THE STORY OF JOSEPHINE BELL in The Gates of Eden was initially inspired by the account of my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Barton Allen. She joined the Mormon Church in England, in spite of the taunts of her older siblings, and at age 14 left a life of child labor and sailed for America.
The girl joined the ill-fated Martin Company, pulling a handcart over several mountain ranges to Brigham Young’s remote desert kingdom. On that trip more than 200 people died from starvation, exposure, exhaustion and disease. Wolves followed the camps, waiting to devour the bodies of the dead.
Mary Ann was stranded in the Wyoming Territory by winter storms and bitter cold. For her party, the journey turned into a death march. She ate the hides and feet of cattle to survive, and grieved the death of her father, who was wrapped in a blanket and left under a tree.
When rescuers from Salt Lake finally arrived, Brigham Young’s son, Joseph, passed over Mary Ann with the comment, “Well, here is another dead girl.” He was startled when she opened her eyes, and freed her by chopping her hair from the ice.
The survivors of Mary Ann’s party straggled into the Salt Lake Valley in late November, and in the shuffle for a home, the girl soon ended up as the plural wife of a man almost four decades older than herself, old enough to be her grandfather.
The man’s first wife was bitter, and Mary Ann was eventually left mostly to “her own resources” on a farm not too far from Cedar City, where The Gates of Eden is set. She took her husband into her bed when he visited from Parowan, where he lived with his first wife, and raised the children that came from their union. In her memoir of several pages, Mary Ann recounts how one New Year’s Day she walked five miles to Parowan, a four-day-old infant in her arms, to take in a load of washing.
As the years passed, Mary Ann often related the story of her harrowing handcart journey to her children and grandchildren, but her granddaughter said that “in later years she would not talk of these things.” She passed away in Utah at age 72, a devoted Latter-day Saint until her death.
Josephine Bell, the fictional heroine in The Gates of Eden, eventually creates a different sort of life for herself, but both girls—and then women—were incredibly brave in the face of overwhelming circumstances. I am awed by the courage of my ancestors, who abandoned their roots in Europe and embarked on a journey of faith across a treacherous ocean and into a remote wilderness.