Young Rhoda died a long way from home

First published in Mike Pryce

LITTLE Rhoda Oakey was only 10 years old, but she travelled a long way to die. The thick snows and biting winds of a Wyoming winter were far from her happy home in south Worcestershire and they froze the child to death on her journey to the Promised Land.

Rhoda's family from Eldersfield, on the county border with Gloucestershire, had been among 500 followers of the Mormon faith who set out in the late summer of 1856 to trek more than 1.000 miles across the American Mid-West from Iowa to Utah to settle on the banks of the Great Salt Lake.

It was an adventure that turned to tragedy. But this autumn there will be celebrations across the Mormon world to mark the 150th anniversary of the indomitable spirit of this party of religious pioneers from England.

Their goal had been to create a spiritual sanctuary, free from the persecution - their leader was shot and killed in Illinois - the stares and the insults, the Mormons' odd ways and many wives attracted.

It was an expedition that would have been hard enough had all gone well. Most could not afford covered wagons and so loaded their meagre possessions into handcarts, to be pulled or pushed all the way. But the timing of it was a disaster.

The group had already endured an Atlantic crossing from Liverpool and were impatient to begin their trek across the Plains towards the Rocky Mountains, which were then outside US jurisdiction.

We were lost, starved and buried in two feet of snow. In the morning there were 13 dead.

Their enthusiasm was no doubt fuelled by the attitude of the governor of Missouri, who threatened to "exterminate" them if they stayed on his patch.

Logic said the group should have waited until the spring of 1857, thus avoiding any chance of being ambushed by an early onset of the cruel Plains winter. But circumstances dictated they could not wait. So in late July 1856 they set off.

Despite the hazards ahead, it must have been an exciting time for the Oakeys. Thomas Oakey had been born at Eldersfield, which lies just south of where the M50 now runs, in 1813. He married Ann Collett in August, 1831, and they both became active members of the church of the United Bretheren, a breakaway Methodist group. Thomas worked as a "hired farmer" around Eldersfield and also preached for the Bretheren.

In the early 1840s American Mormon missionaries began earnestly recruiting in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, enthusing not only about their faith, but also the opportunities that awaited those brave enough to trust their future to an exciting new land.

The missionaries found many converts in this part of the country, including almost the entire United Bretheren congregation.

But the Oakey family had by then grown to eight living children, two more having died young, and on his meagre wage Thomas could not possibly afford to emigrate.

However, in early 1856, he was told of an assisted fund that allowed Mormons to travel to Salt Lake City if they would use handcarts on the last stage of the journey from Iowa.

So on May 1, 1856, the Oakeys, together with several hundred other English Mormons, departed Liverpool on the steamship Thornton bound for America. Their children ranged in age from 22-year-old Ann to Sarah Ann, aged four.

They disembarked at New York and took a train and then steamboat passage to Iowa City. Here they built the handcarts and sewed the tents that were to serve them on their walk across the Plains.

The Oakey family were part of a group known as the Willie Handcart Company. Their leader was Captain James Willie, who had been with them from Liverpool. He was originally from Murell Green in Hampshire, but had made his home in America and was returning after a four-year mission in England.

The handcart method of travel might have been relatively easy on smooth, metalled roads, but these pioneers were sweating and straining to haul the carts along rocky tracks, across rivers and through ravines. It was slow going and sickness began to overcome the party as winter swept in early.

Writing later, the youngest daughter Sarah Ann remembered their suffering.

"There were many people in camp who died, but we fared fairly well until we reached the deep snow in Wyoming. Our father froze his feet and hands and his toenails came off. Although the family suffered many hardships, we always held our family prayer."

The Willie Handcart Company was among a larger group who sought refuge in a bleak cove, now known as Martin's Ravine.

They made their camp in a small clump of willows that grew close together, offering some protection from the driving snow.

"We settled down as we could not go on," one recalled. "We waited for help or death. Few of us cared which. We were lost, starved and buried in two feet of snow. In the morning there were 13 dead and two more died during the day."

Ann Oakey, who was a nurse, did what she could to help the sick, but she could not save poor Rhoda.

Tragically, the little girl died in the snows, the night before the family reached the Salt Lake valley and safety. To her it must have seemed a very long way from home.

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