Ellen (Nellie) Pucell Unthank was born in Preston, Lancashire, England, where her parents were among the first people in that nation to accept the teachings of the restored gospel as taught by Wilford Woodruff and his associates.
According to an account by William R. Palmer in the April 1944 Instructor, Ellen's mother, Margaret Perren Pucell, attended the first meeting of the Church in England. She was baptized in the River Ribble, and in August 1837, was probably the second woman in England to be confirmed a member of the Church. A month later, Margaret Pucell's husband, Samuel, was baptized.Desiring to join the saints in their Rocky Mountain Zion, the couple qualified for help under the Perpetual Emigration Fund. With their two daughters, Maggie, 14, and Nellie, 9, they sailed from Liverpool May 2, 1856, in the company of 856 other Latter-day Saints.
Under Captain Edward Martin, many of the emigrants stopped nine weeks at Iowa City, Iowa, to await the building of handcarts. It was July 27 before the company was ready to depart.
The journey went smoothly at first, but the company ran into trouble as altitude increased and snow began to fall. Suffering from insufficient clothing, rations, bedding and fuel, many died, including William and Margaret Pucell.
The Martin handcart company and the Willie company just ahead of it had been passed by missionaries returning from England. When the missionaries arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, their leader, Franklin D. Richards, alerted President Brigham Young to the plight of the emigrants.
At the opening session of October conference, President Young called for volunteers to go at once to rescue the distressed travelers. The people responded, and some teams left before nightfall.
The Martin company was found almost buried in snow 16 miles above the Platte River Bridge in Wyoming. The handcart pioneers were rescued and carried by wagon to Salt Lake City, where they were cared for.
The two orphaned Pucell girls suffered badly from frostbite. It was necessary to amputate the feet and lower legs of Nellie. Poor surgical conditions necessitated the use of a butcher knife and carpenter's saw, without the aid of anesthetic.
The wounds healed poorly, and the bones protruded from the ends of the stumps. For the rest of her life, Nellie waddled on her knees in constant pain.
Nellie and Maggie came with handcart friends to Cedar City, Utah, where they married. Nellie became the wife of William Unthank and bore him six children. In poverty, she did all she could to make ends meet: taking in washing, knitting stockings to sell, carding wool and crocheting table pieces. Her bishop and Relief Society sometimes assisted her. She repaid the kindness once a year when she and her children washed the meetinghouse.
She kept her home immaculately clean. While a more permanent house was being built, she lived with her children in a log cabin, and she kept the dirt floor as smooth as pavement by continually dampening and scraping it.
She died in Cedar City at the age of 69.
In the Instructor article, William R. Palmer wrote his personal recollection as follows:
"In memory I recall her wrinkled forehead, her soft dark eyes that told of toil and pain and suffering, and the deep grooves that encircled the corners of her strong mouth. But in that face there was no trace of bitterness or railings at her fate. There was patience and serenity, for in spite of her handicap she had earned her keep and justified her existence. She had given more to family, friends and to the world than she had received."
`Through our extremities, we came to know God'
President David O. McKay once related that members of a class were criticizing Church leaders for permitting the Martin handcart company to commence its journey so late in the season.
An old man listened and then arose.
"In substance [he] said, `I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the handcart company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine, and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives, for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.
" `I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope, and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it. I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.
" `Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin handcart company.' " – Source: Relief Society Magazine, January 1948, p. 8.