Son, Meet John D. Lee

To balance my children’s voluminous fantasy reading with other, good writing based on the world that actually exists, and to fortify their connection with their heritage, I was looking for a suitable book on John Wesley Powell, explorer of the Colorado River. Richard Maurer wrote one that was just what I was after, The Wild Colorado: The True Adventures of Fred Dellenbaugh, Age 17, on the Second Powell Expedition into the Grand Canyon. This short book, 120 pages, tells a wonderful tale of a young man who gained a place in a glorious, sometimes boring, highly challenging undertaking, and returned home two years later with a course for his life determined:

During the expedition the Major had done his best to turn his youngest recruit into a scientist-explorer. But Fred made up his mind to become an artist-explorer instead. In 1874, he left for Europe to do what all serious artists must: learn from the masters. The following year he returned to the Grand Canyon region to explore and paint, as he did often throughout his life. He also traveled to Alaska, Siberia, the Arctic, Iceland, Norway, the West Indies, and South America—always with pencils, brushes, sharp eyes, and a keen taste for adventure.

The book includes several of Dellenbaugh’s canyon sketches and expedition photographs that will produce homesickness in those with a certain kind of childhood and admiration for the beauty of black and white in all others.

A bonus was the intersection of the Powell expedition with John D. Lee. Their encounter is foreshadowed a couple times. In a fictional recreation of Dellenbaugh’s trip from Buffalo to Chicago to interview with John Powell:

Back aboard the train, the woman was assuring Fred that of course he would be selected, and she began filling him in on what to expect. Her guidebook was short on information about the Colorado, but it was full of material on Indians, outlaws, wild animals, miners, and Mormons. She was particularly interested in the Mormons, a religious sect that had settled the area around the Great Salt Lake in Utah. By all accounts these pious people had created prosperity in the midst of desolation. And yet they had strange and sometimes ruthless ways. She and her husband would be visiting Salt Lake City, and she was especially concerned about an awful massacre said to have been organized by Mormon leaders against a band of California-bound immigrants many years before. The United States goverment was still trying to make a case against those responsible…

Wintering in Kanab, expedition members learned more of the Mountain Meadows massacre and the setting of the Utah War, particularly from Jacob Hamblin, who was heavily involved with Powell in exploring tributaries to get expedition supplies down to the Colorado. Chaper IX ends with a swell cliffhanger:

On July 13, they landed at the Paria, pulling up next to the Emma Dean, which had been moved from its storage place. Presumably some of the other men were already there, although they were nowhere to be seen. Fred gave the usual signal—three rapid shots fired in the air. No reply. Investigating further, he noticed that since the fall a rough-looking cabin had been built nearby. As he and the others approached it, they saw an old man standing outside, watching them. Johnson recognized him—it was a fellow Mormon “That’s John D. Lee,” he whispered.

For a month, Fred Dellenbaugh and his fellow explorers waited there at Lonely Dell, repairing their boats and helping the wanted fugitive with irrigation works, increasingly bored out of their skulls until Major Powell arrived with supplies to continue down the river. I love this sentence: “The least seaworthy of the boats, the Nellie Powell, would be left behind at Lonely Dell for Lee to use as a ferry.”

My 11-year-old son found these views of the Mormons intriguing, particularly that they would have been suspected of a massacre, and then to learn that it was so. Some may wonder how to bring up difficult matters such as this. I would suggest: In context. Focusing tightly on a 160-year-old horror is just voyeurism if we don’t know or care about anything else that was happening then.


I also highly recommend another of Richard Maurer’s books, The Wright Sister: Katharine Wright and Her Famous Brothers.It is also a short book, though not written particularly for a young audience. Indeed, the story of Miss Wright’s career, ties to her father and brothers, and late-in-life romance are topics that likely wouldn’t particularly engage a youth. It felt a little like Willa Cather’s O Pioneers. I loved this view of the Wright Brothers’ project, and of a single woman in Dayton, Ohio 1903.

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

1 thought on “Son, Meet John D. Lee

  1. I think it is impossible to understand the MMM without understanding Missouri (where I had ancestors run off their land, barns burned, etc). It’s not an excuse, but as you say context is important. You can’t understand many of Jesus’ actions (why didn’t he free the slaves, why did he allow women to continue to be treated like chattel, why did he start preaching when he was 30?) without understanding context, and the same thing applies to the MMM and John D. Lee.

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