The human history of Utah and its vast public lands entangles itself in a cryptic knot of exploitation, conservation, compassion and avarice. This desolate desert plateau gave rise to dinosaurs and ancestral Native American civilizations, Mormon settlers and cowboy outlaws, uranium prospectors and new-era conservationists driven to protect this unique corner of wilderness. The history of the US and the West has left an imprint, but it's the traces of Utah's indigenous peoples and original mavericks that resonate today.

First Peoples

It’s not definitively known when humans first arrived in the Southwest. Most likely, nomadic peoples migrated from Asia across a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, making their way south between 23,000 and 10,000 years ago. Some models posit subsequent migrations by boat. We know that they arrived by 10,000 BC, as archaeologists have dated spearheads found among the remains of woolly mammoths and other ice-age mammals. However, Native American creation stories say that the people have always been here, or that they descended from the spirit world.

However they arrived, these early groups were primarily skilled hunters. By 8500 BC, most large prehistoric mammals were extinct – some possibly hunted to that fate, though many were unable to adapt to the drying glacial climate. This led to what scholars call the Desert Archaic period, which lasted roughly from 6500 BC to AD 200. The term ‘Desert Archaic’ refers as much to the period’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle as it does to an ecosystem or block of time.

As a survival method, hunting and gathering proved remarkably adaptive and resilient in the Southwest. Early Desert Archaic peoples lived nomadically in small, unconcentrated groups, following the food supply of seasonal wild plants and such small animals as rabbits. Shelters were temporary, and caves were often used. These people became skilled at basketry, a functional craft for groups on the move.

Eventually, late Desert Archaic peoples established semiregular settlement patterns and started to cultivate crops such as primitive corn, beans and squash. By AD 200 several distinct cultures had emerged. Ancestral Puebloans dominated the Colorado Plateau, which encompasses southern Utah, southwest Colorado and northern portions of Arizona and New Mexico. They were once called the Anasazi – a Navajo word meaning ‘ancient enemy’ – by archaeologists, but Ancestral Puebloans is now the preferred term, since contemporary tribes believe they are descended from these ancient peoples.

Ancestral Puebloans dominated the Colorado Plateau from around 200 BC to AD 1500, though in southern Utah they left a few centuries earlier, around AD 1200. There’s no consensus over why Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the area when they did. It was likely a combination of drought, soil erosion, disease and conflict with other groups over dwindling resources.

Ancestral Puebloans adopted irrigated agriculture, became highly accomplished basket-makers and potters, and believed in a complex cosmology. They are best known for their cliff dwellings, pueblo villages and kivas (ceremonial underground chambers). While southern Utah contains far fewer of these ancient structures than surrounding states, it does boast abundant Ancestral Puebloan rock art. Hovenweep National Monument and Cedar Mesa are your best bet to see these dwellings.

Living in southern Utah concurrently were the Fremont people, who migrated from the north and continued a seminomadic existence, preferring hunting and gathering to farming and villages. They abandoned the area around the same time as the Ancestral Puebloans, and their distinctive rock art is also widespread.

Southern Paiutes & Spaniards

Southern Paiute tribes began emerging around AD 1100. Comprising a dozen or so distinct bands, Paiute territory extended from California’s deserts east to Colorado, and from Utah’s Great Basin south to Arizona’s Painted Desert. The Kaibab Paiutes lived near what is now Zion National Park. Today, their tribal reservation surrounds Pipe Spring National Monument on the northern Arizona Strip.

Generally speaking, Southern Paiutes followed the same survival strategy as Desert Archaic peoples – migrating with the seasons, hunting small animals, gathering wild plants and tending a few modest crops. A staple of their diet was the piñon, or pine nut, and they continued the tradition of fine basketry. Their shelters and even their clothes often weren’t made to last more than a season.

Southern Paiutes lived largely in peace for more than 500 years. No one coveted the unyielding land they called home, yet they found abundance in it. Deer were plentiful, the winters around present-day St George were mild, and in summer they fished mountain lakes. Ever-growing numbers of Europeans on the continent didn’t know of them, and gold-hungry 16th-century Spanish conquistadors like Coronado never penetrated the Colorado Plateau’s rugged territory.

Then, in 1776, the same year the US declared its independence from Britain, the Domínguez-Escalante expedition encountered the Kaibab band of Southern Paiutes while skirting the western edge of the Colorado Plateau. In the first recorded European impressions of them, Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, a Franciscan friar and Spanish Catholic missionary, described ‘a large number of people, all of pleasing appearance, very friendly and extremely timid.’

The Spanish expedition had two goals: to open a communication route from Santa Fe to California and to spread Christianity among indigenous peoples. But the expedition never made it further west, nor did Spain fund the establishment of any Utah missions. Afterward, the Southern Paiutes were left mostly, but not entirely, alone. Some of the Spanish Trail trading route had been cut, and occasional trappers wandered through, as did strange diseases and even Ute and New Mexican slave traders, who often kidnapped Paiute children to sell for horses and goods elsewhere.

By the early 19th century the Southern Paiutes could weather the passing wagon trains, which trampled grasses and crops, but smallpox and measles were decimating them. By mid-century, before they’d ever had to fight or strike a deal with a Mormon missionary settler, some Southern Paiute populations had dwindled by two-thirds.

Paiute, Ute, Goshute, Shoshone and Navajo people all live in modern-day Utah. The Uintah and Ouray Reservation is located in the northeast, and is the second-largest Native American reservation in the United States. In the southeast, don't miss a day of horseback riding, hiking or shopping in the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the US. Festivals celebrating Native American traditions mostly happen in the summer.

Arrival of the Mormons

In 1847 Brigham Young and party reached a point near Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Fleeing persecution for their beliefs back east, the Mormons were charged by their prophet Joseph Smith to find a place out west where they could build a heavenly city on earth. They were looking, in other words, for what Southern Paiutes had long enjoyed – the solitude and freedom from interference this harsh land provided. As the story goes, Young sat upright out of his sickbed long enough to say, ‘This is the right place. Drive on.’

The Mormons were not your average pioneers, and Young was not an average leader. The plan was to build an independent nation, a theocracy outside the boundaries of the USA. Within a year, however, the rapidly expanding country caught up with them. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo turned the Mexican territory into a US possession, and the concurrent discovery of gold in California attracted streams of passing miners. With the miners came Manifest Destiny, the nationalistic belief that the US was ordained by God to stretch from ‘sea to shining sea,’ from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Utah would not remain isolated for long.

In 1850 the Territory of Utah was established, with Young as territorial governor. If Young despaired over the political fate of his beloved State of Deseret, he didn’t let on. Instead, he aspired to settle an empire larger than Texas as fast as he could. He sent Mormon pioneers in all directions to plow, irrigate and farm the desert into submission, which they did. The Mormons succeeded because they were zealously dedicated to their faith, tempered by their journey to Utah along the Mormon Trail, and organized. They attacked the land as a cohesive group, fired by visions of God, not gold.

Everywhere they went in southern Utah, Mormons displaced Paiutes, appropriating water sources and the most desirable land. In an apparent contradiction, the Mormons also ‘adopted’ the Paiutes and gave them the only practical support they would receive, which they came to depend on. The Book of Mormon claims that Native Americans are one of Israel’s lost tribes, so bringing them back into the fold was considered an important Mormon mission, even as racist attitudes toward indigenous peoples prevailed.

The end result for the Paiutes turned out to be much the same as for Native American tribes elsewhere in the Southwest – that is, cultural disenfranchisement, the loss of traditional hunting grounds and access to water sources, and a population decimated by foreign diseases and indentured servitude.

A Massacre, a War & Statehood

With their modern-day prophets, the practice of ‘celestial marriage’ (that is, polygamy) and theocratic territorial government, Mormons were perceived as a threat by federal authorities and everyday US citizens, whom the Mormons called Gentiles. In the 1850s, tensions ran high, and minor clashes were common. On September 11, 1857, in the mountains outside St George, building religious hysteria and fear of a federal invasion led a Mormon militia – possibly with the enlisted help of local Paiutes – to slaughter 120 innocent California-bound pioneers. Details of the Mountain Meadows Massacre are still debated today, but the incident confirmed the government’s worst fears, prompting the US Army to surround and subdue Salt Lake City that same year.

No one was killed and hardly a shot fired in the so-called Mormon War, which had two main repercussions: it instituted a secular government in Utah, beneath which the religious hierarchy continued to operate for a decade or more; and it curtailed territorial ambitions, reducing the size of Utah. Through the Civil War and beyond, the territory petitioned for statehood, but it was continually denied, even as states around it were accepted. Animosity between Mormons and the federal government lingered, with polygamy as the sticking point. Finally, in 1890 the Mormon Church officially repudiated polygamy and asked its followers to do the same. Six years later Utah won statehood.

A Tale of Two Explorers

In their efforts to be self-sufficient, the Mormons established several missions in southern Utah in the 1850s and ’60s: the Iron Mission, centered around Cedar City, mined ore and smelted iron for construction; while the Cotton Mission, centered around St George, grew cotton for Mormon use and export. Neither mission was ultimately successful. However, the Mormons also sent missionaries south to convert the Southern Paiutes, and its success was largely due to Jacob Hamblin, who arrived in 1854.

Dubbed the ‘Mormon Leatherstocking,’ Hamblin gained the respect and trust of some Native American tribes across the Southwest. He said he believed that if he always told the truth, listened and never shed Native American blood, he would be safe. Hamblin became a peacemaker who negotiated important treaties and, with Native American assistance, explored the Colorado Plateau as no non–Native American had before him, serving as an ambassador of the Mormon Church, including to the Hopi mesas and the Navajo Nation.

In 1869 one-armed Civil War veteran and geologist John Wesley Powell became famous for being the first to descend the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Unlike Hamblin, Powell’s motivation was not religious, but to survey and explore the land and peoples of southern Utah for science. Thanks to his passion and rigor, Powell and his survey teams’ geologic and ethnological work largely forms the basis of what we know about early southern Utah today. In 1870 Hamblin secured Powell’s second expedition a welcome among Southern Paiutes. As Hamblin had done, Powell demonstrated respect and earned both safe passage and practical assistance from the Southern Paiutes. You can track Powell's expeditions in Canyonlands, Zion, Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument and Lake Powell National Recreation Area.

Taming Zion’s Wilderness

Earlier indigenous peoples undoubtedly knew and entered Zion Canyon, for they left evidence on the rocks, but to the Kaibab Paiutes it was a place to be avoided, particularly after sunset. Mysterious and foreboding, the canyon was seen as inhabited by trickster gods who were capricious, even willfully malicious. The first non–Native American to enter Zion Canyon was Nephi Johnson, a Mormon pioneer who came south with Jacob Hamblin on a mission. In 1858, at the behest of Brigham Young, Johnson explored the upper reaches of the Virgin River, looking for good places to settle. One can only imagine what he must have felt as he entered Zion Canyon alone, his Paiute guide waiting safely behind.

Mormons didn’t settle in the canyon until 1863, when Isaac Behunin and his sons built the first cabin and cleared some farmland. Behunin is credited with naming Zion Canyon, saying that ‘A man can worship god among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church.’ When Brigham Young visited in 1870, he disagreed with the assessment. Whether due to the arduous journey or the forbidden tobacco Behunin was growing, Young proclaimed it ‘Not Zion,’ a name that stuck among Mormons for years.

After his first famous Colorado River expedition, John Wesley Powell returned to southern Utah and explored Zion Canyon in 1872. Powell called it Mukuntuweap, the Paiute word for ‘straight canyon' or 'straight-up land.' But it was Clarence Dutton, a poet-geologist in Powell’s employ, who captured its grandeur. Upon seeing the canyon in 1875, Dutton wrote: ‘In coming time it will, I believe, take rank with a very small number of spectacles, each of which will, in its own way, be regarded as the most exquisite of its kind which the world discloses.’

In a 1908 official report, a government surveyor first suggested preserving Zion Canyon as a monument. President Taft signed the proclamation creating Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909. Methodist minister Frederick Vining Fisher toured the canyon in the company of a Latter-Day Saints bishop in 1916, giving names to many of the famous rock formations, including Angels Landing and the Great White Throne. In 1919 the monument’s name and designation were officially changed by Congress, and thus Zion National Park was born.

Within a year, park visitation doubled to about 3700 people – hardly crowded, but still a lot considering road conditions and its remote location. To better facilitate tourism to southern Utah, a railroad spur was extended to Cedar City in 1923. Zion Lodge opened two years later, accommodating railway tourists following the ‘Grand Circle’ route around the Southwest. In 1930 the Zion–Mt Carmel Hwy and its tunnel were completed, offering a paved route into and through Zion, bringing in over 55,000 tourists that year.

Bryce Canyon

Historically overlooked, Bryce Canyon nestles alongside the Paunsaugunt Plateau, the latter’s name derived from a Paiute word meaning ‘home of the beavers.’ Fur trappers like Jedediah Smith who roamed the area in the early 19th century made no mention of Bryce’s striking scenery, and nor did Spanish traders. During his 1869 survey, John Wesley Powell stuck to the rivers and passed right by. Captain Sutton, a member of Powell’s survey, described the distant terrain as seeming ‘traversable only by a creature with wings.’

Mormons scouts arrived at Bryce Canyon in the 1850s as they searched the entire Paunsaugunt Plateau for arable land. In the mid-1870s a small group settled in the adjacent valleys, which seemed well suited for grazing livestock. Among the latter was Ebenezer Bryce, who stayed in the area for five years, building an irrigation ditch and a road into the canyon. Bryce moved his family south to Arizona in 1880, but left behind in the canyon his name and the now famous epithet, ‘It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.’

Like Zion Canyon, Bryce was popular among railway tourists and conservationists at the turn of the 20th century, though it was more difficult to reach. It wasn’t until 1915, when JW Humphrey became the founding supervisor of Utah’s Sevier National Forest that Bryce’s fate would be sealed. In 1916 Humphrey brought in photographers to take the first pictures of the spectacular canyon for a promotional article that appeared in a Union Pacific Railroad publication. Word got out.

In 1919, the same year Zion became a national park, the state legislature recommended that Bryce also be protected. Four years later President Harding established Bryce Canyon National Monument. In 1928 Bryce became Utah’s second national park. Throughout the 1920s, construction of Bryce Canyon Lodge, another Union Pacific Railroad ‘Grand Circle’ Southwest touring stop, was carried out using locally quarried stone and harvested timber.

A Capital Wonderland

Capitol Reef’s European-American history dates back to 1872, when Mormon settlers first planted fruit trees along the banks of the Fremont River near the town of Junction. Once their trees flourished, the settlers renamed the town Fruita. Over the next decades, Torrey resident Ephraim Pectal sought to promote interest in ‘Wayne Wonderland,’ a nickname given to the Waterpocket Fold, which lies in Wayne County. Soon after being elected to the state legislature in 1933, Pectal lobbied President Franklin D Roosevelt to establish what he dubbed ‘Wayne Wonderland National Monument.’ In 1937 President Roosevelt signed a proclamation creating the mercifully renamed Capitol Reef National Monument.

Despite Depression-era improvements completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Capitol Reef National Monument was mostly neglected by the federal government for the next two decades. The first official park ranger didn’t even arrive until 1958. But the nationwide ‘Mission 66’ national parks renewal project brought a host of new tourist facilities to serve over 145,000 annual visitors by 1967. In 1971 Congress finally made Capitol Reef a national park.

The Making Of Moab

It wasn’t until 1878 that Mormons permanently settled in the Moab region. (Ute tribespeople had violently thwarted a previous effort in the 1850s.) Agriculture and grazing quickly became the economic mainstays, although the new railroad that bypassed Moab in 1883 dealt a serious blow to this frontier community. Ranchers used much of the land in what is now Canyonlands National Park as winter pasture for grazing herds, a practice that continued through to 1975.

In the early 20th century, local residents, including the editor of Moab’s first newspaper, touted southern Utah’s geologic wonders, finally attracting the attention of the Rio Grande Western Railroad. Recognizing the potential of Arches as a tourist destination, the railroad lobbied the government for federal protection. In 1929 President Hoover established Arches as a national monument.

During the Cold War era of the 1950s, when the federal government subsidized uranium mining, Moab’s population tripled in three years. By the early 1960s, Arches superintendent Bates Wilson started lobbying for further protection of southeastern Utah’s natural resources, calling for the establishment of a ‘Grand View National Park.’ In 1964 President Johnson established Canyonlands National Park. In 1971 Congress declared Arches a national park too, and expanded the boundaries of Canyonlands to what they are today.

Rock climbers, hippies, rafters, mountain bikers and off-road enthusiasts have shaped the surrounding desert over the years, making this an adrenaline-sports capital.

Exploitation vs Conservation

The amount of arable land in Utah is less than 5%, and in southern Utah that figure is less than 1%. What farmland there is and towns there are depend entirely on rivers. The rain that falls in the desert is hardly enough to work up a good spit. Twentieth-century development has been slow to recognize and adapt to these facts, however. Politicians have dammed countless rivers across the Southwest to try to control and divert their flow and create power: the Colorado River has been dammed twice, by Hoover Dam in 1936 and Glen Canyon Dam, among the world’s largest, in 1963. Public works projects have repeatedly failed, often spectacularly and expensively, and yet the attempts continue. And still no Eden.

Throughout the busy Beehive State, mining has experienced various heydays – from the great silver mines of the 19th century to modern coal, oil and mineral mining, especially to support WWII military operations. In the 1950s the federal government subsidized uranium exploration, spurring more Cold War–era mining operations in southern Utah, especially around Moab. Though these efforts unearthed little of the radioactive element, mining roads further opened this once-remote landscape to recreational tourism and encouraged settlement. At the same time, all of this extraction has exacted a high toll on the slow-healing desert.

Today, southern Utah’s desert settlements are well established, and politics demands that they be supported, even as the economic and environmental costs keep growing. At the same time, many people – both outsiders and those who have made their homes in this seemingly inhospitable place – have long recognized the rare beauty of these lands and made efforts to preserve them. In fact, the first paintings of such Western landmarks as the Grand Canyon and Zion Canyon, by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, were instrumental in sparking the US conservation movement during the late 19th century, which in turn brought about the establishment of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916.

Not everyone wants to see southern Utah’s remaining wilderness protected. Established by President Clinton in 1996 and administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is southern Utah’s most controversial federal land grab. Many of Utah’s Republican majority believed the president was ‘appeasing his Sierra Club constituents’ by establishing a monument in a state that had not supported him in either election. Counties in southern Utah sued the federal government, claiming the executive branch lacked jurisdiction to declare a national monument. In 2004 a federal court ruled that the president had acted within his bounds under the authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act, setting the stage for the current showdown between federal versus state power.