Pioneer Day Update: Recalling the Sweetwater Crossing and the Bravery of Three Young Men – Or Was that Four, Five, or Fifteen?

On Pioneer Day, many LDS congregations may be reminded of great LDS pioneer stories like the touching deep-winter crossing of the Sweetwater River in which three brave 18-year-olds risked their lives to carry the desperate group across the river. It’s an inspiring story, but several important details may be wrong and this could be a good time to update our history so we can tell the story more accurately and give broader credit to the many people who sacrificed to help the Martin Handcart company survive. Toward that end, please read the thoughtful and carefully researched article by Char Orton in BYU Studies, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look” (BYU Studies, vol. 5, no. 3, 2006). The story we have heard frequently comes from one person’s account, but now we have access to many other accounts to help us piece together what happened. There may have been quite a few more than three people in the water helping with the crossing. None were exactly 18, and it’s not clear than any of them clearly died early because of that exposure, though it’s possible for some. It’s also unlikely that President Brigham Young said that anybody would get eternal life for one act of heroism–the concept of enduring to the end in accepting Christ still prevails as far as I can tell. The apparent errors are interesting lessons in their own right as Chad Orton traces them down and seeks to understand what people knew and meant. Wonderful historical investigation work, and a great way for us to refine our appreciation of the Pioneers on this Pioneer Day.

For those who haven’t read the article and continue to rely on what has been most commonly published and told, let’s be patient! No snickering today when the old version of the story is retold. We are all humans and have limited access to information. It takes time for understanding to spread and to become updated. The possible errors in a popular account are par for the course in a world of humans keeping records and recalling and retelling what they’ve heard. Nothing to fall to pieces over. And if you’re looking for reasons to be offended, this little issue is just not worth the trouble. There are better and bigger stones of offense to stumble over, and there are plenty of maps on the Internet to take you to them.

Happy Pioneer Day!

(Hat tip: “17 Miracles: The Faithful and Foolhardy Willie Handcart Company” at Mormon Heretic is where I found the link to the Sweetwater publication.)

Author: Jeff Lindsay

10 thoughts on “Pioneer Day Update: Recalling the Sweetwater Crossing and the Bravery of Three Young Men – Or Was that Four, Five, or Fifteen?

  1. Jeff —

    I remembered your blog and held my tongue today when one of the speakers told the 3 guys died after carrying everyone over story and someone in EQ gave his testimony of one of the fake events in 17 Miracles.

    Tough. Tough.

    Why can't we have testimonies of things that at least have a shred of historical support??

  2. No testimonies in church today re: the Slaughtered Norwegian children. No testimonies re: 6 million Jews, Stalins/Hitlers slaughters. The Church should someday be beyound Pioneer Day. Certainly a horrible and bad situation. 3,000 Mormons died. How many children starve in Africa daily?

  3. Thanks for posting this. Now I need to spend my day researching to see if one of the people mentioned is a relative or not.

  4. Jeff, I think there are two very interesting and very important general issues raised by this post and its comments.

    First is a question suggested by the second commenter (who noted that people appeared to be testifying to the truth of historical falsehoods). The general question is this: How should the Church handle the tension between (faith-building) myth and (sometimes faith-challenging) history? You counsel patience, which I think gets it about right in the pragmatic sense. As you say, the historical truth will eventually get out there, and the faithful will eventually start testifying to the new truths (which might themselves later turn out to be myths).

    But in a philosophical and theological, rather than practical, sense, this is a bigger problem than you let on. After all, testimonies are supposed to be testimonies of THE truth. The spirit is supposed to give us access to a realm beyond that of limited human knowledge, a realm where there is no myth but only truth. So either (1) these testimonies are genuine testimonies to things that are not true, which is obviously pretty problematic, or (2) they are not really testimonies at all, even though they *feel* like testimonies. This is problematic in another way, because it threatens to erode the confidence we can have in our testimonies.

    Second is a question suggested by the third commenter ("The Church should someday be beyond Pioneer Day"). The general question goes something like this: To what extent should the Church encourage us to identify with the Church specifically, and to what extent should it encourage us to identify with humankind as a whole? Both kinds of affiliation are desirable, but in what proportion?

    Not to knock other faiths, but I would suggest that the Jehovah's Witnesses go too far in one direction (members identify too exclusively with their own), while Unitarian Universalists go too far in the other direction (they're so inclusive as not to have much of a group identity at all). It's all well and good to strengthen Mormon identity by inviting members to ponder the suffering of other Mormons. But the danger is that, if this is pushed too far, members can start to think that the suffering of Mormons is more important than that of non-Mormons, and from there it can be a short step to the kind of persecution complex, the kind of us-vs.-them thinking that, as Mountain Meadows demonstrates, can lead to some pretty bad things.

  5. Hi Jeff,

    Because the story as commonly told and the more complete historical record both include heroic and selfless action on the part of the rescuers, we can learn from these events even if the details are wrong.

    You are also right that it is better not to snicker at those who are are less informed. Maybe they were helping a widow instead of spending time here.

    At the same time, one important question about the accuracy of historical stories: are we learning the right lessons? I think the Thomas B. Marsh story milk strippings story is a prime example of us as a people not learning the right lessons from an event. The right lesson includes very important things about getting along with our non-member neighbors and how to act when there is serious disagreement over policy in the church. Lessons could be learned by those of us who lead in some way and those that are being asked to follow.

    In addition, it would be advisable that stories with weak historical pedigrees no longer be told in General Conference (the milk stripping story comes to mind). It would be easy to run talks by the church history department. I don't expect the GAs to be historians, but since they have historians on call and since it helps their credibility to make historically accurate statements more than it does to make historically inaccurate statements, such a procedure seems advisable.

  6. Pioneer history can be daunting for those of us who don't have a long history in the LDS faith. We love to hear the stories of the sacrifices of pioneers and learn lessons from those who have gone before us.

    It seems like there are particular stories that get told each year, the big ones like 17 Miracles, but we like to take time too to focus on the stories of pioneers whose stories may be forgotten or not told very often.

    As African-Americans the stories of black Mormon pioneers have particular interest to us. The are so many pioneer stories to be told, it would be nice if some of the more obscure ones were focused on sometimes.

  7. Truth is such an elusive thing if you expect 100% accuracy on all details. I've never read a newspaper article covering a story that I was closely involved with that didn't get something wrong, perhaps a minor detail or even a big fact. Paul's vision in the New Testament has 3 versions, Joseph's First Vision has several versions focusing on different aspects. Joseph's can be reconciled, but there are contradictions in Paul's accounts, and in general every aspect of distant history having multiple accounts leaves us with questions and contradictions at some level. So it is possible that every story touched by human hands, from the scriptures to our own journals and even our own conversion stories, have elements of error in them. Must the Spirit dry up, must our hearts grow cold and our testimonies shrivel, because of historical inaccuracy?

    The story of the crossing of the Stillwater did happen, though the popular account errs in reporting ages and the number of men in the water. It is also unclear that they died because of that sacrifice, and unlikely that Brigham Young promised them eternal life for that one act. But when we hear a distorted version of this story and our spirit responds, it is not because of the historical minutia being properly conveyed, but because of the PRINCIPLES that can inspire us and guide us. The story, inaccurate as it will always be, illustrates true principles that we can and should respond to. Ditto for the story of the Exodus, of the First Vision, of Nephi's voyage, etc. They all happened and are real things, though we can be sure that the way we visualize these events are inaccurate because of errors in records, weakness in human memory and language, and our own limitations in grasping what is meant. But in spite of all that, the Spirit can touch us and confirm things such as "the scriptures are true" [though not perfect], "the Restoration happened and is of God," etc.

    Let's strive for accuracy in all we write, speak, and share, but recognize that Pure Accuracy and Perfect Truth is elusive, and that the principles taught by imperfect records can still be tools of God to help us be better people.

  8. Sistas, thanks for a great comment. That would be a rich vein to mine for future talks and conferences. There are so many lessons to be learned from so many quarters of the kingdom–we need more diversity in the stories we turn to for inspiration and lessons.

  9. I struggle with the fact that most articles/talks about Pioneers immediately turn to the Martin and Willey Handcart companies.

    On a somewhat humorous note, I wonder who the last person was who walked into the valley vs riding the train after 1869. I can see them getting there and then hearing a train whistle and doing a Homer Simpson "D'Oh" when they realized that if they had just waited a little, they could have gotten to SLC in days rather than months.

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