SCOTTSBLUFF — An estimated 35,000 people were buried along the emigrant trails from the 1840s to the 1860s. There is a grave every 300 feet along the 2,000 mile journey, making it the largest cemetery in the United States. Many of those people are unknown to history, but some, like Rebecca Burdick Winters, are known and stand as a living testament to the hardships endured for the dream of a better life.
In 1995, Mary Jo Van Schuyver, then director of the Scotts Bluff County Convention and Visitors Bureau told the Star-Herald, it didn’t matter what tourism officials thought about moving the grave for safety reasons.
“It’s not our right. It’s what the family thinks,” Schuyver said.
That question has risen again as a debate about what to do with Rebecca Winters’ last resting place.
Winters lies seven miles northeast of the Scottsbluff National Monument. Hers is one of the few known graves of Mormon pioneers.
Only Mormon grave in Nebraska
There are seven known graves in Nebraska. There are other graves, such as the ones at Robidoux Pass, but no one knows who they are. There are also people we know of, such as Mary “Wee Granny” Murray Murdoch, who has a headstone in Chimney Rock Cemetery, but we do not know where she is buried. Winters is significant because out of all the thousands of people who perished on the journey west, there are only a handful of known graves. Winters is the only known Mormon grave in Nebraska.
Other pioneer graves
The known graves are George Winslow, who died in Jefferson County in 1849. His grave lies on private property and the landowner allows limited access to the site.
Susan C. Seawell Haile (1817-1852) is buried east of Fort Kearney. Rachel E. Warren Pattison (1831-1849) is buried at Ash Hollow Cemetery. Her grave is easy to visit, but there is limited parking in the area.
A. Kelly died in 1852 and is buried west of Ash Hollow on private property. The grave is visible from the road.
John Hollman (1833-1852) is buried south of Oshkosh on private property, but his grave is visible from the road. Amanda Lamme died in 1850 and is buried east of Bridgeport. Her grave can be seen from the road, but at a distance.
Who is Rebecca Winters?
Rebecca Burdick Winters (1802-1852) is the only grave on the north side of the North Platte River. Visitors can walk up to her grave. She is the most well-known person who died on the Mormon Trail as she traveled west toward a hopeful, better life.
Winters was one of thousands of people who traveled on the overland trails, but succumbed to cholera. Over the years, residents of the valley have viewed Winters as a symbol of pioneer hardship and sacrifice, as cited in past editions of the Gering Courier. She is a symbol of the hardships and dangers she faced head-on and of the courage of many pioneers. Before she became ill, Winters went from wagon to wagon tending to her sick friends.
According to the stories told, on the morning of Aug. 15, 1852, she entered a friend’s tent only to find the friend dead. Winters collapsed and she, too, was dead by noon.
Diary accounts and family stories tell of a warm and caring woman who was committed to her faith and her family.
Winters was born in Chautauqua County, New York, on Dec. 16, 1802. Her father, Gideon Burdick, was a Revolutionary War veteran. She and her husband, Hiram, were early adherents to the Mormon Church. They became members in June 1833. Due to persecution because of their beliefs, she and her family relocated to Ohio, Illinois and Iowa. In June 1852, they joined with other Mormons to make the exodus to Utah.
While traveling along the Platte River valley, Winters and several others contracted cholera. Somewhere west of Fort Kearney, she had contracted the disease. There are no written records to how long she suffered, but many other emigrant records have stated people died within hours of the first recognizable signs.
Hiram and a friend, William Reynolds, buried her. Normal burial practices along the trail were to hide the graves. According to the National Park Service, “Often graves were dug directly in the roadway, and after burial, wagons were driven over it to obscure all signs of it. This was not done out of a callous disregard for the deceased, but to reduce the likelihood that the grave might be disturbed by wild animals.”
Hiram and Reynolds dug a deep grave about 5 foot 10 inches and shaped like a casket. Her friends and family did not want dirt to touch her, so wooden planks salvaged from abandoned wagons were placed on the bottom of Winters’ grave.
There was not enough wood to build a coffin, so Winters’ body was wrapped in blankets before lowering her into the grave. An additional layer of planks were placed over her body and the grave was filled in.
That night, Reynold’s 5-year-old daughter, Ellis, held a candle so that he could work on a metal wheel rim to chisel the words, “Rebecca Winters - Aug 1852 - Age 50,” and honor and remember his friend. The rim was bent into an oval to look like the outline of a grave stone and was placed over Winters’ grave. Hiram and the Winters' five children, ages seven to 27, continued on their journey. Hiram reportedly said, “That name will remain here forever.”
The Mormon Trail
The Mormon Trail gets its name from the first group of people who traveled the route in 1847. The Mormon Trail stayed on the north side of the North Platte River as people traveled through Nebraska.
Non-Mormons also traveled along the Mormon Trail during the Gold Rush of 1849.
The Mormon Trail roughly follows what is now Highway 26 in western Nebraska.
Those who traveled along the Mormon Trail tried not to cross the Platte any more than was necessary. When they did cross, it was often at Fort Laramie where it was safer to do so. While the Mormons mainly stuck to the north side of the river, there were occasions where they followed the route on the south side, such as when they left from the area north of Nebraska City.
The grave, the railroad and the historical marker
In 1889, surveyors for the Burlington Northern Railroad found this metal marker. As the story goes, the railroad altered the route of the railroad tracks by six feet out of respect and to preserve Winters’ grave. Another story claims that when the railroad bought the relinquishment for their tracks, Lorenzo DeMott had one condition — the tracks be rerouted around the grave. His family had been caring for Winters' grave since they homesteaded the land in 1886.
The rerouted tracks, however, were only a few feet from the grave. In 1902, Winters’ family paid for a granite marker and a fence around the grave. A water pump was also placed nearby to water flowers placed on the grave. According to “Plains’ Grave Is Remembered after Century Passes,” Improvement Era, November 1929, No. 1, In 1929, a marker was erected and unveiled by the Daughters of the American Revolution with the words “A Daughter of a Revolutionary Soldier” inscribed onto it.
The historical marker identifying Rebecca Winter’s gravesite was ordered and erected in 1964.
With many trains passing by each day and a growth in visitors to see Winters, visitor safety became a concern. According to “The Reburial of Rebecca Winters” by Gregory M. Franzwa, “more and more trail people are parking by the historical sign at the track crossing, and walking about 1,200 feet down the tracks to see the grave.” Railroad safety officials were concerned someone could get killed. In 1995, there were already 30 trains per day passing through the area. That number was expected to double over the next few years.
“People wander close to the track, some even use it as a walkway,” Boyd Andrew, then BN division superintendent in Alliance told the Star-Herald in 1995. “There’s a real risk of injury or worse.”
Moving the grave
Railroad officials approached Winters’ descendants to broach the idea of relocating her to a safer and more accessible location. According to Franzwa, the railroad paid for several members of her family to come and see the problem first-hand. Charlie Klutts, a safety coordinator with the railroad opposed the railroad’s idea of a high chain-link fence around the grave. A decision was reached to move her grave 900 feet east. A Nebraska State Historical Society marker was already in place at that location, it was near a protected grade crossing and was safer.
On Aug. 25, 1995, ground-penetrating radar was used on the grave site by Jim Doolittle, of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lincoln, and Terry Steinacher, an archaeologist at Fort Robinson. Nothing was found. The scientists were not deterred. Steel from the rails, the rim placed by Reynolds and the soil were throwing the instruments off.
On Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1995, 65 members of the Winters family gathered for her exhumation in a private ceremony. The wagon rim, stone grave marker, DAR marker and a pipe fence were removed. Three feet down, a decision was made to stop digging by machine and use hand tools to preserve what was in the grave. Several hours later, Steinacher and Jim Bornschlegle, of Dugan-Kramer Funeral Home reached Winters’ bones. The remainder of the digging was completed by spoons and paint brushes. Winters’ body was fully recovered. With the exception of bone disruption in the feet and hands, the body was in better condition than expected.
Winters' remains were transferred to a mahogany casket. She remained at the funeral home until a cemetery ordinance was passed for the new site.
“On October 14, more than 125 of Rebecca’s descendants gathered at the site of the state marker, where a grave had been opened,” Franzwa wrote.
The iron rim was placed at the head of the grave. According to a Gering Courier story, “A slight wind gently blew the early fall leaves from the trees, some of them landing upon the rustic casket.”
Que Winters, Rebecca’s great-grandson, told the Courier: “Some family members thought about taking the remains back to Utah, but we would never do that. The people in this area have taken such good care of her, we wouldn’t think of moving her from the Panhandle. We want her to rest by the old trail, and we know she is in good hands.”
During the summer of 2018, the board at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering was approached by a group of individuals who wished to make a change at the Rebecca Winters gravesite.
A number of ideas were discussed, including exhuming Winters and moving her to the museum. The group of individuals spoke to descendants of Winters and claimed the family is in support of a move.
Their concerns included that the site is rarely mowed or cleaned, it is difficult to enter and is in an unsafe location.
When Russell Mills, local member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, first attempted to reach out to the family, he used the historical records to begin contacting people. He first tried to contact the people who were most involved in moving Winters in 1995.
“Most of those people have passed away,” Mills said. “So I was speaking to the generation below them.”
Mills said when he made contact with family members, their first reaction was they were not thrilled to move Winters.
“After they spent three days here, they recognized how much it (the area) had changed from back then,” Mills said. “They thoughtfully considered it and their minds were changed.”
One member lived in the area and was also not pleased about the proposed move.
“I reached out to that person four times by phone to get their input and couldn’t get them to respond to me,” Mills said.
Mills said it would be impossible to contact all 1,000 descendants and feels he has done the best he can. Family members Jay Hardy and Robert Cottom, who visited the area, have taken on the responsibility of family and what to do with Winters.
Safety vs History
Rick Myers, acting director, Legacy of the Plains Museum, said there is still some serious pushback from a couple of people about moving Winters.
“I know if we relocate (Winters) we’re going to lose a board member,” Myers said. “That board member feels it’s wrong to move Rebecca Winters off the (Mormon) Trail.”
The Nebraska State Historical Society is against the move. In a public letter to Mark Masterton, former chairman of the Scotts Bluff County Commissioners, Trevor Jones, director/CEO, Nebraska State Historical Society (known as History Nebraska), said that he and staff from the State Archaeology Office and the State Historic Preservation Office recommended against relocating Winters’ remains.
Jones told Masterton that unless there is a compelling public safety reason or development plan that cannot be changed, the NSHS recommended not moving Winters’ remains.
According to Nebraska Revised Statutes, Chapter 12-1203(04), “all unmarked human burial sites discovered in this state are to be left undisturbed to the maximum extent possible unless such sites are in reasonable danger of destruction, such sites need to be moved for a highway, road, or street construction project, or there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Jones said moving the remains to the south side of the river, far from where Winters died would remove the historical context and was something the NSHS could not support.
Committee Member Jim Loveridge said the original intention of the committee was to clean up the site.
The committee argues the area is no longer peaceful. Mills said when the family visited the area, they did not realize how much had changed.
“There have been industrial changes and larger roads,” Mills said.
Masterton said he spoke with Jones in early 2018 and explained what the committee was attempting to do. Masterton, who was county commissioner chair at the time, said he received the letter from Jones expressing concerns from a historical point of view.
“Historical is one thing,” Masterton said. “Safety and changing conditions is another.”
Masterton said Jones could have an opinion on moving Winters, but that History Nebraska had no legal standing on the decision.
Funding the possible move
The committee had wanted the commissioners to fund the move. The previous county commissioners had funded the effort through Keno funds, but those funds expired because they weren’t used during the fiscal year in which they were allotted. The current county commissioners do not feel it is their responsibility to fund such a project.
The committee has worked to find alternative sources of funding and in-kind services.
County Commissioner Charlie Knapper said he will soon present the issue to the commissioners and encourage them to support the move with Keno funds and in-kind donations.
“I’m doing that because I feel strongly about the collaboration and effort the committee has made to raise funds on their own,” Knapper said.
The committee hopes the matter will be settled in the next few weeks and would like to move Rebecca Winters by Labor Day.