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

ThrowbackThursDuring this time of year, many Mormon youth have the opportunity to spend 4 days pulling handcarts through rugged terrain. This “pioneer trek” is a type of reenactment of the early Mormon pioneer treks across the American plains to Utah Territory. Each Mormon teen carries the name of a real-life Mormon pioneer as the kids experience some of what their ancestors endured a hundred and sixty years ago. It seems fitting, then, for this Throwback Thursday, to repost the following blog article that originally appeared on Mormon Coffee on June 21, 2010.


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.

HandcartI 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 Early Mormonism, Mormon History, Truth, Honesty, Prayer, and Inquiry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. falcon says:

    Myth is a wonderful thing for folks who want to live in a fantasy world. The LDS religion keeps adults in a perpetual child like state where feelings rule. With these Chapel Mormons, the basis of their faith are the stories told by the elders at countless fireside chats down at the ward.
    One such fabulous story teller was Paul Dunn. Legions of Mormon youth were entertained and inspired by his telling of fantastic exploits and accomplishments. Problem was, none of it was true.
    Paul H. Dunn Lied Through His Teeth 2 Me at A Saturday’s Warrior Pre-Show Gig and I Felt The Spirit… And I’ll never forget it! I knew it…and I knew that God knew it!!! We were encouraged to bring non-members to this particular Saturday’s Warrior showing in an effort to “share the gospel” (according to Moronism) with our non-member friends.
    So there I sat with 3 of my High School pals who were mostly Born-again Xtians and listened to Paul H. Dunn (PHD) do his regular comedy routine gig that could suddenly turn solemn on a dime and you could just literally “cut the spirit with a knife” it was so thick and pervasive in that Convention Center Theater that evening.
    I felt it bad…and I knew that God knew that I felt it bad…and I was so sure that my 3 High School chums felt it bad as well and I just knew that they were gonna ask to be Baptized and join all of us Morons who just knew that “the spirit” truly does testify of all truth!
    Shortly after the show it seems I recall that my 3 High School buddies had great difficulty really understanding the essence of Saturday’s Warrior due to all of its insider “Moronisms” that really only Morons would be aware of in the first place…and no…not a single one of them felt “the spirit” bad like I had felt it bad throughout PHD’s comedy bit or any of the Saturday’s Warrior performance.

  2. historybuff says:

    People love their myths. In a memorable quote from the film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, a reporter states,

    “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

  3. falcon says:

    What in the world do you know about this movie? For a real trivia question, “Who sang the theme song?” AND “Who did shoot Liberty Valance?” You can’t possibly be old enough.
    I’ve been watching the series on Fox about the old west “legends”. That’s the very point that is made. Where is the truth in the legend?
    That handcart deal was a total fiasco thanks to Brigham Young. He really didn’t care about the people. They were there to serve his megalomaniac drive.

  4. Mike R says:

    This issue is a good example of how Mormonism has “sold” well to the public for so long . It’s all about feelings/ emotions for Mormons that validate the claims of authority of their leaders and why Mormonism is supposedly true . The Mormon’s ” inner witness ” , “personal revelation” , is a fickle standard and as such it is simply not reliable for non Mormons to trust in to test Mormon prophets to see if they have been sent by Jesus to teach His truths , or if they are only well dressed , mannered imitators of His true messengers — Matt 24:11 .

  5. falcon says:

    Just think how you can manipulate people by convincing them that their emotions are spiritual communication. Not only can you manipulate them, but you get them thinking they are on some super spiritual trip. If you can keep the buzz going with these folks you can keep the con going forever. I think that’s why it’s such a “thud” when these folks figure out that Mormonism and the LDS church are totally bogus. How in the world could you ever trust anything again.
    That’s why we need to put our faith and confidence in Jesus Christ and nothing else. I don’t even try to figure out the spiritual dynamics of things any more. I simply stand by the cross and that’s it.

  6. historybuff says:

    Falcon —

    I won’t tell you how old I am, but when I was born the Dead Sea just had the flu…

    To answer your questions:
    (1) As I recall, the song “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was done by Gene Pitney, a teen heartthrob at the time, although Frankie Lane did a great version of it. Lane was famous for a lot of TV and movie theme songs, like “Rawhide.”
    (2) Liberty Valance was actually shot by the rancher (John Wayne), not the lawyer (Jimmy Stewart), although legend had it that the lawyer shot him. Although the film doesn’t explain it, the reason everyone could mistake Wayne’s rifle bullet hole for Stewart’s pistol bullet hole was that — if you observe the shooting scene — Wayne was shooting an 1892 Winchester carbine chambered in pistol calibers like .45 or .44-40, like what Stewart was using.

    And speaking of myths, here’s another myth created by Hollywood: 1892 Winchesters were plentiful back in the 1940s and 1950s, so Hollywood used them everywhere, even in this film that was supposedly taking place in the 1880s, about a decade before that Winchester was invented.

    And, of course we can’t leave this subject without bringing in the Mormon Church. The 1892 Winchester was invented by legendary firearms genius John Browning in Morgan, Utah, who was, that’s right, a Mormon. There you go, pilgrim…

    As for the ill-fated Martin handcart company that nearly perished because they left for Utah so late and were caught in a severe blizzard, I believe that Brigham Young was furious when he received word that one of his apostles had ordered the company to leave for Utah as late as it did. Although he got the news fairly late, he sent a rescue team out from Utah. I’m fairly sure of those facts because one of my ancestors was in that company and actually survived the ordeal.

  7. falcon says:

    I visited the Browning workshop in Nauvoo. It was very interesting. It had some of the actual rifles used by the people in the big battle described in the Book of Mormon.

    “Numerous leaders of the Mormon Church have taught since the earliest days of the Church that the Hill Cumorah in New York (the very same Hill Cumorah that Joseph Smith claimed he retrieved the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated from) is the very same Hill Cumorah which is mentioned in the Book of Mormon in Mormon 6:2 ( And I, Mormon, wrote an epistle unto the king of the Lamanites, and desired of him that he would grant unto us that we might gather together our people unto the land of Cumorah, by a hill which was called Cumorah , and there we could give them battle. ) where (if you do the math) at least 230,000 men died in battle using steel weapons and armor.”
    This was the actual place where the rifles were found. The rifles were still fully operational despite being buried in the ground all those centuries. This was truly a miracle!

  8. historybuff says:

    Please, PLEASE, tell me the docents at the LDS Visitors Center in Nauvoo were not trying to pawn off Civil War muskets as rifles dating back to the alleged final Book of Mormon battle in 400 A.D.!

    The LDS do love a myth as much as the next person, especially if the next person is another Mormon. These myths are not restricted to religious myths told by church authorities. Mormons have a strong tendency to believe ANYTHING told them by a church official or even by another Mormon they judge to be important.

    In fact, Utah is generally regarded as the fraud capital of the United States, with most of that fraud generated by Mormons (or those claiming to be Mormons) against other Mormons. In one very recently reported case, two Mormons bilked $200 million from 400 Mormon investors in a real estate scheme.

    It seems the Utah Attorney General is constantly begging members of the Mormon Church to be more careful and less gullible.

    All these warnings seem to fall on deaf ears, though. Even in England they know of the LDS penchant for believing anything they’re told by their leaders. This from England’s “The Economist” Magazine:

    “The state thought to have the most affinity fraud per head is Utah, where 60% of the population are Mormons. In 2010, regulators and the FBI were investigating cases there with 4,400 victims and perhaps $1.4 billion (or $500 for every Utahn) in losses.”

    Clearly, the members of the Mormon Church need to take a much closer look at what they’re told to believe.

  9. falcon says:

    OK so I created a myth, but it made me feel good and therefore it could be true. I just got a little carried away. Now about the angel that appeared to me in the woods outside of Nauvoo and………

  10. historybuff says:

    You need to learn to distinguish between angels and Sasquatch….

  11. falcon says:

    I may have seen one of those too. I saw with my eyes of understanding.

  12. historybuff says:

    When I lived in California, a lot people had those eyes of understanding. They called it pot….

  13. Mike R says:

    If I remember correctly Mark Hoffman’s father testified that inner witness confirmed to him that his son Mark was innocent of the serious crimes against him . Mr Hoffman’s spiritual witness came before the final verdict against his son was announced publically . His son was guilty as charged . This is but one example of the Mormon unhealthy reliance on feelings/emotions that just have to be from the Holy Ghost or so they think .

    Placing feelings as the priority way to confirm the truthfulness of a prophet’s teachings in our day is a especially dangerous venture . Sadly this seems to be the way that Mormons have been led to practice their religion . Thus it is no wonder that Mormon leaders can teach practically anything they want to and LDS will simply accept it , and continue to follow their hierarchy .
    Brigham Young introducing the prohibition against Blacks concerning the priesthood is a good example of this .

    The apostle John advised his flock to test the message of any prophets they encounter . That testing started with comparing these prophets teachings with God’s true prophets/apostles teachings , and if there’s a difference then it is simply not necessary nor recommended to pray about it . 1 Jn 4: 1

    May the Mormon people see the safety in anchoring their important beliefs ( God , Jesus, salvation etc ) in the scriptures — the Bible , and not be detoured by religious leaders who want them to trust in emotions to validate their latter day doctrines . Mormon leaders are such men , and LDS need to test them because spiritual safety is at stake — see 2Tim 4:3,4 .

  14. falcon says:

    A lot of damage can be done using this technique. Some is self-inflicted and some from others. What about the Mormon patriarchal blessings that many of these folks receive? Talk about myth making. Consider this:

    “I got my Patriarchal Blessing when I was 16. My entire Laurel class went to the Stake Patriarch’s house. After we all got our blessings, we were talking about them and everything the girls said sounded the same. So when we got our PBs in the mail, we compared them (shame on us!!) and they were all identical. So much for inspired revelation, huh!! I talked to my TBM parents about it, and they said that since we all went on the same day, it was a joint blessing. That didn’t sound right to me, but I ended up buying it. After all, brainwashing is a power thing. Oh, and then somehow the Bishop found out that we had compared our PBs and called me in to tell me to never discuss this with anyone again. You know, the whole “sacred” thing and all.”

    “I really wish I had questioned it more then, but I pushed it down and continued on the “Mormon path.” When I finally started figuring things out many years later (after going to BYU, getting married in the temple and all) and realized that it’s all a ………….., I remembered what I went through then and have added that to my very long list of ways in which the Mormon Church deceived me.”

  15. Mike R says:


    It’s always amazed me how Mormons think it strange that I don’t take their testimony that their church/gospel is true when their leaders exclusive claims happen to be so at odds with the truth . For example , Mormon leaders have claimed that their church is the exact same church with the exact same organization and gospel of salvation that Jesus established through His apostles in the first century . Yet a comparison of the New Testament testimony of Jesus’ church / gospel shows that the claims of Mormon leaders amounts to what could be called false advertising . Clearly , the clever use of half truths is to often utilized by Mormon leaders ( via Church publications and sermons etc ) to
    sell Mormonism to the public as Jesus’ original church / gospel .

    Any ” spiritual witness” a Mormon has felt and accepted as verifiying their leaders claims is only a sincere , self produced confirmation . It is certainly also not a safe means for non Mormons to use in order to properly investigate the claims of Mormonism .

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