Tuesday, April 8, 2014

David Nathan Thomas (Part 11)

St. Johns, 1881-1888

Since the early 1850’s LDS Church leaders had sent missionary expeditions to the Native Americans living in northern Arizona. In 1872 the LDS Church had sponsored the construction of Lee’s Ferry at the mouth of the Paria River to provide a viable means for pioneer wagons and teams to cross the Colorado River. Attempts were made to colonize northeastern Arizona along the Little Colorado River, but the isolation and harsh conditions drove many of those earlier settlers away. However, Brigham Young thought it vital that northeastern Arizona be settled to solidify the eastern boundaries of the LDS church’s territory. [59] After President Young’s death in 1877, church leaders continued to push forward the idea that settlements in northeastern Arizona were necessary despite the negative reports received from those who had attempted to settle there.

In 1879 Erastus Snow made a tour of the Little Colorado River area and reported back that if a large number of families were called to the settlements already there, it would give permanence to the area. At the Panguitch stake conference March 23, 1881, David, his son Isaac, and his brother-in-law John Springthorpe were called to the Arizona mission. Later at the April General Conference, about seventy-five men from throughout most of the Utah Stakes were called to a mission to Arizona. Nine of those families were from Kingston, and one, Isaac Thomas, was from Kanosh. [60]

By now David had built three different homes in Utah, probably in Hatton, Kanosh, and Kingston; and he must have been tired of moving, maybe even feeling a little too old for pioneering. [61] He was sixty; so when he was asked by church leaders to move to St. Johns, Arizona, he asked that his son, Isaac be called too.

Isaac agreed to go to St. Johns and it is from recollections written by Isaac’s daughter-in-law that we learn some of the details of that journey to St. Johns: [62]
They left Utah Sept 1880 [1881]. There were 15 families in the company 50 souls. They came by wagon and teams some drove oxen. The Thomas family had horses, mules, and some cattle also milk cows. They were two months on the road. Part of the company left them at Moenkopi, went south settled in Phoenix. The roads were bad could hardly be called roads in some places.  
Sometimes they had to camp and build roads to make it possible to go on. At night they drove their wagons so as to form a circle where they would camp sometimes if they found a good camping place they would stay a few days and the men would look over the wagons and repair anything that was necessary to be done the women would do their washing and do what was needed. Sundays they held services. They always had prayers at night and morning. They also had dancing at some of their camping places they would dampen the ground by pouring water and smooth it down and let it dry so they made a very good dance floor. Brother Mineer who was in the company was a good violinist also his father also had some guitars so always had good music.  
Crossing the Colorado at Lee’s ferry was quite an experience; it was very high water at the time they crossed. Used small boats were about 3 days ferrying over getting wagons horses and cattle also brought hay and ferried it across some of the cattle would jump off the boat and swim back from the side they started from it was exciting all the time they were at the ferry. The railroad was only finished as far as Winslow at that time. [63]
 In reading other accounts of the passage from Southern Utah to St. Johns, it is apparent that this was no “easy” wagon trek. Wilford J. Shumway in his book, The First 100 Years St. Johns Stake, vividly describes the journey: 
Responding to “the call,” families and groups of families made their way through the communities of southern Utah — through Kanab, … and into the wind-sculptured sandstone cliffs and high plateaus of the Arizona Strip, … the immigrants turned their wagons eastward around the sprawling bastion of the Kaibab Plateau. The country became more lonely. For upwards of one hundred desolate miles they traveled through the wastelands of Houserock Valley, past the Vermillion Cliffs, past vertical mountain walls that rise straight from the desert floor, thence across the Colorado that most callous and cantankerous of all American rivers. … 
To negotiate the crossing of the Colorado at Lee’s Ferry was an experience not to be passed over lightly. …The river’s crossing accomplished, next came the terrorizing climb over Lee’s Backbone—a steep and treacherous incline with prehistoric cliffs on one side and on the other the dark waters of the Colorado nearly a thousand feet below. [Wilford Woodruff traveled that route in 1879 and wrote that he crossed the mountain called Lee’s Back Bone and that it was the worst hill, ridge or mountain on earth that he ever attempted to cross with a team and wagon.] …from there the journey became even more forlorn. … 
After the river crossing and the struggle over Lee’s Backbone, they inched their way up Tanner’s Wash. One company records that it took no less than twenty-six wind-scorched days to travel the seventy miles from the ferry to Moenkopi. Another ninety miles through drab sagebrush, no timber and the merciless Arizona sun, and the travelers would be at Sunset Crossing …From Sunset Crossing near present-day Winslow, the trail led through a monotonous landscape, thence up the south side of the river to Horsehead Crossing (Holbrook). Here the usual route crossed to the north side of the river and worked its way along cedar ridges to St. Johns. [64]

To be continued...

[59] Utah did not become a state until 1896 and Arizona not until 1912.

[60] Deseret News, “Panguitch Stake Conference,” March 23, 1881, 5.

[61] “Brief History of Isaac Thomas,” by Ester Martha Waite, wife of Isaac Frankliln Thomas, when she was in her eighties (1963). Dates and places are subject to the accuracy of her recall as the stories were told to her. Obtained from Garth & May Greer, Snowflake, Arizona, 2007.

[62] Waite, “Brief History of Isaac Thomas.”

[63] Waite, “Brief History of Isaac Thomas.”

[64] Wilford J. Shumway, The First 100 Years St. Johns Arizona Stake, 1987, 10-11. Apache County Historical Museum, St. Johns, Arizona.

The dramatic picture of Lee's Ferry is as found at Flickr, courtesy of Beau Rogers (part of his extensive collection of the Western United States), available under a non-commercial Creative Commons license.

Rigby, Helen. “A History of David Nathan Thomas and his wives, Mary, Adeline & Frances.” Utah: n.p., 2011.

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