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.]