Rebecca Winters, Early Mormon

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt / Stacy Conradt

Every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

As early members of the Mormon Church, Rebecca Winters and her husband, Hiram, decided to move from New York to be able to practice their religion freely. After making homes in Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa, the Winters, along with many other Mormons, determined that their ultimate destination was Utah. In 1852, they packed up the wagons and headed west.

Sadly, Rebecca would never see the end of the trip. Somewhere in the middle of Nebraska, several members of the party were stricken with cholera. On August 15, 1852, Rebecca fell victim to the disease. This was not an unusual occurrence on these brutal cross-country trips, and the deceased were often buried in shallow graves right in the middle of the road, wagons purposely driven over the top to pack the dirt down and keep animals from digging the bodies up.

But members of Rebecca Winters’ party went above and beyond for her. Her husband, Hiram, and family friend, William Reynolds, dug an especially deep grave, then lined the bottom with planks, apparently unable to deal with idea of Rebecca languishing in the dirt. They carefully wrapped her body in blankets, then added another layer of planks. Before leaving for Utah, Reynolds chiseled a short epitaph into a metal wheel rim and bent it into an oval, embedding it into the ground over the fresh grave.

For nearly 50 years, Rebecca lay undisturbed. Then, in 1899, surveyors for Burlington Northern Railroad were scouting land in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, when they found something rather unusual directly in the path of their intended tracks: a single grave. Not a cemetery. Not a small family plot. Just one lone metal marker, bearing the words, “Rebecca Winters, Age 50.”

As the story goes, the railroad decided to be respectful of the resting place and built the tracks several feet away instead. The railroad and Rebecca kept each other company for the next 96 years. By 1995, Rebecca’s grave was becoming more and more of a tourist attraction, causing Burlington Northern to worry that visitors would get hurt or killed by standing too close to the tracks. With the permission of Rebecca’s descendants, BN had the body exhumed, then moved just 100 yards away. More than 125 of Rebecca’s descendants were there for her reburial in a proper coffin, including her great-great-great granddaughter—Rebecca Winters. William Reynolds’ great-granddaughter was also there.

See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.