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Lees Ferry

The historic settlement at Lees Ferry. 

A historic cast iron bell once used by travelers at Lees Ferry would get new recognition under a bill sponsored by Legislative District 6 Representative Brenda Barton.

The bill would allow for the creation of a monument featuring the large bell on Government Mall in Phoenix and supporters say it would honor the area’s role as a gateway to Arizona where boats ferried pioneers, miners, surveyors, Mormon missionaries and others back and forth across the Colorado River.

But the history of Lees Ferry also has a violent chapter that would be linked to any monument designation.

The area is named after the Mormon leader John D. Lee, who was sent there by the church to establish a ferry operation, which he did in 1873. Years before though, in 1857, Lee helped lead a group of Mormon militiamen in a massacre of more than 120 eastern emigrants who were traveling through southwestern Utah from Arkansas to California.

In a 2003 column in the New York Times, author Sally Denton called it “the darkest stain on the history of the (Mormon) religion.”

It wasn’t until 20 years after the massacre that the Church of Latter Day Saints acknowledged the role its followers played in the mass killing and, as recourse, executed Lee by firing squad. The ferry operation was turned over to Lee’s wife, who ran it for several years before selling the rights to the Mormon Church, which was “well aware of the importance of Lees Ferry as a link between settlements in Arizona and Utah,” according to the National Park Service.

The bell itself wasn’t brought to the Lonely Dell ranch at Lees Ferry until about 20 years later when James Emett took over the ferry and neighboring settlement.

Emett acquired the large iron cast bell and used it to call school, meals and for Mormon travelers to ring at Lonely Dell to announce their arrival so the ferry could come get them, said former gubernatorial candidate Fred DuVal, whose family now owns the bell.

“It was used as the gateway for all settlers that came to ... Safford and Holbrook and Mesa and all of the other communities of the time,” DuVal said during a hearing on the bill at the Capitol. “The bell, I've discovered, evokes deep emotion among many people who have a family connection to this migration story.”

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DuVal’s family acquired the bell when the Lees Ferry area was put up for sale in 1964, he said. The area was sold to the Park Service in 1974.

John Lee’s role in the massacre has faded from focus within the broader history of Lees Ferry, said Sally Foti, an information specialist at the Lake Powell History Museum in Page.

“Nowadays it’s so well known for the fact that it’s a launching point for Grand Canyon I don't think people look that far back in history anymore,” Foti said.

Even so, important for any monument is to know the facts and “contextualize the historical facts as we know them,” said Bill Peterson northern division director of the Arizona State Historical Society.

The monument bill is one of just three bills Barton, who is term limited, has sponsored this legislative session. One has to do with land use changes on properties zoned for agricultural uses and another continues the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board.

Barton’s fellow LD6 legislators, Rep. Bob Thorpe and Sen. Sylvia Allen, are listed as prime sponsors on about 50 bills and 25 bills respectively. In an emailed statement, Barton wrote:

“Introducing legislation is only one aspect of a legislator’s duties – they can also represent their district by focusing on committee work, helping constituents with state issues, stopping bad legislation, influencing the budget, and many other responsibilities. This year I can best serve my constituents by concentrating on my work as chair of the Land, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs Committee and the Rural Caucus,” she wrote in a statement.

Barton also stated that she has decided she will not run for a spot on the Arizona Corporation Commission, after initially indicating she would do so.

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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