By Will Bagley
Todd M. Compton
University of Utah Press, 2013
613+ xix pages, illustrations, maps, index, bibliography.
The LDS Church History Department’s photograph collection contains not only a portrait of Jacob Hamblin but also countless variations of it where he sports better haircuts and wardrobes, and softer expressions—proof that doctored images existed long before Photoshop. Nothing better symbolizes the contrast between Jacob the hardy explorer, frontiersman, and Mormon folk hero, and the grasping, treacherous self-promoter John D. Lee denounced as a fiend from hell: “Dirty Fingered Jake.”
There is no harder or more hideous history in the chronicle of the American West than the story of the conquest and cultural devastation of its Native peoples. Mormonism’s frontier history is neither softer nor prettier. That he addresses without equivocation how this brutal reality played out in Brigham Young’s Great Basin kingdom is what makes Todd Compton’s biography of “the Apostle to the Lamanites” a major contribution to American history.
A Frontier Life, the first credible and comprehensive study of this complex man and his astonishing life, has notable virtues. Compton devoted more than a dozen years to recovering every scrap of evidence about Hamblin. He has done yeoman’s work absorbing the vast secondary literature on the Ute, Goshute, Southern Paiute, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni peoples Hamblin evangelized for more than three decades. Equally remarkable is Compton’s grasp of the tangled geography of canyon country so essential to revealing Hamblin’s accomplishments as an explorer.
Compton’s compulsion to defend his problematic Saint is the book’s Achilles’ heel. His repeated (and unprofessional) use of Hamblin’s first name creates a false intimacy. Compton fulfills his pledge to reveal Hamblin’s weaknesses as a human being, placing him “somewhere between the all-wise omniscient legend and the manipulative, lying antihero,” but also to “show a more nuanced view of Hamblin than the generally negative, almost melodramatic portrait” historian P. T. Reilly presented. Compton characterizes anyone who dares criticize Hamblin as “extremely partisan,” “anti-Hamblin,” “unsympathetic” (in Frank McNitt’s case, for his balanced critique of John D. Lee and Hamblin as Indian traders) or in my case, “notably unsympathetic.” Such partisan special pleading is unnecessary; the evidence speaks for itself.
The biographer’s challenge is to follow a subject through the twists and turns of his or her times, which in Hamblin’s case demands mastering many historical disciplines. Though Compton stumbles while dealing with the betrayals connected to Mountain Meadows, on the more difficult questions surrounding the consequences of Mormonism’s “Lamanite” missions he succeeds brilliantly. His unsparing chapter analyzing the disappearance of the Santa Clara Paiutes, titled “They Died Off So Fast That There Were Hardly Any Left in a Short Time,”(only 17 years after the opening of the South Indian Mission, to be exact) is devastating. His conclusions about Mormon-Indian relations are equally forthright. Ethnogenocide barely qualifies as a neologism now but will someday be a field of study: Compton will rank as one of its pioneers.
As someone who was made permanently skeptical by endless lessons about “Jacob Hamblin’s honesty with the Indians,” I would have preferred more Dirty Fingered Jake and less of the “apostle in buckskin.” Compton sometimes fails to ask obvious questions; for example, if John D. Lee deceived Brigham Young about Mountain Meadows, why did that lie not cost him his life for twenty years?
Quibbles aside, A Frontier Life opens valuable new perspectives on the Mormon Indian frontier and has much to teach its most experienced students. Compton’s final assessment of his conflicted hero rings true: “Despite his cultural limitations and occasional human failings, Jacob Hamblin’s antimilitarism, his attempt to solve conflicts through diplomacy, and his view of Indians as fully human, are his final, best legacy.”