Here is the latest version of the text for the children’s storybook about my great-great-grandmother. I’d love some feedback if you have suggestions.
Grandma Mary, will you tell me a story?
Of course, Irene, what story would you like to hear?
Tell me again, Grandma Mary, about how you came to Zion.
OK, I’ll tell you. The story starts far away in England. Close your eyes, Irene, and imagine you could travel back in time to when I was a little girl, just your age. I had a happy childhood. My grandmother would tell me stories too. I was an only child because my sisters and brother died when they were tiny babies. I was rather delicate when I was young so I was raised on milk tea.
I grew up in a cozy village with lots of beautiful Elm trees. That is why we called it Coton-in-the-Elms.
But Grandma Mary, that sounds like there was cotton in the trees. I don’t see why that was the name of your village.
Irene, in the English way of speaking coton means cottage or little house, so Coton-in-the-Elms means cottage in the Elm trees.
Grandma Mary, why did you leave England? It sounds like such a beautiful place.
Coton-on-the-Elms was a beautiful place and we were a happy family but things started to change after the missionaries came. It didn’t happen right away, but the after the missionaries came to our village, our lives began to change. In most ways those changes were good. But some changes where very hard. I was just a little older than you when the missionaries came. They taught us about Jesus and Heavenly Father’s visit to the Prophet Joseph Smith. We also read more about Jesus in the Book of Mormon. My family believed what the missionaries taught and we were baptized in a nearby river.
Was the river cold, Grandma Mary?
No, it was July when I got baptized and the water felt good. Plus I felt all warm and happy inside. It was the Holy Ghost telling me I was doing the right thing. We were happier than we had ever been because we knew how much Jesus and Heavenly Father loved us and that we had a living prophet to guide us. But as the years went by some of our neighbors believed bad things about our new church. And some of them were mean to us and the Prophet said we should gather to Zion where we could be safe and live with other saints.
Grandma Mary, why didn’t you leave England while you were still young like me.
Irene, my family was too poor to go to Zion. We worked hard but we still didn’t have enough money yet for the long trip. When I got older I learned to sew from my uncle who was a tailor. It took me a long tome to get good at making dresses but it helped me to earn more money. I was lucky because when I met, and then married, a handsome young man named William Upton, I could make my wedding dress.
We all dreamed of going to Zion far away from Coton-in-the-Elms in America. In Zion they were building temples to the Lord and we would be with many other saints. Plus we could hear the Prophet speak the words of God. So we continued to work hard and save money to go to Zion.
So Grandma Mary, how long did it take you to have enough money to come to Zion?
Before we had enough money, Irene, a most wonderful thing happened. The Prophet Brigham Young came up with a plan to help Mormons like me and my family go to Zion for less money. We would pull handcarts, instead of needing horses or oxen to pull wagons. Plus we could finish paying for the trip after we got to Zion. So in May of 1856 me and my family sailed with lots of other Mormons on the ship Horizon from Liverpool England to Boston in America.
What was it like on the ship, Grandma Mary?
Well Irene, it took many days for us to sail across the ocean and some days the seas were rough making everyone seasick. There were more than 800 of us going to Zion so it was crowded. We kept busy sewing the tents we would soon be using as we crossed the plains and we sang songs. The children played as quietly as they could but with so many people it was often very noisy.
One day, as we got closer to America, the ship was surrounded by thick fog. We were scared because we couldn’t see, but all the saints prayed and the fog parted just in time for the ship to avoid an iceberg. The fog closed around the ship again but there were no more icebergs and we were safe.
What happened, Grandma Mary, when you finally got to America?
I remember how excited I was when I finally stepped off the ship in Boston. It felt so good to be on solid ground again, but we still had a long way to go to reach Zion. We all climbed into train cars that had been used for cows to continue our journey. It wasn’t very comfortable but we were moving toward Zion, so we endured the hard benches and tight spaces.
One night when the train was stopped a mob of angry men surrounded us as we slept. They were mean and wanted to hurt us because we were Mormons, just like in England. But the Lord protected us and the mob left without hurting anyone.
Another night in Cleveland, Ohio, there was a fire. That was scary too, but the saints helped to put the fire out and everyone was safe. Finally we came to the end of the train ride.
Where you in Zion then, Grandma Mary?
No, Irene, in those days Iowa City, more than a 1,000 miles from Zion, was the end of the railroad tracks, By the time we began the hardest part of our journey it was July and very hot. Even though we had traveled for more than two months we still had a long way to go yet to reach Zion. We still wanted to get to Zion so me and my family loaded up a wooden handcart with our few belongings to begin walking across the plains, pulling and pushing our handcart.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Indians along the trail. I was excited and scared at the same time because there were stories about Indians hurting people. But these Indians just looked at us, they didn’t hurt us. I was so grateful. Later in our journey, at Fort Laramie, we saw more Indians and the kind Indian children shared candied fruit with the pioneer children.
Grandma Mary, was did you ever get tired?
Yes, Irene, it was hard work. It was so different from our life in England. But we were going to Zion so each day I walked, pushing and pulling with my mother, father, husband and cousin in the Martin handcart company. Gradually we got used to it. Each night twenty of us slept together in a big round tent with our feet toward the middle and we cooked over fires.
But there were good times too. When we camped by a river, the children had fun swimming. I enjoyed seeing children, just like you, having fun. We had much to do each night in camp, yet we always found time to sing songs. We were glad we were going to Zion We gathered wood or buffalo chips so we could make our fires. The handcart would break and need to be fixed. And we were getting worn down. Time was running out to get to Zion before winter came so we traveled as far as we could each day.
How did you do it, Grandma Mary, walking day after day, pushing and pulling a handcart?
When I felt tired or discouraged I would sing the Handcart Song. The words and the melody helped me continue one step at a time. It gave me strength when the voices of other pioneers around me sang too. The words and the melody would lift our spirits and we could keep going.
There was a big problem. It was taking us too long to get to Zion and we didn’t have enough food. So Elder Franklin D. Richards, an apostle, road ahead in a fast carriage, to tell the Prophet that the handcart pioneers needed help and more food. We prayed everyday for help to come and we kept pushing along as fast as we could go toward Zion, hoping to get help before winter.
Grandma Mary, did you make it to Zion before the winter storms came?
Irene we didn’t. The weather had turned from hot to cold in just a few days.
I remember the day we crossed the Platte River. It started to snow and we had to wade across the river through the cold water. It was so cold that I even saw ice floating in the river. We had to cross many icy cold rivers to reach Zion. Everyone was hungry including me. We worked hard every day and the cold weather made it worse because there wasn’t much food and we had to make it last as long as possible. I felt hungry everyday. But I wanted to reach Zion, so I walked and pushed and pulled anyway, just like everyone else.
What about the help that Elder Richards promised to send, Grandma Mary?
Well Irene, we didn’t know this at the time but help was on its way. Hundreds of miles away in Salt Lake City, Elder Richards arrived in time for General Conference and told Brigham Young about me and the other handcart pioneers. He said we needed food and help to make it safely to Zion. The prophet told the men to gather food and wagons and then go and find us on the plains. Then he ended church early so everyone could help get the wagons ready to go.
Tell me, Grandma Mary, about the man who rescued you.
Well Irene, a righteous man named Burt Simmons already had a stout carriage full of food and ready to go. He and many others followed the Prophet’s directions and quickly left Salt Lake to help me, my family and the other pioneers reach Zion. They hurried as fast as they could to reach us before winter came. But they didn’t make it because the snow came very early that year.
How did you keep going, Grandma Mary, not knowing when help would come?
I prayed all the time, Irene. All of us did and we sang songs. I was so hungry and so cold. There was lots of snow and it was hard to pull our handcarts. No one had enough to eat. Some people died, including my mother, my father and my husband. I was so sad but I knew that my only hope was to keep moving on toward Zion and the help that was coming. A big winter storm came and the snow was so deep that we had to stop for a few days in a place now called Martin’s Cove. Soon Burt Simmons found me and he and other rescuers helped all the pioneers make it to the Salt Lake Valley. I was so weak and my feet were frozen. I don’t remember much about that part of the journey.
Grandma Mary, how did you get better? Since your family died who helped you?
Burt Simmons drove me in his sturdy carriage to his home where his wife took good care of me. I was so happy to be warm and have enough to eat and I was finally in Zion. But it took a long time for her to nurse me back to good health. She even saved my feet from the frost bite. Many others lost fingers, toes and even feet because they were frozen. After several months I was strong again and could really start my new life in Zion.
I love that story Grandma Mary. You are so good, noble and kind. I want to be just like you when I grow up.
Thank you, Irene. The Lord has blessed me. I’ve been married in the temple and have nine children, your mother being the youngest. Plus I have 57 grandchildren just like you. I still remember what it was like to not have enough food to eat so I never waste any food, not even a potato peel. I’m so happy that I can tell you about Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father and how they have blessed me. Making it to Zion made all that possible. I never would have had the life I’ve had in England.
Grandma Mary, I’m so glad that you are my grandmother. Because of you the Lord has blessed me too.