SALT LAKE CITY — A descendant of a pioneer who died as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints journeyed west amid persecution nearly 170 years ago wants her grave, which is under threat of removal, to remain along the Mormon Trail.
Historians believe Rebecca Winters died of cholera in Nebraska in 1852 during the handcart trek to Utah.
"A member of the wagon party actually carved her name into an old, metal wagon tire and buried that with her, so it marked the grave," said Jacob Oscarson, Winters' fourth great-grandson.
The grave has since remained in the area where Winters died in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
But now, because the county that owns the land where the grave resides doesn't want to maintain it and has suggested fencing it off, Oscarson said, plans to move it are in place.
Local Latter-day Saint congregations had tried to maintain the area for about the last year and a half, according to Oscarson. The county expressed concern about that for liability reasons, he said.
According to the National Park Service, Winters' grave is only one of a few pioneer graves that remain identifiable out of the thousands of people who lost their lives on treks.
Winters was the daughter of a Revolutionary War veteran. When she later converted to the faith with her husband, persecution forced them to move several times before the final journey to Utah, the National Park Service says in a biography of her. When she died, her husband and a close friend buried her in "an unusually deep grave."
"They then placed a layer of wooden planks, apparently salvaged from abandoned wagons, on the bottom of the grave. The story is told that her friends and family could not bear the thought of dirt touching her," according to the biography.
"However, there was not enough wood to build a coffin, so Rebecca’s body was carefully wrapped in blankets and then placed in the grave. A second layer of planks was placed over her body, and the grave was filled in. Undoubtedly a tearful burial service was held as the earthly remains of Rebecca Winters were laid to rest."
The surviving family members who made it to Utah later settled in Pleasant Grove according to the National Park Service.
Scotts Bluff County commissioners have said the current location of Winters' grave is too close to railroad tracks, a highway and a wastewater treatment plant, the Scottsbluff Star-Herald reported. Plans are in place to move it to Legacy of the Plains Museum located along the Oregon Trail. Other descendants expressed their approval of the move, the Herald said.
But Oscarson, of Salt Lake City, believes Winters belongs along the Mormon Trail.
"To me, the grave is almost Rebecca's testimony. And her story, I think, is very worthy of being remembered and told. And it's done so much better right there where she died, and where so many other Mormon pioneers passed through."
Moving it to another trail would create a "faux history," he said.
One of the early members of the church, Winters was baptized in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1833.
"She experienced a lot of the persecution and that kind of stuff that other early Latter-day Saints did and ended up immigrating to Utah, or trying to, at least," Oscarson explained.
Winters' grave has remained near her original resting place despite the odds.
In 1899, when a railroad came through the area, workers either discovered the grave and rerouted the tracks to avoid disturbing it, or the family that homesteaded the property where the grave rested required the railroad to avoid the grave, according to Oscarson.
In 1995, worried for visitors' safety, the Burlington Northern Railroad approached Winters' descendants because the grave sat only about 6 feet away from the tracks. The family agreed to move it slightly, about 900 feet away into a park that was "dedicated specifically for Rebecca Winters," Oscarson said.
He said the family and local church members expressed concern that the park and gravesite in recent years haven't been maintained adequately.
"When they approached the county about making improvements, the county was pretty uncooperative and they're not really interested in having a lot of visitors come and see the grave there," according to Oscarson.
He said the county has suggested possibly fencing up and locking the property, and the family agreed to move the grave to the museum as a last resort.
"My personal preference would be to try to work with the county and some of the local people and see if we can come up with some sort of agreement where we can keep the grave right there along the trailside."
He believes the grave is especially significant because "there were tens of thousands of immigrants who died on the western trails, and there's very few places where you can go and actually see a grave that's been marked. You can say, 'We know the story of the person who's here.' And for that reason, I think it's very important that her grave be maintained."15 comments on this story
Oscarson hopes the county might allow family members to work with local wards and volunteers to figure out how to preserve it and "maybe make it a little easier to maintain."
"It's disappointing. This is supposed to be where she was going to have a final resting place. And it's a little heartbreaking, I think, for the whole family."
Descendants of Winters are seeking feedback on the move from other relatives on the website rebeccawinters.org.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly referred to Rebecca Winters' descendants as "ancestors."