WINTER QUARTERS, Neb. — Only one permanent grave marker remains in the section of the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery where many of the Saints who died in Winter Quarters were buried.

It's a simple marker with "Amy P." for Amy Sumner Porter, whose twin boys were also buried in the cemetery.

Sandstone and wooden markers simply haven't survived, said Elder David Young, a senior missionary at the nearby Mormon Trail Center run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Until recently, other than Amy's descendants, visitors trying to locate graves of their pioneer ancestors weren't exactly sure where to look in the cemetery that looks like a grassy field with an occasional marker.

Visitors have now been taking their photos with another, more portable headstone at their ancestor's gravesite, thanks to work by senior missionaries and staff serving at the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters.

A map of the 314 graves in the cemetery was developed using sexton's records and ground penetrating radar surveys completed 10 years ago by Gail Holmes and Carlyle Jensen, Young said.

Researchers were able to match up names and plot numbers, using Amy Porter's headstone and clues from detailed journal entries with a burial plot number, grave locations relative to landmarks, like the river, and the names of loved ones (even though one diary writer did mention that she didn't think it would matter to anyone as they were heading West and wouldn't be around the visit the grave), Young said.

The burial plot map shows where an ancestor's grave is in relation to five markers around the cemetery. With a ground rolling tape measure from the nearby Mormon Trail Center, visitors can find their ancestor's gravesite on the map grid, according to Hoyt W. Brewster, the Mormon Trail Center director.

The name and dates of an ancestor can be printed up and put into the frame attached to an artificial rock resembling a headstone. This portable grave marker can be put on the plot so descendants can take photos of where their ancestors are buried, according to Brewster.

The Trail Center has a list of 401 names of pioneers who died that winter — the Winter Quarters Cemetery sexton's list of 314; 58 who died in nearby Cutler's Park (their burial places are unknown); and 29 pioneers who died in Winter Quarters, but their burial sites aren't known, either, according to Brewster. There are also 227 names of local residents who were buried in the cemetery after the Saints left in 1848, according to Brewster.

The winter of 1846-47 was not an easy time for the Mormon pioneers.

Many had been driven from their homes in Missouri and Illinois and could take little with them. Winter Quarters was just one of the settlements set up along the Missouri River as a refuge for the Saints as they prepared to head west.

Many did their best to find adequate shelter and food in the temporary camps. And due to illnesses and other conditions, many buried their loved ones there.

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"It is difficult to determine with accuracy how many pioneers perished during the winter of 1846-1847, but clearly they were dying in epidemic proportions," Brewster said. "Based on available records and estimates, it is estimated that a minimum of 600 died between June 1846 and May 1847 in Winter Quarters alone. Nearly half of those deaths were infants 2 years (old) and younger."

Winter Quarters is one of about 90 places the Saints settled in Iowa and Nebraska as they prepared to head West, according to the Pioneer Research Group, a nonprofit group, which is gathering an online database of available records from this time period. The group members are planning to use ground penetrating radar to locate other pioneer cemeteries as funding becomes available.

For more on Winter Quarters, see lds.org. For more on the Pioneer Research Group, see earlylds.com.

e-mail: rappleye@desnews.com

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