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On Assignment with Norman Bosworth

Sweetwater Rescue

A PBS Documentary Chronicling the Westward Migration of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies of 1856

Sweetwater Rescue is perhaps the most untold hardship and human sacrifice story in all of American western history. In this epic documentary the lives and sacrifices of hundreds of men and women will be told for the first time to a national PBS audience.


I (Norman Bosworth) have been privileged to work with Emmy award winning director Lee Groberg on this Utah video production.

It was my job to film (in HD) the making of Sweetwater Rescue along with doing the commercial photography for the project. After all the filming and interviews were done, my job continued as editor for the TV program introducing the Sweetwater Rescue.

My black and white photos you see here are actors playing their 1856 counterparts. All of my behind the scenes photos of the making of Sweetwater Rescue are in color.

One of the hardships for me was filming in temperatures that reached minus 40 degrees F. It was a real eye opener to actually feel the effect of nature as the 1856 pioneers felt. Our hardships were nothing compared to theirs in recreating the events of history...yet it was more than enough!

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All Photos © Norman Bosworth

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The following is a historical perspective regarding what the documentary is about. This is a fascinating tale of dedication and poor decision making, hardship, death, sacrifice, and love. It’s all here in Sweetwater Rescue.

Historical Perspective

Utah Territory 1855. Church and Territory leader Brigham Young instructed the immigrants bound from Liverpool England to the Salt Lake Valley to "walk and draw their luggage" overland to Utah. In 1856 five such Mormon pioneer handcart companies were organized to make the 1,300-mile trip on foot from Iowa City to Salt Lake City.

All went well for the first two companies, totaling 486 immigrants pulling 96 handcarts, who arrived safely in Salt Lake City on September 26, 1856. They accomplished the trek in under sixteen weeks. The third company, and presumably the last of the season, made up of 320 persons pulling 64 handcarts, arrived on October 2 1856. There were other immigrants who’s decision to  start out late in the season would require hundreds of lives as a payment for their short sighted thinking. One of these companies, under James G. Willie, left Iowa City on July 15, crossed Iowa to Florence (Omaha), Nebraska, then, after a week in Florence, headed out onto the plains. The last company, under Edward Martin, departed Florence on August 25 1856. Three independent wagon companies, carrying 390 more immigrants also started late.

A week after the departure of the Martin Company, Franklin D. Richards, a Mormon apostle who had organized the handcart effort also departed Florence with sixteen other in his group. Richards party, on horseback and in fast carriages, passed the Martin Company on September 7, the Willie Company on September 12, and arrived in Salt Lake City on October 4, 1856.

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Richards's report that many more immigrants were coming must have been a shock to Brigham Young. Young mobilized men and women gathered in Salt Lake City and immediately ordered a massive rescue effort. A party of twenty-seven men, led by George D. Grant, left on October 7 with the first sixteen of what ultimately amounted to 200 wagons and teams.

Two weeks later, one of the earliest blizzards on record struck just as both the handcart companies and the independent wagon companies were entering the Rocky Mountains in central Wyoming. After several days of being lashed by the fierce blizzard, people in the exposed handcart companies began to die.

Grant's rescue party found the Willie Company on October 21—in a blinding snowstorm one day after they had run out of food. But the worst still lay ahead, when after a day of rest and replenishment, the company had to struggle over the long and steep eastern approach to South Pass in a fierce northerly gale. Beyond the pass, the company, now amply fed and free to climb aboard empty supply wagons as they became available, moved quickly, arriving in Salt Lake City on November 9. Of the 404 still with the company, 68 died and many others suffered from severe frostbite and near starvation.

Those of the Martin Company, three-fourths of them women, children, and the elderly suffered even more. When the storm hit on October 19, they made camp and spent nine days on reduced rations waiting out the storm. Grant's party, after leaving men and supplies with the Willie Company, plunged farther east through the snow with eight wagons in search of the Martin Company. A scouting party sent out ahead of the wagons found them 150 miles east of South Pass.

The company, already in a desperate condition, was ordered to break camp immediately. The supply wagons met them on the trail, but the provisions were not nearly enough and, after struggling 55 miles farther, the company once again set up camp near Devil's Gate to await the arrival of supplies.

In the meantime, the rescue effort began to disintegrate. Rescue teams held up several days by the raging storm turned back, fearing to go on and rationalizing that the immigrant trains and Grant's advance party had either decided to winter over or had perished in the storm.

The Martin Company remained in camp for five days. When no supplies came, the company now deplorably weakened was again forced out on the trail. It had suffered fifty-six deaths before being found and it was now losing people at an appalling rate.

Relief came barely in time. A messenger ordered back west by Grant reached and turned around some of the teams that had abandoned the rescue. At least thirty wagons reached the Martin Company just as it was about to attempt the same climb to South Pass that had so sorely tested the Willie Company. Starving, frozen, spent, their spirits crushed, and many unable to walk, the people had reached the breaking point.

But now warmed and fed and with those unable to walk riding in the wagons, the company moved rapidly on. The Martin Company, in a train of 104 wagons, finally arrived in Salt Lake City on November 30. Out of 576 people, at least 145 had died and like the Willie Company, many were severely afflicted by frostbite and starvation.

Elements of the three independent wagon companies and the rescue effort straggled into Salt Lake City until mid-December—except for twenty men under Daniel W. Jones. These men remained for the winter at Devil's Gate to guard freight unloaded there by the independent wagon companies. They also remained behind to make room for exhausted members of the Martin Company. The Jones party suffered cold and starvation at Devil's Gate. At one point they were reduced to eating rawhide until friendly Indians gave them some buffalo meat.

The decision to send out the Willie and Martin companies so late in the season was extremely reckless. In mid-November Brigham Young angrily reprimanded those who had authorized the late start or who had not ordered the several parties back to Florence when they still had the opportunity, charging "ignorance," "mismanagement," and "misconduct." Though terrible, the suffering could have been far worse. Had the rescue effort not been launched immediately—well before the storm struck—the handcart companies would probably have been totally destroyed.

It is interesting to note that the original migrants to the Salt Lake Valley had arrived only 9 years earlier on July 24,1847. The heroic rescue effort of 1856 was made by people who could barely take care of their own needs, yet they gave up all to assist their fellow Americans. Sweetwater Rescue airs on PBS forth quarter 2006.

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Photography © Norman Bosworth

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