The Larger-Than-Life Relics of Heritage, Part I: The Sweetwater Rescue

RussellMormon 9 Comments

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

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

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.

The impact

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.

Comments 9

  1. I just think it’s so interesting that we want to forget our history.

    no, really, I like what you say in the end: “The story deserves to be as larger than life…but not larger than truth.”

  2. This is a fascinating exercise in storytelling. No wonder so many like to embellish their journal entries to be more “faith-promoting.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could consistently find inspiration in what really happened? It’s still plenty inspiring! Maybe some types of people are more prone to spinning yarns and weaving large than life (and truth) fables.

  3. “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.

    It is always interesting to me how some men can be great heroes on one occasion, and scoundrels on other occasions. A modern day equivalent is Officer Ken Hammond, who is credited with saving many lives at the Trolley Square shooting. He just plead “no contest” to sexual contact with a minor.

    Why can’t heroes keep their mythical status?

  4. Cant you just let the dead have their glory? I think that you don’t have good evidence that it did not happen that way. Too often people like you try to find the truth in a pile of fish stories when everything back then was pretty much a fish story, so why should other fish stories be believed over the original fish stories?

    My family was saved by them. Let me be grateful to them in spite of the fish stories, and stop trying to minimize what they did for my family for the sake of your notion of larger than truth. There is no truth but what is subjective anyway. Subjectivity will always produce fish stories, but there will always be much more than just a grain of truth despite the embellishments.

  5. Post


    The legend as we have it has come from a *very* limited set of sources. A few newspaper clippings from 20 years after the fact. Other articles clearly indicate that there were other men involved. So not only do I say that the dead should have their glory, but also that we should give other men credit. The act was *even more* heroic than the legend conveyed it to be. It tells that even a horse thief has a spark of goodness in him. These men suffered from illnesses for most of their lives…as someone who has dealt with long-term illness, I can say that that is commendable indeed. It tells us that two dozen men didn’t stand by idly as people were freezing.

    Incidentally, I have my own pioneer heritage too…and I don’t think I’m doing them any favors by cheapening the heroic and laudatory into a made-for-cinema tale.

  6. First off, I want to thank Russell for researching this story. I have ancestors who were in the Martin handcart company and was always bothered that the journal kept by my GGG grandfather made no mention of the three young men who help them cross the Sweetwater River. This certainly makes more sense to me now.

    The story of the crickets seems to have taken a similar path. Good research has shown that the miracle of the seagulls was in reality no miracle at all. The story just got better as time went on.

    I think the first time I heard something similar about LDS history was on the PBS documentary “The Mormons” where a fairly prominent historian made the claim that the first vision story evolved over time and became bigger and more grandiose as it was told and retold. This seems to fit the patterns of history and human nature. Grant Palmer does a reasonably good job of showing this evolution and expansion of history for many of the restoration claims of Joseph Smith. What seems to have started out as spiritual experiences seen and felt with only spiritual eyes evolved into literal concrete physical events. I don’t claim to know what actually happened between 1820 and 1830, but it’s certainly fair to believe that these stories have become legends now and therefore must have evolved just as all such stories seem to do.

    On the positive side, most stories do start out with some basis in fact. Therefore, although I think the restoration claims presented today in Sunday school have suffered greatly by the effects of time, there probably was something to the original stories. It goes back to something I’ve said again and again on this broad. I’ve always believed that JS thought he was inspired by God and certainly sincere. At times he may very well have been, although sincerity seldom is a good indicator of truth.

    I guess what I’m getting at is I don’t see JS as the pious fraud that he’s sometimes portrayed as. I picture him as really making himself believe he could pray and have God speak to him. Unfortunately, these types of people actually are far more dangerous than the fraudulent types.

    Just my two cents worth…

  7. Excellent, Russell.

    I am reminded of Oscar Schindler – a generally “immoral” and indistinguishable man who found himself in a situation that presented an opportunity to do the extraordinary and who now is immortalized for his great deed, while his otherwise mediocre and forgettable life is ignored.

  8. This is just so confusing! And as for C Allen Kimball, im willing to bet still, that he died a great, honorable man.

    And even if there were 23 other’s who helped, (+ the four i heard of) why would that make the other fours actions less admirable? Is there a limit to the goodness that can be done? so what if other guys decided to be awesome too? To me, there is no such thing as the value of the spiritual dollar changing.

  9. Clark Allen Huntingon was my great-great grandfather.  He also suffered from lung problems the remainder of his life after this incident.  Perhaps these young men were given such honor was because they personally “carried” the stranded handcart people across the water while others rode horses.  As for the prison issue, it may interest you to know that his brother, Lot, was indeed a horse thief.  Clark Allen was issued a pardon after serving a short time.  As no other information was available on the papers, it appears this was a case of mistaken identity.  Many confused Clark Allen and his true “black sheep” brother, Lot.

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