A Frontier Life: Review

By Will Bagley


Bagley_HamblinA Frontier Life: Jacob Hamblin, Explorer and Indian Missionary.

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.”

One comment

  1. Todd Compton says:

    Will: As I’ve said before, thanks for the extremely generous review, despite some of your disagreements and criticisms. You’re one of the readers who really picked up on the importance of chapter 24, “The Fate of the Santa Clara Paiutes”; I also think this is one of the central contributions of the book, and it is a deeply troubling story. Though the near total destruction of the Santa Clara Paiutes by epidemic (probably cholera) is horrifying (and the lack of recognition of this event in the official Mormon historical record is also troubling), the Mormon destruction of the Paiutes’ habitat that preceded this, and led to Paiutes living on the brink of starvation (as Hamblin repeatedly affirmed, once in a letter to Brigham Young) is also a tragic story.

    On the issue of my defending Hamblin, as you perceive it. I can’t argue with your reactions as you read the book, and you are the reviewer; there is a reason authors aren’t asked to review their own books. However, in my personal view, I wasn’t either defending or attacking, merely trying to tell the story correctly. For example, let’s say that Joseph Smith was six feet tall, and that we have a record of someone measuring his body soon after his death, so the correct height is well documented. If someone writes that Joseph Smith is five foot five, and I say, no, he was six feet, and I footnote the measurement document, I’m not defending Smith; I’m trying to get a historical fact right. Likewise, if some enthusiastic historian or perhaps novelist portrays Joseph Smith as six foot eleven, I’m not demeaning or attacking Smith if I say, that’s not correct, he was actually six foot zero. So when one treats a subject, and a major writer has made a mistake in dealing with that subject, I think an author should–indeed has the moral duty to–show why good evidence does not support a flawed interpretation. This is true when an event or person is “over-evaluated,” or “under-evaluated.”
    Of course, this is a matter of balance, as you suggest in your review. We historians must seek for that superhuman ideal of perfect balance–and at the same time, we can be, and should be, emotionally involved with our subjects.

    I did not write with a blanket disapproval of anyone who criticized Hamblin. For example, one of the major influences on my book was an article by Charles Peterson in which he concluded that Hamblin as missionary, and the members of the Southern Indian Mission that he headed, were, in essence, failures (as proselytizing missionaries). The evidence I found supported that conclusion. Combine that with my chapter 24 and you have a pretty bleak view of one of Hamblin’s central life missions. (Though Peterson, and I, felt that Hamblin and his friends were more successful as diplomats on the Indian frontier, counter-weights to militaristic leaders in Utah who sought for “extermination” of Indians, as did many whites in Western history.)

    In conclusion, I’m honored that one of the great historians of western and Utah history should read and review my book, and by your generous, perceptive commentary. Your reference to my “grasp of the tangled geography of canyon country” brought a smile to my face, for I thought that was an area in which I had only middling success, at best. Though I did pore over many historical maps to try to work out Hamblin’s sometimes completely obscure (or so it seemed) itineraries in the badlands of Arizona and southern Utah. (I should nod to the substantial help Kenneth Beesley gave me here.)

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