at Moab area Settlement failed in 1855
by Jeff Richards
One hundred forty nine years ago,
in 1854, Brigham Young, territorial governor of Utah and
president of the LDS (Mormon) Church, directed a group
of 12 men to establish a major control point on the Old
Spanish Trail in southeastern Utah.
The group crossed the trail northwest of the Green River
crossing, then later headed down Moab Canyon and had to
lower their wagons about 25 feet by rope
down the steep “jumping off” point, which was near the entrance
to modern-day Arches National Park. Shortly after fjording the mighty Grand
River (which was renamed the Colorado River in 1921), they established a
temporary camp in the valley where the city of Moab is now located. The men
then left their wagons and made their way to the present-day Utah-Colorado
border, just east of the neighboring La Sal Mountains (which were called
the Elk Mountains back then).
Then, the following year, on May 7, 1855, a total of 41 men whose names had
been called during the April 1855 general conference of the church left Salt
Lake City for the purpose of establishing the Elk Mountain Mission at the
north end of “Little Grand Valley” (currently known as Spanish
Valley). They were led by Alfred Billings. The group, accompanied by about
75 head of cattle, followed essentially the same trail as the previous year’s
group had (which made use of the historic Old Spanish Trail). However, travel
was slow, with two full days required to cross the Green River alone.
By July 15, 1855, the men had arrived at their destination and had constructed
a stone fort 64 feet square, near where modern-day Highway 191 meets the
northern Moab city limits (the fort’s walls were near the edge of the
current Motel 6 motel parking lot). They also built a corral, planted various
crops, and tried to establish friendships with the Ute Indian tribe, whose
territory covered a large part of southern Utah and who were led by the powerful
Chief Wakara (also called Walker). Another chief named Arapeen, who was Wakara’s
brother, oversaw many of the Utes who lived in the area, and a Ute chief
known as Chief St. John was the local leader of the Ute band that frequented
the Grand Valley area. The area had traditionally been used as a prime common
ground for gathering and trading among the Native Americans, particularly
the Utes and the Navajos.
Initially the Mormon missionaries found success, and baptized over a dozen
Utes. However, many of the tribesmen were apparently confused about the motives
of the new settlers, and tensions between the tribe and the missionaries
grew. By early fall, it had become increasingly difficult to keep the peace.
On Sept. 20, Billings wrote in his journal that the Indians had been stealing
the just-maturing crops from the ground during the night. “The Natives
are Stealling every chance they Get they stolen and carred off all our melons
Squashes,” he wrote, adding that potatoes and turnips had also been
taken. Three days later, on Sept. 23, 1855, things finally escalated to the
point where one of the missionaries, James W. Hunt, was shot and killed by
Ute called Charles (a son of Chief St. John), about a mile from the fort.
A fierce gun battle then ensued at the fort, and two more missionaries who
were returning from hunting in the mountains (Edward Edwards, and William
Behunin) were also ambushed and slain. Two or three Utes were also killed
and several were seriously wounded during the fight at the fort. The hay
and cornfields surrounding the fort were also set ablaze by the attackers.
The next morning, the remaining missionaries abandoned the fort, packing
what they could, and abandoning five horses and 25 head of cattle. On their
way back to Salt Lake, the missionaries were assisted by a group of friendly
Indians (reportedly led by an unnamed brother of Charles), who managed to
bring back a few of the abandoned cattle to the group, and also saw to it
that the bodies of the dead missionaries left behind received a proper burial.
According to the historical marker now located near the Moab Area Chamber
of Commerce building at 805 North Main, all three missionaries were buried
within the walls of the fort. The plaque has been moved from its original
location, so it no longer is correct where it says that the fort was located
800 feet away.
The demise of the Elk Mountain Mission marked one of the rare failures for
a Mormon settlement during the church’s widespread colonization of
the West under Brigham Young. For more than two decades afterward, no permanent
settlers lived in the Moab area. The return of permanent settlers didn’t
happen until 1877, when prospector William Granstaff and a trapper known
as "Frenchie" arrived in the Spanish Valley area and moved into
the old fort. Granstaff grazed his cattle in the nearby canyon that bears
his name (Negro Bill Canyon). Within a few years, several other ranchers
had begun to settle in the area.