A Grave by the Little Blue


Our family’s efforts to find our ancestor’s resting place led to a new memorial for the Mormon Pioneers.

Jacob Foutz Secrist’s last letter to his family—dated 21 May 1855, St. Louis, Missouri:

“Dear Companion:

“Once more I take pleasure in writing to you. I am in good health and about ready to start up the Missouri to the outfitting point. … I expect to land in Salt Lake along about the first of September, or at least I shall start from here tomorrow. …

“I feel very glad to return and thankful to the God of Joseph and Brigham that I have been preserved and pray that I may return to Zion. I shall appreciate home. …

“Hoping soon to see you, so I close by saying may the God of Israel bless you with the blessings of His spirit and health, faith, and long life. Cultivate the principles of the gospel as taught by the authorities of the Church … and you will grow in grace and good works. …

“God almighty bless you all is the prayer of an affectionate father, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.—Jacob Foutz Secrist.”

From the diary of Charles Smith, a member of the company:

June 29, 1855: “Brother Secrist has been left back having taken sick with the cholera.”

July 1: “Brother John Mayer and Edmund Ellis arrived with Captain Secrist. We removed him to his wagon. It was considered wise to move to another campground. In afternoon traveled ten miles.”

July 2: “We started about nine o’clock. In a little while we were obliged to halt as Brother Secrist was worse. … Several of us stayed with him until he died, which was about one o’clock. We sent a messenger on to Brother Blair’s Camp to get some tin to make a coffin with, that we might carry his remains to the valley. This day we traveled twelve miles.”

July 3: “We came to Blair’s Camp on the Little Blue. The brethren tried to get out timber to make a wood coffin, but were unable to do so. This evening the tin coffin was finished and the body put in it and soldered. The materials were deemed insufficient to take his remains to the valley.”

From Charles Smith’s letter to Erastus Snow, dated 5 July 1855, Little Blue River: “So we interred his remains on the banks of the Little Blue where the road first strikes near the river bank. We put up two posts, one at the head and the other at the foot. His name is cut on the first one; it is plain to be seen, being but forty feet from the road, and about the same distance from the river.”

Jacob Foutz Secrist and his wife, Ann Eliza Logan, were pioneers who traveled to the Salt Lake Valley in 1848. Four years after the long trek west, Jacob was called on a mission to Germany. He left his pregnant wife and three children and worked his way to Europe. When his mission was completed, Jacob turned his efforts toward getting home. After being made captain of a wagon train company, he began the trek. During the trip, however, Jacob contracted cholera and died.

My mother, Wanda Secrist Telford, was thoroughly conversant with the history of her great-grandfather, Jacob Foutz Secrist. She had spent many years doing family history work. To her, Grandfather Secrist personified the pioneer and missionary of his day. His life—and death—became even more important to her when she determined to find Grandfather’s gravesite. Michael, my brother, caught the spirit and insisted they plan a trip to search for Grandfather’s burial site. He and Mom set a date to travel the following spring.

Mom’s job was to research and pinpoint the location as near as possible. She wrote, “I had received excerpts from the diary and … from the letter to Erastus Snow, but to find the gravesite, we had to know where the pioneer company had started, the miles they traveled each day, and where the trail was in relation to the roads of today.”

For years, family tradition claimed that Grandfather was buried by Ketchum Creek, but excerpts from the diary of Charles Smith, who was a member of Grandfather’s company, said it was on the banks of the Little Blue River. Mom searched for Charles Smith’s diary, hoping that its daily entries would help. She was unable to locate it. With the time of the trip drawing near, she began to feel she would be unable to complete her research in time.

An unusual experience heightened her desire to pursue the project. For an unexplained reason, Mom visited the Family History Library in Salt Lake City on a day other than her weekly scheduled visit. “I went to the information counter and asked where I might find the diary,” she recalls. “The attendant directed me to a certain file, but I could not find any diaries listed, so I went back and told them my problem. She redirected me, but I still could not find the right file and, being embarrassed at my seeming stupidity, I looked around at the other patrons who were looking in the files.

“With a sheet of paper listing Charles Smith’s name in my hand, I approached an elderly lady and asked her where I could find the diaries. She looked at the paper, saw the name at the top, and said, ‘Charles Smith—why, that is my grandfather. But you won’t find it here. There are only three copies, and I have one.’ I literally cried for joy.” The woman allowed Mother to copy entries from the diary.

Having obtained the information she needed, she wrote, “I finally narrowed the site down to within a ten-mile radius. It was a place near Fairbury, Jefferson County, Nebraska.”

It was a hot June day when Mom and Dad and Michael and his wife began their expedition to Nebraska. When they arrived at Fairbury, they were directed to Estaline Carpenter, a member of the local historical society. Miss Carpenter was not a member of the Church, but her help was vital in the search. Over the months, a bond of sisterhood developed between her and Mom.

All day the family trampled over hills and through old farms and historical areas, with Miss Carpenter as their guide. The next day they began to comb the countryside again, but no place seemed to fit the information.

“While my husband stood on the hill by the Oregon Trail marker and gazed at the tracks,” Mom wrote, “I thought of that hot, windy July 2, 1855, when Grandfather was bouncing along in a wagon, so sick with cholera that he died just a few miles from there. My heart ached and I cry now as I think of the suffering and the heartache endured by him and his company.”

The long, unusually hot day was ending and no place seemed to fit the description of the site. The family had to return to Utah the next day. Fatigue and discouragement replaced their hope and enthusiasm; it seemed the search would not be successful. But Michael’s youth and determination took over. As they drove along a country road that looked like all the others, Michael stopped the car at a farmhouse. An aged, weatherbeaten man with a long white beard sat on the porch. Michael climbed out of the car and told the man what he was looking for. The man said that the Little Blue River came that close to the Oregon Trail in only one place. He told Michael how to get to it.

Mom later recorded, “We turned south at the end of a pasture, down a little dirt road, and there was a bridge over the Little Blue River. The foliage had grown up for quite a few feet from the water itself into sort of a grove or thicket. My husband got out and walked down through the grass toward the thicket and said, ‘This has to be it.’ We all felt that we had found it. My heart was full.”

When Morn returned to Utah, she still pondered the family story referring to Ketchum Creek as Grandfather Secrist’s gravesite. She later received a letter from Miss Carpenter, who had done more research; she felt the family had found the right place. The Little Blue River had been given many names through the years, she said, and Ketchum Creek had been one of them. She also said she would work with the Nebraska State Historical Society, proposing a monument to honor Grandfather’s pioneer company.

Miss Carpenter’s efforts to gain support for the monument were untiring. The historical society asked why there should be a monument for this group of Mormons when so many had perished in similar ways. She answered, “Here is one family who cared enough to find the gravesite.” Through Miss Carpenter’s efforts, a monument honoring the Saints, with Grandfather’s name among the list, was erected. It stands not far from the gravesite on the grounds of a historical schoolhouse. It was dedicated 20 June 1976, as part of the bicentennial celebration in Jefferson County, Nebraska.

Mom had been healthy and youthful for most of the sixty-eight years of her life, but she was very ill when it was time for the dedication of the monument. With the persuasion and assistance of her family, she made another trip to Fairbury and experienced the joy and satisfaction of her efforts. Three months later, she died.

Mom and Grandfather must have been pleased to meet each other in the spirit world. She had come to know him through his journals and letters, and her efforts had been inspired by the desire to honor him. Just as Malachi prophesied, her heart had lovingly been turned to him.

[photo] A monument honoring those buried along the trail, located near Jacob Secrist’s gravesite. Fifteen members of the Secrist Company died on the way to Fort Kearny from Mormon Grove, between 13 June and 10 July 1855. (Photo by Garth H. Secrist.)

[illustration] Illustrated by Ted Henninger

Terry Lynne Telford Jones, a teacher, serves as ward choir director and visiting teacher in the Highland Seventh Ward, Highland Utah Stake.