“Ellen Pucell Unthank,” Tambuli, Oct.–Nov. 1986, 6
Ten-year-old Ellen Pucell refused to move another step. For endless days and endless kilometers she’d been dragging herself over snowy, frigid ground. Now, with the merciless cold biting through her ragged clothes, the pain in her feet had grown unbearable, and Ellen, or Nellie as everyone called her, sat down shivering and couldn’t go on. Her older sister, Maggie, coaxed her to get up. But while her weary friends trudged on ahead, struggling to pull handcarts through the snow, Nellie still sat, unable to move her stiffened legs.
Maggie again pleaded with her young sister to walk with her before the pioneer company left them behind. As their hope of catching up faded, a horse-drawn carriage approached them. The driver, one of the leaders lucky enough to have a wagon, stopped to ask about the young girls. When Maggie explained the situation, Nellie was lifted into the back of the wagon, where her feet dangled over the edge as they hurried to catch the others.
Nellie’s family had sailed from Liverpool, England, in May of 1856 with a large group of Latter-day Saints. After a safe voyage on the ship Horizon, they docked in Boston, then traveled by train to Iowa. From there Nellie had set out with her parents, her sister, Maggie, and more than five hundred other pioneers. They were bound for peace and new homes in the Salt Lake Valley. Too poor to afford wagons or the animals to pull them, the great majority chose to build smaller, two-wheeled wagons called handcarts, which they would pull themselves. Only the most necessary provisions could be carried. Extra bedding, clothing, household supplies, and even extra food had to remain behind.
For the first few weeks the handcart company enjoyed good weather, but in October early snowstorms and bitter cold slowed down the pioneers.
Nellie’s family suffered along with the rest. Her mother became ill and had to be pulled for some distance in their cart. Nellie’s father slipped into the waters of one of the rivers they crossed, and because there was no dry clothing or warm shelter, he was bitterly cold. The family’s food supply grew scarce, and the snow hid any fuel that they might have gathered for a fire.
Nellie’s father died on October 22, 1856, from hunger and exposure to the cold. Five days later her mother died too. Graves could be dug only in the snow because the early winter had frozen the ground. Nellie and Maggie wearily and sadly walked on alone. They watched as more of the company died and the weather’s cold fierceness strengthened.
One day as Nellie and her sister made their way at the head of the group, two men appeared and motioned for them to come closer. At first the girls refused but soon decided that the men meant no harm. The men gave Nellie some money and instructed her to buy something to put on her feet at the trappers’ trading post they were nearing. Nellie gratefully accepted the money and the chance to cover her bare feet, which had long since grown numb with cold.
In Salt Lake City, President Brigham Young had called for volunteers to meet the handcart company on the plains. When the volunteers finally reached the company, near Laramie, Wyoming, they found the pitiful group nearly buried by the snow. Nellie’s feet were badly frozen. The rescue party gathered her and the remaining members of the company into their wagons and returned to Salt Lake, arriving on November 30.
Nearly everyone in the handcart company had endured painfully frozen feet, hands, and ears and had witnessed the deaths of family members and friends. The doctor had to amputate Nellie’s feet. There was no skin to cushion the bone, so she was left with throbbing sores that never healed.
Nellie and her sister eventually moved south from the Salt Lake Valley to Cedar City. Here Nellie married William Unthank and reared their six children. With a leather apron slid under her damaged legs, Nellie crawled about their small home on her knees, keeping it spotless.
Nellie willingly worked at whatever she could to help provide for her family. Along with other jobs, she 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, she insisted on repaying the favor. As a way of showing gratitude, she gathered her children once a year to clean the church meetinghouse. While the boys carried water, the girls washed windows, and Nellie scrubbed the floors.
William carved wooden “cup feet” for Nellie, but they only irritated her never-healing stumps. Later, through donations, wooden legs were given to Nellie, but these she only wore on special occasions, because they added to her constant pain.
Despite poverty and pain, Nellie rarely complained. She had come to know her Heavenly Father in her sufferings. From the shoes provided for her bare feet, the carriage sent when she couldn’t go on, help given to her through a lifetime of affliction, Nellie Pucell Unthank knew she could count on the Lord.