Wild Winds and a Mormon Massacre

The boats are loaded and ready to launch. Tom's wife Beth appears to be much less anxious than he is. The other passenger is Theresa Mulder.

Finally… we are ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon lie ahead. Ranger Peggy has checked our IDs and we are who we claim to be. The boatmen have strapped down the gear… and Tom is anxious.

The same up-canyon winds that whipped sand into our tent last night are threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Gusts of up to 60 MPH are predicted.

Peggy and I perform the ritual of asking a boatman if we can ride with him. It seems like a strange practice to me, designed to remind us who’s in charge. But we have entered the world where each boatman/woman is the captain of his or her ship, even if the ship is a 16 foot raft with two or three passengers.

“May I have permission to come aboard, sir?” Although it’s more like “Can we ride with you today?”

The tradition is so old that it fades into history. Democracy is not an option on a raging sea or, for that matter, in the middle of a roaring rapid. When the captain yells jump you jump.

Our boatmen are mellow people, however, good folks. There are no Captain Blighs. If they are slightly more than equal, it goes with the territory. We are committed to riding with each boatman. First up is David Stalheim.

“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. It makes Peggy and my successful one time, ten minute effort of obtaining a permit seem grossly unfair.

Dave Stalheim and I with that pristine, fist day on the river look. Things will go downhill.

Dave quit his job as Director of County Planning in Bellingham, Washington the day he left for this trip. He will start a new job with City Planning when he returns. He is strongly committed to sound planning and community participation. I suspect he is not popular with land developers and speculators.

We push-off from shore, excited and nervous. The wind strikes immediately, like it was waiting in ambush. “Are we moving at all?” Dave asks plaintively.

An old rock road makes its way tortuously down from the canyon rim on river left. (Left and right are determined by direction of travel.) They are important for giving directions as in “There is a raft ripping rock on river right!” Since boatmen often row with their backs facing downriver, they appreciate such information.

The old road is how people once made their way to Lee’s Ferry, which was one of the few ways to cross the Colorado River between1858 and 1929. The Ferry was named after the infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, who was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre.

The old road to Lee's Ferry.

The massacre took place near St. George, Utah in 1857, where a wagon train of immigrants from Missouri and Arkansas, the Fancher-Baker Party, were murdered by Mormons and Paiute Indians. Lee apparently persuaded the immigrants the Mormons would provide safe passage through the Indians if they would disarm. The Mormons then shot the disarmed men while their Indian allies killed the women and children.

For a while Lee hid out while running the Ferry which was given his name.

And for a while, I believed that Lee had killed some of my ancestors. My grandmother was a Fancher and her family came west right about the time of the massacre. Since the babies with the wagon train weren’t killed, my brother’s genealogical research suggested we might be descendants.

Turns out, it wasn’t so. Still, there may have been some distant cousins among those massacred. More research is needed.

After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. We are already miles behind our planned itinerary.

Lee's Ferry was replaced by the Navajo Bridge in 1929, the first bridge shown above. It has now become a walking bridge with the one behind carrying vehicle traffic.

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