A Journey Along the Mormon Trail – The Story of Mary “Wee Granny” Murray Murdoch

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| HISTORY |

Mary “Wee Granny” Murray Murdoch was born in Glencairn, Dumfries, Scotland on Oct. 13, 1782. She married James Murdoch, a coal miner on Jan. 10, 1811. They had eight children. Six lived to maturity. Wee Granny’s life changed forever on Oct. 21, 1831. According to historical accounts, James died in a mining accident. He tried to crawl back into a coal pit five fathoms deep to save two miners trapped in a poisonous gas pocket. His death left Wee Granny, aged 49, alone. “She’s left to raise her children by herself,” said Jerry Lucas, seasonal park ranger and volunteer at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Article by: Irene North
Photographs by: Hawk Buckman
Published March 11, 2020


Wee Granny’s life changed forever on Oct. 21, 1831. According to historical accounts, James died in a mining accident. He tried to crawl back into a coal pit five fathoms deep to save two miners trapped in a poisonous gas pocket. His death left Wee Granny, aged 49, alone. “She’s left to raise her children by herself,” said Jerry Lucas, seasonal park ranger and volunteer at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Wee Granny raised her children and an orphaned niece. She took the jobs available to a woman in her position, including picking potatoes and washing clothes. “She did whatever she needed to survive,” Lucas said. “As soon as her children were old enough, she found them jobs, too.”

As time went on, Wee Granny’s main focus in life was taking care of her family. Several of her children became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Wee Granny converted to Mormonism at age 67. She was baptized a member on Dec. 22, 1851 by her son, John Murdoch, shortly before he and his wife Anne Steele Murdock, left Scotland to move to America.

John and Anne were the first members of the family to travel to Utah, their Zion. They arrived in Utah in 1852, but paid a heavy price. Their two small children perished on the journey.

Chimney Rock National Monument, McGrew Nebraska - Photograph by ©Hawk Buckman
Chimney Rock National Monument, McGrew Nebraska – Photograph by ©Hawk Buckman

Wee Granny continued to toil away at life in Scotland. Over time, John and Anne saved enough money to bring Wee Granny to America and to Utah.

Wee Granny traveled to Liverpool, England with her belongings and on May 25, 1856, she sailed to Boston, Massachusetts, on the Horizon. She was alone on the journey, but traveled with John’s brother-in-law, James Steele, 29, his wife, Elizabeth Wylie, 28, their two sons, James, 3, and George, 1, and Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Ann George Wylie. They arrived in Boston on June 28.

It is likely Wee Granny traveled in an “emigrant car” on the train west due to her “poor” status. These 40-foot long, converted freight cars could pack as many as 80 passengers each. There were no restrooms in these cars, but Wee Granny would soon learn this was not the biggest challenge she would face.

Though accounts vary, it is likely Wee Granny would have traveled west to Chicago before changing trains in Iowa City, where she was set to join the fifth (Martin) handcart company with 576 other hopeful immigrants.

Wee Granny had already seen misfortune. There had been bad weather in England. Her home in Scotland was suffering difficult economic times. Poor communication among the companies and the emigrants’ desire to reach Utah in 1856 led to many delays.

As Wee Granny arrived in Iowa City, she still needed to walk three miles to the Mormon encampment site. Once she arrived, she had some time to stretch her legs and rest under the shade of trees along the bank of Clear Creek.

Written records indicate the weather was hot and humid. Lightning storms were a regular occurrence. It was something Wee Granny was not accustomed to. She was also unused to common pests on the trail ñ ticks, mosquitoes, and snakes.

Wee Granny rested in Iowa City for 20 days. She should have already been on the Mormon Trail headed toward Salt Lake City, but there were more problems. There was not enough food for purchase so late in the season. What was available cost more. Raw materials were scarce and few people were around to build handcarts.

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Wee Granny and other members of the Martin handcart company had to build their own handcarts from unseasoned wood and stitch the canvases for their tents. “The women had to do the needlepoint to make the canvas themselves,” Lucas said.

There was no iron or leather to strengthen and stabilize the carts’ axles and wheels. The wheels were completely wooden. This setback delayed their journey west until July 28. As a result, Wee Granny was in the last handcart company to leave in 1856 with 146 carts, seven wagons and 30 oxen.
“As they take off, it’s late in the year,” Lucas said. “Then the axles start breaking and they have to stop and fix the wagons.”

The hastily built handcarts would prove disastrous. The hills, gullies, and ruts along the trail were detrimental to the handcarts. The handcarts could not sustain their loads and broke down. “It’s all eating up precious time,” Lucas said.

These problems are noted in nearly all historical accounts of the Willie and Martin handcart companies.

Wee Granny kept walking. The trek was arduous. She was traveling during peak summer heat. Each step was one closer to her destination, but was also perilous. She risked her life with each foot forward. Eventually, food was rationed. Some emigrants drank water from puddles, increasing the risk of cholera and other diseases.

After crossing the Missouri River, the group rested in Florence (now Omaha), Nebraska. The trek took 25 days to walk 277 miles. Wee Granny and the members of the Martin handcart company rested here from Aug. 22-25.

Chimney Rock Cemetery, McGrew, Nebraska –  This marker was erected by the Murdoch family in honor of Mary Murray Murdoch “Wee Granny” June 24, 2001.  - Photograph by ©Hawk Buckman
Chimney Rock Cemetery, McGrew, Nebraska – This marker was erected by the Murdoch family in honor of Mary Murray Murdoch “Wee Granny” June 24, 2001. – Photograph by ©Hawk Buckman

The Willie handcart company, which debated a week or so earlier whether they should continue from Florence so late in the season decided to press on. They were on a mission. They knew the weather on the Great Plains was unpredictable that time of year, but there was also no guarantee that wintering in Nebraska would be a good idea. Their decision likely influenced the members of the Martin handcart company.

Wee Granny’s group repaired their handcarts, affixed new axles if they could or otherwise reinforced the axles with whatever material they could find.

At 73-years old, Wee Granny braced herself for the 1,300-mile walk from Florence to Salt Lake City. The Martin Company gathered additional food and kept moving. They picked up their pace, hoping to cover more than the 13 miles per day they had accomplished on their trek so far.

The emigrants averaged 15 miles per day, but the additional supplies increased the strain on the handcarts. Wee Granny pressed on. As trees became scarce across the Nebraska plains, buffalo chips were used for cooking and warmth.

When Wee Granny settled in for the night, the sounds of wolves howling could be heard in the distance. As summer turned to fall and Wee Granny walked toward higher altitudes, the humidity that hampered everything was reduced. While this was a likely relief for Wee Granny, it was not for the handcarts. The dry air meant there was little moisture in the unseasoned wood. Breakdowns increased. Some handcarts became useless. Others were continually patched.

Wee Granny and the other emigrants struggled. Though many began the journey in good health, they were now sick. Each night brought colder weather. Wee Granny needed extra warmth that was not available to keep her from shivering. Everyone’s spirits were worn down from walking 500 miles on uneven and unforgiving land, but they tried to remain optimistic. Their faith, they thought, would see them through. They were determined to reach their destination. Wee Granny was still willing to make it to the Great Salt Lake, to be with her family again.

About 10 miles east of Chimney Rock National Historic Site on Oct. 2, 1856, Wee Granny looked out at the wide open plains. Aching, weak, and exhausted, she could go no further. “Her body could not keep up with the stress and strain,” Lucas said.

Here in the prairie of western Nebraska, she uttered her final words, “Tell John I died with my face toward Zion.”

Wee Granny’s passing may have been a blessing to her. The Willie and Martin handcart companies suffered greatly over the next few weeks. The cold, snow, and wind that is common in western Nebraska and Wyoming was ever present for both companies. About 20 percent of both companies died over the next few weeks, Merrell wrote. James Steele, passed away on Nov. 10. The Willie company arrived in Salt Lake on Nov. 9. The Martin company arrived on Nov. 30.

Chimney Rock Cemetery, McGrew, Nebraska – The backside of Wee granny’s memorial marker is dedicated to her family. Her husband James Murdoch and her children Janey, Mary, James, Veronica, Mary, John, Margret, and William.  - Photograph by ©Hawk Buckman
Chimney Rock Cemetery, McGrew, Nebraska – The backside of Wee granny’s memorial marker is dedicated to her family. Her husband James Murdoch and her children Janey, Mary, James, Veronica, Mary, John, Margret, and William. – Photograph by ©Hawk Buckman

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||| WEE GRANNY WAS A GIANT IN FAITH

Mary “Wee Granny” Murray Murdoch is buried somewhere east of Chimney Rock National Historic Site in an unmarked, shallow grave. Her exact location is unknown.

On June 24, 2001, 450 of her descendants gathered in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, before making the short 30-minute car ride to Chimney Rock Cemetery. Wee Granny’s family paid for and dedicated a gravestone there in her honor. It lies just inside the entrance of the Chimney Rock Cemetery.

During the dedication ceremony, Jan Stock, from the Mormon Trails Association, said, “While Wee Granny may have only been 4-foot-7 or so, she was a giant in faith, courage and vision.”

In “The Long Road to Zion: The Final Journey of Mary Murray Murdoch,” Kenneth W. Merrell writes, “According to the diary of fellow traveler John Jacques, Wee Granny died at approximately 4:00 p.m., and the day was hot and dry. Jacques also noted that she was suffering from diarrhea and the time of her death.”

Wee Granny no longer had to suffer the cold nights, the shivering, the constant pain of walking so far every day, and the wonder if there was enough food or water to sustain her another day.


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| REFERENCES

The information in this article has been compiled from:

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