Sculpture depicts strength of handcart pioneers

It was the inner strength of the Paul Gourley family that got them through the severe hardship experienced by the Martin Handcart Company in their 1856 trek to Salt Lake City. Now that strength is depicted in a bronze statue unveiled Feb. 26 at the Sons of Utah Pioneers National Headquarters Building in Salt Lake City.

Commissioned by Mont and Carolyn Crosland of Sandy, Utah, the sculpture has been placed in the library of the building. Present at the unveiling were the Croslands, sculptors Patch and Jean Peterson, and Elliot Cameron, president of the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, a service organization dedicated to honoring the pioneers' memory.Titled "One Step at a Time," the piece is a one-fourth-inch-scale rendition of the family in a poignant scene near Scott's Bluff, Neb., just after the death and burial of 9-month-old Margaret. With its loaded handcart, the family is shown ready to continue their journey as the kneeling mother, Elison, hands wildflowers to daughter Nicholaus to place on the new grave.

The Gourley family emigrated from Scotland in 1856, taking 41 days to cross the ocean on the sailing ship Thornton. Upon their arrival at Iowa City, Iowa, Paul was asked to stay behind and help build handcarts for other immigrants because he was a carpenter by trade. Thus they left later than expected and were assigned to travel with the ill-fated Martin company that started for the Salt Lake Valley on July 28.

The family had two handcarts. Daughters Janet, 8, and Nicholaus, 12, pulled one handcart carrying the family's belongings. Paul and son George, 7, pulled the other handcart that carried mother, Elison, she being very ill; 3-year-old Paul; and baby Margaret. Two older children, Robert, 19, and Alexander, 17, had gone on ahead to drive wagon teams for a company captain.

The incident depicted in the sculpture - the death and burial of Margaret - happened before the family faced its most severe hardship, near the Sweetwater River in present-day Wyoming.

With the other members of the company, the family was stalled at Devil's Gate, by the snows of early winter, severe cold and lack of food. By the time the rescue party from Salt Lake City reached them, they still had 300 miles of snow-covered mountains to traverse. George's shoes had worn out and his feet were wrapped in burlap. When he became too tired to walk, his sister, Nicholaus, pulled him in a wash tub on the snow.

When the family finally arrived in Salt Lake City Nov. 30, two of George's toes had to be amputated because of frostbite. Three-year-old Paul died the following March from the effects of the ordeal.

Brother Cameron said the sculpture would "stand as a monument to the memory of the pioneers who laid the foundation for the gifts and favors of which we are the benefactors."

Sculptor Patch Peterson said he and his wife were working one evening on the folds of the clothes in the sculpture and had not said anything to each other for about an hour. "We looked up at each other and were so overcome with the Spirit," he said. "We felt the presence of someone there with us guiding us in this. Both of us had tears streaming down our cheeks. It was a very deeply spiritual experience that we shared, the two of us."

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed