years his family cared for the grave. The site became a local landmark and the community gave the Winters name to a creek, a voting district and a boulevard. DeMott sold the land to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in the 1890s on the condition that the line would not disturb the grave. The Burlington's tracks missed the grave, but only by fifteen feet. In 1929, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a "Real Daughter" marker at the site. (A concrete headstone replaced the bronze plaque that disappeared.)
On her 100th birthday, her family fenced her grave and raised a monument to their beloved ancestor. But here in Utah, her many descendants are Rebecca Winters' true memorial.
Will Bagley will speak on "Brigham Young, Mining, and the War against Theocracy" at the Westbound Festival in Park City this afternoon.