Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Martin Handcart Company and Brigham Young

Our Gospel Doctrine class recently covered Lesson 35, which reviewed the bittersweet Martin and Willie handcart experiences. Of course, the famous Solomon Kimball quote was used:

After they [Martin Company] had given up in despair, after all hopes had vanished, after every apparent avenue of escape seemed closed, three eighteen-year-old boys belonging to the relief party came to the rescue, and to the astonishment of all who saw, carried nearly every member of the illfated handcart company across the snowbound stream. The strain was so terrible, and the exposure so great, that in later years all the boys died from the effects of it. When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and later declared publicly, 'that act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end'” (Solomon F. Kimball, “Belated Emigrants of 1856,” Improvement Era 17, no. 4 (February 1914): 288) (emphasis added).

Solomon Kimball was the younger brother of David P. Kimball, and was nine years old at the time of the rescue. Undoubtedly, this report spurs thoughts of sacrifice and faith among the faithful Saints. Indeed, it is an accurate example of true consecration and being found possessed of charity (Moro. 7:47). However, although most LDS are familiar with Kimball’s account, it is not the only account of the rescue that we have access to. In fact, several other accounts shed additional perspective on the heroic rescue, and potentially expose inaccuracies or misstatements on the part of Kimball. A few examples are listed below:

1) Evidence indicates that more than just Kimball, Grant, and Huntington braved the icy waters of the Sweetwater that day. In fact, one account reports that there was a group of at least twenty-seven rescuers. (Daniel W. Jones, Forty Years among the Indians. A True Yet Thrilling Narrative of the Author’s Experiences among the Natives (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1890), 63.) Of the rescuers mentioned by Daniel W. Jones, eighteen were positively identified as assisting the Martin Company on the day they crossed the Sweetwater.

2) Of those positively identified as rescuers during the Sweetwater crossing, none were actually eighteen years of age. As for the ages of a few of them on November 4, 1856, C. Allen Huntington was 24 and was the oldest of those named in the records. Stephen W. Taylor was 20. Ira Nebeker and David P. Kimball were both 17. George W. Grant, the youngest of the named group, was only 16 years old. To be able to physically carry several individuals over icy banks and through soft river bottoms, these boys must have been quite powerful and well-built at their respective ages

3) Evidence indicates that the rescuers did not “carr[y] nearly every member of the illfated handcart company across the snowbound stream,” as reported by Kimball. There were upwards of 500 emigrants stranded on the one side of the Sweetwater and, although the rescuers helped a great many across the river, they physically carried only a portion of the company across. Exactly how many is not known, but several factors argue against the idea that three rescuers carried the whole company, or even a majority, over the Sweetwater. At least one factor is that there was simply not enough time to carry 500 individuals across the river. Reports indicates that the company did not reach the Sweetwater until the afternoon, leaving them only mere hours before darkness fell.

4) While some of the rescuers reported health problems resulting from the rescue, most lived long and active lives that terminated in deaths that cannot be definitively attributed to their exposure to the icy water that day. Here are a few examples:

George W. Grant was the first of the named heroes to die, passing away in August 1872, at age 32 and nearly sixteen years after the Sweetwater rescue. He served a 4-year mission to England just five years after the rescue.

David P. Kimball died next at the age of 44. Just a few months after the rescue he married Caroline Williams following which they honeymooned on Antelope Island (huh, go figure, I never thought Antelope Island to be a honeymoon destination). He helped build the transcontinental railroad through Utah (1868–69), and during the 1870’s he worked as a teamster in Arizona. Concerning his death, the Deseret News erroneously reported that he had died as an effect of the Sweetwater rescue, but the newspaper later retracted that statement explaining that his death was brought on by “pneumonia and lung fever” he contracted during a snowstorm in 1881.

C. Allen Huntington died shortly before his 65th birthday. He was apparently the rebel among the rescuers, having served time in the Utah territorial penitentiary in March 1860 for charges of horse and cattle thievery. It was also reported that he had once been in a knife fight where he encountered a ‘Greaser’ and “he had cut him.” (Reported by Langdon Gibson to Dana Gibson, December 25, 1889, copy included in Otis Marston Collection, Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.)

Ira Nebeker died shortly before his 65th birthday also. He reportedly died of kidney failure. During his long life he worked as a stockman and a farmer, and also served in the “Indian wars.” There is no indication of his death being brought on from the effects of the rescue.

Stephen W. Taylor died at 84, six years after Solomon Kimball’s account appeared in print. During his life, Taylor served a 3-year mission to England, served as a messenger for the territorial legislature, and served in the Black Hawk War. He was also a Salt Lake City police officer and was appointed as Sherriff of Summit County.

5) Solomon Kimball’s declaration that Brigham Young publicly proclaimed that this one heroic act alone guaranteed "everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom; worlds without end" is the only account of such a statement. Did the Prophet actually seal the eternal exaltation of these men as a result of this one heroic act? What about Huntington’s colorful past as a thief and a knife wielding outlaw?

Kimball’s statement is not supported and is likely taken out of context considering the following scriptural truths:

I would that ye should learn that he only is saved who endureth unto the end” (D&C 53:7)

There is a possibility that man may fall from grace and depart from the living God; Therefore, let the Church take heed and pray always, lest they fall into temptation; Yea, and even let those who are sanctified take heed also” (D&C 20:32 –34)

In Kimball’s first published account of the Sweetwater rescue, he included a different, more plausible promise: “When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and declared that this act alone would immortalize them” (Solomon F. Kimball, “Our Pioneer Boys,” Improvement Era 11 (July 1908): 679)

[NOTE: The preceding information was mostly derived from Chad M. Orton’s article in BYU Studies 45, no.3, (2006), entitled “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look.” For those interested in the Sweetwater rescue, I highly recommend the article.]


Lou said...

Thanks, buzz kill.

Jeremy said...

Lou, obviously it is not my intent to devalue the power of the faith-promoting experience, nor demean the sacrifices and struggles of those involved. However, at least some benefit can be gleaned by reviewing other's accounts, even if the accounts ultimately contradict. Indeed, the account is still awe-inspiring and faith promoting and continues to generate feelings of charity and self-sacrifice for those who understand the implications of these rescurers actions.

Thanks for stopping by.

Evgenii said...

Yes, Lou, why would we want to know what really happened?

Nate said...

I'm with Lou: Buzz kill.

Next thing you're going to tell me is that Paul Bunion did not have a big blue ox and the northern lights aren't made by those two wrestling.

You do have a point though. The real account is heroic enough. We don't need to add to it. Good post Jer.

Trevor said...

I appreciate knowing more of what may have been the real truth. That statement of Brigham Young's about "that act alone" has always been a little yellow or maybe orange flag in my understanding of the gospel and gaining the promise of eternal life. There's a very interesting post here on that if anyone's interested:

My wife took a LDS literature class at BYU several years ago. The teacher had the class read a book written by a member after the extermination order was signed and the saints expelled from Missouri. The book was all about how Governor Boggs and others involved in the martyr of Joseph and Hyrum lived miserable cursed lives after their acts of injustice against the Church and its people. The teacher then went on to show that in virtually every case the "cursed evildoers" basically lived full and more or less successful lives according to the standards of the world at the time. His point being that there was a need in the minds of the saints to feel like justice was being done on their behalf immediately,even if they couldn't see it. So some enterprising author fabricated justice stories to appease the minds of the people. These types of stories are related to the three Nephite myths that circulate around Utah (I've heard one from my own grandfather that happened to him! Stranger from nowhere helps pull his truck out of a snow bog and then disappears into thin air in the middle of a blizzard... it must have been one of the three Nephites :) Why do even the saints take truth and make superstition, when the truth is miraculous enough as it is?

Jeremy said...

Hi Trevor,

I'm familiar with that thread on TempleStudy. In fact I commented at least once on it back in February when it was new. Bryce posed some interesting discussion on having one's calling and election made sure. But I never understood why he refused to say "second anointing" which is nothing secret, especially in the records of the Church up until the 1950's.

Elder Oaks treats the lives of those involved in the martyrdom in his book entitled "Carthage Conspiracy." It was eye-opening to me also to see that many lived out full lives. It's always good to get more truth.

Thanks for stopping by.

Jay said...

I do not understand the need of some to pull down anything as long as they end up looking like an intellectual. Must we destroy all things we have grown up with. I still like the story of Washington and the cherry tree. ;)

lou said...

Sorry Jeremy, I forgot to type "lol" after buzz kill. :)

I always appreciate the research you put into your posts and I find that I generally agree with you. It is disappointing that through the years great stories are exaggerated, or misrepresented.

Keep up the good work, it is always thought provoking.

Wait....what about the cherry tree? ;)

Lorelle said...

I've always loved the story of the Sweetwater crossing and never saw a painting that I felt did it justice. As I researched this so that my own painting could be accurate, my first reaction was a lot like Lou's when I found out that there weren't just three, they weren't 18, and they didn't all die. That last bit in particular was a total letdown and I didn't really even want to paint it anymore.

However, the more I find out, the more I realize that this is still an incredible story. I agree with Nate: The real account is heroic enough.

Whether there were three, four, or twenty-seven rescuers, we know that several very young men (some of them younger than eighteen) helped many people across a freezing river. Those involved had no foreknowledge as to whether they would die or not, so it doesn't, as Jeremy said, demean their sacrifices and struggles. Also, most of them lived worthily and served missions following the Sweetwater rescue. Is not living for God just as praiseworthy as dying for Him?

Thank you for shedding light on this. I'll be painting more than the classic three, for I think that the fact that there were more heroes makes the event all the more heroic.

xanax said...

Cool stuff here!