Ranchers Laid Groundwork
for Future Town of Moab
by Jeff Richards
When the short-lived Elk
Mountain mission failed with the deaths of three Mormon missionaries
in a gunfight with Ute tribesmen in September 1855, the remaining
Mormons quickly abandoned the fort they had built that summer
and headed back to the Sanpete Valley or to Great Salt Lake City.
White settlers would not return to the Moab area for at least
another two decades.
In 1869 and again in 1871-72, the famed John Wesley Powell (for
whom Lake Powell is named) and his party made two journeys down
the Green and Grand (later known as the Colorado) Rivers. However,
his exploration of what is now modern-day Grand County was minimal,
since he apparently only traveled the Grand River below its confluence
with the Green River.
In 1875, a surveying expedition led by Ferdinand Hayden with the
U.S. Geological Survey passed through the area and managed to
map and name several of the peaks in the present-day La Sal Mountains,
then known as the Elk Mountains. However, when the men reached
the Abajo (Blue) Mountains (just north of present-day Blanding)
in August of that year, they were attacked by hostile Indians
and were reportedly forced to abandon most of their equipment
Soon after Colorado was made a state in 1876, prospectors and
ranchers alike became more interested in the untamed southeastern
portion of the Utah territory. It was around 1874-75 that a couple
of cattle ranchers again entered the Grand County area to graze
their herds. However, Indians reportedly drove Crispen Taylor
and his nephews out of the area in 1875, and took over their cattle.
Around this time, the Green brothers (George and Silas) stayed
in the old fort that had been abandoned by the Mormons some 20
years earlier and attempted to graze a herd of 400 cattle. However,
the brothers were apparently killed by Indians a couple of years
later, around Christmastime in 1876.
Then, in 1877, a prospector named William Granstaff and a trapper
known as "Frenchie" (a Canadian whose real name is unknown)
arrived in the Grand Valley area and moved into the fort. Granstaff
grazed his cattle in the nearby canyon that bears his name (Negro
Within a the next couple years, several other ranchers had begun
to settle in the Moab area. They included Tom Ray and his family,
the Maxwells, the McCartys, and the Olsens. Several of these ranchers
(including Philander Maxwell and William McCarty) apparently moved
their cattle operations further south to Old La Sal, just east
of the present-day town of La Sal. Other early Moab area settlers
included A.G. Wilson and his son Alfred, who arrived in 1878,
as did ranchers C.M. Van Buren and John H. Shafer, who settled
in an area called Plainfield (or Plainsfield) in the southern
part of present-day Spanish Valley, about seven miles south of
Moab City. Cornelius Maxwell was granted a petition for a post
office in Plainsfield on Nov. 8, 1879, but he moved to La Sal
and Van Buren acted as postmaster for a year until the post office
was discontinued exactly one year later.
Some of the early settlers of Plainsfield included the George
W. McKenzie, Andrew Somerville, Orris Newell, and J.H. Johnson
families. The little community (also known as Poverty Flat by
some) thrived for a few years, but eventually all of its residents
moved away. John H. Shafer, as one notable example, moved in with
his wife to the town of Moab in 1880 and later built a house in
1884 that still stands today (just east of Grand County High School).
Nowadays, a few dozen modern homes dot the subdivisions on the
San Juan County side of Spanish Valley, near where the town of
Plainsfield once was.
San Juan County was officially created by the Utah territorial
legislature in 1880 from territory formerly belonging to Kane,
Iron, and Piute counties. That same year, Emery County was created
from Sanpete and Sevier Counties. Ten years later, on March 13,1890,
Grand County was officially formed from part of Emery County.
The new county was named for the mighty river that forms its western
boundary. Nearly six years afterward, Utah itself achieved statehood
on Jan. 4, 1896.
Then, during a two-day meeting of the Grand County Board of Commissioners
held Dec. 29-30, 1902, the town of Moab was officially incorporated.
Grand County's current estimated population is just over 9,000,
roughly half of whom live within the limits of Moab City.
Although only a few cowboys, farmers, and ranchers still make
their living in the Moab area, the ones that do are a vivid reminder
of Grand County’s illustrious past.