Okay, sorry to get all historical on you. But I almost feel like I know Rebecca. And she has an amazing story:
Back in 1824 she married a tall, handsome guy named Hiram Winters and they were totally in love. One night while Hiram was away attending meetings, Rebecca dreamed that Hiram returned to her with some kind of wonderful gift, something of great worth that made her amazingly happy. It filled her with a light and joy that lingered throughout the next day. She couldn’t imagine what Hiram could possibly give her that would make her so happy. When Hiram returned, he handed Rebecca a small book and said, “I will make you a present of that.” It was one of the first copies of The Book of Mormon. She recognized it as the gift from her dream, and knew at once how precious it was: “Each time I searched its pages I felt that same light and influence as I felt in my dream.”*
They were severely persecuted for their beliefs. Five times they were turned out of their homes by angry mobs and forced to flee for safety. Finally they joined a wagon train and headed west. Hiram had built the wagons himself, and Rebecca hand-stitched their clothing for the trek.
About two-thirds through their journey, cholera struck the camp. Cholera is a horrible disease with intense diarrhea causing a rapid drop in blood pressure and acute dehydration. Rebecca attempted to nurse others back to health, and was eventually stricken herself. She died in less than a day.
There was no coffin, other than a few wagon boards that could be spared. Her husband dug a deep grave that would keep her remains safe, lovingly tossing in his belt buckle as a remembrance. There was no headstone for her resting place, but a wheel rim from a broken-down wagon was found. A dear friend, William Reynolds, sat up through the night chiseling into the cold steel the words, “Rebecca Winters, Aged 50 Years.”
Imagine the heartache as the rest of the company pulled away the next morning, leaving Rebecca behind. Imagine, too, the pain of her son Oscar, who went ahead to build her a house, when he saw everyone but Mother arrive.
Fast-forward 50 years.
Around the turn of the 20th century, The Burlington Railroad was laying track as it moved westward, and a surveyor noticed the wagon wheel with the chiseled letters: Rebecca Winters, Aged 50 years. This is one of very few marked graves discovered on the plains. In an amazing gesture of humanity, the railroad tore up several miles of track to reroute so as not to disturb Rebecca’s resting place.
Fast-forward another 90 years.
The railroad was concerned about the safety of the many visitors to the grave because of its proximity to the tracks. They contacted the family and requested permission to move the grave.
A formal archaeological dig ensued. Suspense filled the air as a high-tech instrument with a metal plate began shaving off layers of dirt until the perimeters of the grave appeared a foot below the surface. They found Rebecca’s remains in near-pristine condition, complete with her husband’s belt buckle thrown in as a memento.
In 1997 I attended the rededication of the Rebecca Winters gravesite. I rode to Scottsbluff in an air-conditioned SUV and still managed to complain about the heat and the dust and the length of the ride. When I paused to consider the conditions our ancestors traveled in, it was incredibly humbling.
It was very moving to see the love and care from strangers and outsiders toward my 3rd great-grandmother for more than a century. And the significance of being able to actually touch the hand-chiseled inscription on the wheel-marker was like traveling back in time, a tangible linking of several generations.
Rebecca’s story has many parallels to my own family:
My mother, too, died in her early 50s. Several months later I dreamed she was still with us, but very ill. Our family was preparing for some kind of a vacation or journey. We begged her to join us, but she firmly stated we would have to complete the journey without her, all the while assuring us that we could.
We trudge along, sometimes stumbling and straying, and struggling to find our way. We’re learning first hand how difficult it can be to journey as a family -- especially while planning on journeying into eternity together. And sometimes it still seems my mother whispers to us, assuring us that we can succeed.
The one thing I find rather attractive about the pioneer trek is the simplicity of that existence. Focusing on a single path (note name of blog), moving a certain distance each day, almost seems therapeutic compared to my hectic, frazzled lifestyle, being pulled in so many directions, scattered between so many urgent needs. I should not allow myself to become distracted by the materialistic briars and thistles of our era, derailed by potholes of pride, or poisoned by snakebites of selfishness. I realize that I could do well to focus more intently on the true journey at hand, and never weary of doing good.
If you are faithful, the day will come when those deserving pioneers whom you rightly praise for having overcome the adversities in their wilderness trek will instead praise you for having made your way successfully through a desert of despair, for having passed through a cultural wilderness and having kept the faith.–Elder Neal A. Maxwell
* From "Rebecca Burdick Winters: The Supreme Sacrifice" by Cassie Winslow