American History / Blog





 Early travelers could only cross the Colorado River in Arizona, in two places.  At “The Crossing of the Fathers,” and later, at Mormon pioneer John D. Lee’s Ferry at the mouth of the Paria River.

You can see the Lee’s Ferry site today from the Navajo Bridge [the loneliest bridge at the sweetest spot in America], or by traveling down to its landing, carrying the rubber dinghies with which you will challenge the Grand Canyon rapids.  But back then, with only foot, horse, and wagon, it was another matter.

This is the great sedimentary plateau in the American Southwest.  There, you will find meteor craters, volcanic cinders, and mountain building.  Romantic, if mostly rough and rocky.  And dry as a bone.  Heat and cold in varying torture.

The Spanish “conquered” New Mexico in 1540, rudely invading and proclaiming a new Catholic colony.  In time, Santa Fe flourished [but only after the Spanish “re-conquered” the Pueblo Peoples, who revolted in 1680], and much later, was connected by trade to California over the “Spanish Trail.”  Frontiersman Kit Carson, a Kentucky expatriate [more about him later], guided John C. Fremont [him, too] over that way in 1844.

Here is the rub: the unsatisfying direction that the Spanish Trail took.  It seemed to follow a circumpolar route north from Santa Fe, before turning southwest again, toward what would later become Las Vegas.

Why was that?  The Colorado River and its many steep and deep crevices.  The Grand Canyon is a sufficient example.  Not easy going down and up those chasms.  I have done it only once.  Better to go up and around the Grand, Marble, and Glen Canyons!

All that changed with the pioneering explorations of two Franciscan priests, Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre de Escalante [the one whose name graces the now politically embattled “Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument”].  They were seeking a more direct route from Santa Fe to the missions of Monterey in California.

Traveling along the Vermilion Cliffs [Vermilion, a red color originally from powdered cinnabar, a mineral of mercury sulfide (HgS)] in the northwestern “Arizona Strip,” they tried to circle back to Santa Fe, only to be blocked by the Colorado River at Marble Canyon.  In 1776, they came upon the area of future Lee’s Ferry, calling their camp, “Salsipuede” [loosely interpreted as, “get out if you can”]. Frustrated, they climbed back over the cliffs through what is now called the “Dominguez Pass,” to what was to be called, “The Crossing of the Fathers.”  There, surprisingly, at low flow, they were able to cross the Colorado River on sandbars.  Can’t do that now.  That crossing is buried deep under the waters of Lake Powell [named for the explorer, John Wesley Powell], behind the huge Glen Canyon Dam.

Seventy-one years later, the Mormons founded Salt Lake City [in part, guided by Fremont’s diaries], and the Navajos had fully invested the Chuska Mountains in the north central border of Arizona and New Mexico.  The Mormons began expanding south, and wanted to settle in the Little Colorado River Basin, south of the Grand Canyon.

The Navajos then began escaping the now-Colonel, Kit Carson, of the United States Army, who had burned the Navajo orchards in Canyon de Chelley in order to corral those people.  The Navajos were forced on “The Long Walk” to the Basque Redondo Reservation in 1864.  So the fleeing Navajos fled to “The Crossing of the Fathers” and the place that Lee would later place his ferry across the Colorado River.

And here is where the Hopi People come in.  Their pueblos were located nearby, just east, on three mesas.  Their prophets had told them not to cross the river.  And they are a conservative, urban people.

The Mormon religion has a special place in its theology for Native Americans [including Lamanites and Nephites].  In 1858, Brigham Young sent Jacob Hamblin, as a missionary, into their pueblos.  But those people had their own religion [in part, relating to their Katsina spirits], and resisted the Catholic, Mormon, and later, Mennonite missionaries.

You can read about the ruined Hopi Village of Awatovi, or go to Old Oraibi and look out at the church ruins down the mesa.  These are a people tightly in touch with their origins.

It was about this time that John Wesley Powell, the one-armed explorer [and soon-to-be director at the U.S. Geological Society and Smithsonian Institute], floated down the Colorado and landed at what would become Lee’s Ferry, just upstream from Marble Canyon, and the beginning of the Grand Canyon.

The next year, Powell met with Brigham Young at Salt Lake City, and traveled south with him and Young’s adopted son, John D. Lee, to the Paria River.  Later, Powell crossed the Colorado River at the mouth of the Paria and, with Jacob Hamblin [the Mormon missionary], visited the Hopi pueblos before moving on to Fort Defiance, where they negotiated a peace with the Navajos on the frontier.

And now for John D. Lee, the Mormon leader with a conflicted history.  He was one of the earlier Mormon vigilantes, called “the Danites,” defending his people. Lee participated in the Missouri Mormon War in 1838, ultimately joining the migration of Mormons west, under Brigham Young.

But now, enter United States General Albert Sidney Johnston.  Here is how he fits into this story.  In 1857, he was commanding 2,600 United States soldiers marching on Salt Lake City from Kansas, to replace Brigham Young as Territorial Governor with another federal appointee.  United States President Buchanan was concerned about certain Mormon practices, including plural marriages.  And he needed a distraction from the brewing southern secessionists.

Mormon Major Lot Smith, of the Nauvoo Legion and the Mormon Battalion, was sent to harass Johnston’s baggage train.  This is known as the “Utah War,” or “Buchanan’s Blunder.”  It was settled without further military losses after Young agreed to transition on terms.  Lot Smith went on to become a major figure in the Mormon settlement of Arizona.

In the later Civil War, Albert Sidney Johnston would join the Confederate forces and go on to command the Confederate Western Armies in Southern Kentucky.  Driven out by Union General Ulysses S. Grant, he would die, in 1862, fighting Grant in Tennessee at the Battle of Shiloh.  And who sent Grant out west?  Then Major General John C. Fremont!

After the Civil War, in 1871, Lee answered the “call” of Brigham Young to establish a ferry at the Colorado River at the mouth of the Paria.  Young was eying increased migration and settlement into Arizona.  Lee moved down to the Colorado with his wives, and established the ferry.

But John D. Lee may have been sent south by Young for another reason.  In 1857, during the Utah War, Lee had been involved in the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, where more than 120 emigrants of the Fancher Wagon Train were slaughtered in Southern Utah.

A group of local Mormons and perhaps some Native Americans, were implicated.  John D. Lee and others were indicted as leaders.  Seventeen years later, John D. Lee was captured by federal authorities and tried.  Found guilty, he was executed by a military firing squad at the site of Mountain Meadows, the only one who ever stood trial for the massacre.

Lee’s Ferry also became a point of access to the gold fines found in the soft Chinle Rock Formation of Upper Triassic origin [more than 200 million years ago.  The beginning of the dinosaurs, and just before the great extinction event].  But sluice mining operations there failed.  The mercury amalgamators, needed to extract the gold, were clogging up.  Something was coating the mercury, preventing it from absorbing the precious metal.  A sample was sent to Paris and Madame Marie Curie.  Something was there, but she couldn’t describe it.

Well, through the march of science, now we can do so.  And it may be more valuable than the gold that was out there.  Certainly more rare than that precious metal!  But I will leave that discovery for you to sort out.  Here is your clue:  6% of modern jet fighter turbine blades is of that element.  And remember the number, 75.

Now it is your turn to be the explorer!



About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. most of his 24 titles are available on this site and Amazon with many on Kindle and Audible!

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