Mormon Pioneer Lost Her Legs but Not Her Faith

A 9-year-old, English-born Ellen “Nellie” Pucell Unthank lost
her lower legs to frostbite she suffered on the barren Wyoming plains in 1856.
She spent the rest of her life trying to move about on her knees, an
agonizingly slow and painful process. Fired by her Mormon faith, Unthank
persevered. She got married at age 24 years old, gave birth to six children and
went down in history as one of the toughest Mormon pioneers.

Tender and tenacious faith

Unthank, who lived to the age of 69 years, is commemorated in bronze on
the campus of Southern Utah University at Cedar City. A statue of Unthank shows
her as a child with both feet. Unveiled in 1991, the monument is a campus

Unthank “knew something of the meaning of sacrifice, and of
fidelity to a cause and a purpose,” an article in the October 1991,
Ensign magazine quoted Gordon B. Hinckley, later a Mormon church
president, who helped officiate at the statue’s Aug. 3, 1991 dedication

Utah Governor Norman Bangerter told the crowd that Unthank was “one
of the true heroines of Utah history,” W. Paul Reeve wrote in
History Blazer magazine.

Hinckley, according to the Ensign article, lauded
Unthank’s “unflagging courage, her tender and tenacious faith.”
He prayed that people who viewed the statue “might have reverence for this
woman, and others of her kind, who pioneered the West, who overcame obstacles
with a spirit of resolution almost beyond our understanding, who lived without
complaint and made the society of which they were part better for their

A statue of Ellen “Nellie” Pucell Unthank stands on the campus of Southern Utah University in recognition of her heroism.
A statue of Ellen
“Nellie” Pucell Unthank stands on the campus of Southern Utah
University in recognition of her heroism.
Images: SUU Photo Services

According to the Southern Utah University website, the Utah Legislature
officially set aside Aug. 3 as a “day of praise” for Unthank.

Family decision

Unthank’s parents did not live to see her become a wife, a mother
or a mainstay in her church and community. The same snow and bitterly cold
weather that claimed Unthank’s limbs also took the lives of Samuel and
Margaret Pucell.

The Pucells – mother, father, Nellie and her sister, Maggie, 14
years old – were part of the great Mormon migration across the continent
before the Civil War. The family had joined a large party of Mormons heading
west from Iowa City, Iowa, to Utah – a trip of more than 1,100 miles.

They traveled with a group called the Martin Handcart Company. The band
was named for its leader, Edward Martin, and for the two-wheeled hand-drawn
carts that carried their meager belongings.

The Pucells had embraced the Mormon faith in England. The family was in
a large congregation of Mormons who sailed for America from Liverpool on May 2,
1856, according to Reeve.

Difficult trek

The immigrants landed in Boston and rode trains to Iowa City, Hinckley
wrote in the November 1991, Ensign. The Mormons, divided into two
groups, had to wait for handcarts to be built. As a result, they were not able
to leave until late July, Hinckley wrote.

The Martin company departed Iowa City 8 days after another handcart
company headed west. For both groups, the trek proved more difficult than
anybody imagined.

“Carts broke down, provisions ran out, cattle stampeded, and worst
of all, a month before usual snowfall, the most violent winter to hit the
region in many years pinned the two companies, cold and near starvation,
several miles apart and hundreds of miles from their destination,” Reeve

Margaret fell ill on the windswept, snow-swirled trail. Samuel loaded
her onto the handcart and trudged on through the numbing cold.

“At one of several river crossings, however, Samuel stumbled and
fell, immersing himself in the cold water,” Reeve wrote.

His clothes froze to his body.

“…Within a few days he died from starvation and
exposure,” Reeve wrote. “Tragically, Margaret died 5 days later,
leaving Nellie and Maggie orphans on the trail.”

Rescue and survival

Word of the immigrants’ plight reached Salt Lake City and, on Oct.
5, Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, sent rescuers.

“Those immigrants who were still alive when help arrived were
desperately cold or numb from the early winter freeze,” Reeve wrote.
“Ephraim Hanks, one of the rescue party, recalled several travelers
‘whose extremities were frozen.’”

Hanks said he bathed their limbs with soap and water until the frozen
flesh fell off.

“After which I would sever the shreds of flesh from the remaining
portions of the limbs with my scissors,” Reeve quoted Hanks.

Help came too late for 135 to 150 members of the Martin group who had
died. Both Pucell girls were alive, but with severely frozen legs and feet,
according to Reeve.

Unthank, who in statue form is depicted as a young girl with both legs, underwent amputation on the trail at the age of 9 years.
Unthank, who in statue form is
depicted as a young girl with both legs, underwent amputation on the trail at
the age of 9 years.

“Upon removal of the girls’ shoes and socks, frozen flesh came
off; Nellie’s legs were particularly bad and had to be amputated. Rescuers
performed the operation without anesthetic, using the only available
instruments, a butcher knife and carpenter’s saw.”

Nellie was strapped to a board for the operation, William Palmer wrote
in She Stood Tall on Her Knees, his biography of Unthank. A doctor
who was with the rescue party said her lower legs and feet had to be amputated
to save her life, the author explained. He added, “It was poor surgery,
too, for the flesh was not brought over to cushion the ends. The bones stuck
out through the ends of the stumps and in pain she waddled through the rest of
her life on her knees.”


Not until Nov. 30 did the wagons carrying the rescuers and the rescued
arrive in the Salt Lake Valley, Hinckley wrote.

At the age of 24 years, Nellie settled in Cedar City, where she
“became the plural wife of William Unthank” and lived in poverty,
according to Reeve. “She was, however, accustomed to facing challenges and
did all in her power to make the most of her situation.”

Unthank kept the family’s log cabin spotlessly clean.

“She regularly dampened and scraped the dirt floor, making it
smooth as pavement,” Reeve wrote. “To help meet her family’s
needs, she took in laundry, knitted stockings to sell, carded wool and
crocheted table pieces.”

Her Mormon bishop and Relief Society helped the family with food.

“As repayment for this aid and out of deeply felt gratitude, she
and her children yearly scrubbed and washed the church where they worshipped
each Sunday,” Reeve added. “Nellie spent most of her life in similar
quiet acts of service, not only for her church but also for her family and

Patience and serenity

Unthank died in Cedar City and is buried in a local cemetery.

Palmer recalled the heroine’s “… 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 on 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

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