Beloved rescue story is a myth. Say it ain’t so.

One feature of the 2008 book Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy by David Roberts is the debunking of popular myths connected to the “handcart experiment.” There are many, and they are continually believed and repeated within Mormon circles. Some of these stories are held very dear and beloved by Latter-day Saints everywhere.

One such myth is this one, published in the Improvement Era in 1914:

After [the 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 effect 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 [the captains son] and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end.” (quoted in Roberts, 242. Brackets his.)

Roberts goes on to explain that in 2006 LDS historian Chad M. Orton published a paper in BYU Studies that provided these truths: none of the named men were eighteen-year-old boys; other men also helped the weakened pioneers cross the river; many of the pioneers crossed on their own power, without help from rescuers; and perhaps most importantly, none of the three named men died from the effects of the 1856 river-fording.

I don’t mean to minimize the heroism of the Saints that went to the rescue of the stranded handcart pioneers, for they were indeed heroes. Nor do I intend to focus here directly on the fact that this story is a faith-promoting myth. I’ll tell you what I find especially interesting about this.

During his research for the book, David Roberts, the author of Devil’s Gate, visited many LDS visitors centers along the Mormon/Oregon Trail. He listened politely without comment as Elders and Sisters (as docents) related what they believed to be true stories, but which Mr. Roberts knew to be myths. During one of Mr. Roberts’ trips to the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center at Martin’s Cove, he was welcomed into a small group of LDS adults from West Valley, Utah who were on the trail as a sort of pilgrimage. They traversed the trail together as the Mormons told stories of their ancestors (and others) who had crossed the plains in the 1850s. Mr. Roberts writes,

…one of the West Valley women repeated the story about the three eighteen-year-olds carrying the Saints across the Sweetwater. I could not bite my tongue. “You know, that’s a myth,” I blurted out. “Chad Orton has written a paper that completely debunks the story. It didn’t happen.”

This was not welcome news to the West Valley ward. An awkward silence ensued, as I began to feel like a drunken guest at a party who has just committed some unforgivable faux pas.

“How do we know what’s really the truth? asked Trish Ward, in conciliatory tones. I started to utter some piety of my own about relying on authentic primary sources, but instead, a young woman who had previously spoken not a word mused out loud, “Maybe we could pray.” (280)

Presumably, Chad Orton, who is an archivist with the Family and Church History Division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reached his conclusion regarding the Sweetwater rescue story after researching primary sources — accounts from people who were there, contemporary newspaper reports, birth and death data, etc. (You can download a pdf version of Mr. Orton’s paper here.) Yet when the Mormons in Mr. Roberts’ narrative were made aware of the discrepancy between the legend and the facts, they believed the proper response was to pray to know if the legend was true.

At the October 2009 General Conference of the LDS Church, Mormon Apostle Richard G. Scott said,

“I witness that as you gain experience and success in being guided by the Spirit, your confidence in the impressions you feel can become more certain than your dependence on what you see or hear.” (“To Acquire Spiritual Guidance,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2009, page 6)

The context of Mr. Scott’s teaching was in regards to receiving divine guidance for decision making; but do Latter-day Saints also apply this principle to things that can be known objectively? It would be impossible, wouldn’t it, for actual God-revealed knowledge to be contrary to known facts?

The Mormons in the Devil’s Gate story fiercely wanted the familiar myth of the Sweetwater rescue to be true. They were more comfortable relying on their “impressions” than on an examination of verifiable records. Do you think their prayers yielded a confirmation that the story was false? Mr. Roberts doesn’t say.

What happens when we want something to be true more than we want to know the truth?


Comments within the parameters of 1 Peter 3:15 are invited.


About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
This entry was posted in Mormon Culture, Truth, Honesty, Prayer, and Inquiry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Beloved rescue story is a myth. Say it ain’t so.

  1. Sharon,

    I encountered this story around 4-5 years ago with some Mormon missionaries. They brought it up as an example where B.Y. did state that someone was going to the celestial kingdom. This came after hours of going over A.G. and grace works. My response then was “Was he speaking as a prophet?”

    So many of these faith promoting narratives are questionable in terms of their veracity. This one apparently has been debunked but refuses to die (like so many Mormon myths). Even if one considers the stories that do have historical attestation, I would be willing to bet that they have only one source that does so. That would move a story beyond myth for me but some doubt would still exist.

    It is important to note that most of the time, these stories contain a moral or a theological point that is to be made. There in lies the rub on so many apocryphal stories (not just the Mormon ones): if the story is bunk the moral often is as well. Obviously a story would need to be true for it to prove a point, but my contention is that for so many morality tales the point of the story (even if true but often not for good reason) seems to go against another moral, consistency, revealed scripture, etc. The words of apocryphal B.Y. contradict not only the Bible but much of Mormon theology as well.

    Faith promoting stories exist in almost every religion and culture. Many, if not most, are bunk. More often than not they exist to verify a dogmatic point (consider all the Eucharistic stories that involve the miraculous). However, even if the story is true I am not so sure the moral is. In this story, even if B.Y. did utter those words it would not make them true. Even if faith promoting miracles have indeed taken place in various religious communities around the world does not make them from God.

    Your meta-story with the re-enactors only adds insult to injury when it comes down to truth seeking within Mormonism. I think the obvious leap is from the river rescue

  2. to the BoM; the lady approached this apocryphal story in the wrong way and she did so with the BoM as well.

    Lastly, we got to keep it real. We have got plenty of our own faith promoting stories . . . Many of which, when examined, turn out to be bunk.

  3. Goldarn says:

    First: I read the book Devil’s Gate. I was in awe of the handcart pioneers’ accomplishments, and I was angered at the uncaring pride and arrogance of many (most?) of the LDS leaders involved. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in that part of western history.

    Second: “What happens when we want something to be true more than we want to know the truth?” Love this love this love this love this. I’m gonna steal this, if that’s okay.

  4. setfree says:

    An excellent article, Sharon.

    Down at Manti Pageant, of course, we run against this heartfelt objection at the conclusion of many conversations: “well, i have prayed about it and i know it is true”.

    The thing is, as can be seen by your quick illustration above, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Feelings and facts OFTEN disagree)

    Mormonism’s “train” is built backwards. “Feelings” is the engine which pulls their “faith” car, and “evidence and logic” come along as the caboose, if at all. “…they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.”

    What many LDS (and of course, many others) don’t seem to understand is that “spiritual” is not the same thing as “magic”. Just because it is in the realm of “spirit” doesn’t make it “nonsensical” or “imaginary”. The Truth of God is, in fact, pure and stronger than any other sense of the word “truth” – it WILL have evidence to support it – in science (as it progresses), in philosophy, etc. Our not being able to “see” the spiritual realm does not make it ours to invent at will.

  5. I’m not ashamed of the power of story.

    The Gospel comes to us as story. Jesus taught his theology through story (the parables). It seems to me that story is the most powerful way to move people – give them a story, and they’ll do anything.

    I suppose my concern is which story, and where does it lead?

    Recently, I’ve been musing on the opening verses of John’s Gospel, in particular

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us

    (John 1:1 and John 1:14).

    Whereas I think it is quite right to view these verses theologically, I’m also intrigued by the idea that Jesus, the flesh-and-blood person, is the culmination of the story of God. Without getting too technical, I wonder if John is saying that Jesus is the personification of the story of God and His people, as if this entire story solidifies into a tangible human being; one that we can touch and see and hear, and that he somehow “lives out” (incarnates) all that has gone before, including the Prophets, the Temple, the History and everything else

    In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…

    (Heb 1:1-2)

  6. falcon says:

    It’s kind of funny, but a while back I answered one of the Mormon posters by saying that I had prayed about it (topic at hand) and God had told me “XYZ”. What was funny about it, I thought, was the fact that the Mormon poster accepted the idea that I had heard from God on the topic. Hmmmmm, I concluded, maybe that’s the key to talking to Mormons. Tell them that God spoke to you and told you thus and such and that a confirming feeling regarding the information proves its validity.
    I’m not intending my remarks here to be interpreted as being cynical. One of the things that my interaction with Mormons has taught me is that this concept of hearing from God, call it revelation, a word from the Lord, whatever, is the fuel that drives the engine of their individual faith. It is also the thing that makes them think that their religion and religious experience is superior to that of the Christian faith.
    Mormons have limited experience outside of Mormonism or they’d recognize that there’s a whole segment of the Christian family that thrives on revelation, dreams, visions, miracles, and word(s) from the Lord. If they came to understand this, then they’d have to ask a very important question, “How can this be?”
    I’ve had to do this in regards to Mormons who claim supernatural experiences. That is, what is going on here? One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that we can create our own spiritual experiences. We can hear the voice of God and have experiences that we conclude are proof of the intervening hand of God in our lives and, I hate to say this, they’re not. But they make us feel good and give us a boost.
    So my little decision making grid concerning these things (especially with Mormons) is to ask, “Who is the God that you claim is providing you with these miraculous occurrences?” Now since Mormons worship a man who became a god instead of God, I know that their claims either come out of their own imaginations or from a force of spiritual darkness in the heavenlies that has nothing to do with “God”.
    And that’s the problem with Mormonism, it claims a deity that is at odds with the God of the Bible. As I’ve said often, Mormonism isn’t a perfect counterfeit but it’s an effective counterfeit. It is especially so for those people who are willing to accept accompanying signs and wonders without delving into the spirit that is providing that experience.

  7. Mike R says:


    I think what you just gleaned from Jn.1:1,14
    together with Heb.1:1,2 is just what every
    Mormon needs to grasp. It’s JESUS ! No prophet
    no temple, no “religion”. A one on one relation-
    ship with the King of kings and Lord of lords.
    Because He is the Eternal God we are forgiven
    and made whole by Him.

  8. falcon says:

    I was just watching a History Channel presentation on “Who Really Discovered America” tonight. I won’t go into any detail but when they were discussing a Hebrew connection to America, one of the contributors said, “When people desire to believe something, thinking goes out the window.”
    That’s really the bottom line in religion in general. Some would call the lack of thinking faith, but even within the faith paradigm, a certain amount of thinking must take place.
    This idea of praying and the truth will be revealed is fraught with an anti thinking approach that leads to erroneous answers (to the prayer).
    After I got done riding my bike this morning, I was down in the basement lifting weights and watching the 40th Anniversary of Aglow Ministries on GodTV. The speaker said that when his son was 12 years old he had a dream. In the dream there were two street gangs fighting. One was God’s gang and the other Satan’s. In the dream the boy asked if he could join God’s gang. The answer was that the age to join use to be 21 but it was now 12. Of course now the boy could join. His father, telling the story, having heard the boy’s account of the dream, was awaken at four o’clock in the morning by the audible voice of God and he received some sort of confirmation about the boys dream.
    Well, what do we do with this? Should we pray and ask God to reveal if this is all true. If we get a good feeling about it is that confirmation?
    I could keep the reader entertained for hours with stories like this one. They certainly are faith promoting for some folks. It seems that people who are looking for these things have these types of experiences. Is that because they are open to them or is there desire to have them contributing to there occurrence?

  9. Mike R says:

    There’s a couple of things that caught my eye
    when reading the report of this incident in the
    Improvement Era.

    1. Brigham Young said that the brave effort on
    the part of these three young men would ensure
    their place in the Celestial kingdom. Really?

    2. How come Prophet Young did’nt know the truth
    about all this? He apparently did’nt ask the Holy
    Ghost to reveal the truth of what actually happened. Why?

  10. falcon says:

    There are two things to this article of interest to me. First of all the “faith” promoting stories that are part of the Mormon experience. I did a little search on google looking at “Mormon folklore”. It’s real interesting what is out there on the subject, most of it documented by Mormons. The fact that Mormons believe these stories says a lot about the gullibility of the faithful.
    The second thing is the idea of “praying to see if something is true.” As a praying person and one who does get answers I find the sign that something would be indicated as true to be interesting. Is it a burning in the bosom or a still quiet voice heard from within?
    Since the Mormon god is not God, who are these folks hearing from and who is providing the burning in the bosom experience. There’s a verse in the OT that talks about people prophesying out of their own imaginations. One-way-or-another, Mormons aren’t going to hear from God as long as they reject Him for a false deity.
    There is One, eternal, everlasting, never changing God. He’s who Christians pray to and from whom they get answers. If Mormons insist on praying to a false deity, he will throw them enough bones to keep them in bondage. The rest comes out of their own imaginations.

  11. Brian says:

    Dear Sharon,

    Thanks for this interesting article. As I read it, a question formed in the back of my mind which isn’t really related to the details of the article. The question is this:

    Why does the Sweetwater rescue hold such an important place among the LDS people today?

    I don’t ask this to be disrespectful. I understand it is about brave deeds; to help others cross a river in very dangerous conditions. Yet it happened long ago, and so it is hard for me to understand why it would be of interest to people apart from the descendants of those involved.

    Perhaps one explanation would be as follows. As the LDS people are not generally acquainted with what the followers of Brigham Young were being taught, attention tends to focus on stories involving their activities. Stories which highlight noble deeds. (Which might subtly suggest their beliefs are not necessary to discuss because they must be the same as the LDS people of today.) Simply put, it is more comfortable to talk about their stories than their beliefs.

    (Continues below)

  12. Brian says:

    (Continued from above)

    Another explanation might be that of validation. In my experience with the LDS people, I have found they have a great need for this. And retelling stories about noble deeds on the part of a people group one identifies with might provide it. As a Christian, I feel validated; that is, loved, forgiven, declared righteous by God on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ. But if I did not know of the righteousness that comes from God (and once, of course, I did not), I would undoubtedly look inward to myself. Always inward. Just as the LDS people do. I too would try to feel good about myself by any number of means. Such as an interview with a respected religious leader, who would tell me that I was a good person. Or by my diet or apparel if it would gain others’ approval. Or by announcing my intention to keep God’s law (over and over again, perhaps imagining I someday would). As I would not really know where I stood with God, I would just naturally look to what others thought of me. And their approval would be very important. And this feeling good about myself, that I was a good person, might last for awhile. But it would always have to fade, for the Bible tells us that we all have God’s law written in our hearts. And the purpose of the law is to reveal our sin; that we are sinners. We are not good. I think I would often be seeking to convince myself that I was good, but it would ever be elusive, as I would be looking within, rather than to the One who lived a perfect life in my place. Thereby making me righteous in God’s sight.

    So, why was the story of the Sweetwater rescue embellished? Perhaps the answer lies in one of the above explanations.

  13. setfree says:

    love your contributions out here, Brian.

  14. Brian says:

    Thanks, setfree. I have been encouraged and blessed by your posts.

  15. Smile says:

    And how do you know that the "God" that you are praying to isn't just a false deity? And you do know that Mormon's are Christians don't you?? So if they are Christians and they pray to the Christian God… wouldn't that be the same one as you?

  16. 2livnluv4 says:

    Mormonism is a cult and the greatest crime they had committed, and still commits, is influencing their members to distrust the Bible and putting the entire word of God into question (Satan’s delight). Why would they do that? Because Mormonism is anti-Christ, anti-Christian, and teaches that Jesus is not God but lowers him to be a spiritual brother with Lucifer. Mormonism teaches that Jesus Christ is not enough. Mormonism is polytheistic and a counterfeit faith of bondage demanding ultimate allegiance of its members to their church and not with Jesus Christ, they teach rebirth is tied to religion while Christianity teaches rebirth is tied to relationship. It is relationship over religion, Grace over Law. (continued …)

  17. God (in the English Old Testament) = is translated from the Hebrew word Elohim. Elohim is a title for God, it is not a proper noun; it is a plural form of God. ‘El’ means God, adding ‘im’ to ‘El’ makes it a plural word. It’s like adding an ‘s’ in English. ‘El’ means a singular God and Elohim means a plural God. Whenever reading ‘God’ in the Old Testament, it is a plural because God is composed of three. Elohim is not God’s proper name but it is akin to the English word … Captain or General or King of something; judges can be called Elohim in scripture. Example: Elvis and his band are the Elohim of rock and roll.

    GOD (in the English Old Testament) = means in Hebrew, YHWH; some connect to pronunciation of Jehovah; this is God’s proper noun name and a sacred name to the Jews.

    LORD (in the English Old Testament) = same Hebrew word for YHWH; this is God’s proper noun name. …

  18. 2livnluv4 says:

    The most single and most prominent scripture about the make-up of God is Deuteronomy 6:4, known to the Jews as the Great Shema (which means, hear) and reads, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:” A Christian would translate this from the Hebrew language to read, Hear O Israel: The YHWH our Elohim is one YHWH. The Christian understanding from the Old to New Testament is consistency and no conflict. God consists of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    With Mormonism, their translation of the Great Shema would actually read, Hear, O Israel: The Jesus our Heavenly Father is one Jesus. This makes no sense. Mormonism claims that they are three separate and distinct individuals but they are one in purpose. How come in His word he never describes himself as one in purpose, how come He didn’t add that in the Bible. How come the Jews don’t sing the Great Shema to be, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: in purpose? …

  19. 2livnluv4 says:

    Mormonism from its inception is sending deceived members to hell with a first class ticket.

    Who would you trust for your eternal salvation … Joseph Smith or Jesus Christ?

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