This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Autumn 2015, Volume 62, Number 1)

A FRONTIER LIFE: Jacob Hamblin, Explorer and Indian Missionary

By Todd M. Compton. Salt Lake City; University of Utah Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-60781-234-0. 624pp; 41 photos; 7 maps. Notes and bibliography

Mission to the Indians was as important to the Mormons as the mission to the Gentiles (non-Mormons). Mormon theology was meaningful to the tribes they called Lamanites, who were believed to comprise part of the indigenous Americans and who were descendants of Jews who migrated to the Western hemisphere c.600BC. The Mormon doctrine surrounding the belief, however, was dualistic as Indian tribes were considered both cursed and chosen.

This book is a thorough and detailed outline of the life of Jacob Hamblin, explorer, coloniser and missionary to the Indians, particularly the Paiutes in southern Utah and the Hopis and Navajos in northern Arizona. Hamblin was a larger-than-life figure who, after a spiritual conversion one day when his gun failed to fire during an altercation with Indians, changed from being a militaristic soldier to a person who felt that he had been directed by God to disavow conflict and be a “messenger of peace” to the tribes. His life forthwith meant that he spent much of his life with them. Following the call by Brigham Young, president of the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) to be an Indian missionary and pioneer for settlement in southern Utah and later Arizona, he ceaselessly sought peaceful resolutions and mutual understanding in dealing with the local tribes. He helped found Indian farms, such as Santa Clara and Kanab, which became Mormon towns, as well as taking numerous joint exploring/missionary trips to the Hopis and Navajos across the Colorado River, and later central Arizona. Often leaving his family for long periods as well as enduring the hardships of travel and weather, Hamblin was one of the earliest explorers of the Grand Canyon region, opening up routes and then serving as a guide and interpreter to John Wesley Powell in the latter’s field work and ethnological studies. Their mutual interest in the tribes was fruitful. With the mapping and exploring expeditions through some forbidding country following his second Colorado River voyage in 1871 and 1872 it is Powell who has often been called a pathfinder. But Hamblin’s first trip to the Hopis in 1858 with a company of thirteen guided by a Paiute deserves to stand in the company of all historic explorers and explorations. The good relations which Hamblin had with the Paiutes served him well when they led him along old Indian trails which he travelled over to open up friendly relations with such as the Shivwits and the Hulapais. But it was difficult for the Mormons to bridge the cultural gap between whites and Indians and convert them, and so success in this field was limited.

In 1860, one of his well-known exploring years, Hamblin pioneered in the famous route across the Colorado at the now historic Lees Ferry site, and before that in 1858 had become the first white man since the Dominguez-Escalante expedition in 1776 to cross the river at the only other upstream crossing point for hundreds of miles – the Ute ford, known as The Crossing of the Fathers.  A more significant and unrecognised accomplishment was the outcome of his talks in 1870 in far distant Fort Defiance in eastern Arizona with the leaders of some aggressive and raiding Navajos, when he successfully negotiated a solid peace agreement resulting in opening the route to Arizona for  Mormon settlement.

All these journeys should put Hamblin alongside other pioneering individuals but sometimes he has been a somewhat abject figure, especially with regard to the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre in 1857 (during the Utah War). Few leading Mormons came away unscathed after they acted to hide involvement in that attack on a party of immigrants murdered by Indians and Mormons. They were passing through the area on their way to California. Hamblin was one of those accused of the cover-up, but he was not present at the scene, and he helped gather up the children of the survivors. Compton provides a nuanced and balanced discussion of this matter.

There have been previous biographies of Hamblin but none so detailed or which so fully places his life in the broader context of Western history – and not just Mormon and southern Utah history. His legacy rests on his attempts to solve conflicts with diplomacy and to see the Indians as fully human. Compton gives an all-embracing picture of both the man and the history of the area and the period, for scholars, students and anyone with an interest in the history of the Southwest. As such the book is an insightful, significant and dignified contribution to both Mormon history and the history of this more remote but colourful part of the Southwest. It is then no surprise that it is an award-winning biography.

Raymond Cox



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