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No Place Fit for a Human Being to Dwell Upon: The 1873 Colonization Mission to the Little Colorado River

This article originally appeared in Vol.60 No.1 (2013) issue of Pioneer Magazine

By Kevin Folkman

In the 1860s and early 1870s, Mormon expansion in the great basin began to spill over into new areas beyond the traditional Mormon Corridor. More LDS immigrants were arriving from Europe and the eastern states, requiring new farming and grazing lands. Railroad expanded westward, and non-LDS settlers and miners had begun moving into the intermountain west in ever greater numbers. Competition for farmland, water rights, cattle ranges and mining claims had begun. Inevitably, President Young began to look south toward Arizona and Mexico.

Lees Ferry Wagon negotiating Hells Backbone, 1910

In March of 1873, Brigham Young called some 250 individuals, mostly men, as missionaries to establish the first Mormon settlement south of the Colorado river. He had received a report from Bishop Lorenzo Roundy of Kanarraville who had crossed the Colorado and traveled up the Little Colorado tributary during January and February to near present-day Winslow. In his report, Roundy described the area as much like St. George, a “warm and favorable climate,” with grass and water plentiful. Based on this optimistic report, Brigham Young began his first serious effort at creating settlements south of the Colorado River.

The colonists trickled south in small groups beginning in late March and early April 1873. It had been what President Young described as a “backwards spring,” with an early warming followed by colder weather, including snowstorms in the higher passes o the road south. Approximately 102 men, 6 women and 1 child made the journey south that year, arriving at Moencopi near present-day Tuba City in late April and early May, just as the weather began to turn hot. Exploration of the Little Colorado showed the river drying up, leaving occasional brackish pools and quicksand, little or no timber, and no place that looked satisfactory for further settlement. Difficulties with the Hopi tribe over limited water and cropland at Moencopi complicated issues, and requests for further instructions from President Young in Salt Lake City went unanswered.

Concerned about the welfare of the colonists and their livestock, mission leader, Horton D. Haight, finally granted the colonists permission to retreat north back across the Colorado River and return home in July. Arriving back in northern Utah in early August, most of the colonists picked up where they had left off, and only a few returned in later years to help establish the Mormon settlements that eventually succeeded further up the Little Colorado in areas where water was more reliable, dams could be built for irrigation and settlements could be maintained.

The 1873 Arizona mission ended in failure, a sentiment frequently reinforced in sermons by Church leaders and the writings of later historians. Even the New York Times picked up on the failure, running an article with the headline “The Mormon Failure” before most of the colonists had returned home. The failure label stuck, and most discussions or books on Mormon colonization in Arizona have little to say about the accomplishments of the 1873 pioneers.

Those accomplishments, however, were not insubstantial. The mission was led by men of considerable reputation and experience. Horton D. Haight, the mission president, had traversed the plains several times during the great migration, first as a pioneer in his own right and then on multiple occasions as a leader of the “down and back” companies that met emigrants at the end of the railroad in Missouri or Nebraska with wagons, teams, and provisions for the journey to the Salt Lake Valley. Jacob Hamblin and Ira Hatch had both spent much time in Arizona and were well acquainted with the Native American populations. President Young felt that familiarity was critical to obtaining the help of the Hopi and Navajo tribes, and he valued the leadership and experience of his two Indian missionaries.

However, more recent information from journals and letters shows the 1873 colonists faced incredible handicaps and a lack of reliable information about the conditions in Arizona. Despite these considerable difficulties, the 1873 settlers established a safe route through an inhospitable desert, built roads through some of the most forbidding landscapes in North America and greatly enhanced existing knowledge about the Little Colorado River drainage that helped the later settlements to succeed. We should celebrate their successes as much as we remember their failures.

Establishing a Route

The 1873 colonists were not the first people to travel the Arizona deserts. The Navajo, Hopi, Southern Paiutes and Apache peoples had lived and survived in the area for many years. Miners, trappers and explorers in small groups had traversed much of the same landscape, primarily on horseback or foot. Brigham Young and others were already aware that the Colorado River was largely impassible along a stretch running several hundred miles. Explorers had already located one of the few places where the river could be approached and crossed easily: the mouth of the Paria River, a few miles below present-day Glen Canyon Dam. The difficulty of getting loaded wagons across the Colorado, which in spring-time ran in huge muddy torrents clogged with trees, dead animals, and other debris, could not be over-stated. John D. Lee had been charged by President Young in 1872 with establishing a ferry at the mouth of the Paria just above Marble Canyon to assist in colonization and travel. The crossing became known as Lee’s Ferry, and Lee’s ranch there as Lonely Dell, a fitting name for the remote outpost.

To cross the Colorado at Lee’s Ferry involved a difficult overland trek from Johnson’s Ranch east of Kanab. From Johnson’s, wagons would have to cross a desert valley, climb up and over the north end of the Kaibab Plateau, and then descend through the narrow House Rock Valley to the Vermillion Cliffs overlooking Marble Canyon. Frequently traveled on horseback, this desert trail challenged the 1873 colonists and their wagons. Most of the colonists were unfamiliar with desert travel. Water holes and springs were known along this part of the route, but the heavily laden wagons often broke down in the sand, horses wore out on the long stretches between camps, and natural feed for the livestock proved to be limited.

Members of the companies described the difficulties of desert travel in their journals. Wagon teams were unhitched from their harnesses at night and wandered miles in search of forage before morning. The colonists often spent hours gathering the scattered teams, which frequently delayed their start until the heat of the day.

One colonist, James Glover, abandoned his wagon and walked several miles to the next camp when his horses could go no further. He retraced his steps the next day to collect his team and wagon but found only his horses. Later that day a different abandoned wagon was found, and Glover hitched his team up and brought the replacement wagon into camp to continue his journey. Andrew Amundsen recorded in his journal before reaching Lee’s Ferry that he and his companions had to endure “dry camps” without water and had to haul water for the teams in barrels to last long enough to get to the next spring.

At the southern end of House Rock Valley the emigrants stopped at House Rock Springs, a good water source. Between House Rock Springs and Lee’s Ferry, only one other spring, Jacob’s Pool, provided a reliable source of water. English convert, Frederick King, his young wife, Charlotte, and their one-year- old daughter, Mary, suffered heavily on this stretch between Jacob’s Pool and the crossing at Lee’s Ferry. Frederick came down with dizziness, weakness and exhaustion, likely a case of heatstroke. Charlotte loaded him in the back of the wagon, and with the help of northern Utah neighbor Lark Stevens she brought the wagon into Lonely Dell, exhausted by the heat and travel. Their horses suffered in pulling the heavily loaded wagon. The Kings had already cached some furniture and possessions along the route south to lighten their load, and at Lee’s Ferry they cached some flour, a table and Charlotte’s prized sewing machine.

Hardship at Lonely Dell

Lee’s Ferry and Lee’s Backbone

Brigham Young had some familiarity with the territory north of the Colorado and instructed his nephew, St. George stake president, Joseph W. Young, to bring a crew and build a road from the base of the Vermillion Cliffs down about 1,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon at Lee’s Ferry. They had toiled for several weeks in April to make the descent passable for the wagons of Haight’s companies. Lee built a ferry, little more than a large raft, to move the wagons and livestock across the river to the south side.

Nothing had been done about the route over Lee’s Backbone and Echo Peak on the south side of the river. Foot and horse trails climbed up 1,500 feet from the river to cross a ridge of alternating layers of hard, white Shinarump sandstone and crumbling, red Navajo sandstone, but no wagon trails had been built. The ridge was also cut with many gullies and washes, further complicating the climb. The colonists did their best to pick a path up the steep incline, alternately building up and cutting away portions of the grade in an attempt to make the route passable.

Three or four teams were hitched to each wagon, the wagons were pulled forward, and the wheels were blocked to prevent rolling back downhill. Repeated over and over, this process brought a few wagons a day up to the top of Lee’s Backbone. Once on top of the ridge, the wagons wound south and west around gullies and hills only to face a steep descent down another rocky slope 500 vertical feet to the plateau below.

Again, multiple teams were hitched to each wagon and the rear wheels were blocked with a log or ropes to slow the descent from the ridge. Wilford Woodruff, traveling this same route some years later, described it as “the worst hill Ridge or Mountain that I ever attempted to cross” and noted that the descent on the south side of the ridge was even steeper than the difficult ascent on the north side.

This process had to be repeated for all the wagons throughout late April and early May as more of the colonists made the ferry crossing. Built of rock and red sand, the road bed needed constant repair. This crossing became part of the famous “Honeymoon Trail” for LDS Church members traveling from Arizona settlements to St. George to be married in the temple there. The Lee’s Backbone crossing remained arguably the most physically challenging part of the trip for decades until the railroad connecting central Arizona to southern California and Salt Lake City was completed in the 1890s. Later the federal government built Highway 89 and bridged the Marble Canyon in 1929 some five miles downstream from Lee’s Ferry, bypassing Lee’s Backbone. For much of the rest of its route the highway retraced the Mormon wagon road laid out by Haight’s colonists.

As difficult as Lee’s Backbone had been for Haight’s would-be settlers, these untested desert travelers next faced an unknown desert wilderness where little or no water existed and feed for the livestock proved to be much more difficult to find than previously believed. What water sources existed had limited flow, so the colonists traveled in small groups to prevent their numbers from overwhelming the available springs. One spring had a bitter, soapy taste, so the colonists named the camp Bitter Springs, a name that persists today. At times the pioneers were forced to carry water for their exhausted horses for two or three days between springs.

By May, most of the colonists had arrived at or near Moencopi, just below the edge of the plateau from present-day Tuba City. Here the Hopi people had found multiple reliable springs. Although they lived some distance away, the Hopis visited Moencopi annually to raise food crops and cotton. Familiar with Jacob Hamblin and Ira Hatch, they welcomed the Mormon settlers and shared their oasis.

The Little Colorado

President Haight knew the ultimate goal of the colonists was to establish their own communities somewhere on the drainage of the Little Colorado River. The river passed at its nearest point about 20 miles south of Moencopi. Haight selected a portion of the colonists to move south to the Little Colorado. Once there, a small number of men were sent to search the river on horseback for timber, potential sites for an irrigation dam, and other necessities for settlements.

This group of 15 men included Haight, John Bennion, Henry Holmes and Andrew Amundsen, whose journal gives the best account of the exploration up the river. Their first view of the Little Colorado was disappointing. Bishop Roundy had reported a clear running stream in January and February, but by May 24 the river was drying up. They found the trickle of available water brackish and foul, and the riverbed riddled with quicksand.

By the second day of their journey, Amundsen estimated they had already traveled farther than Roundy the previous winter. For five days they traveled upstream, encountering less and less water, more quicksand and desert, little or no timber and a sandy river bed too wide to support any kind of dam. After traveling more than 150 miles, the exploring party reached the approximate area of Petrified Forest National Park, where they marveled at the huge stone tree trunks. Amundsen noted in his journal that they had found “no plase fit for a humen being to dwell upon” and that the whole area was “the moste desert lukking plase I ever saw, Amen.”

Discouraged, Haight and his companions retraced their path back down the river to the advanced camp, gathered the rest of the colonists there and returned to Moencopi on June 5. After consulting with the Hopis and the other colonists, Haight decided to send men to Kanab to telegraph Salt Lake City for instructions. He gave them a preliminary report that indicated the colonists had not found suitable settings to establish a community, and asked for further instructions.

Over the next few weeks the colonists occupied themselves in various ways. Frederick King’s wife Charlotte, made friends with a Hopi woman and gave the woman’s infant son one of her own daughters’ red flannel nightgowns, which pleased the Native American woman. Andrew Allen tried his hand at weaving wool with an elderly Hopi man. He also sampled some of the Hopi foods, including piki, the Hopis’ signature paper-thin flat bread.

As the summer progressed, forage for horses and cattle became even more critical. With so many Mormon colonists and a larger than normal number of curious Hopis spending the summer at Moencopi, grazing areas soon ran out. Some of the colonists’ cattle got into the Hopi crops, creating friction with the native hosts. The colonists took to feeding seed grain to their livestock, and when even that ran out, they began mixing flour and water to sustain the animals.

W. Morrell and E.H. Evans, the two men Haight had sent back across the Colorado to telegraph Salt Lake, found the lines down somewhere north of Kanab. They sent a Paiute Indian to Toquerville with a message to be sent from there and then began to wait for an answer. By mid-June no answer had come, and some of the colonists began thinking about returning north to Utah. Some of the Hopis related that the area was in the midst of a long drought and regretted that no place could be found for the Mormons to settle.

Finally a letter from Morrell and Evans arrived describing difficulties with high water at Lee’s Ferry and explaining that no answer had come from Salt Lake City. In addition, President Joseph W. Young had fallen ill and died June 7. Henry Holmes wrote to Apostle Franklin D. Richards that the area was not fit for settlement but that he hoped other areas nearby might prove more suitable. Holmes also questioned the value of Bishop Roundy’s report from the midst of a mild winter with plentiful water and foliage.

Reluctantly, President Haight released the missionaries from their calling. In small groups the colonists retraced their steps, crossing the deserts, climbing and descending Lee’s Backbone and finding a new way to cross the Colorado at Lee’s Ferry. With the large ferry washed away, the colonists disassembled the wheels and axles from their wagons, loaded them into a small skiff, and rowed across the Colorado. The livestock were herded into the river to swim across. By the time Frederick and Charlotte got across the river, one of their horses had died and the other was too feeble to continue, so they traded their now useless wagon for a pony, leaving behind all that they had taken south with them.

By the first of August most of the colonists had returned home to northern Utah. The message about their difficulties apparently did not reach Brigham Young until they were well on their way home. President Young, knowing that more colonists would have to be sent south again, expressed his disappointment by saying, “Had we sent the sisters of the Relief Society, some of our pioneer sisters, they would have held that place, and accomplished their mission. But instead, we sent men that don’t know anything about a hard day’s work or a privation—and they came away because the sun shone hot and the wind blew!”

Three or four men stayed on at Moencopi, but even they abandoned it the following January when troubles escalated with the Navajo. No further attempts were made for permanent colonization on the Little Colorado until the winter of 1876–1877, when new missionaries retraced the 1873 company’s route. They and subsequent groups traveled further up the river, eventually settling at more distant locations such as Snowflake and St. John’s. The area where the 1873 colonists spent their time was never successfully settled by Mormon pioneers. Some settlement took place at Tuba City, but an eventual redrawing of treaty and reservation boundaries by the Bureau of Indian Affairs placed Tuba City, named after Hopi Chief Tuuvi, firmly in Navajo lands. The Mormons had to abandon a cotton mill and their homes and move away.

So what, if anything, did the 1873 colonists accomplish? Hampered as they were by inadequate information about the actual climate in the area and woefully prepared for desert living, clearly the odds were stacked against them. Later groups started their journeys in the winter and crossed the worst of the deserts in much more moderate spring weather. The lower Little Colorado’s flow is intermittent in the best of years, drying up each summer. Only on the Silver Creek tributary did Mormon settlers find a reliable year-round water source. Many efforts were made to build dams at various places on the Little Colorado, and all of them failed until a permanent dam was finally built at Woodruff in 1895. Shipments of flour had to be sent from Cache Valley to these later settlements until the 1880s, when a few of the communities finally became self-sustaining.

If nothing else, the 1873 colonists did make two important contributions to later efforts. First, they gave a much more accurate and comprehensive report of the land and climate than previously known, allowing later settlers to be better prepared. Second, and perhaps most significant, they constructed the wagon road over Lee’s Backbone and on to the Little Colorado. The establishment of a reliable route along the water holes and springs enabled other travelers to cross the area with less distress and discomfort. As referenced before, the “Honeymoon Trail,” or Mormon Wagon Road, was used for decades, with thousands retracing the route of Horton Haight’s colonists and owing a debt of gratitude for the sacrifice of these earlier pioneers.

Today, Highway 89 completely skirts Lee’s Ferry, and Lee’s Backbone is a distant hill rather than a formidable obstacle. Travelers in air-conditioned cars cover a distance in hours that the 1873 colonists took weeks to complete. Highway 89 closely parallels the Mormon Wagon Road for much of its route south of the Colorado River, and we now enjoy its scenic beauties rather than battle its grueling heat, sand and rock.

Kevin Folkman is an amateur historian from Redmond, Washington.

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