Pioneer: Nellie Unthank
(SUP Reader’s Theater, 03 January 2022)
My name is Ellen Pucell Unthank, but my friends and family call me Nellie. I was born in a beautiful area of England where the hills are soft and rolling and the grass is forever green. My parents Margaret and William were converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the time of their baptism in 1837 until the spring of 1856, they scrimped and saved to go to the Zion of our people in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains of America. We had enough money if we were willing to accept the challenge to pull a handcart one thousand miles across a wilderness.
My parents, my fourteen-year-old sister Maggie, and I said goodbye to our loved ones never again to see them in mortality. We set sail from Liverpool with 852 of our fellow converts and spent six weeks at sea landing in Boston before taking a steam train to Iowa City. We had expected that the handcarts would be ready. They were not. There was a serious and disastrous delay. It was not until late in July that we began the long march, first to Winter Quarters on the Missouri, and from there to the Rocky Mountains. We were assigned to the ill-fated Martin Handcart Company.
With high expectations we began our journey. Through sunlight and storm, through dust and mud, we trudged beside the Platte River through all of the month of September and most of October. On October 19th, we reached the last crossing of the Platte. The river was wide, the current strong, and chunks of ice were floating in the water. We were traveling without sufficient food. Bravely we waded through the icy stream. A terrible storm arose with fierce winds bringing drifting sand, hail, and snow. When we climbed the far bank of the river, our wet clothes froze to our bodies. Exhausted, freezing, and without strength attempted to go on. Some quietly sat down, and while they sat, they died.
My mother became sick and my father lifted her onto the cart. Mother was now too sick and weak to walk, and my father was thin and emaciated and struggled to pull the cart. Maggie and I pushed from behind with the swirling cold winds about us.
We came to a stream of freezing water. Father, while crossing, slipped on a rock and fell. Struggling to his feet, he reached the shore, wet and chilled. Sometime later he sat down to rest, and quietly he died, his senses numbed by the cold. My mother died five days later. Maggie and I were now orphans.
For endless days Maggie and I dragged ourselves over snowy frigid ground with the merciless cold biting through our ragged clothes. The pain in our feet had grown unbearable, and as a ten-year-old confused and parentless I refused to move another step. Maggie coaxed me to get up, but while our weary friends trudged on ahead, struggling to pull handcarts through the snow, I still sat, unable to move my stiffened legs.
Maggie again pleaded with me to walk before the pioneer company left us behind. As our hopes faded, a horse-drawn carriage approached. The driver, stopped and when Maggie explained the situation, I was lifted into the back of the wagon, where my feet dangled over the edge as we hurried to catch the others.
Mercifully, a rescue party aware of our plight had been sent from Salt Lake City. As the rescuers appeared on the western horizon breaking a trail through the snow, they seemed as angels of mercy. And indeed, they were. As they approached, we wept with joy. We were crowded into the wagons of the rescuers and continued the slow journey to Salt Lake City in the winter storms.
Upon arriving in Salt Lake City, the seriousness of my frozen limbs needed to be addressed. The doctor said that my feet had to be amputated to save my life. They strapped me to a board and without an anesthetic the surgery was performed. With a butcher knife and carpenter’s saw they sawed off the blackened limbs. Because of the crudeness of the available instruments to perform the surgery the stumps of my legs never healed.
With my sister Maggie and handcart friends I came to Cedar City. I married William Unthank and raised six children. William was a good husband, but we were poor. Early on I lived in a one room log house in the lower end of town. The cabin had a dirt floor, which I scrapped and mopped until it was as hard and smooth as pavement.
I willingly worked at whatever I could to help provide for our family. Along with other jobs, I took in other people’s clothes to wash, and made articles to sell to add to the family income. If anyone offered food or assistance, I insisted on repaying the favor. The bishop and Relief Society president assisted me from time-to-time, but to even the score and to show my gratitude, I gathered my children once a year to clean the church meetinghouse. While the boys carried water, and the girls washed windows, I scrubbed the floors.
William carved wooden “cup feet” for me, but they only irritated my never-healing stumps. Later, through donations, wooden legs were given to me, but these I wore only on special occasions, because they only added to the constant pain. So, most of the time, I waddled through life on my knees
Despite poverty and pain, why should I complain. In a personal way I came to know my Heavenly Father and the suffering His son. Through a lifetime of affliction, I Nellie Pucell Unthank knew I could count on the Lord.