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Rebecca Burdick Winters

Question: Where was Rebecca Burdick Winters buried after she died of cholera crossing the plains in 1852?

Answer: Rebecca Burdick was born on January 16, 1799, at Canajoharie, Montgomery, New York to Gideon Burdick and Catherine Robertson. Gideon Burdick was a Revolutionary War veteran. Rebecca married Hiram Winters in 1824 in New York. They were early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, being baptized into that faith in June of 1833.

Hiram and Rebecca moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1833 where the saints were gathering. In Kirtland, Hiram worked on the construction of the temple until he volunteered for the Zion’s Camp expedition. Hiram and Rebecca were present at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple on March 27, 1836. Hiram had been appointed trustee of the Church’s property and was a counselor to his brother-in- law, Bishop Thomas Burdick. As trustee, Hiram was caretaker of the temple and temple grounds. He and Rebecca and their children lived in a small house next to the temple. Their two youngest children were born here.

The Winters and Burdicks left Kirtland in October 1845 for Nauvoo. Gideon and Jane Burdick found a home in Quincy (where Gideon died in April 1846), and Hiram and Rebecca in the Morley settlement. Attacks on Mormon settlements were increasingly fierce. In November the mobs burned 200 buildings in Morley, totally destroying the town. The Winters family fled to Nauvoo for safety. They were in the “Battle of Nauvoo” that summer, and helped erect breastworks for defense in the streets. Rebecca’s son, Oscar Winters, age 21, was stationed on the firing line. Surprised at the vigor of the defense, the mob called for a truce, and the Saints in Nauvoo agreed to leave the city in three days. They then moved on to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they endured great suffering.

In 1851, during the winter before the Winters family started across the Plains, “she [Rebecca] had a strong premonition that she would not live to accomplish the journey, and when friends would be talking of the joys they anticipated on reaching the valley, she would say, “But I shall never live to see them.’’ Hiram and Rebecca and their two young daughters, and two married sons and their wives, left Kanesville, Iowa on July 5, 1852 in the James C. Snow Company. Their oldest son, Oscar, had left in June with the Harmon Cutler Company.

The family proceeded across the plains until about half the journey was over. Then cholera appeared in camp. Many became sick and died. It was on the morning of August 15, 1852, as they were about leaving the camp ground, that Sister Winters went to a tent containing a sick neighbor and friend dying of cholera. After caring for her, Rebecca was then stricken as well.

Willing hands worked with their might, but by the noon hour her spirit had taken its flight, her journey had ended. Seven miles northeast of Scotts Bluff National Monument lies a solitary grave. This site marks the final resting place of Rebecca Winters, who died of cholera on August 15, 1852. Her husband and a close friend, William Reynolds, had the painful task of burying her.

Hiram Winters and William Reynolds first dug an unusually deep grave. They then placed a layer of wooden planks on the bottom of the grave. 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. That some memorial of her resting place might remain, Brother William Reynolds took a metal wheel rim and sat up through the night, and with a chisel marked upon the tire: “Rebecca Winters, aged fifty years.” It was placed over the fresh grave. The Winters family then continued their westward journey and settled in Pleasant Grove, Utah.

It was this metal memorial, which withstood decades of weathering and countless prairie fires, that led to the discovery of the grave in 1899 by surveyors for the Burlington Northern Railroad.

The railroad was pushing its way westward, and in 1902 surveyors for the Burlington Route stumbled into a clump of sagebrush directly in the path of their line. Kicking aside the scrap of wagon-tire, they read thereon the pathetic memorial of the emigrant tragedy. “Turn back,” said the leader, “we cannot desecrate the last resting place of a Pioneer Mother.” So they made a slight detour to leave the grave in its peaceful solitude.

      President Heber J. Grant with his wife and others at Rebecca’s grave.

The story of that lonely grave and name caught the spirit of the country. It became a mecca for those who would pay tribute to mothers of the pioneers. The railroad put up a neat fence, and her family erected a suitable monument over the re-discovered resting place, bearing this inscription: “In Memory of Rebecca Burdick, wife of Hiram Winters.’

Expanding rail traffic, and an increased number of visitors to the gravesite, gave rise to concerns for visitor safety. Burlington Northern Railroad approached the descendants of Rebecca Winters and asked if the grave might be relocated to a safer, more accessible location. After some deliberation, the Winters family approved the plan. On September 5, 1995, the exhumation of the grave began, with 65 members of the Winters family in attendance. Within a few hours, the work by a team of archaeologists from the Nebraska State Historical Society revealed human remains. Soon the complete skeleton was unearthed, a testimony to the care taken during burial so long ago.

The site that was selected for Rebecca Winters’ new grave was only 100 yards away, just off Nebraska Highway 26. On October 14, 1995, the pioneer woman’s remains, now in a mahogany casket, were once again laid to rest. One hundred twenty-five of her descendants attended the reburial, including her sixteen-year-old gggreat granddaughter, also named Rebecca Winters. Also in attendance was the great-granddaughter of William Reynolds, the man who had chiseled the metal marker for the original burial, 143 years earlier. Her grave, now located in the Rebecca Winters Memorial Park, has become a popular landmark along the Mormon Trail and is a Nebraska State Landmark.

Note: Hiram lived thirty-seven more years. He died in Pleasant Grove on October 23, 1889 at the age of 84. Hiram and Rebecca’s son, Oscar F. Winters, married Mary Ann Stearns, and their daughter, Hulda Winters, married Heber J. Grant, who was nine days old when his father, Jedediah M. Grant died.

Sources: Excerpts from the “Life of Rebecca Burdick Winters,’; Pioneer Overland Trail, 1847-1868.

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