A Nine-Year-Old Girl Triumphed over the Handcart Tragedy

W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, August 1995

The heavy morning frost on the Wyoming Plains west of Fort Laramie made walking unpleasant for those who were barefoot or in tattered shoes among the ill-fated 1856 Mormon handcart companies destined for Salt Lake City. Both the Willie and Martin companies, replete with Mormon faithful eager to join fellow Saints in the Great Basin, had been plagued with difficulties along their overland journeys. Carts broke down, provisions ran out, cattle stampeded, and worst of all, a month before usual snowfall, the most violent winter to hit the region in many years pinned the two companies, cold and near starvation, several miles apart and hundreds of miles from their destination. Even before the onset of severe weather the Martin company, traveling eight days behind the Willie group, had been put on rations of two cups of flour per adult per day. To compensate, many stopped at Fort Laramie where they traded jewelry, utensils, and heirlooms for cornmeal, beans, and bacon; but even these staples proved insufficient once winter weather hit.

Samuel and Margaret Pucell were among the 135 to 150 members of the Martin company that died along the trail. They were converted to the Mormon faith in England and with their two daughters, Maggie, age 14, and Nellie, 9, sailed from Liverpool on May 2, 1856. They joined a handcart company in Iowa City led by Edward Martin and after some delays left late in the season for Salt Lake City. Along the difficult trek Margaret became sick; Samuel compassionately placed his feeble wife in the family cart and continued the journey. At one of several river crossings, however, Samuel stumbled and fell, immersing himself in the cold water. His clothing froze, and within a few days he died from starvation and exposure. Tragically, Margaret died five days later, leaving Nellie and Maggie orphans on the trail.

Fortunately, missionaries returning from England brought news of the destitute companies to Salt Lake City, and on October 5, 1856, Brigham Young dispatched a rescue team. Those immigrants who were still alive when help arrived were desperately cold or numb from the early winter freeze. Ephraim Hanks, one of the rescue party, recalled reaching several travelers “whose extremities were frozen.” “Many such I washed with water and castile soap, until the frozen parts would fall off,” he wrote, “after which I would sever the shreds of flesh from the remaining portions of the limbs with my scissors.” Both Pucell girls were found in similar circumstances with badly frozen feet and legs. Upon removal of the girls’ shoes and socks, frozen flesh came off; Nellie’s legs were particularly bad and had to be amputated. Rescuers performed the operation without anesthetic, using the only available instruments, a butcher knife and carpenter’s saw. Due to the primitive surgical conditions the wound healed poorly, and bones protruded from the end of Nellie’s stumps. She spent the rest of her life waddling on her knees in constant pain.

At age 24 Nellie moved to Cedar City and not long thereafter became the plural wife of William Unthank. She bore six children and lived in poverty. She was, however, accustomed to facing challenges and did all in her power to make the most of her situation. Even while living in a log cabin she kept her home immaculately clean. She regularly dampened and scraped the dirt floor, making it smooth as pavement. To help meet her family’s needs she took in laundry, knitted stockings to sell, carded wool, and crocheted table pieces. At times, however, she could not provide all the essentials for her children and received assistance from her Mormon bishop. As repayment for this aid and out of deeply felt gratitude, she and her children yearly scrubbed and washed the church where they worshiped each Sunday. Nellie spent most of her life in similar quiet acts of service, not only for her church but also for her family and neighbors. According to one friend, “her wrinkled forehead” and “her soft dark eyes” bore witness to the “pain and suffering” she had endured in her life, yet her face bore “no trace of bitterness” at her fate. In “patience and serenity” Nellie touched the lives of all with whom she associated. She died at age 69 in Cedar City.

As a fitting tribute to Nellie’s memory a life-size bronze likeness by noted Utah sculptor Jerry Anderson was dedicated August 13, 1991, on the campus of Southern Utah University. The Utah Legislature officially set the day aside as a “day of praise” for Nellie Unthank, and a host of dignitaries paid tribute to her tenacity, sacrifice, and noble pioneering spirit. Perhaps Norman Bangerter, then governor of Utah, said it best when he praised Nellie as “one of the true heroines of Utah history.”

See: Deseret News, August 4, 10, October 12, 1991; Rebecca Cornwall and Leonard J. Arrington, Rescue of the 1856 Handcart Companies (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1981); Leroy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1960); Kate B. Carter, comp., Treasures of Pioneer History, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, 1952–57), 5:266-67.