I’m not one of those “let’s prove popular stories incorrect so we can watch the orthodox-squirm” kind of fellows. You know the kind…they start their debunking by saying: “You won’t find this in the handbooks,” and top it off by saying: “I just think it’s so ‘interesting’ that we want to forget our history” (and if you listen closely, you can hear them snicker as they utter the word ‘interesting’). I tend to think of these folks as the Mormon Jokers–they just like to watch Mormon theology burn.
On that note, please know that I want to watch nothing burn unless it can keep you warm.
The story is almost larger than life–a part of Utah-stock Mormons collective conscience about sacrifice, love, the diligence of youth, etc. The Martin Handcart company, having been rescued by Brigham’s rescue party, is stuck at the banks of the Sweetwater River (in my home state…represent). Knowing that the river would be treacherous given their wearied state, they are on the verge of despair. Three young, 18-year old men, Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball, volunteer to carry the weakened Saints across the river. When Brigham Young receives word of their feat, he weeps and says that their feat has assured them of celestial glory.
The main source we use for this is Solomon Kimball’s essays in the 1914 Improvement Era.
The reality is still heroic, but a good deal more nuanced and less martyr-based.
Number of rescuers
This is by far the greatest myth propagated about the account. Let’s think about it: there were nearly 27 rescuers assisting the company at the Sweetwater River. Are we to believe that two-dozen able-bodied men who had just braved the Wyoming winter stood by watching as three teenagers did all the work? My first, second, and third inclinations would be to believe that this defies the reasonable course of events.
Solomon Kimball, the first chronicler of the event and the first source of the three-man legend, had limited access to historical materials–and therefore, can be excused to a degree. The primary sources tell us a different story–with all of them adding a name here or there to the classic three number that Kimball put forward. John Jacques, the first witness of the events to write a chronicle, cited two individuals w/o names (“the son of George D. Grant and the son of Heber C. Kimball”) noting that he could not remember all the names of the rescuers; if he could, he would have included them. Jacques would later note another rescuer’s name, Stephen Taylor–based solely on what he had heard. Daniel Jones, another witness, notes that there were 27 people who served in the rescue party. Historian Chad Orton argues that 18 rescuers have been positively identified as assisting the Martin company on the same day as the Sweetwater Crossing. Andrew Jenson places Ira Nebeker in the party as well. Another account places a William Binder as in one case a carrier and in another, as a ferrymaster who carried the stricken across on his raft.
The witty reason for this winnowing down to three might involve a discussion of how like to immortalize the few, not large groups or perhaps how some kind of intrigue put certain of these individuals out of favor with the power structure. Actually, it probably comes down to little more than a slip in scholarship. Orson Whitney named three men in his Life of Heber C. Kimball and four in History of Utah. Given that Solomon was Heber’s son, it would be reasonable to suppose that Solomon would have drawn on the Kimball biography rather than the sweeping study of Utah.
Only partially incorrect. Of the five men whom we know participated, three of them (Ira Nebeker, George Grant, and David Kimball, Solomon’s brother) were teenagers. C. Allen Huntington was twenty-four years old and Stephen Taylor was twenty.
Quite simply they all lived to be old men, even if some of them, as one account noted, suffered rheumatism due to the rescue effort.
How many rescued?
Given the lateness of the day when they arrived and their access to wagons that could act as ferries, it is difficult to believe that any number of men physically carried the emigrants across by hand. They arrived too late in the day to be able to carry all of them across as the legend maintains. And we also some evidence that some of the Martin camp were capable of taking themselves across the river. Magnanimous? Yes. But let’s not get carried away.
Cause of death
Medical knowledge at the time did not allow for a full diagnosis of the men’s death. But we can say that their passing was not at all imminent after the crossing. The youngest, George Grant, did not die until he was 32. He served a mission after the crossing, in spite of the rheumatism he says he contracted due to his service at Sweetwater. He died of tuberculosis in 1872. The others died in subsequent years from causes ranging from typhoid (David Kimball) to natural causes (Stephen Taylor, 84).
Of some note is C. Allen Huntington who became the black sheep of the group. He spent time in the Utah state penitentary for stealing horses. According to one contemporary who spoke with him, Huntington had an enormous gash on his forehead from an argument he had with a “Greaser.” When asked what he did in return, Huntington wouldn’t say except that “twelve of his countryman say he did the right thing.” A little spooky, but alas…
Brigham Young’s promise
Simply put, the only evidence we have for this is Solomon Kimball’s assertion in the 1914 Improvement Era. We know Brigham told the Saints if they just sat on their duffs, then no, of course they wouldn’t receive exaltation. However, Kimball noted on an earlier occasion, 1908, that Young said this act alone would “immortalize them.” The earlier statement seems far more defensible, given the legendary status this rescue has acquired among our people.
At the end of the day, the heroism is impressive…whether by three young men or twenty-some older men. The story deserves to be as larger than life…but not larger than truth.