3, 1991, was designated by the Utah State Legislature as “a day
of praise for Ellen Pucell Unthank.” On that day around 1,000
people, including a host of dignitaries, attended the dedication of
an impressive life-size monument on the campus of Southern Utah
University in Cedar City. Among the dignitaries were President Gordon
B. Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency of the Church,
Utah Governor Norman H. Bangerter, and Baroness Caroline Anne Cox, a
member of the House of Lords in the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
ceremony began when the university bagpipe band led the group from
the Randall L. Jones Memorial Theater to the site of the monument
where the sculptor, Jerry Anderson, unveiled it. President Hinckley
addressed the group then offered the dedicatory prayer, Baroness Cox
gave the principal address, other speeches were given, and the
Southern Utah Choir performed special musical numbers.
handsome new monument portrayed a smiling nine-year-old girl, plainly
dressed, barefoot, arms outstretched, and hair flowing in a breeze,
just before she and her family began the long handcart trek toward
Zion. Her name was Ellen Pucell; her nickname: Nellie. Obviously
excited about the future, she was one of 576 members of the ill-fated
Martin handcart company, only 431 of whom would finally make it to
The statue of Nellie Pucell in Cedar City, Utah, by sculptor Jerry Anderson.
the time in her life represented by the monument, little Nellie could
hardly have imagined the tragedy she was about to experience and the
horrible permanent effect it would have on the rest of her life. But
the “day of praise” celebrated not the tragedy but,
rather, the faith and perseverance Nellie demonstrated in later life,
her triumph over adversity, her exemplary living, and the positive
influence she had on those around her, despite her continuing
story began in England, where her parents joined the Church shortly
after the first missionaries arrived in 1837. Her mother, Margaret
Perren Pucell, was among the first to be baptized and was the second
woman to be confirmed a member of the Church. However, Margaret kept
her baptism a secret from her husband, Samuel, fearing he might have
been influenced by the festering prejudice against the Church.
their mutual surprise when, about three months later, Samuel told her
the he had secretly joined the Church a month earlier and had prayed
ever since that she, too, would accept it, and she revealed to him
that she had been a member all along.
Pucells were faithful members and, like thousands of others in the
British Isles, were eager to join the Saints in America. In 1856,
they decided to emigrate, taking with them their two daughters,
Maggie, age 14, and Nellie, age 9. However, because of their poverty,
they did not have the funds to purchase the wagon and other supplies
they needed to cross the continent to Utah. They signed up,
therefore, with a company headed by Edward Martin, a returning
missionary, and prepared to cross from Iowa City to Great Salt Lake
City pulling a handcart.
Martin company was the last to leave England that year, sailing on
the ship Horizon
on May 25.
story of the handcart pioneers is well known (see note below for some
references). During the five years the handcart venture lasted,
1856-1860, some 3,000 migrants in ten different companies made the
trip. Most of them got along surprisingly well, except for the last
two groups in 1856: the Willie and Martin companies.
arrived in Iowa late in the season and the Martin company did not
start from Iowa City until July 27. They were caught in an early
snowstorm on the high plains of Wyoming. In what has been called the
worst disaster in the history of overland travel to the West, around
200 members of the two companies died of cold and starvation while
dozens of others were maimed and/or disfigured.
Martin company was the last on the trail, and its people suffered the
greatest loss. The Pucells were not to escape the tragedy. Somewhere
along the trail Margaret became ill, too feeble to walk. Samuel laid
her in the handcart and continued on but at one of the river
crossings he stumbled and fell into the icy water. A few days later
he died from a combination of exposure and starvation. In another
five days Margaret also died.
two orphaned girls went on with their friends in the Martin company.
Young Nellie turned ten on November 6, though it was anything but a
happy birthday for her. Her feet, as well as those of her sister,
were seriously frostbitten. Eventually the company was picked up by
rescue parties sent by Brigham Young, but they did not arrive in Salt
Lake City until November 30.
came the next tragic blow. It was only after the girls arrived in
Salt Lake City that they were able to remove their shoes and socks
from their frozen feet. The flesh on their feet was frozen so badly
that it came off with their socks. Nellie’s feet were
particularly bad — so bad, in fact, that a doctor said she
would not live unless they were amputated, along with part of her
legs. But there was no adequate medical equipment for such an
operation and no anesthetic to ease the excruciating pain.
Nellie was strapped to a board to hold her down while the crudest of
tools, a butcher knife and a carpenter’s saw, was used to
amputate her lower legs, not far below the knees. As if that were not
bad enough, the surgical procedure was so primitive that the wounds
healed badly and bone continued to protrude from the end of her
pain never ceased as Nellie continued the next 59 years of her life
shuffling along and doing her work on her knees. In later life, a
doctor volunteered to cut off the protruding bones and cover the
wounds more adequately with skin, but the memory of that excruciating
1856 operation was so vivid that Nellie refused to submit to another.
almost goes without saying that Nellie never wavered in her faith.
Nor, apparently, did any of the Martin company. Their suffering
seemed only to solidify their commitment. President David O. McKay
once told of a class where members expressed some criticism of Church
leaders for allowing the two ill-fated companies to start on their
journey so late in the season. An elderly man sitting in the room
finally stood and said, in substance:
ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know
nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give
no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send
the handcart company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in
that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you
have cited was there too. We suffered beyond anything you can
imagine, and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever
hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of
that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of
us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives, for we
became acquainted with him in our extremities.” (As quoted in
“Nellie Unthank: Despite Hardship ‘She Gave More Than She
8 August 1991.)
begins the truly remarkable part of Nellie’s story.
she was 24 years old, Nellie and her sister moved to Cedar City,
along with friends from the handcart company. There Maggie married
Jack Walker and Nellie became the first plural wife of William
Unthank. His first wife, Mary Ann, had no children but encouraged
him, as wives often did in that day, to marry again. He did so,
actually taking two new wives, Ellen Pucell and Margaret Smith. They
were sealed to him in the temple on the same day and in the same
ceremony. Nellie eventually bore six children. She got along very
well with Mary Ann, who accepted her kindly, took care of her when
she was ill, and even helped raise her children.
married Nellie was still in poverty, but she cheerfully made the most
of her lot in life. Her first home was a one-room log house with one
door, two windows, a dirt floor, and a fireplace. But she was
determined to keep her home neat and spotless. She dampened and
scraped the dirt floor until it was hard and smooth, then mopped it
with a damp rag every day. Each Saturday she whitened the stone
hearth in front of the fireplace and hung clean curtains at the
windows and around the boxes that served as cupboards. There was a
pleasant fragrance in her little log cabin, because of its sparkling
cleanliness, said her long-time neighbors.
had to provide much of her own living. Constantly in pain and
shuffling around the house on her knees, she took in washing, knitted
stockings, carded wool, and did crochet work. She was too proud to
accept charity, so if friends or neighbors brought gifts she always
repaid by doing something for them, such as darning or mending.
the bishop or the Relief Society would provide a little help. Nellie
was grateful for this, but she also wanted to repay. Once a year,
therefore, she and her children thoroughly cleaned the meeting house.
raising a family, providing quiet acts of service to the Church and
the people of her community, bearing her pain without bitterness, and
never seeking praise, Nellie Unthank shuffled through life as a
shining example of the best that the little girl on the Cedar City
monument could hope to be. William R. Palmer, prominent Cedar City
resident and southern Utah historian, once wrote of her:
memory I recall her wrinkled forehead, her soft dark eyes that told
of toil and pain and suffering, and the deep grooves that encircled
the corners of her strong mouth. But in that face there was no trace
of bitterness or railings at her fate. There was patience and
serenity, for in spite of her handicap she had earned her keep and
justified her existence. She had given more to family, friends and to
the world than she had received.”
would probably be chagrined to think that a “day of praise”
would be held for her, and she certainly would not approve of it. I
suspect, however, that she would love the monument, for it depicts so
well the joy of living that was hers, despite her suffering.
the “day of praise” was held, people throughout the state
read about it, she was praised and memorialized by religious and
civic leaders alike, including a member of the British House of
Lords, and Governor Bangerter summed up her life by calling her “one
of the true heroines of Utah history.”
Information for this column came from the following: William R.
Palmer, “Ellen Pucell Unthank,” Instructor
19 (April 1944), 152-55; “Handcart Pioneer Memorialized,”
August 10, 1991; “Nellie Unthank: Despite Hardships ‘She
Gave More Than She Received,’” LDS
August 10, 1991; W. Paul Reeve, “A Nine-Year-Old Girl Triumphed
over the Handcart Tragedy,” History
August 1995, as recorded online at
and a few miscellaneous online sources.
on the handcart companies is profuse, but to begin with you should
look at Leroy R. Hafen and Ann W. Haven, Handcarts
to Zion (Glendale,
Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1960; Rebecca Cornwall and Leonard J.
of the 1856 Handcart Companies
(Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1981); Howard A. Christy,
“Handcart Companies,” Encyclopedia
ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 2:571-73; Heidi
Swinton and Lee Groberg, Sweetwater
Rescue: The Willie and Martin Handcart Story
(American Fort, Utah: Covenant, 2006). For further bibliography, go
online to mormonhistory.byu.edu using advances search keywords handcart, handcarts, and
JAMES B. ALLEN, Professor of History, Emeritus, Brigham Young University
James B. Allen was born June 14, 1927, in Ogden, Utah. He married Renée Jones, April 16,
1953. They have five children, twenty-one grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren . He
received his bachelor's degree in history form Utah State University in 1954, a master's degree
from Brigham Young University in 1956, and the Ph.D. from the University of Southern
California in 1963.
Active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all his life, he has served in numerous
positions, including bishop of two BYU wards and a member of 5 different BYU high councils.
In 1999-2000 he and Renée served as missionaries at the Boston Institute of Religion.
He has also been active in the Republican party and twice served as a delegate to the state
In his professional career, he taught in the LDS Seminary and Institute program from 1954-63,
after which he was a member of the faculty at Brigham Young University until his retirement in
1992. From 1972 to 1979 he also served as Assistant Church Historian (splitting his time
between BYU and the Church Historical Department). He was chair of the History Department
from 1981-1987 then, during his last five years at BYU, he was honored to hold the Lemuel
Hardison Redd, Jr. Chair in Western American History. After his retirement he became
associated with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU, where
for several years he held an appointment as a Senior Research Fellow.
He has also been active in various professional organizations, including the Western History
Association (served on various committees, and as chair of a program committee) and the
Mormon History Association (president, 1971-73). He has been on various boards of editors and
advisory committees and presented numerous papers at the meetings of various historical
As a researcher and writer he is the author, co-author, or co-editor of fourteen books or
monographs and around 90 articles relating to Western American history and Mormon history,
as well as numerous book reviews in professional journals. Some of his books include the
The Company Town in the American West (University of Oklahoma Press, 1966)
The Story of the Latter-day Saints (with Glen M. Leonard; Deseret Book Company, 1976;
2nd edition 1992)
Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon (University of Illinois
Press, 1987). Revised and republished in 2002 by BYU Press under the title No
Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton. In 1986, while still in press,
this book won the prestigious David Woolley Evans and Beatrice Cannon Evans
Men With a Mission: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles, 1837-1841
(with Ronald K. Esplin and David J. Whittaker, Deseret Book Company, 1992)
Studies in Mormon History 1830-1997: An Indexed Bibliography (with Ronald W.
Walker and David J. Whittaker; University of Illinois Press, 2000). Allen was the
lead investigator for this important work. It lists, and provides an index to, all the
significant books, articles, doctoral dissertations and master's theses on Mormon
history produced between 1830 and 1997. It has been widely hailed as one of the
most important aids to finding LDS history ever published. In 2001 the Mormon
History Association awarded the authors a special citation for the publication of
this book. After that, working with J. Michael Hunter, Allen continued to update
the bibliography database. Hunter has now taken over the updating, and the
database is online at mormonhistory.byu.edu.
Mormon History (with Ronald W. Walker and David J. Whittaker, University of Illinois
Press, 2001). This book is a history of the writing of Mormon history, from the
days of Joseph Smith until the present time.
Over the years he has received various awards, honors, and recognitions, besides those indicated
above. Among them were several "best article" awards; the Karl G. Maeser Research and
Creative Arts Award, Brigham Young University, 1980; named Distinguished Faculty Lecturer,
Brigham Young University, 1984; named a Fellow of the Utah State Historical Society, July 15,
1988; the Leonard J. Arrington Award for a Distinctive Contribution to the cause of Mormon
History, awarded by the Mormon History Asociation, 2008.
James and Renée have enjoyed living in Orem, Utah since 1963.
He currently serves as Sunday School President in his ward, and he and Renée have been officiators
in the Mt. Timpanogos Temple since 2004.