While I generally like to challenge–if not completely burst–historical myths, both in and outside the classroom, I sincerely hesitated to write and publish this post on Pioneer Day. I don’t like being an iconoclast for iconoclasm’s sake. But in hearing the story discussed below several times over the last week (including in the ward I am currently attending, in the classroom, in the Ensign, and even on the internet), I thought this was an issue that needed to be addressed. Thus, I hope that the discussion is more sophisticated than merely degenerating into “average Mormons don’t know diddley squat about history.” That would, indeed, be missing the point.
Everyone knows the traditional story of the Sweetwater Rescue–and I imagine that most readers of this blog know the problems with it. In November, 1846, the beleaguered Martin Handcart Company reached the Sweetwater River in Wyoming. Plagued by a late start, they faced terrible weather conditions that slowed them down and made the trek nearly unbearable. Brigham Young, when hearing of their plight, sent out rescuers to help them finish the final leg of their migration. The rest of the story is the stuff of legend. The most famous account is provided 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.”
This story has been memorialized in many ways. It has been repeated again and again, from seminary teachers, Ensign publications, and even from General Conference pulpits. It is reenacted by youth groups every summer, including last week’s stake handcart trek attended by the youth in the home I am currently staying in. In a way, this moment has become symbolic of the Pioneer Saga, the most famed story embodying all the principles heroism we place on our pioneer ancestors.
There are, of course, several problems with this. Beyond the mere factual questions, the focus on this single episode distorts how we remember the handcart companies–let alone the pioneers in general. Out of the dozen handcart groups in 1857, the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies were the only two to experience monumental struggles, and those struggles came as a result of their decision to go against counsel and begin their trek much too late in the summer. Indeed, some of my ancestors were part of another handcart company, and their only complaint was wearing out their shoes from dancing every night around the campfire. The handcart treks were tough enough as it was, we don’t need to exaggerate their image in order to make it more heroic.
And then there are the factual problems with Solomon Kimball’s story itself. Chad M. Orton, archivist extraordinaire at the Church History Library, published an article with BYU Studies on “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look.” In this strong piece of scholarship, Orton contextualizes Kimball’s narrative by placing it amongst the many other accounts in order to provide a more accurate reconstruction. “These various accounts,” he writes, “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.” The resulting narrative is, in my mind, still deeply heroic and exemplary, even if they strongly differ from the standard account. It may not highlight three selfless boys who literally sacrifice their lives, but it does teach of a group of dedicated Saints willing to sacrifice much in saving their brothers and sisters in the gospel.
But old narratives die hard–especially if they have the Hollywood-type power as Solomon Kimball’s. Or, perhaps more importantly: especially if they have someone like President Gordon B. Hinckley who constantly repeated it. John C. Thomas, a religion professor at BYU-Idaho, recounted in an MHA paper his experience in teaching this episode in his Church History class. He had made his students read Orton’s article, and the following took place during the class discussion:
Referring to that paragraph in Kimball’s 1914 narrative, I asked my students something like, “What’s right and what’s wrong with that account?” The first hands went up on the back row, where three or four male students sat (all returned missionaries). Soon after the first student started talking, I felt heat rising on the back of my neck. He said that “he only ‘felt the Spirit’ when reading the traditional account.” Then a nearby student weighed in: “I don’t see what’s so wrong with that version anyway,” he said, questioning the value of revisiting the story. And one of them raised another issue: Why would President Hinckley use this story if there’s something wrong with it? In retrospect, these seem like predictable concerns, but they caught me by surprise that day, in part because student reactions had been so positive the previous semester. Taken aback, I saw their concerns as pitfalls to avoid rather than a puzzle to engage. What might have been the beginning of a thought-provoking discussion felt more like a standoff.
To most historians, this response would appear confusing; to most Latter-day Saints, familiar with similar encounters in Sunday School, it is, sadly, familiar. Two more experiences that demonstrate the same problem: an instructor this last week said that when he tried to use Orton’s revisionist take on Sweetwater, a student countered by saying, “all you have is this ‘academic journal’ [implying the fallibleness of academia], and I have my belief backed up by a Prophet.” Second, while I was discussing the problems with a certain individual’s historical work, a BYU student emphasized, “but [this individual's] work is loved by General Authorities, thus making it legit.”
This points to a much larger problem in the Mormon tradition. We have enough of an “anti-intellectual” and “pro-General Authority” strain that we have a particular–and in some ways, highly problematic–approach to validating truth. By tying knowledge to priesthood authority, “experts” in the LDS tradition are generally identified as priesthood-holding, male, ecclesiastical leaders–no matter whether the issue is doctrine, theology, or even, say, psychology. This is not a unique problem for Mormonism, as it pervades most religious groups with fundamentalist leanings. But it does have some serious consequences: a Prophet’s invocation of a historical narrative is as legitimate as a historical source, a scholarly argument is legitimate only inasmuch as it correlates with LDS tradition, and the validity of one’s intellectual views are tethered as much to priesthood as they are to critical thinking. In order to alter how the average Saint understands the past means not only a deep revision of the facts themselves but of the framework in which they are interpreted.
There are potential signs of change. When Elder Quentin L. Cook referred to the Sweetwater Rescue in his recent General Conference address, he not only failed to repeat the traditional story but even referenced Orton’s article in his published footnotes. A recent podcast run by the LDS radio specifically repudiated the story. And in this month’s issue of the Ensign, which republishes President Hinckley’s talk on the rescue, the portion that repeats Solomon Kimball’s account is conspicuously absent. (Though that may very well be for space restrictions.) It seems the growing academic nature in the Church History Library, led by able and visionary individuals, will continue to challenge these problematic and antiquated historical narratives.
But, again, merely excising the problematic stories won’t be enough. We need a reorientation of how we understand history and what constitutes a “valid” historical sources. And that, I’m afraid, is where I’m stumped.
 Solomon F. Kimball, “Belated Emigrants of 1856,” Improvement Era 17, no. 4 (February 1914): 88.
 Chad M. Orton, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” BYU Studies 45, no. 3 (2006): 8.
 John C. Thomas, “Sweetwater Revisited, Sour Notes, and The Ways of Learning,” The Religious Educator 10, no. 2 (2009), found here. Thomas’s article then goes on to discuss how he navigates the problem now, and what he learned from the encounter. It’s a great and very informative discussion.
 See Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, forthcoming).
 In a recent podcast, Boyd Petersen mentioned how his wife, BYU Professor Zina Nibley Peterson, is often challenged in her Book of Mormon classes by male returned missionaries because they feel their priesthood validates their interpretations over her own views. The podcast is found here.
 Matt Bowman skillfully mused about these competing approaches to interpretation here.
 Quentin L. Cook, “Give Heed unto the Prophets’ Words,” General Conference, April 2008, footnote 5, found here.
*The image is Clark Kelley Price’s “Rescue at the Sweetwater.”