On November 4, 1856, members of the beleaguered Martin Handcart Company reached the Sweetwater River. More than two weeks earlier, on October 19, the day an early winter storm overtook the company, these same handcart pioneers had forded the Platte River. “Very trying in consequence of its width and the cold weather,” James Bleak wrote of that experience.Now after sixteen days’ exposure to snow and relentless cold, the company faced the challenge of another river crossing. The thought of fording the relatively shallow but freezing-cold river was more than many weak and frozen pioneers could bear. One member of the company, who was “much worn down,” upon reaching the river
asked in a plaintive tone, “Have we got to go across there?” On being answered yes, he was so much affected that he was completely overcome. That was the last straw. His fortitude and manhood gave way. He exclaimed, “O Dear? I can’t go through that,” and burst into tears. His wife, who was by his side, had the stouter heart of the two at that juncture, and she said soothingly, “Don’t cry, Jimmy. I’ll pull the handcart for you.”
This emigrant and his wife, however, were spared the additional trial of having to wade the ice-filled river. Members of a relief party that had arrived a few days earlier from the Salt Lake Valley were at the river to assist the Martin Company across.
The best-known account of the crossing of that cold November day was written by Solomon F. Kimball:
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.”
While Solomon Kimball left a moving description of a truly heroic act, his is not the only account of the rescue. These various accounts, which include both published and unpublished statements, frequently differ regarding specific details. Taken together, however, they present a fairly unified view of the heroics on November 4, 1856.
Because Solomon Kimball did not have access to all the records available today, he did not get every detail exactly right when he told the story. However, because he made the effort, the Sweetwater crossing continues to receive the attention it deserves and continues to be a source of inspiration to those who know about what has been called “a deed of especial valor.”
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 definitively attributed to their exposure to the icy water that day.
The underlying meaning of the statement attributed to Brigham Young—publicly promising rescuers eternal life for this one act alone—is not entirely evident. Because there are no contemporary records of this statement, it needs to be examined in terms of both what was being said around the time of the rescue and in terms of gospel principles. Brigham Young did publicly associate exaltation with the effort to rescue the stranded pioneer companies, as did Heber C. Kimball, who publicly praised by name two who helped at the Sweetwater. However, both Young and Kimball taught that the tie between the rescue and the celestial kingdom was conditional in that the individuals involved needed to meet established requirements that all Latter-day Saints must attain of living their religion and enduring to the end. Individuals should not be misled to believe that one heroic act on their part will guarantee exaltation in the celestial kingdom.
In a variant account of the Sweetwater crossing also written by Solomon Kimball, he reported Young’s comments differently (discussed below). Rather than stating that Young promised eternal life, Kimball wrote that Young proclaimed that the rescuers would become immortalized for their heroics. This prophecy, written at a time when the Willie and Martin experience was widely seen only as a disaster, is not necessarily inconsistent with what Kimball wrote later and has come true primarily because he was willing to retell the story. As a result, he helped change the perception of Latter-day Saints concerning the handcarts and helped elevate the Willie and Martin story from simply a tragic event to one that demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit under adverse conditions.
How Many Rescuers Were There?
Although Kimball mentioned three rescuers, it cannot be determined exactly how many men risked their lives and health to help the emigrants across the Sweetwater. Available information suggests there were more than three.
Martin Company member William Binder was imprecise about the number but later recalled that “several of the Valley brethren whose names I did not know laboured dilligently for hours.”Binder’s recollection of “several” rescuers is similar to that of another company member, John Jaques.
More than twenty years after the events, Jaques wrote the first published history of the Martin Company in a series of letters that appeared in the Salt Lake Daily Herald between December 1, 1878, and January 19, 1879. In his letter of December 14, 1878, Jaques discussed the Sweetwater crossing. Like Binder, he did not mention men by name, but he did try to identify two individuals. In addition to these two, Jaques reported that “several others” were involved. “A son of Heber C. Kimball and a son of George D. Grant, and I believe several others of the relief party, waded the river. . . . If I were certain of the names of all those brave waders I would insert them here.”
A month later, on January 19, 1879, the Herald published Jaques’s final article. “All things earthly have an end. So must these handcart papers, and this is the last of them,” he wrote. Before closing his account, however, he revisited the Sweetwater crossing rescue. This time he provided something he did not have a month earlier—names of rescuers. While Jaques provided names, he noted that he did not know this information himself but was only recounting what he had been told. Rather than three individuals, Jaques mentioned four by name: “I am told that the ‘boys’ who waded the Sweetwater and carried the women and children across were D. P. Kimball, George W. Grant, Stephen W. Taylor, and C. A. Huntington.”
Kimball, Grant, Taylor, and Huntington were not the only members of the relief company with the Martin Company when it crossed the Sweetwater. They were part of a group of twenty-seven rescuers, according to Daniel W. Jones’s published autobiography. “These are all the names that I remember, if there were any more I have been unable to find them,” Jones wrote.While some members of the relief party remained behind to fulfill specific duties along the trail, Jones noted that “most of the [rescue] company” met the Martin “hand-cart company at Greasewood creek” several days prior to the Sweetwater crossing.
Of the rescuers mentioned by Jones, eighteen have been positively identified as assisting the Martin Company on the day they crossed the Sweetwater, November 4, 1856: Thomas Alexander, William Broomhead, Robert Burton, Harvey Cluff, Charles Decker, George D. Grant, George W. Grant, Benjamin Hampton, C. Allen Huntington, Daniel W. Jones, David P. Kimball, Ira Nebeker, Joel Parrish, Edward Peck, Thomas Ricks, Stephen Taylor, Chauncey Webb, and Cyrus Wheelock.Of the remaining nine, four are known to have been elsewhere fulfilling other assignments: Joseph A. Young and Abel Garr were heading back to Salt Lake with George D. Grant’s written report to Brigham Young about the situation; William H. Kimball was with the Willie Handcart Company to assist its members; and Reddick Allred had remained at South Pass to guard a wagonload of flour. The whereabouts of the other five—Tom Bankhead, Amos Fairbanks, Charles Grey, Henry Goldsborough, and John R. Murdock—are not known for certain, although it is likely that they were the “few men” that Jones reported to have turned back with William Kimball to assist the Willie Company.
Given the number of rescuers with the Martin Company at the time, it is not surprising that at least one more rescuer has been identified by name as also ferrying people across the river. A brief published biography of Ira Nebeker identifies him as another who helped at the Sweetwater: “In the fall of 1856 . . . he went with George D. Grant’s company to the relief of the belated handcart immigrants . . . many times wading in the icy cold Sweetwater and carrying on his back enfeebled immigrants.”
How the five rescuers mentioned by name in other sources—and there may have been more—came to be reported as only three in Solomon Kimball’s account is an interesting path. When Orson F. Whitney published his Life of Heber C. Kimball in 1888, he mentioned only the three: C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball. Four years later, however, when he again addressed the Sweetwater rescue in his History of Utah, Whitney also mentioned Stephen Taylor. While it is obvious that Whitney had access to Jacques’s newspaper account of the Martin Company when he wrote History of Utah—since he quoted extensively from Jacques’s December 15, 1878 letter recounting the crossing—the sources Whitney used for Life of Heber C. Kimball are less certain, although he acknowledges the help of Solomon Kimball in compiling the volume. If Solomon Kimball did not provide that particular information, Solomon at least appears to have relied upon Whitney’s Life of Heber C. Kimball, the biography of his father, rather than History of Utah when he wrote his account.
Although the focus of the Sweetwater crossing has long been on rescuers from the Salt Lake Valley carrying members of the company across the river, at least one account tells of a Martin Company member ferrying his fellow pioneers. While William Binder mentioned only members of the relief party carrying emigrants across, Albert Jones, age sixteen at the time, publicly proclaimed that the twenty-four-year-old Binder, whom Jones described as “a man of unbounded charity and a loveable disposition,” returned to the river and carried him across. In a 1906 talk to the Handcart Veterans Association, Jones announced that Binder “carried me across the Sweetwater when it was freezing terribly hard.” But in notes written years later, Jones stated that “[David P.] Kimball carried me over,” and that Binder provided an equally valuable service and helped pull Jones’s handcart through.
What Were the Ages of the Rescuers?
While the number of Sweetwater crossing rescuers is uncertain, the ages of those mentioned by name is more certain. C. Allen Huntington, born December 6, 1831, was twenty-four and was the oldest of those named. Stephen Taylor, whose date of birth is December 25, 1835, was twenty. Ira Nebeker and David P. Kimball were both seventeen, their birthdays being June 23 and August 23, 1839, respectively. George W. Grant, the youngest of the group, born December 12, 1839, was only sixteen years old.
How Many Emigrants Did the Rescuers Carry Across?
Solomon F. Kimball claimed that the three rescuers “carried nearly every member of the illfated handcart company across the snowbound stream.”At that time the company would have numbered around five hundred. In his Life of Heber C. Kimball, Orson F. Whitney similarly states, “David P. Kimball, George W. Grant and C. Allen Huntington carried upwards of five hundred of these emigrants on their backs across the Sweetwater, breaking the thin ice of the frozen river before them, as they waded from shore to shore.” Exactly how many members of the Martin Company were physically carried across by the relief party is not known, but the evidence suggests that only a portion of the company crossed in that manner.
Several factors argue against the idea that a few rescuers carried all the company over the Sweetwater. First, there likely was not enough time. The company did not reach the river until the afternoon, thus giving them only hours to cross before darkness overtook them. Second, the relief party had access to a number of wagons, which were used to ferry many emigrants across. Third, both rescuers and handcart pioneers recounted that some company members waded through the water themselves.
When John Jaques first wrote about the Sweetwater crossing, he briefly mentioned each of these aspects:
Before the crossing was completed, the shades of evening were closing around, and, as everybody knows, that is the coldest hour of the twenty-four, or at least it seems to be so, in a frosty time, and it seemed so then, for cold enough it was. The teams and wagons and handcarts and some of the men forded the river. . . . [S]everal . . . of the relief party, waded the river, helping the handcarts through and carrying the women and children and some of the weaker of the men over.
Time Limitations. The weather that day, November 4, was initially unfavorable for travel: for much of the morning a bitter wind howled down upon the pioneers, keeping the wind-chill factor well below zero.When the wind moderated somewhat in late morning, the rescuers determined to take advantage of this opportunity and move the Martin Company to a cove where the relief party had previously camped. Handcart pioneer Josiah Rogerson wrote that the “Martin’s hand[cart] company left the camp at Devil’s Gate some time in the forenoon, making straight west to the Sweetwater.” Harvey Cluff, one of the Utah rescuers, noted: “Northern blizzards prevailed, the thermometer showing ten to twenty degrees below zero, making it utterly impossible to proceed homeward; finally a lull in the raging wind from the north enabled the handcart companies to cross the river and go up to the cove.” The company only had to travel two miles to reach the Sweetwater, but given the combination of worn-out emigrants and horrific traveling conditions such as snow reportedly eighteen inches deep, the journey would have taken some time.
William Binder recalled that the several rescuers “laboured dillligently for hours” helping emigrants across the river.Patience Loader Archer reported that “Br Kimble staied so long in the water that he had to be taken out and packed to camp and he was a long time before he recovered as he was a child.” Josiah Rogerson singled George W. Grant out for praise: “We had one hero on this occasion, whose name deserves to be chiseled on the pedestal of the throne in heaven, and that was Daniel H. [George W.] Grant, the son of General [George] D. Grant.” According to Rogerson, Grant was in the “cold, icy stream” “for nearly two hours,” during which time he carried “fully 150 children, young ladies and the aged of both sexes.” Rogerson’s claim that Grant was able to carry seventy-five emigrants an hour seems an exaggeration, given the distance that had to be traveled back and forth across the icy stream (upwards of one hundred yards round trip), coupled with the slippery river banks that had to be negotiated, and the soft, muddy river bottom through which they had to slosh. If members of the relief party carried emigrants across at a more imaginable but still Herculean rate of twenty individuals an hour, it would have taken three rescuers eight hours to get five hundred pioneers across—a time frame that the rescuers did not have to operate in. Since it is unlikely that Grant was able to carry 150 people across by himself in two hours, the figure given by Rogerson may represent the entire number of emigrants carried by the relief party. If such was indeed the case, that number is still monumental, especially under the circumstances.
Use of Wagons. Another factor that argues against the rescuers carrying all the members of the handcart company across on their backs was the presence of wagons. The Martin Company, like all handcart companies, traveled with supply wagons that carried tents, extra food, and other provisions. Inasmuch as one wagon was allocated for each one hundred members of a company, six supply wagons started out from Iowa City along with the handcarts. Along with these wagons, there was also an ambulance wagon used to carry those too sick to walk.Long before the arrival of winter, at least one supply wagon was used to transport company members in addition to the ambulance wagon. During the journey across Nebraska, William and John Middleton, who drove one of the supply wagons, “would pick up the children that were walking with their mothers and take others from the arms of their parents and put them in their wagon.” In addition to these wagons, the relief party that reached the Martin Company prior to the Sweetwater crossing also brought upwards of ten wagons with them.
The presence of these wagons was vital to the survival of many company members. When the relief party reached the Martin Company at Greasewood Creek, they faced an unimaginable crisis. Reportedly, more than one third of the company was unable to walk, prompting George D. Grant to write to Brigham Young that “our co. is too small to help them mutch, it is only a drop to a bucket, as it were, in comparison to what is needed.”As a result, the rescuers implemented a plan that would enable them to make the most of their limited resources, particularly wagons. They established a hierarchy of those who had first claim on their services, with priority being given to the infirm, elderly, children, and widows. This hierarchy was implemented throughout the journey from Greasewood Creek to the cove, not just at the Sweetwater. As additional rescuers from the Salt Lake Valley reached the company with more wagons in the days following the crossing, the opportunity to ride was eventually expanded until all company members completed the journey by wagon.
When the Martin Company left Greasewood Creek for Devil’s Gate on November 1—the first day they traveled with members of the relief party—the rescuers employed all available wagon space to carry emigrants. George Grant reported that “after Stowing our Wagons full of the sick the Children &c with a good ammount of lugage started homeward about noon.”
According to three handcart pioneers, the same pattern was employed during the day’s journey that led from Devil’s Gate across the Sweetwater and to the cove. Patience Loader Archer recalled:
It was reported around camp that we would not have to pull our handcarts any further that we would leave them at Devels gate and that we would all be able to ride in the wagons this was dileghtfull news to us to think to think [sic] we would not have to pull the cart any more I fealt that I could still walk if I did not have the cart to pull but oh what a dissapointment the next moring we faunt [found] it was only those could ride that was to sick and weak to pull there carts.
Josiah Rogerson noted that the “few wagons helped to carry all the children they could, the aged and wornout.”
Heber McBride wrote that “the 10 wagons relieved us of some of our load by taking the sick into their wagons and a fiew other things such as tents and cooking things.”Apparently Heber’s mother, Margaret (who had become a widow on the journey and was numbered among the sick), and her three youngest children, ages two to eight, were among those who crossed the Sweetwater by wagon. The two remaining McBride children, thirteen-year-old Heber and sixteen-year-old Janetta, had to make the journey on foot. Although Heber did not specifically mention that his mother traveled by wagon, he noted that his mother and younger siblings had gone on ahead to the cove, where he and his sister were reunited with them.
Given time constraints, the limited number of the relief party, and the insufficient number of wagons, circumstances necessitated that many in the company had to get themselves across by wading the river. The presence of wagons, however, provided benefit to those who still had to travel by foot. The wagons led the way, thus creating a trail through the deep snow for those on foot to follow. At the Sweetwater, they broke a path through the thin layer of ice that covered the river.Equally important, the wagons were also used to give hope to those still on foot. Patience Loader Archer noted that the rescuers “tryed to encurage us by Saying Soon we would all be able to ride in wagons.”
Company Members Crossing Unassisted. As with deciding who would ride in the wagons, the rescuers implemented a priority system at the Sweetwater. While those who had difficulty walking had first claim on the wagons, those who had first claim on being carried by the rescuers at the river were women and children. S. S. Jones wrote: “The brave boys from the valley, under George D. Grant carried the women and children over the Sweet Water river, but the men and able bodied had to wade.”Patience Loader Archer also wrote of rescuers “packing the women and children over on there backs,” a recollection likewise shared by William Binder and Janetta McBride. Binder recalled men from the valley “carrying the women and children over the stream,” and Janetta McBride confirmed that “the brethren from Utah carried the women and children over the river.” Heber McBride, just thirteen at the time, wrote, “We felt very bad to think we had to ford that stream and I don’t think we could have made it in our weekned condition but when we got there we was very much surprised for there were some men there they carried us across.” When Elizabeth Robinson and her brother Solomon reached the Sweetwater, one of the men offered to carry her across. Fearing that Solomon was too ill to withstand the cold water, Elizabeth offered to wade across if the rescuer would carry her brother instead. She started to wade across but another man came and carried her the remainder of the way.
While John Jaques agreed that the members of the rescue party carried “the women and children,” he also recalled that they also transported “some of the weaker of the men over.” One of those was the previously mentioned Jimmy, who broke down on the banks of the Sweetwater. According to Jaques, “Jimmy besought one of the ‘boys’ from ‘the valley,’ who was in the water, to carry him over. The ‘boy’ urged that the women and children had the first claim, but finally consented to carry him across.”
The rescuers also offered the elderly assistance across the river. Harvey Cluff, one of the Utah relief company, wrote that “men of old age and women were carried across the river on the backs of those sturdy mountain boys.”Josiah Rogerson noted in his praise of George W. Grant that the latter carried over “children, young ladies and the aged of both sexes.”
In addition to carrying individuals over, the rescuers also helped the emigrants pull handcarts through. While the company abandoned some handcarts at Devil’s Gate, the sturdier handcarts, approximately a quarter of the total, were taken to the cove. Patience Loader Archer reported that since she and her sister were “all pretty well in health we had to start out with our cart again” from Devil’s Gate.S. S. Jones recalled that upon reaching the Sweetwater, emigrants “had to wade and take the handcarts with them.”
As a result of “Jimmy” being carried over, the man with whom he shared a handcart was left to himself to pull it across. The cart’s wheels “cut into the soft bottom of the river bed, and he soon got stalled. Two of the rescuers in the water went to his help. . . . So hard was the tugging at the cart that it required the utmost combined strength of the three to take the vehicle through safe to dry land.”
A similar drama played itself out in regard to Albert and Samuel Jones. William Binder wrote, “After I had crossed I again went in the stream and assisted Bros. S S and Albert Jones out of the water they being fast in the bed of the River and perfectly discouraged so that they could not pull an ounce.”Albert Jones himself recalled that he was carried over the crossing, and “my brother S. S. pulled our cart through the cold stream.”
The handcarts that were kept were the covered handcarts, which had been professionally built in St. Louis. In addition to being sturdier than those built at the company’s starting point of Iowa City, Iowa, their design allowed individuals to ride inside, somewhat protected from the elements. Rogerson recalled that in addition to children riding in wagons and being carried over by rescuers, “many a child was pulled across in the father’s covered cart.”
When Did the Rescuers Die and What Caused Their Deaths?
The first account retelling how the rescue caused the deaths of the rescuers is found in the Life of Heber C. Kimball: “The effects of the severe colds then contracted by these brethren, remained with them, and finally conduced to the death of the two former [Kimball and Grant], while the survivor, Brother Huntington, is a sufferer from the same cause to this day.”Later, following the death of C. Allen Huntington, Solomon Kimball reported that “the strain was so terrible, and the exposure so great, that in later years all the boys died from the effects of it.”
Given the fact that medical science during this time lacked many of the diagnostic capabilities of today and that the cause of death was often a guess, it probably cannot be determined with accuracy the effect that the Sweetwater experience had on the lifelong health of these rescuers. To what extent the great sacrifices of that day may have weakened them, thus making them susceptible to health problems or illnesses that eventually claimed their lives, may never be known. While rescuers and their families reported lingering effects from the events of that cold November day, and while some died prematurely according to today’s standards, most lived active and relatively long lives.
George W. Grant. Grant was the first of the five named heroes to die, passing away in August 1872, at age thirty-two and nearly sixteen years after the Sweetwater rescue. According to Josiah Rogerson, Grant did not accompany the pioneers the half mile to the cove but made the longer journey back to Devil’s Gate, where his father had remained:
When we were all across, he walked in his suit of ice some two and a half miles to the camp at the Gate [Devil’s Gate], where his father did all possible for him that night, but he told me ten or twelve years afterward in Utah that his services that day in the Sweetwater had made him an invalid for life and a permanent rheumatic, and so far as health and strength, a ruined man.
Grant’s reported health problems were not enough, however, to keep him from serving a four-year mission in England beginning in 1861, five years after the rescue.
The cause of Grant’s death was listed as consumption (tuberculosis), a common cause of death in the 1800s with an estimated one-quarter of all deaths in the United States in the nineteenth century attributed to it. The Deseret News noted that he had suffered with the condition for two years: “Although his sickness (consumption) extended over a period of two years, probably no one thought that his earthly career was so near a close as it appeared to be, for, being a young man of cheerful disposition and indomitable will, he never was, during the whole period, confined to his bed for one day.”
David P. Kimball. The next to die was David Kimball, his death occurring on November 22, 1883, at the age of forty-four. In the intervening years he, too, seemed to live an active life. He married Caroline Williams on April 13, 1857 (just a few months after the rescue) following which they honeymooned “on Antelope Island, where a week or more was enjoyed in horseback riding, visiting places of interest, and in having a jolly good time.”After filling a mission to England (1863–66), he helped build the transcontinental railroad through Utah (1868–69). During the 1870s he served as president of the Bear Lake Stake in northern Utah before moving to Arizona in 1877, where he followed the vigorous occupation of a teamster and was serving as first counselor in the St. Joseph Stake presidency at the time of his death.
The story of his death that initially circulated in Salt Lake City is substantially different than that told by family members in Arizona. The Deseret News first reported the cause of death as “typhoid pneumonia,” a common by-product of typhoid fever.Concerning his passing, the Deseret News initially noted that
in the winter of 1856, the year of the hand-cart company disaster, he with many others went out to meet and rescue the perishing immigrants. It was from wading rivers and working his way through snow banks, carrying the people in his arms, and performing such like offices of kindness, to the exposure of his own person, that he contracted a serious cold from the effects of which he never afterwards entirely recovered.
The paper also reported that the end came quickly: “He seemed to have no idea of his approaching end, in fact expressed himself quite to the opposite of such a probability, remarking to his sister, Mrs. Helen M. Whitney, while visiting at her house, ‘You will go, I think, before I do. I am not good enough to die. I shall likely live for many years.’”The paper further noted:
He was, when he left here for the south, evidently in prime health, and expressed himself as feeling in excellent condition. He stated several times in our hearing that he purposed devoting the remainder of his days—little thinking they were so near a termination—to helping to build up the work of God on the earth, and doubtless this devotional sentiment remained with him to the end.
Six days later, the Deseret News, in an apparent effort to correct misinformation that had appeared in print regarding the death of David P. Kimball, published extracts of a letter Helen M. Whitney received from her son Charles Whitney, who was present when David died at St. David, Arizona, and which provided a slightly different account of his death.This variant account of his passing was later described in greater detail by Solomon F. Kimball in a biography of David P. Kimball, published in 1918, four years after Solomon’s famous account of the Sweetwater rescue. Although the Life of David P. Kimball reprints the famous quote when the rescue is discussed, later in the volume it describes the unique and inspiring circumstances surrounding David’s death as told in contemporary family letters, including the letter of Charles Whitney to his mother.
In November 1881, David P. Kimball was “freighting goods from the Maricopa railroad station to Prescott” and “was caught in a snowstorm at Prescott, resulting in a severe cold which brought on pneumonia and lung fever.”In January 1882, David reported to his sister Helen: “I took a very severe cold in a snowstorm . . . being clad in light clothing, which brought on pneumonia or lung fever.” In spite of his illness, David pushed forward on the return trip. During this sickness, he had many visions, being visited often by his father, Heber C. Kimball. David wrote, “Father finally told me that I could remain two years, and to do all the good I could during that time, after which he would come for me.” Later, David found himself stranded in the Arizona desert without food or water. As he neared death, his father and mother, Vilate, came to him from beyond the veil. After he had given up hope of living any longer, they gave him a drink and promised him that he would be rescued the next day. After recounting in detail what happened, David told his sister: “I know these things were . . . no dream but a glorious and awful reality.”
In the fall of 1883, nearly two years after the incident in the desert, David left his home in St. David, Arizona, for an extended visit to family and friends in Salt Lake City. Shortly after returning to Arizona, he died.
On the day of his death, Charles Whitney described to his mother what had transpired:
Uncle David died this morning at half-past six, easily, and apparently without a bit of pain. Shortly before he died, he looked up and called, “Father, father!” All night long he had called for Uncle Heber. You remember hearing him tell how grandpa came to him when he was lost on the desert, and how he pleaded for two more years and was given that much longer to stay. Last Saturday, the day he was so bad, was just two years from the day he was lost, and today is just two years from the day his father and mother came to him and gave him a drink of water, and told him that his friends would find him and he should live two years longer. He knew that he was going to die, and bade Aunt Caroline goodby, day before yesterday.
C. Allen Huntington. Huntington, who died on November 16, 1896, a few weeks shy of his sixty-fifth birthday, became the renegade of the group, and in March 1860 he was serving time in the Utah territorial penitentiary.This was not his only run-in with the law. In 1880 he was living in the southern Utah mining community of Silver Reef. By the 1890s he worked as a hired hand at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River. He was employed at the ferry when he died in nearby Kanab, Utah. No cause of death was given.
Ira Nebeker. Nebeker died April 19, 1905, one month short of his sixty-fifth birthday. In 1861, five years after the rescue, he moved to southern Utah, which was still a sparsely settled region of the territory. Eight years later he was one of the original settlers called to the Bear Lake Valley, where he helped found Laketown. Called as the bishop of the Laketown Ward in 1869, he served more than thirty-five years in that capacity until November 1904,when he was “released on account of ill health.”
The cause of Nebeker’s death was reported as Bright’s Disease,a form of kidney failure. The LDS Biographical Encyclopedia noted that “the exposures and hardships” he endured while “many times wading in the icy cold Sweetwater and carrying on his back enfeebled immigrants” had “greatly undermined his otherwise strong constitution.” In spite of this, he supported himself through the occupation of “stockman and farmer.” The Deseret News stated that in addition to the 1856 rescue, Nebeker also served in the “Indian wars” as a “member of Capt. R. T. Burton’s company and performed extensive service in that command. It was due to these early exposures that complaints set in from which Mr. Nebeker never fully recovered.”
Stephen W. Taylor. Taylor, the last of the group to die, was eighty-four years old at the time of his death, which occurred in 1920, six years after Solomon Kimball’s account appeared in print. Within a few months of the 1856 rescue, Taylor was serving as a “messenger in the territorial legislature.” In 1865 he was part of the detachment mustered under the direction of Robert T. Burton during the Black Hawk War. Two years later he was appointed sheriff of Summit County. From 1869 to 1871 he fulfilled a mission to England, then served as a Salt Lake City police officer from 1874 to 1876. He spent the last part of his life as a stockman and farmer.
What Did Brigham Young Promise the Rescuers?
Solomon F. Kimball’s assertion 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. What is meant by the statement is not entirely clear. Perhaps Brigham was using hyperbole occasioned by his strong feelings concerning the rescue to drive home a point. Perhaps it was a statement of praise and gratitude. Perhaps it was a conditional promise, such as those found in a patriarchal blessing, rather than an absolute pronouncement of eternal judgment. What seems to be clear, however, is that Young was not proclaiming that Latter-day Saints are saved by one act—although individuals will be rewarded for the good they do—but “by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” (A of F 3).
Before sending out the rescue company, Brigham did make comments tying together the rescue and exaltation. While calling for individuals on October 5, 1856, to assist the stranded pioneers, he told the congregation assembled in the Bowery:
I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the Plains, and attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal duties, otherwise your faith will be in vain; the preaching you have heard will be in vain to you, and you will sink to hell, unless you attend to the things we tell you.
On December 4, 1856, only days after the Martin Company reached the Salt Lake Valley, Heber C. Kimball made public comments regarding the rescue company. He mentioned four individuals by name, only two of whom were involved in the Sweetwater Crossing and only one of which was mentioned by Solomon Kimball:
Brother Brigham says that he will have hundreds and thousands of boys right here that will help us with a power greatly increased beyond that of their fathers, and I know that it will be so. When boys go back on the Plains to encounter storms and rescue the suffering, as did David P. Kimball, Stephen Taylor, Joseph A. Young, Ephraim Hanks, and many others, it makes me feel well. . . . Those boys acted valiantly, having been trained up amid the Saints.
Brother Ephraim Hanks has put a feather in his cap, through his noble conduct in aiding our belated immigration, he has unsheathed his sword upon the side of doing good, and I exhort him not to sheath it again.
A little more than two weeks later, December 21, 1856, after the last of the stranded emigrants had reached the Salt Lake Valley, Heber C. Kimball again addressed the issue of the rescue: “God bless those men who went to the rescue of our late immigration, and all who have in anywise assisted it; also those who have come in this season, if they live their religion and appreciate their blessings.”In addition to stressing the responsibility all individuals have in assisting their fellow men in times of crisis, both Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball stressed the need for the Saints to endure to the end. “If the Saints cannot endure, and endure to the end, they have no reason to expect eternal salvation,” Young proclaimed on September 16, 1855, the year prior to the rescue. In June 1859 Young stated: “All I ask is for the grace of God to enable us to endure to the end and be saved. . . . Those only have the promise of salvation who endure to the end; and all I ask is that we may have faith to endure.” The following month he proclaimed: “He that endures to the end the same shall be saved. Not to run for a season and then turn away; but those who endure to the end will receive a fulness of joy.”
The statements by Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young are consistent with truths taught in scripture concerning the need for individuals to endure to the end. D&C 53:7 reads, “I would that ye should learn that he only is saved who endureth unto the end.” D&C 20:32–34 states, “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.” The Old Testament prophet David is frequently held up as an example of this doctrine. Although he risked his life as a young man against Goliath to save his people, he later transgressed. The Lord told Joseph Smith that as a result of his later actions, David “hath fallen from his exaltation” (D&C 132:39).
Crozier Kimball, a son of David P. Kimball, provides some valuable insight into Brigham Young’s statement promising exaltation. According to Crozier, Brigham Young called David into his office prior to the start of the rescue and said, “David, I know the blood that runs in your veins. I know that you will not let even death, if it be necessary, stop you from saving these people.”According to David P. Kimball’s descendents, his actions in aiding the stranded emigrants, including assisting at the Sweetwater, evidenced his determination to follow the prophet even if it cost him his life. They feel that it was David’s effort to follow counsel that led to Brigham Young’s statement, although it cannot be determined whether the statement referred to immortality, eternal life, was an expression of gratitude, or whether Young had something else in mind.
While much of the focus on Brigham Young’s reaction to the rescue has naturally been on the statement promising exaltation, Solomon Kimball reported that it was not the only comment the Mormon prophet made regarding the rescuers at the Sweetwater. In 1908 Solomon Kimball first wrote about the Sweetwater crossing in a little noted article entitled “Our Pioneer Boys.” He described the rescue in much the same terms as he did in 1914 but included a different promise which has come true: “When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and declared that this act alone would immortalize them.”
The Sweetwater Crossing in Perspective
What happened at the Sweetwater was truly inspiring, and the rescuers who braved the frigid water are indeed deserving of praise. But they are not alone in this regard. In truth, the crossing was only one aspect of a massive, heroic rescue effort. For two months the best of human nature was on display as a virtual army of Latter-day Saints from the Salt Lake Valley answered Brigham Young’s call to go to the aid of strangers. The unselfish attitude manifested by the rescuers at the Sweetwater was simply characteristic of the generous and varied assistance given to the Martin Company throughout November 4 and subsequently provided company members until they reached the Salt Lake Valley on November 30. At the same time, similar help was being given to the other emigrant companies stranded on the trail, including the Willie Handcart Company and the Hunt and Hodgetts wagon trains that followed in the wake of the handcarts, until they reached their Zion.
Given the extent of the succor provided the snowbound emigrants, it is not surprising that while Patience Loader Archer was grateful for the help she received at the Sweetwater, she chose to direct her praise to all the relief party, not just those at the river: “What brave men they must have been to start out from Salt L City in the midle of winter in search of us poor folks,” she wrote, for “when thay left the city thay did not know how far thay would have to travle in the snow before they would find us.”
Archer’s sentiments were echoed by fellow Martin Company member John Jaques in his final installment article for the Salt Lake Herald. In addition to those who traveled out to help the emigrants, he also noted those whose assistance occurred at Salt Lake, either by donating items such as food, clothing, and wagons to supply the relief companies prior to the rescue, or later by opening their homes to the emigrants following it:
A most commendable spirit of liberality was manifested by the residents of this valley, not only in hospitable and kindly attention to the emigrants after their arrival here, but in making donations of provisions and clothing and in sending hundreds of wagons, with horse, mule, and ox teams, to the relief of the snowed-up and winter-bound company. Too much can hardly be said of the self-denying exposure, privations, and labors of those who went with the teams from this city to help the emigrants along. Everybody who went out to meet the company, or who contributed anything to relieve it, might pardonably wish his or her name inserted herein to that effect. But if so, and if I and you were anxious to accommodate all such, how could I find the time or you the space for this friendly detailed acknowledgment.
Even as these handcart pioneers directed their praise towards all those who came to their aid, the other aspects of the rescue began to take a back seat to the river crossing. As the emphasis began to narrowly focus on three men at the Sweetwater, some frustration was manifested by individuals whose contributions were increasingly being overlooked.
Although Daniel W. Jones did not address the issue specifically in his autobiography, he likely was referring to the attention Kimball, Grant, and Huntington were receiving when he wrote: “We did all we possibly could to help and cheer the people. Some writers have endeavored to make individual heroes of some of our company. I have no remembrance of any one shirking his duty. Each and everyone did all they possibly could and justice would give to each his due credit.”
Members of the Martin Company echoed Jones’s assessment. They reported that the assistance the relief party provided at the Sweetwater was only one aspect of the needed help they received throughout the day on November 4.
Heber McBride recalled that the young men from the valley were “workers”: “As they were hearty and strong they took upon themselves to [do] all the work about Camp.” Regarding the help they provided his widowed mother and his siblings he wrote, “The men came and took the tent down and fixed our load on our cart.” McBride was likewise moved by the fact that as the company undertook the day’s journey, boys from the valley “went ahead and broake the road,” thus making the path easier for the majority of the company that still had to walk.
The Sweetwater was not the only body of water the emigrants had to cross that day. Shortly after leaving Devil’s Gate and prior to reaching the Sweetwater, the company had to cross a small stream. With the memory of the Platte River crossing fresh in her mind, Patience Loader Archer found it difficult to hold back her emotions and was grateful for the help she received at the stream and for the rescuers’ promise of future help at the river:
As we started out from camp there was quite a nomber of the breathren from the valley standing in readyness to help us across the stream of water with our cart I was feeling somewhat bad that morning and when I saw this Stream of water we had to go through I fealt weak and I could not Keep my tears back I fealt ashamed to let those breathren see me sheding tears I pulled my old bonnet over my face as thay should not See my tears one brother took the cart and another helped us girls over the water and Said we should not wade the cold water any more and tryed to encurage us.
Once the handcart pioneers reached the cove where they were to camp for the night, a great amount of work still needed to be done. Wood had to be gathered, fires built, meals provided, and tents pitched. The rescuers took as much of the burden of these vital needs as possible, with much of this responsibility falling upon those who had taken the weaker members of the company in wagons. Heber McBride recalled that at the cove “the men from Salt Lake would clean off the snow and pitch the tents and get wood for all the families that had lost their Father and then they would help the rest what they could.”Concerning the reunion with his mother who had preceded him to the cove, McBride wrote, “We went into a cove in the mountain and got out of the wind and when we got there the tent was up and Mother and Mrs. [Mary Ann] barton [were] sitting by a good fire.” McBride further noted that the rescuers “put the tents up and got wood and took care of Mother [who was very ill] and the 3 little ones.”
Harvey Cluff, one of the rescuers with the Martin Company, would later modestly write:
Every possible assistance from the boys from Utah was freely given. And these young hardy men from the Rockies were a mighty force and power in the salvation of that people. . . . In this instance [carrying pioneers across the river], as in many others, the value of the boys from Zion was a great help to the weary Saints. Camp was made, tents set, supper over and the people retired for the night.
Except for the Sweetwater crossing, the story of the day’s travel would be repeated with only slight variation until the company reached Salt Lake City three weeks later. The aid offered took diverse forms and occurred at various places but undoubtedly contributed to the significant decrease in the number of deaths that occurred among members of the handcart company after the rescuers reached them.
In the final analysis, the Sweetwater crossing needs to be understood in perspective. It is not the rescue story, but a story of the rescue effort. While the story of the rescue extends far beyond the crossing, that aspect has taken on a life of its own in part because of how it has been romanticized and in part because it also fills a human need to attach names and faces to events.
The scores who answered the call to help the emigrants in the Willie, Martin, Hunt and Hodgetts companies all did so at the peril of their lives, not just those who were at the Sweetwater. Prior to the crossing the rescuers were exposed to conditions similar to those that trapped the handcart pioneers. For those rescuers with the Martin Company, there was still more than three weeks’ exposure to snow, cold, and wind after the crossing and before they reached the Salt Lake Valley, and for those with the Hunt and Hodgetts companies, the exposure was even longer. The cumulative effect of this prolonged exposure to cold took its toll—even on rescuers who did not ferry people across the icy waters of the Sweetwater. It is not surprising that as the Sweetwater crossing increasingly became the rescue story, the history of individuals who suffered ill health as a result of going to the aid of the stranded pioneers became tied to that crossing.
What transpired at the Sweetwater should not be discounted, but neither should the contributions made by all the Latter-day Saints who came to the aid of the stranded pioneer companies be overlooked. Many pioneers owe their lives to unnumbered acts of kindness shown them by individuals who today remain largely nameless and faceless. Since most of the stories of the rescue will likely never be known, let the story of the Sweetwater crossing symbolize the many selfless sacrifices forged during a trying time. The identified rescuers at the river should serve as the face of the massive undertaking and be symbolic of the other equally needed and equally heroic assistance provided by hundreds of individuals who freely gave of themselves, most of whom remain anonymous and some of whom may have even carried emigrants across the Sweetwater. Such a position was taken by Orson F. Whitney in his Life of Heber C. Kimball. After briefly mentioning the river crossing, he turned his focus upon the entire first group of rescuers. His conclusion is as applicable today as when first written nearly 120 years ago: “These brave men by their heroism—for it was at the peril of their own lives that they thus braved the wintry storms on the plains—immortalized themselves, and won the undying gratitude of hundreds who were undoubtedly saved by their timely action from perishing.”