This is an era of outstanding biographies of early LDS leaders. Several years ago we got “Rough Stone Rolling,” on Joseph Smith, and more recently there have been well-researched, candid looks at the lives of Parley P. Pratt and Brigham Young. We can add early Mormon explorer/colonizer/missionary Jacob Hamlin to the list. Historian Todd Compton’s “A Frontier Life: Jacob Hamlin, Explorer and Indian Missionary,” University of Utah Press, 2013, covers its subject extensively, and further than previous efforts. It’s a chronological biography, and readers can be forgiven for occasionally moving ahead in the text, maybe to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, or treks to the Grand Canyon.
Hamblin, who left an early assignment to the Tooele area for a Southern Utah mission that would never end, is best known for his efforts to assimilate American Indians into or near Mormon towns and culture. Those efforts, although very sincere, ultimately failed. As Compton explains, the entire movement of eastern United States’ settlers into long-inhabited Indian lands created a situation in which tribes were forced into competition for necessities such as water, seeds for food, hunting, and of course land. It was an overall battle that the American Indian would lose, whether Hamblin, or other settlers who felt genuine friendship toward the Indians, were there or not.
As a result, as Compton notes, Hamblin’s most effective skill with American Indians was his ability to negotiate through tense altercations. In 1874, after three Navajos were killed — and another wounded — by an Indian hater, his outlaw sons, and a hired man, Hamblin bravely went — essentially unprotected — to explain to the angry Navajos and others that the Mormons were not to blame. As Compton relates, Hamblin calmly asserted his innocence as Indians in the council were telling him he would soon be tortured and murdered as a payback. Hamblin survived that experience, and his explanation of the massacre ultimately overrode a biased report from a corrupt Indian agent who disliked Mormons. Only his genuine honesty, respect for the American Indians, and his past history of championing the Indians of the area, saved his life.
Another strength of Compton’s biography is it solidifies Hamblin’s legacy as one of the best early explorers of the mid- to late- 19th century. He to led exploring teams into pristine lands in and around the Grand Canyon. He led treks into Arizona, and was among the first to visit the Hopis. He moved into barren areas of Arizona, getting past the Colorado River, the Virgin River, going through canyons and along cliffs in areas that might trouble mountain goats. Compton relates Hamblin’s experiences with noted American West explorer John Wesley Powell, correctly noting that Powell relied heavily on Hamblin’s previous excursions, using his knowledge and experience..
In southern Utah, Hamblin settled Santa Clara, Kanab and other areas. A polygamist, he included American Indian women as wives. He was a fierce believer in Mormonism. As Compton explains, he was typical of believers in his era, noting “revelations” and judgments of God that could occur anywhere, in dreams, or while traversing the countryside. One explorer colleague wryly noted a trip in which Hamblin attempted to convert him to Mormonism.
Hamblin was baptized in Wisconsin in 1842. After his wife converted, the family traveled to Nauvoo shortly before the death of Joseph Smith. After the killing of the Mormon prophet, Hamblin gave his alliance to Brigham Young, eventually left Nauvoo after helping build the temple, and endured severe poverty in waiting areas such as Mount Pisgah, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, while waiting, with other Latter-day Saints, to earn the money to travel to Utah. One consolation was a return to Wisconsin and discovering his father, Isaiah, who had been anti-Mormon, had joined the church along with others of the family. They eventually traveled with him to Utah.
There was a severe drawback, though. Hamblin’s wife, Lucinda, left him and the family prior to the trek to Utah. As Compton notes, Hamblin is very harsh to her in his autobiography but conditions themselves were extremely harsh, and Compton adds that Hamblin’s next wife, Rachel, who knew Lucinda, had kinder recollections of her.
Things didn’t get easier for the family. Severe cholera struck their pioneer company while traveling to Utah. Although there were many deaths, and Jacob, Rachel and family members suffered, none of the Hamblin family died.
It was in northern Utah where Hamblin had his first real experiences with American Indians. He was part of groups that were assigned to interact with Goshutes. The sight of commandeers, such as Porter Rockwell, slaughtering the Indians, and the their terror as they fled the patrols through snow with bloody feet, affected Hamblin greatly. As legend has it, Jacob, while in a potentially dangerous altercation with some Indians who were suspected of stealing, avoided killing any. He took that experience as a revelation to not harm American Indians, and an assurance that he would not be harmed.
Although Compton clearly admires his subject, and the book often rebukes more hostile accounts of Hamblin, including John D. Lee’s memoirs, the author does not avoid the failings of Hamblin. Although he was not in southern Utah when the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred, and would have certainly opposed it, Hamblin did assist Brigham Young and other leaders in misleading authorities of the massacre’s details. He also helped hide suspects, such as John D. Lee, by moving him to remote living spots. And, when Lee became expendable to Brigham Young, Hamblin dutifully testified against him at his trail.
This “disloyalty,” however, is mitigated by the fact that Lee was indeed guilty. As Compton, and others have noted, a key injustice of the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is that others clearly as guilty as Lee, were not prosecuted and punished.
Hamblin’s efforts with the Indians were hampered by the widespread inability to understand the deep cultural chasm between the natives and the settlers. In fact, he eventually more or less gave up on working with the Paiutes of southern Utah, turning his expectations to the Hopis in Arizona, While they enjoyed better self-sufficiency, he ultimately failed in that task, as well. His most valuable strengths, as mentioned, were his track record of integrity with the Indians and his negotiating skills. They were needed often, particularly during the long Black Hawk War, and an 1860 expedition in Navajo in which George A. Smith Jr., the teenage son of LDS apostle George A. Smith, was killed by Indians. Hamblin’s earned trust was used often in dealing with Navajos, a strong tribe, with wealthy farmers, that was decimated by westward expansion.
Hamblin lived a frontier man’s life, often away from his family, as liable to sleep in a leaky tent than a clean bed. Like Parley P. Pratt, he suffered economically due to his church devotion, and that caused hardship for his wives and children. The “apostle to the Indians,” and his family, dealt with floods and parched conditions, and threats from Indians. His sorrows included returns from long explorations only to learn a child had died. He lived to age 67, dying of malaria in his own bed at the family home. Turning 67 years was an accomplishment in that era, but Hamblin probably had the body of a man 20 years older after the life he had lived.
Compton’s biography is fascinating. It’s so well-detailed and sourced that I can’t do justice to it in a review. But I urge persons to buy it. It would be a shame if this exhaustive, award-winning (It nabbed the Juanita Brooks Prize in Mormon Studies) biography, highly priced at $44.95, became relegated to libraries. Hopefully, a less-expensive paperback version might arrive one day.