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Review: Compton, Jacob Hamblin: A Frontier Life

By: David G. - December 31, 2013

Todd M. Compton. A Frontier Life: Jacob Hamblin, Explorer and Indian Missionary. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2013. 642 pp. Illustrations, photos, maps, bibliography, index. Cloth: $44.95; ISBN: 978-1-60781-234-0

Todd Compton’s first major contribution to Mormon history was his 1997 In Sacred Loneliness, a collective biography of Joseph Smith’s plural wives.[1] In his most recent offering, Compton has returned to the biographer’s craft, with a definitive examination of Jacob Hamblin, a prominent figure in the Mormon colonization of southern Utah and the Southwest. Hamblin was a devout Latter-day Saint, who preached the Gospel to Indians, married plural wives, and played a key role in the expanding Kingdom of God in the West. Even in his lifetime, Hamblin achieved renown not only among the Saints as the “Apostle to the Lamanites,” but also nationally as a guide and an interpreter for John Wesley Powell’s famed expeditions to the Grand Canyon. Previous Hamblin biographies have been either fictionalized or hagiographic, reflecting the “Hamblin legend” that emerged in the nineteenth century.[2] More recent works, reacting against these earlier portrayals, have cast Hamblin in a more unfavorable light.[3] Compton’s biography, the first full-length scholarly treatment of Hamblin’s life, presents a positive reevaluation, while not ignoring the frontiersman’s flaws. Compton expertly analyzes Hamblin’s evolving attitudes toward Indians, showing how the missionary gradually became the “Apostle to the Lamanites.”

Hamblin, an Ohio native, converted in 1842 to Mormonism in Wisconsin. Impressed by the faith’s biblical literalism, millennialism, and views of Native Americans as descendants of Book of Mormon Israelites, Hamblin embraced the new religion in spite of family opposition. The convert enjoyed spiritual gifts, most notably the ability to heal the sick, which eventually contributed to the conversions of his first wife, Lucinda Taylor, and his father, Israel Hamblin. Hamblin met the Prophet Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, served proselyting missions for the church, and followed Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles West. During the trek, he and Lucinda divorced, leaving him with four children. Hamblin quickly remarried, wedding widow and divorcee Rachel Judd (Page) (Henderson), herself the primary caregiver of three Henderson stepchildren.

Hamblin demonstrated his faith in Mormonism by entering into polygamy. In 1857, he married sixteen-year-old Sarah Priscilla Leavitt as a plural wife. Due to Rachel Hamblin’s prolonged illnesses, Priscilla, as she was called, had previously cared for the Hamblin children, suggesting that the marriage was partly for practical purposes. In 1860, he married a Shivwits Paiute woman, Eliza (they were sealed in 1863), although she subsequently left him. He may have married two other Paiute women, although documentation for these unions is scanty. After Rachel Hamblin’s 1865 death, Hamblin took an additional wife, twenty-two year old Louisa Bonelli. Although the Indian missionary was often away from home, he nevertheless fathered twenty-four biological children, cared for three step children (from Rachel’s previous marriage), and adopted seven Native children.

Hamblin’s principal passion was proselyting Native peoples. He later recalled that, while in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith had set Hamblin apart to be a missionary to the Indians. In the early 1850s, however, while living in the Tooele Valley, Hamblin participated in several militia “punitive campaigns” against Goshutes accused of stealing. In his autobiography, Hamblin described his transition from Indian fighter to “Messenger of Peace” as the result of divine intervention when his gun failed to discharge against a Native foe (just as the Goshute’s arrows missed Hamblin). Compton demystifies this transition by showing from contemporary sources that the change was gradual rather than immediate, and that subsequently, Hamblin occasionally strayed from his nonviolent approach. Compton does show that during this formative period in Tooele, Hamblin’s efforts to learn the language and culture of his Native “enemies” frequently put him at variance with his military and ecclesiastical superiors.

In 1854, Hamblin and a few others were called to proselyte Paiutes in southern Utah, and in 1857 he was set apart as the Southern Indian Mission’s president. Many Paiutes accepted baptism, believing that the Mormons could be powerful allies against the neighboring Utes, who had previously kidnapped and sold Paiute women and children in the New Mexican slave trade. Although Hamblin was not in southern Utah in September 1857, his prominence as an Indian missionary ineluctably tied him to the church’s response to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, given Paiute involvement in the killings. Hamblin’s adopted Shoshone son, Albert, witnessed the atrocity and informed his father of the details soon after the event. Hamblin helped bury the massacre victims and his wives cared for the surviving orphans for a time. As Compton documents, the Indian missionary subsequently became complicit in Mormon efforts to place blame solely on the Paiutes and obscure white involvement in the massacre. Compton also analyzes with an even hand the feud that developed between John D. Lee and Hamblin as Mormon leaders scapegoated the former for the massacre. Lee, embittered by what he saw as betrayal by his fellow Saints, lashed out at Hamblin both privately and publicly. While there was some truth in the criticisms, Compton concludes that Lee should not be seen as a reliable source on Hamblin. In 1858, Hamblin embarked on the first of dozens of expeditions across the Colorado River into present-day Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. His initial purpose in going south was to preach to the Hopis. Mormons, hearing of the Hopis’ sedentary villages and extensive agricultural practices, had strong hopes that these Natives would be well prepared to embrace not only Mormonism, but also western cultural values such as farming and literacy. Over the coming years, he not only worked with the Hopis but also Navajos, Zunis, and other Southwestern Indians.

Hamblin’s deep experience in the region and his knowledge of Native languages and cultures did not go unnoticed by Mormon leaders and U.S. government officials. The book’s subtitle, which highlights Hamblin’s dual roles as Indian missionary and explorer/colonizer, defines what Compton calls “the great paradox of Hamblin’s life” (480). Compton portrays his subject as a sincere missionary who honestly believed that he was bringing not only salvation to his Native proselytes, but also a superior way of life. Hamblin’s missionary endeavors and explorations, however, produced knowledge that served as a foundation for subsequent colonization and settlement of Indian lands. Compton documents in painful detail the devastation settlement wrought on Native communities through disease and competition over resources. Hamblin himself recognized his complicity in Indian dispossession and sought at times to alleviate suffering caused, in part, by his efforts. Compton concludes that, in final analysis, “all that an Indian missionary could do would be to help both Indians and white settlers adjust to the [colonizing] process in a humane and non-violent way” (482-83). Although Hamblin could not stop all white violence against Indians, especially during the Black Hawk War in the 1860s, as an advocate of peace he demonstrably reduced bloodshed.

Compton should be commended for the remarkable depth of research in primary and secondary sources for this biography, an achievement that is magnified by his status as an independent scholar, without university or institutional resources. He cites many of the important works of the “New Western History,” the historiographical movement that re-envisioned the West from the perspective of the victims of Euro-American conquest, rather than from the viewpoint of westering whites who brought “civilization” to the region.[4] Additionally, Compton skillfully consults ethnographic literature on each of the Native groups with which Hamblin interacted.

In the final chapter, Compton briefly contrasts Hamblin’s commitment to peaceful coexistence with Indians and “race war”—the inherently violent struggle between “civilization and savagery”—which Richard Slotkin argues defined the American experience.[5] In the nineteenth century–especially after the U.S. Army’s massacres of Native peoples at Sand Creek in 1864 and at the Marias River in 1870–outsiders often compared the Mormons favorably with Quakers and other religious groups that sought peaceful coexistence with Native peoples through evangelization.[6] Brigham Young’s maxim that it was “cheaper to feed Indians than fight them” was frequently invoked by both Mormons and non-Mormons, but Young relied heavily on intermediaries such as Hamblin, Dimick Huntington, and scores of lesser known “Indian experts” to implement this policy. Although modern scholarship has done much to challenge the myth of Mormon exceptionalism (and innocence) on the frontier [7], Compton’s sophisticated biography of Jacob Hamblin suggests that it is time to reevaluate the Mormons’ peace policy and the role it played in Mormon colonization of the Great Basin.[8]

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[1] Todd M. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997).

[2] Paul Bailey, Jacob Hamblin: Buckskin Apostle (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1948); Pearson Corbett, Jacob Hamblin: Peacemaker (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,1952); Hartt Wixom, Hamblin: A Modern Look at the Frontier Life and Legend of Jacob Hamblin (Springville, UT: CFI, 1996).

[3] Charles S. Peterson, “Jacob Hamblin, Apostle to the Lamanites and the Indian Mission,” Journal of Mormon History 2 (1975): 21-34; P.T. Reilly, Lee’s Ferry: From Mormon Crossing to National Park (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1999); Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).

[4] Compton, for example, cites two foundational New Western History texts: Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987) and Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norton: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

[5]  Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown: CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973); The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (New York: Atheneum, 1985); Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992).

[6]  For examples of non-Mormons comparing the Saints to the Quakers and Moravians, see John Alton Peterson, Utah’s Black Hawk War (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999), 108-109.

[7] Howard W. Christy, “Open Hand, Mailed Fist: Mormon-Indian Relations in Utah, 1847-1852,” Utah Historical Quarterly 46, no. 3 (Summer 1978): 216-35; Ned Blackhawk, Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), ch. 7; Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[8] Some scholars have called into question interpretations of Mormon-Indian relations as exceptionally violent. See Ronald W. Walker, “Toward a Reconstruction of Mormon and Indian Relations, 1847-1877,” BYU Studies 29, no. 4 (Fall 1989): 23-42 and Sondra Jones, “Saints or Sinners? The Evolving Perceptions of Mormon-Indian Relations in Utah Historiography,” Utah Historical Quarterly 72, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 19-46.

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this review, David. Great job. As a kid, I remember people repeating the idea that Hamblin was actually ordained an apostle (obviously, not in the Q12). True?

    Comment by WVS — December 31, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

  2. Thanks, WVS. Great question. I imagine that Todd will weigh in a some point, but my sense is that Hamblin was not an ordained apostle in the same sense as, say, Amasa Lyman was in Nauvoo. However, on December 15, 1876, Brigham Young “ordained” Hamblin “an Apostle to the Lamanites” (Compton, 435, quoting Bleak’s Annals). Was this an actual ordination as an apostle, or was BY simply invoking a Mormon adaptation of a common title applied to Catholic (and, perhaps, Protestant) missionaries that worked among Indians? In Catholic Calumet, Tracy Leavelle notes that one early Jesuit missionary was known as the “apostle of the Hurons” (43).

    Comment by David G. — December 31, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

  3. Thanks, David. This looks great.

    Comment by Christopher — December 31, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

  4. David, if you have the book handy, does Compton cite a page number in Bleak? Just curious. A glance at it was not fruitful.

    Comment by WVS — December 31, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

  5. Great job, David.

    Comment by Ben P — December 31, 2013 @ 11:49 pm

  6. Thanks, David, for your thorough reading of my *long* biography, and for your generous and insightful comments. On your last paragraph: when treating the Navajos, I was struck by the fact that there were different currents of policy moving among them behind the scenes. Some were more militaristic, others more peaceful. (While whites had the tendency to view them as all alike, and all guilty of any raiding.) And of course Navajos had nothing like an elected chief of the tribe. In the same way, behind the scenes, I found Mormons who wanted quick, militaristic solutions to Indian problems, and other Mormons who liked them and were very interested in them. Corey Smallcanyon, in his earlier JI post, discussed how changeable Brigham Young seemed, at times, as he dealt with Native Americans. So there’s a lot of complexity there.

    Comment by Todd Compton — January 1, 2014 @ 12:54 am

  7. WVS: It looks like there is something wrong with my Bleak, “Annals,” cite, for which I apologize. (By the way, I have a list of errata for A Frontier Life on my website.) Putting Bleak aside, pending further investigation, on March 12, 1874, John D. Lee wrote in his diary, “he (Hamblin) seemed to treat my views lightly & said that he was an aPostle to the Laminites & he run that shebang & not me.” In a March 15, 1874 letter to Brigham Young, Lee said about the same thing: “Saying that he was . . . ordain[ed] an apostle to the Lamanites & knew his own buisiness.” Andrew Jenson, in 1920, published his third volume of the Biographical Encyclopedia, and in an article on Jacob (p. 100), referred to an ordination and gave a date: “He was ordained an Apostle to the Lamanites on Friday, Dec. 15, 1876, at St. George by President Brigham Young.” (This is two years *after* the Lee cites.) Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions, 659, lists Jacob as an apostle, but not as a General Authority—“his calling was evangelical.” It’s interesting that in the New Testament, the calling of apostles was as missionaries—the Greek word apostolos comes from apo (away) and stello (send)—someone sent away (on a mission). I agree with Quinn’s and David’s interpretation of this calling.

    Comment by Todd Compton — January 1, 2014 @ 3:00 am

  8. Thanks, Todd. RE: comment #6, indeed, there was great complexity among both Native groups and Mormons. What I think your biography does is explore ways that Mormons pursued a peace policy and diplomacy in order to facilitate colonization. The reaction against “feed, not fight” has correctly shown that this policy emerged haphazardly and that Mormon settlers inconsistently adhered to it even after Brigham Young made it standard policy. But this literature has also obscured how Brigham Young and his “Indian experts” in the field sought to establish peaceful relations with Native groups (through gifts, trade, evangelization, farms, etc.), not solely as an end in itself, but to facilitate Mormon expansion into new areas and help Natives transition to difficult changes and the upheaval that inevitably followed. Hamblin, as you show, was a key player in that process, and that he didn’t always like the results.

    Comment by David G. — January 1, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

  9. Apologies for getting to this so late, but this was very well done. Thanks, David!

    Comment by J Stuart — January 20, 2014 @ 9:37 am