While we remember and reverence the sacrifices made by the early pioneers of the Church, we often forget their individual stories. However, once you hear this story of a Danish family in the ill-fated Willie handcart company, you’ll be touched forever.
Jens and Elsie Nielson lived an idyllic life in the lush countryside of Denmark when they were converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ and determined to gather with the Saints in the western United States.
All of my possessions had no power over me, wrote Jens of the great wealth he had accumulated in Denmark and the thoughts of leaving it all behind. My only desire was then to sell out and come to Zion.
The Nielson home was put up for sale and preparations were made, but Jens was caught by surprise when his family was asked to delay their travels so he could serve a mission. After serving faithfully for two years in Denmark, Jens, Elsie, and their young son Niels were able to travel to America. They were asked to bring along little Bodil Mortensen.
They voyaged by sea and by land, eventually arriving in Iowa City where they joined with the Willie company. The Nielsons determined to leave with the company in August, though many were concerned for the lateness of the season.
By the third month of their travels, tragedy struck. On October 23, 1856, both their son Niels and charge Bodil perished after a blizzard and a particularly long trek over Rocky Ridge in Wyoming. They were not the only ones to perish, Jens would write:
We had to dig a hole and bury  bodies of our number, and my only son was among them, and a girl who I had along for Brother Mortensen. I told you there were five men to the tent, but now the four were dead and I was the only man left, so I had to ask some of the largest and strongest women to help me to raise the tent, and it looked like we should all die.
The heartbroken and weakened Jens seemed prepared to die, especially when his foot injuries made it impossible for him to walk. However, his dear wife Elsie would not allow it. One of their descendents, Jay P. Nielson, told of her courage:
The end appeared to be near and certain for Jens. His feet became so frozen he could not walk another step, which caused his right foot to be at right angles the rest of his life. At this point Jens said to Elsie, “Leave me by the trail in the snow to die, and you go ahead and try to keep up with the company and save your life.” If you believe men have a monopoly on strength and courage, then pay heed to Elsie’s immortal words when she said, “Ride. I can’t leave you. I can pull the cart.”
It is not know for how long Elsie had to pull the cart by herself, but one family history suggests it was for at least a day. Her strength carried them through and the Nielsons arrived in Salt Lake City on November 9, 1856. For the rest of their lives, they would dedicate themselves to settling the Utah territory, including Parowan, Paragonah, Circleville, and Bluff, Utah.
Jens died in 1906, two days before his 86th birthday. Elsie would follow in 1914 at the age of 84. Her death after a family dinner is recorded by Jens’s son to his third wife, Uriah:
I stayed there with her quite awhile, and when I got ready to go, I said, “Are you all right Grandma?” “Oh, yes,” she said. “I’m all right. I’ll just turn down my bed now and go to bed.” So that’s what she did. I saw that she got her bed turned down and that she got into bed. WHen I went over to get her for breakfast the next morning, she said, “I can’t come to breakfast. Niels was here last night.” That’s what she called her husband – Niels. She didn’t make any bones about telling that he’d been there. She had either dreamed it, or he was there.
So she stayed in bed even though she wasn’t sick. She didn’t suffer, but she hardly ate anything…She stayed there in bed until the night that she said Niels was coming after her. Then she died. She must have seen him, and he must have talked to her or something, because she was perfectly all right when I left here that night; there wasn’t a thing the matter with her.”
This account came from Follow Me to Zion, an expansive new book detailing the stories of the Willie handcart pioneers. Follow Me to Zion recounts 20 compelling stories of members of the Willie handcart company and their rescuers. Dozens of full-color images by artist Julie Rogers enrich this keepsake volume, which pays tribute to the men, women, and children who have become enduring witnesses of the power of faith and sacrifice.
Here you will find excerpts from their own accounts of the journey, learn what those faithful pioneers did after reaching the Salt Lake Valley, and read reflections on their lives by descendants.
The simple words “Follow Me to Zion,” cross-stitched onto small pieces of fabric kept in the journal of a handcart pioneer, are an invitation that still calls to us today.
The stories and paintings in this beautiful volume can inspire us to live true to our faith and reach out to help others do likewise.
This book also contains the most comprehensive, up-to-date listing of members of the Willie handcart company.
Aleah is a graduate of Southern Virginia University, where she studied English, Creative Writing, and Dance. She now works full time as a marketing and product manager, writer, and editor. Aleah served a mission in California and loves baking, Lang Leav poetry, Gaynor Minden pointe shoes, and Bollywood movies.