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Pioneer Happenings March 2003

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 and records.

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 Bill Canyon).

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.

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