A Note on Pioneer Day Talks, Sweetwater, and Tradition

A Note on Pioneer Day Talks, Sweetwater, and Tradition July 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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