Ellen “Nellie” Pucell

"She Stood Tall on Her Knees" Monument to Ellen Pucell in Cedar City, Utah
“She Stood Tall on Her Knees” Monument to Ellen Pucell in Cedar City, Utah

Ellen Pucell, age nine, traveled to Salt Lake with her older sister Maggie, age 14 and her parents, Samuel and Margaret Pucell, who were some of the first converts in England.  President Gordon B. Hinckley shared Ellen’s story in General Conference, November 1991.

“Ellen Pucell, as she was named, was born in a beautiful area of England where the hills are soft and rolling and the grass is forever green.”  Nineteen years after her parents’ baptism enough money was saved to travel to Zion.  The Pucells were assigned to the Martin Handcart Company.  President Hinckley continues, “Through sunlight and storm, through dust and mud, they trudged beside the Platte River through all of the month of September and most of October.  On October 19, they reached the last crossing of the Platte, a little west of the present city of Casper, Wyoming.  The river was wide, the current strong, and chunks of ice were floating in the water.  They were now traveling without sufficient food.  Bravely they waded through the icy stream.  Ellen’s mother, Margaret, became sick.  Her husband lifted her onto the cart.  They were now climbing in elevation toward the Continental Divide, and it was uphill all the way.  Can you see this family in your imagination? — the mother too sick and weak to walk, the father thin and emaciated, struggling to pull the cart, as the two little girls push from behind with swirling, cold winds about them, and around them are hundreds of others similarly struggling.  They came to a stream of freezing water.  The father, while crossing, slipped on a rock and fell.  Struggling to his feet, he reached the shore, wet and chilled.  Sometime later he sat down to rest.  He quietly died, his senses numbed by the cold.  His wife died five days later.  I do not know how or where their frozen bodies were buried in that desolate, white wilderness.  I do know that the ground was frozen and that the snow was piled in drifts and that the two little girls were now orphans.”[1]

Small plaque on Monument to Ellen Pucell in Cedar City, Utah
Small plaque on Monument to Ellen Pucell in Cedar City, Utah

Josiah Rogerson, a 15-year-old boy traveling in the Martin Handcart Company, shared how Margaret Pucell came into his family’s tent after her husband died and asked Josiah’s mother to take care of her “two lassies” and be a good mother to them because she was not going to make it to Salt Lake.[2]

Due to the bitter cold and hiking through the snow, Ellen and Maggie’s legs and feet were badly frozen. Maggie did more walking behind the rescue wagons, which saved her legs, but nothing could be done for nine-year-old Ellen.  “When they took off her shoes and stockings the skin with pieces of flesh came off too.  The doctor said her feet must be taken off to save her life.  They strapped her to a board and without an anesthetic the surgery was performed.  With a butcher knife and a carpenter’s saw they cut the blackened limbs off.  It was a 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.”[3]  Later in life a doctor offered to fix her legs by cutting the bones a little and bringing the flesh over the ends so she could wear artificial limbs, but the memory of the first amputation was so vivid she never consented to another operation.[4]

At the age of 24, Ellen married William Unthank and settled in Cedar City, Utah.  She remained faithful throughout her life.  On the SUU campus stands a bronze monument in honor of Ellen “Nellie” Pucell Unthank, titled “She Stood Tall on Her Knees.”  President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated that monument.[5]

Nellie never complained about her situation.   She worked hard to help provide for her family not wanting pity or charity for her handicap.  President Hinckley recounted, “She grew to womanhood, married William Unthank, and bore and reared an honorable family of six children.  Moving about on those stumps, she served her family, her neighbors, and the Church with faith and good cheer, and without complaint, though she was never without pain.  Her posterity are numerous, and among them are educated and capable men and women who love the Lord whom she loved and who love the cause for which she suffered.”[6]

[1] Ensign, November 1991, “Our Mission of Saving”

[2] Tell My Story, Too at 293

[3] Ibid

[4] The Price We Paid at 426

[5] Ibid at 427

[6] Ensign, November 1991, “Our Mission of Saving”

Large plaque on Monument to Ellen Pucell in Cedar City, Utah
Large plaque on Monument to Ellen Pucell in Cedar City, Utah