Friday, July 24, 2009

Plains and Trains...and What Remains

I want to tell you a story about a woman named Rebecca. She was raised in New York, and her father was a famous drummer. --Not a drummer in a rock band, but the drummer on the back of the bicentennial quarter. Gideon Burdick, as a young teenager, was George Washington’s drummer as he led troops across the Delaware in the Revolutionary War: “The muffled sounds of Burdick’s drum encouraged the soldiers through the snow and sleet to the icebound Delaware River.”* And when this brave young man grew up and had a family, he had a daughter named Rebecca.

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


L.T. Elliot said...

Charrette, I simply must email you. There is too much to say that cannot be said in a comment. Expect it soon.

val of the south said...

What an amazing legacy so beautifully told.

I often long for a simpler life, but am not willing to give anything up for it! I was just saying that I'd never have made it as a pioneer, but in reality we all have our own "pioneer trek", just with different trials.

Luisa Perkins said...

Happy Pioneer Day!

What a wonderful story. I have many Burdicks and a few Winterses in my family line. We must have a Family History pow-wow soon.


Eowyn said...

That is a beautiful story Charrette!

There are so many days that remembering what the pioneers did back then helps me make it through today. Any time things are hard, I try to remember that I'm not climbing Rocky Ridge in negative degree weather like my many great grandmother and her son did. There's something empowering about remembering the past.

Happy Pioneer Day to you!

Melanie J said...

What a cool story. It reminds me of how much I've been struggling with complacency lately. It makes me anxious to bestir myself so that Heavenly Father doesn't feel the need to teach me a lesson.

Kimberly said...

What a beautiful story to share on this special day - I love the parallels you drew here.

Kristina P. said...

This is the best Pioneer Day post I have read! Just lovely. Have a great weekend!

LisAway said...

What a legacy! That is so neat. How awesome to have seen that wagon wheel on the site of her grave.

Wishing you the best in your journey!

Kazzy said...

Cool lady after cool lady leading up to the existence of my friend, Charrette. This was awesome. XO

Heidi Ashworth said...

Shivers, tears, smiles--thank you so much for blessing me with this! Love you!

Jennifer said...

I never know what to much your writing inspires and the awe I feel. Lovely, Lovely, Lovely. Love ya!

Brillig said...

This is powerful stuff, Charrette. I feel honored just to have read about her. And yeah. The two of you are kindred in more ways than blood.

(And the quote from Elder Maxwell is amazing.)

Sandy M. said...

A 'simplicity of.. existence' does sound so alluring, doesn't it! Simplicity of anything sounds pretty good! :) I'm sure they had their emotional worries and mental concerns too.. I feel wistfully attracted by what I imagine was the clean satisfaction of physically stepping forward over a distance of ground each day. It would be good to see our own progress so clearly.. I'm afraid that I sometimes make camp in the valleys for longer than I ought to!

Wonderful stories Charrette :) How special to have been able to attend the re-dedication and finger the writing on the marker!

I appreciated your thoughts about our true journey... Hope yours is going well :)

Brillig said...


(That's the alarm notifiying you that it's time to post again...)

Little GrumpyAngel said...

what a beautiful part of your personal history.