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Moab Historic Happenings March 2004

Ill Fated Elk Mountain Mission was
Established 150 Years Ago

by Jeff Richards

One hundred fifty years ago, in 1854, pioneer settlers first came to the Moab Valley when Brigham Young, the territorial governor of Utah and president of the LDS (Mormon) Church, directed a group of a dozen men to establish a major control point on the Old Spanish Trail in southeastern Utah.

Elk Mountain Mission  1854

The 12 men 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 fording the mighty Grand River (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 known as 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” (now 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 President 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 itself. 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. The town of Moab was platted in 1884 and a post office was established. Grand County was created by the Utah Territorial Legislature in 1890, and Moab Town was officially incorporated on Dec. 30, 1902.

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