A Note on Pioneer Day Talks, Sweetwater, and Tradition

I didn’t grow up in Utah, and never heard of Pioneer Day until I was on my mission in France/Belgium. There, a PR event was organized for the Sesquicentennial that included a large parade with handcarts, historical garb, dancing, etc. It wasn’t actually held on Pioneer Day, but a few weeks later in August. It had some Church News coverage, and a local member filmed and edited over an hour of video, all in French.

-Related reading: Eric Eliason, “The Cultural Dynamics of Historical Self-Fashioning: LDS Pioneer Nostalgia, American Culture, and the International Church” Journal of Mormon History 28:2 (2002)

BYUI historian Andrea RM offers some great tips on Pioneer Day talks here, and briefly mentions the famous Sweetwater River Rescue. I heard this retold recently in a missionary farewell, so it was on my mind. Sweetwater plays a role in my book where I discuss the influence of tradition upon knowledge and scriptural interpretation (see  my post here as well). In essence, the story as often told is, well, inaccurate for the main reasons we tell it. The traditional information comes from one late source, and looking at contemporary sources undermines it.

The evidence indicates that more than three rescuers braved the icy water that day. Of those positively identified as being involved in the Sweetwater crossing, none were exactly eighteen. Although these rescuers helped a great many of the handcart pioneers across the river, they carried only a portion of the company across. While some of these rescuers complained of health problems that resulted from the experience, most lived long and active lives that terminated in deaths that cannot be de nitively attributed to their exposure to the icy water that day.

Consequently, Brigham Young never eulogized three youths (since there were more) who died (because they didn’t), promising them the celestial kingdom for that act alone.

How do we know? Chad Orton published an article in BYU Studies examining it. A fantastic follow-up article in BYU’s Religious Educator summarizes Orton’s conclusions and looks at the problem of teaching the actual history to LDS students when the traditional version has been told in General Conference by such as Presidents Hinckley and Monson.

I asked my students something like, “What’s right and what’s wrong with that account?” The first hands went up on the back row, where three or four male students sat (all returned missionaries). Soon after the first student started talking, I felt heat rising on the back of my neck. He said that “he only ‘felt the Spirit’ when reading the traditional account.” Then a nearby student weighed in: “I don’t see what’s so wrong with that version anyway,” he said, questioning the value of revisiting the story. And one of them raised another issue: Why would President Hinckley use this story if there’s something wrong with it? In retrospect, these seem like predictable concerns, but they caught me by surprise that day…

The author goes to on to talk about framing the history, lowering emotional barriers to learning, and other bits. Perhaps most importantly, he concludes by pointing out that Sweetwater was told again in General Conference by Elder Cook in 2008… who cites the BYU Studies article in footnote 5.

The takeaway? Be careful about uncritically repeating traditional stories, even if you heard them in General Conference.

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7 thoughts on “A Note on Pioneer Day Talks, Sweetwater, and Tradition

  1. Ben, the Sweetwater rescue is not the only myth associated with the Martin and Willie handcart companies. There is also the oft-quoted statement that no surviving member of these expeditions ever left the church. Not only is this not true, but the statement itself is of questionable provenance.

    Rather than ask—”What sounds wrong with these stories”?—I think a better question is: “What motivated people to invent them”?

    The Martin and Willie handcart companies were human tragedies that were the product of a series of stupid decisions, many of which were made by church officials. When such blunders occur, it is not uncommon for both the institution and the individual participants to create heroic myths in order to mask the reality of what transpired.

    When I reflect on the sacrifices made by my pioneer ancestors, those I revere with particular affection are the “dropouts” from the Willie and Martin companies—those who defied their church leaders and elected to make winter quarters instead of risking a trek through the mountains during the onset of winter. Though they were vilified by their fellow Saints for their supposed lack of faith and threatened with the loss of their membership by church officials, they placed family above loyalty to an institution. They are my heroes.


    1. Human tragedy, indeed. Nonetheless, when talking about the “dropouts” one must consider the situation a little closer. It is easy to look back and suggest that everyone should have stayed in England for another year. Really? They had sold their homes and personal belongings, left their employment, and cut ties with family and friends. The late passage was a problem related to the end of the Crimean War, not a blunder by church leaders.

      Perhaps they might have stayed at Winter Quarters or Iowa City? Not a reasonable option at all. Where should they have lodged? What employment might they have attained? Only a few were able to do so, as the economy and physical situation was not capable of sustaining such a large group.

      The decision to move on was not a blunder – it was a necessity. While it is true provisions were not immediately sent from Salt Lake, as was the plan, it is obvious that the rudimentary communication systems of the day created uncertainty as to whether or not the pioneers were actually coming. Late in the year as it was, it was no mystery that hoped-for supplies were not to be found at Fort Laramie. Days before the first snow hit, the temperature was in the eighties, ample reason for optimism even though the food was getting scarce.

      No, “Divine Wind”, these were not “stupid decisions”. The decisions were, for the most part, decisions of necessity. The “historic myths” serve as teaching tools in spite of their oft-times exaggeration. They are no different than other tales and proverbs, “fairy tales” if you will, that humans use as illustrations and tools. The stark reality of the situation far outweighs the imagined problem of the harmless myths. Those who continued on the trail are the truly great heroes of their day – men and women of faith and determination in the face of incredible odds. Men and women who trusted in their God even as they understood the inherent and probable hazards, yet carried on because the choices were few. Their decisions were rational and sound in light of the situation.

      As a matter of transparency, my wife and I served two missions to Martin’s Cove. Some may think me biased, but in fact, I have studied the lives and stories of the Handcart Pioneers in depth. The story still stands as one of the great sentinel moments in Mormon history. It is fine to discuss the issues, but wrong to be critical of the participants and leaders. They may have had their faults, but they also met and understood the challenge.


      1. “Some may think me biased, . . .” Actually, Dan, I think most people would. And in your studies of the lives of the handcart pioneers, I believe you may have missed some essential facts.

        The late departure of the Martin and Willie handcart companies had nothing to do with the Crimean War. The English immigrants, once they arrived from England and discovered that it was too late for them to cross the plains before the onset of winter, could have, like countless immigrants before them, secured employment and housing for a season and then departed the following year. It was not a matter of life or death for them to get to Utah as soon as possible. To suggest that it was is to imply that all of the land and employment opportunities east of the Mississippi had already been taken. Given that the majority of non-Mormon immigrants from Europe chose to remain in the East and Midwest, that clearly was not the case.

        Sadly, these poor souls placed their faith in church officials whose decision-making was characterized by arrogance, poor planning and wishful thinking. In addition to foolishly beginning the trek so late in the season, the organizers constructed the carts out of green wood, which meant that they split as the pioneers pushed them across the plains. Moreover, church leaders greatly over-estimated the speed with which the immigrants could make the journey—people who were, for the most part, unprepared for, and unfamiliar with, the physical exertion that would be required.

        And your suggestion that making Winter Quarters was not a viable option is equally nonsensical. Saints in much large numbers—2,500 to be exact—successfully, and wisely, made Winter Quarters in Nebraska in 1846-47 rather than risk a winter crossing of the mountains. Indeed, when the handcart companies, in August 1846, stopped in Florence, Nebraska to discuss whether they should push on or remain until spring, no one seriously questioned the feasibility of riding out the winter in Nebraska or back in Iowa. Indeed, the veteran scouts and guides accompanying the handcart companies strongly urged them to wait, knowing, from past experience, the extreme inclement weather they were about to confront. In response, church leaders publicly censured these men, one church official going so far as to guarantee the saints that there would be no snow and that he’d eat every snowflake the pioneers encountered. Oh that he could have been made to keep that promise.

        I greatly admire the courage of those who pressed on once they found themselves in impossible circumstances, but I can’t turn a blind eye to the human error that was the principal cause of this tragic and unnecessary loss of life.

        Don, the “fairy tales” you so cherish may make you feel good, but the truth, I believe, allows us to learn from the mistakes of others. And faith built upon truth rather than myth enjoys a surer foundation.


      2. I am a descendent of an English family that was part of the Martin Handcart Company. Dan Ormsby’s account is accurate -it is the same story that has been passed down in our family. Apparently there was a vote by the group to press on, even though others recommended that they should wait to cross the plains. Our family survived. Others were not so lucky.


      3. Pardon my error – – Divine Wind’s account is accurate. I misread the names attached to the comments. Don Ormsby’s account does not match the account told in our family’s history. They could have stayed. There was some discussion and then a vote. The “ays” to press on won. Our family decided to move on with the group. They were lucky to have survived.


  2. Somewhat related – from Elder Holland’s “Sanctify Yourself” talk – I loved the Churchill quote so much I tried to research it to cite it myself and…doubtful whether Churchill said it (which is probably why it was left uncited by a Yale PhD!)


  3. “Divine Wind”: You are free to discount any and all explanations of the Willy and Martin situation. You may summarily dismiss the impact of the Crimean War on shipping. History is often subject to an individual’s predetermination. I present some “essential facts”, as you suggest. Please do not take this as disrespectful, but rather as a dialogue.

    Even a cursory study of the situation at Winter Quarters in 1846 paints a distressful picture of the Saint’s living conditions. As pointed out by Richard E. Bennett, “Winter Quarters also represents the tragic side of Mormon history: Some 2,000 Latter-day Saints died there and across the river between June 1846 and October 1848. This high death rate is attributable to excessive fatigue, heavy spring storms, generally inadequate provisions, the malaria then common along the river lowlands, improvised shelters, and the weakened condition of the “poor camp” refugees driven out of Nauvoo in the fall of 1846” (Bennett, Richard E. Mormons at the Missouri, 1846-1852. Norman, Okla., 1987.) 1856 would have been little better.

    By 1856 there was as little hope for winter settlement at the Nebraska border as there was in Iowa City in terms of employment, food and lodging. There were eleven hundred or so folks in the two companies. Even by 1860, the population of Omaha (Winter Quarters area) was only +/- nineteen hundred people. (Population of Nebraska Incorporated Places, 1860 to 1920.) Imagine dropping in with another eleven hundred or even half that, at the beginning of winter. The area was not a thriving metropolis, even for its day. Imagine finding homes and employment for a group larger than the existing population! In addition, unlike the 1847 wagon train, the Handcart Pioneers were ill-equipped to construct items of any kind for winter shelter. Note that the 1846 company carried much larger stores of food and tools in anticipation of the entire trip. Even at that, hunger and starvation in 1846 was common.

    As to Judith’s comment, the idea that they “…could have stayed” is certainly true, but wisdom prevailed. I refer Judith to what I have written above, which I do not comment upon lightly. As a Geographer by training, I can tell you that circumstances in 1856 cannot be compared in the least to the preconceptions we may hold today. I may also add that family histories, often compiled from Handcart Pioneer journals, are often found to be questionable. As a matter of fact, there is little evidence of journal-keeping to any large extent at the actual time of travel. With all due respect to family records, many (if not all) of the accounts were recorded many years after 1856 from memory.

    Two more thoughts: As to your assertion that “…the organizers constructed the carts out of green wood,” Chad M. Orton, an archivist with the LDS Church’s family history department, has researched various handcart pioneer legends and found no evidence of the “green wood” story. Also, there were three previous handcart companies before the Martin and Willy. Church leaders were well aware of the time required to make the trip from Iowa City to Salt Lake.

    With all due respect, the facts here presented are not fairy tales, but careful analysis. As you suggest, “…faith built upon truth rather than myth enjoys a surer foundation.”


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