SOUTHERN UTAH — In the winter of 1874, having been assured by Jacob Hamblin they would be safe traveling among the LDS church settlers of Southern Utah, four Navajo men left their homes in northern Arizona with pack horses loaded with woolen saddle-blankets and leather bridles.
After crossing the Colorado River, they traveled north to the east fork of the Sevier River where they traded goods with the Utes for deer and buffalo hides. But tragedy struck on their return home when a snowstorm forced them to seek shelter in an abandoned cabin in Grass Valley, near Richfield.
Hungry and cold, they slaughtered a calf belonging to the family on whose property they were squatting. It proved a fatal mistake.
The land belonged to Alexander McCarty and his sons Bill and Tom, former Confederates who had moved to Utah from Tennessee. They had a lucrative contract to supply beef to federal troops stationed at Fort Cameron — in nearby Beaver — and their hired men were a rough bunch that disliked both Mormons and Native Americans.
Bill and Tom later became notorious outlaws with the Wild Bunch, mentoring along the way a young man from Circleville, Robert LeRoy Parker, who later gained fame as Butch Cassidy.
Learning the Navajos were in the abandoned cabin and had slaughtered one of their calves, the McCarty’s sought revenge. They attacked without warning, killing three of the men and badly wounding the fourth who barely escaped on horseback.
With his companions dead, their trade goods stolen, and the McCarty’s hot on his trail, the lone survivor — a man named Swiftwind — nursed his wounds as he slowly made his way back home.
When he arrived, news of the killings spread like wildfire among tribesmen who cried for revenge, blaming The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saint settlers for the murders, incorrectly assuming that the McCartys were Mormon.
Those at greatest immediate risk of the Navajos’ revenge were LDS colonists on the Little Colorado at Moenave and Moenkopi, near present-day Tuba City, where Brigham Young had sent settlers to the area to teach the Hopi and Navajo Indians.
When Jacob Hamlin, who was living in Kanab by this time, learned of the Grass Valley murders, he immediately left for northern Arizona hoping to convince the Navajos the murders were not by church members.
When Hamblin and his two companions reached the area in March, they warned settlers of the imminent threat then rode north to the camp of a Navajo leader named Ketchene. They soon found themselves crowded into a large hogan with two dozen angry men, many of whom wanted to kill them on the spot.
Hamblin did his best to convince the men that Latter-day Saints had nothing to do with the killings. Some of those present wanted to stretch Hamblin and his companions over a bed of hot coals as payment for the deaths but, as Hamblin later recorded, “Ketchene, father of two & uncle of one of the men killed said the bodies of his sons were eaten by the wolves & owls; but it would do no good to spill more blood but thought I ought to pay for them.”
Ketchene wanted payment of 350 head of livestock, 100 for each man killed and 50 for the wounded Swiftwind, in lieu of “blood revenge.”
“I told him I would not pay for what others had done & that I would report the matter to my people,” Hamblin recorded. Angry at his response, several men again called for his death before the tense meeting finally ended with agreement that Hamblin would return in three weeks with an offer in hand.
At the same time, another group of settlers was on their way to shore up the struggling settlements. The group’s leaders were John Blythe of Sanpete County and Ira Hatch of Santa Clara. They were making their way to the settlements when they met Jacob Hamblin at Lee’s Ferry.
Hamblin urged them not to engage the Navajos about the Grass Valley killings. John D. Lee, who operated the ferry, had a family at Moenave and decided to join the Blythe party. He was concerned both for his family and for his own safety, as he had received word that federal officers were searching to question him about his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Unwittingly, they all walked right into a hornet’s nest.
Due to illness and an apparent misunderstanding, Jacob Hamblin missed the promised meeting with the Navajos, which left them angry and vengeful. The new arrivals in the Blythe party were just getting settled when they were summoned to a meeting with Navajo leaders.
Blythe and Hatch rode to Ketchene’s camp where they received the same reception Hamblin and his companions had weeks before. The Navajos still blamed Latter-day Saints for the Grass Valley murders and expressed anger at their demands being ignored.
Blythe and Hatch explained that the McCartys were the guilty parties, but the Navajos were not dissuaded. One of them, to make his point clear, pulled out his knife and cut the buttons off Blythe’s coat before putting it to Blythe’s throat.
To further drive the point home, Swiftwind entered the hogan and showed Blythe and Hatch his wounds. Tempers were at the boiling point as the Navajos insisted restitution must be made. As luck would have it, Ira Hatch was married to one of Ketchene’s daughters and was told his life would be spared.
But they told Blythe he must pay for the killings by being burned to death over hot coals.
If later accounts of what happened next are to be believed, Blythe showed remarkable courage, telling Hatch, who was translating for them, “Tell them I wish to pray, that then I will be ready to die.”
When the prayer ended, the Navajos asked Hatch what Blythe had said. He told them that Blythe had asked God not to punish the Navajos for what they were about to do because “they know not what they were doing,” adding that while Mormons had not killed the men at Grass Valley, he was willing to die in the hope that his death “might bring peace and friendship to the two nations.”
Hearing this, the council decided that Blythe and Hatch should be given 30 days to deliver the 350 head of livestock by way of compensation. If the cattle were not delivered, the Navajos said, all settlers at Moenkopi and Moenave would be at risk.
Grateful their lives had been spared, Blythe and Hatch hurried home to tell the worried settlers of the unchanged deal. Blythe then wrote a letter to Brigham Young, which was dispatched to Kanab then telegraphed to Salt Lake City.
Brigham Young immediately telegraphed back, telling his nephew, John R. Young, to “raise a company of men and bring all of our people on this side of the river, and leave the Navajos alone until they should learn who their friends are.”
John R. Young then called on church leaders in Kanab, Orderville and Glendale to recruit men to serve as an armed rescue party.
When the party reached Lee’s Ferry, Hamblin and Elijah Potter joined them. They crossed the Colorado River and pressed on, reaching the settlements with little time to spare. By the time the rescuers arrived, the settlers were terrified, believing they might be slaughtered at any moment.
They loaded their wagons, gathered their livestock and quickly headed north, reaching the safety of Kanab and in late May. Their exodus marked the end of church settlements at Moenave and Moenkopi, although Latter-day Saints would later help settle Tuba City.
Within a few years, the entire area became part of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation, thereby rendering any private claim to land moot. Brigham Young, however, had not given up on plans to colonize Arizona territory. Within a few years, colonists were sent to the Salt River Valley where they established the settlement of Mesa.
Determined to clear Mormons of any responsibility for the Grass Valley murders, and wishing to maintain good relations with the Navajos, Hamblin persisted in his efforts at reconciliation.
Through a series of meetings with Navajos leaders and Indian agents at Fort Defiance, Hamblin convinced them to accompany him to Grass Valley. While many tribal members continued to blame Latter-day Saints for the murders, the tribal leaders who made the trip became convinced of the church’s innocence and tensions dissipated.
Hamblin continued to live in Kanab and started a ranch in the House Rock Valley on the Arizona Strip. Jacob Lake, on the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon, is named for him, as is Jacob Hamblin Arch in northern Arizona’s Coyote Gulch.
Little remains of those early attempts at settlement in northern Arizona, yet the tragic events at Grass Valley and the near-tragic events that followed provide a lesson in the perils during European expansion into Native American territory in the 19th century. And the necessity of good will, respect and trust among people of different cultures.
Editor’s note: Sources for this article include “Contested Space: Mormons, Navajos, and Hopis in the Colonization of Tuba City,” by Corey Smallcanyon (2010 Master’s Thesis at BYU);
“A Frontier Life: Jacob Hamblin, Explorer and Indian Missionary,” by Todd Compton, “Mormons in Arizona: A Record of Peaceful Conquest of the Desert,” by James H. McClintock and Memories in FamilySearch.org.
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