John D. Lee

I spent a mesmerizing couple of hours yesterday afternoon with the diaries of John D. Lee.

The only place I could find it was in the Albuquerque special collections library, a lovely old building that used to be the city’s main library and now houses the rare stuff they won’t let you check out.

(click through for more on Lee)

Lee’s a complicated fellow, a Mormon pioneer who was central to the settlement of southern Utah and northern Arizona in the 19th century, and who was convicted and executed for his role in the notorious 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. He established Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River in the early 1870s, which is where I’ve run into his history.

I’m interested because I’ve been trying to better understand how the early residents of this region, both Indians and European settlers, coped with the harsh and demanding climate. As an inveterate diarist, Lee may have something to tell me in this regard.

Lee’s Ferry, where the Paria River meets the Colorado at the head of Marble Canyon, is about as harsh as it gets, climatologically speaking. Average annual rainfall there in the historical record is 6.18 inches (157 mm), but the real problem in terms of habitation is the variability. In nearly a century of modern records going back to 1916, rainfall has ranged from a low of 2.7 inches (68.6 mm) to a high of 10.83 inches (275 mm). That’s a difference of a factor of four between the wettest and driest years. Makes it tough to plan.

Tree ring reconstructions suggest the year Lee arrived – the winter of 1871-1872 – was one in a long series of drought years in the region. But such is the nature of desert living that it was flooding, not drought, that nearly did him in. There’s a remarkable diary entry in particular, from June 12, 1872.

The back story: Lee and his family had arrived in the winter of 1871, in large part to establish a river crossing that the Mormon leadership believed was vital to the community’s future. Facing a threat of the same sort of persecution that had dogged them before they arrived in Utah, they feared they might have to move south en masse, but the Colorado River blocked their way.

By spring, Lee and his family had established basic shelter on a patch of land adjacent to the Paria River (really more of a creek) near where it enters the Colorado. By February, they were building a dam across the Paria to irrigate their crops. But twice, storms washed out the dam. The second time was near disaster. From his June 12 entry:

Now begins the Tug of war. A Dam 8 foot deep and 7 rods long (115 feet, 35 meters) to make, besides heavy repairs on the ditch, before the water can be brought to revive the now dyeing crops, vines and trees. This Point Must not be abandoned. The probable Salvation of Iserel depends on it, temporal if not Spiritual.

Lee, his four sons and his wife Emma, who had only just given birth to a baby girl in January, spent 21 days rebuilding the dam, water their young fruit trees and vines by hand. “& by the grace of god we finally conquered and brought out the water and began to revive our dying crops and while doeing so the Heavens smiled from above & sent down gentle showers to aid us.”