William and Sarah Ann Barlow Ashton brought their four daughters, Betsy (11), Sarah Ellen (7), Mary (4) and Elizabeth Ann (2), from England in 1856 with the Martin Handcart Company, leaving behind the grave site of another little daughter, Esther, who had died in infancy. As the ship Horizon docked at Boston Harbor on July 2, Elizabeth Ann died and the bereaved family left behind another never to be visited grave.
The Ashton family bore their grief in the summer heat and crowded train as they traveled from Boston to Iowa City where they waited and worked for three weeks, preparing handcarts and tents to continue their journey. On the next leg of their journey through Iowa, the Ashtons successfully walked and drew their handcart 300 miles to Florence, Nebraska. Sarah Ann bore the extra burden of an advanced pregnancy.
For three days at Florence, the Martin Company regrouped, repaired their carts, and prepared for their 1,000-mile march through the wilderness of the Nebraska plains and Rocky Mountains to reach their Zion. On August 26, one day after leaving Florence, Sarah Ann died in childbirth. William named their precious baby girl Sarah Ann, then took up his march again, caring for his daughters as best he could through the searingly hot days and increasingly frosty nights. He would dig one more grave on September 11 for his new baby girl, less than three weeks old.
Upon reaching Ft. Laramie on October 9, William left the care of his three little girls with the Martin Company as he enlisted in the U.S. Army. It was not uncommon in those times for a widowed father to turn the care of his young children over to others, in order to secure employment for their support. On an unknown date, William returned from Ft. Laramie to England and lost touch with his children. On another unknown date, the Martin Company would attend to the burial of Betsy Ashton. Sarah Ellen lost sight in one of her eyes as the cold weather arrived in October, but she and Mary survived the rest of the journey and arrived in their Promised Valley on November 30, 1856, completely dependent on others for their care.
Sarah Ellen married Thomas W. Beckstead at the age of 15 and gave birth to 10 children, 6 of whom lived to adulthood. Mary married Isaac Wardle, a man who had also been in the Martin Handcart Company. Mary died after giving birth to her first child, William Ashton Wardle, in 1869.
Bereft of family once more, Sarah Ellen put her energies into hard work, serving others and raising her children. She pioneered in Whitney, Idaho, where she lived to be 92 years old. She also worked as a midwife and insisted that her posterity receive a good education. Her descendants fondly remember her for many good things, but perhaps one secret to her success in overcoming her trials and handicap was her love of beauty.
“Her flower garden on the old place was so lovely . . . the Sweet Williams, pansies and old-fashioned flowers she had growing there. . . . She was so clean, neat and orderly – always had her windows filled with blooming plants, even in the winter time, and carefully covered them with paper each night so they would not freeze.” She made “exquisite samplers” as a girl, and even “her aprons always had handwork across the bottoms.”
One day a copy of the Church publication Millennial Star was brought to Sarah Ellen’s home. It contained an inquiry concerning anyone who might know of relatives of William Ashton, pauper, in England, who had emigrated to America previously and left his children on the plains. Sarah Ellen sent passage money to England for her father to come to Idaho and join her family. Thomas and Sarah Ellen cared for William until his death. He is buried in the Whitney cemetery a short distance from the grave sites of Thomas and Sarah Ellen Beckstead.