Winner of the Juanita Brooks Prize in Mormon Studies


“A magnificent new biography which will immediately become not only the

standard biography of Jacob Hamblin, but also one of the greatest biographies

in the fields of Mormon and Utah history. Exhaustively researched

and documented, and judiciously interpreted.”

—Gary Topping, author of Utah Historians and the Reconstruction of Western History

. . . from a historian’s perspective [Compton’s] biography of Hamblin is a tour de force. . . . He has done a masterful job of researching and documenting the totality of Hamblin’s experiences, examining and disentangling many legends and controversies and offering cogent, insightful interpretations of the key moments in his life. Those who do put forth the effort [to read A Frontier Life], . . . will be taken on an exciting journey with one of the quintessential pioneers of southern Utah. Compton’s magnificent biography of Hamblin . . . represents the best biography of Hamblin and one of the great biographies in Mormon and Utah history.

—Jay H. Buckley, in BYU Studies 53:3 (2014): 200-203.

A valuable, fresh study of a remarkable frontiersman. . . . Best known for his work on polygamy, Compton has succeeded admirably in this different arena through scholarly use of unexploited primary sources as well as secondary studies published after four earlier Hamblin biographies of uneven quality. While clearly viewing Hamblin as heroic, Compton has avoided both hagiography and LDS apologetics . . . Compton’s study is especially strong in explaining how Mormon needs for water and land devastated the Paiutes’ ability to farm, hunt, and gather seeds, especially after the establishment of large settlements at St. George and Santa Clara, Utah, in 1861.

—William P. MacKinnon, Western Historical Quarterly, 45.4 (Winter 2014): 457-58.

The second appendix, three pages in length, is a chronological listing of Jacob Hamblin’s trips to and across the Colorado River. This brief summary involves the period 1858 to 1877 and includes thirty-six trips with specific dates. . . . The listing, along with complementary materials in the chapters dealing with each expedition or trip, places Jacob Hamblin in the forefront of explorers of the Southwest and arm-in-arm with John Wesley Powell and his explorations in the area and on the Colorado River. . . . This book is a most valuable historical contribution.”

—Richard Sadler, Utah Historical Quarterly 82.4 (2014) 320-21

“Compton argues that Hamblin was one of the first important explorers of northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon, and the Colorado River, and as such became an invaluable asset to John Wesley Powell’s later expeditions as guide, interpreter, and Indian liaison . . . Compton’s biography is a masterful addition to our understanding of the conflicted, often paradoxical, but always religiously devoted Jacob Hamblin.”

—Sondra Jones, New Mexico Historical Review [89.4 (Fall 2014)]

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. . . . 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. . . . 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.” . . . Quibbles aside, A Frontier Life opens valuable new perspectives on the Mormon Indian frontier and has much to teach its most experienced students.

—Will Bagley, review in Sunstone, #176, (Nov. 2014)

“Todd Compton's eye for detail, obvious in his previous writing projects, is evident here also. Jacob Hamblin's eventful life has finally received a fitting chronicle.”

—Bryan Buchanan, for the Association for Mormon Letters.

“This is an era of outstanding biographies of early LDS leaders. . . . Compton’s biography is fascinating. It’s so well-detailed and sourced that I can’t do justice to it in a review.”

—Doug Gibson, Ogden Standard-Examiner

“Compton’s biography, the first full-length scholarly treatment of Hamblin’s life, presents a positive reevaluation, while not ignoring the frontiersman’s flaws. Compton expertly analyzes Hamblin’s evolving attitudes toward Indians, showing how the missionary gradually became the ‘Apostle to the Lamanites.’”

“Compton should be commended for the remarkable depth of research in primary and secondary sources for this biography, an achievement that is magnified by his status as an independent scholar, without university or institutional resources. . . Compton’s sophisticated biography of Jacob Hamblin suggests that it is time to reevaluate the Mormons’ peace policy and the role it played in Mormon colonization of the Great Basin.”

—David Grua, Juvenile Instructor, blog, Dec. 31, 2013


from the cover: 


Frontiersman, colonizer, missionary to the Indians, and explorer of the American West, Jacob Hamblin (1819–1886) has long been one of the most enigmatic figures in Mormon history. In this defining biography, Todd Compton examines and disentangles many of the myths and controversies surrounding this man who over the years has taken on a larger-than-life persona.


Born on an Ohio farm, Hamblin converted to Mormonism in 1842. A few years later he joined the pioneers crossing the plains to Utah, from where he would go on to play key roles in the exploration of the Colorado River, the settling of southern Utah and northern Arizona, and Mormon-Indian relations. His Grand Canyon adventures and explorations as a guide and interpreter for John Wesley Powell are well documented, as are his roles as a missionary, cultural liaison, and negotiator with the Indian tribes of southern Utah and Arizona. Hamblin struggled in this latter role, sometimes unable to bridge the gulf between Mormonism and Indian culture. He disavowed violent conflict and ceaselessly sought peaceful resolutions where others resorted to punitive action. He strove above all for mutual understanding in the absence of conversion.


A Frontier Life provides a rich narrative that fleshes out a picture of a sometimes vilified figure, particularly in regard to his connection to the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which a group of pioneers from Arkansas—men, women, and children—were murdered as they passed through Utah on the way to California. Compton provides nuanced discussion clarifying Hamblin’s post-massacre role—he was not present at the massacre, but reported on it to both Brigham Young and military investigators and also helped cover it up.


Compton’s engagement with Mormon historiography and previous Hamblin portrayals will make this work of particular interest to both scholars and students. The casual reader will take pleasure in learning of a true pioneer who lived life at the geographical, cultural, and spiritual boundaries of his era. This dramatic, insightful biography is a truly significant contribution to Mormon history and to the history of the American West.


Errata Sheet