'97 wagon train halts, pays respect at infant grave

An infant, whose life ended long before his pioneering parents reached Zion, touched the hearts of modern-day pioneers who are retracing the Mormon Pioneer trail.

For years, a tiny grave has rested in the farmland that surrounds the small community of Sutherland. The name of the baby, thought to be a boy from two to three months old, is lost to history, but the earliest permanent settlers in the town knew it to be the grave of a baby buried in haste by Latter-day Saint parents who hurried on in the western migration of the Church.On Tuesday, May 20, several hundred participants in the 1997 Mormon Trail Wagon Train re-enactment passed through Sutherland and paused to note the grave and the child. Of an estimated 6,000 who died on the trail, many were infants and small children too weak to withstand the rigors of the migration that took place from 1847 to 1869.

The infant, buried in Sutherland prairie sod where a semi-circle of trees has grown up around the grave and now acts as guardian, is representative of those many little ones who died along the way, said Brian J. Hill, president of the Kearney Stake and newly called president of the wagon train.

Viewing the plain, unmarked stone that identifies the grave site, it is easy to imagine the pain of the parents who put their child into the grave and moved on the next day, Pres. Hill said.

"They must have been afraid of the damage wolves might do and they probably knew they would never visit the spot again," he said.

The grave is located a stone's throw from the Platte River at the beginning of the sand hills, an area that proved challenging to those traveling the Mormon Trail.

The wagon train typically followed the river closely, but at this juncture, the pioneers found the bluffs too steep and had to move to the dunes to continue their way West. It was one of the more difficult stretches in the 1,000-mile journey.

Even though nothing is known of the child's parentage and history, local residents have known since the earliest days of Sutherland that the grave belonged to a baby buried by Latter-day Saints, said Vernon Combs, a local resident.

At one time, a fence lined the grave to protect it from being disturbed. He said that local historians studying journals and diaries left by LDS pioneers have been amazed at the accuracy of the descriptions they contain.

"This is a sacred spot of ground for those who live here," Mr. Combs said, referring to the grave site.

Stu Coker, another local resident, now about 89 years old, also recalled passing the little grave as he went about his business as a boy growing up in the area, and then later as a man. His family came to Sutherland in the early 1880s, less than 40 years after the epic overland migration of the pioneers.

"I often rode by this little grave while going hunting," Mr. Coker said.

At one time, a school was located across the street from the grave, and the activities of Sutherland's farm life have ebbed and flowed around the site without any disturbance to the grave itself.

On this day, prior to ceremonies that would dedicate the small resting place, children of a new generation played around the grave.

Several young girls in pioneer attire gathered weeds and put them on the unadorned stone marking the spot.

Pres. Hill dedicated the spot, calling on those in the present to "be inspired to live better lives" by remembering the sacrifices the parents of the deceased child and others made to establish Zion.

Then, like those parents of another century, the modern pioneers said goodbye to the spot and moved on West, leaving the grave more years of solitude.

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