Experience the stunning drama and beauty of San Juan County

Experience the stunning drama and beauty of San Juan County

This article originally appeared in Vol.51, No.4 (2004) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Robert S. McPherson

No county in Utah has a more colorful past than San Juan. An integral part of history, this dramatic geographical region hosted Native American cultures ranging from the Paleo-Indian through the Anasazi to the Navajos, Utes, and Paiutes of today. Spanish and, later, Mexican explorers and traders left an ephemeral legacy as they pushed through an uncharted region of red rock, sagebrush, and imposing mountains.

Civilization and city-building came to San Juan relatively late in the American experience. Often touted as one of the last frontiers to be settled in the United States, this isolated portion of Utah actually had three trickles of pioneers who arrived at approximately the same time.

The earliest group of homesteaders to utilize the resources of San Juan consisted of those of the Elk Mountain Mission, located at what is now Moab in Grand County. Sent by Brigham Young in 1855, this mission lasted four months and succeeded in establishing only a temporary Mormon presence in the midst of various Ute bands. The forty-man contingent built a fort of rocks and timbers, scouted roads to the south where more lumber and grazing lands were available, planted and irrigated crops, and journeyed on at least one trading expedition with the Utes to the Navajos living south of the . In September the Utes launched an attack that succeeded in killing three Mormons and driving the rest back to the Wasatch Front. In terms of homesteading, this undertaking was a first attempt to utilize some of the resources in or near San Juan County, with an eye to obtain some of the permanent fruits of civilization. White settlers, however, would not make another attempt until the late 1870s.

The earliest homesteaders in the northern part of the county utilized the ranges and the water at the southern end of the La Sal Mountains. Groups such as the Tom Ray family, the Cornelius Maxwells, the Bill McCartys, and others homesteaded together in the general area of what is known today as the community of La Sal. Rough-hewn cabins, subsistence gardens, and extensive range for livestock were the keys to their survival, while most of their economic ties lay in Moab, a town newly established by people predominantly from Sevier and Sanpete counties. In terms of actual development, these early settlers of San Juan played a more important role in the growth of what would eventually become Grand County, where businesses and transportation facilities lured them.

The settling of the southern part of the county came from two different directions. The earliest influx of homesteaders came from Colorado. The first recorded white settler, Peter Shirts (an excommunicated Mormon), carved his niche in the Montezuma Creek area. Earlier, he had been active in the settling of Paiute County and in claiming land in Dolores, Colorado. By 1877, Shirts, with two burros, crossed the San Juan River at Bluff, ventured south onto Navajo lands, and then headed north and established a home where Montezuma Creek meets the San Juan. He invited his brother Carl and family to leave their home in Michigan and join him. Shortly after the new arrivals took root, rumors reached Peter that his little settlement might come under attack by Utes. Carl and his family fled permanently, Peter only temporarily, until tensions subsided.

By 1880 a new and sudden change was afoot. Settlers’ wagons rumbled through the historic Hole-in-the-Rock, cattlemen staked their claims, and miners flooded the banks of the San Juan River while federal and local government became increasingly responsible for maintaining control. Conflict and change for all three major groups— Ute, Navajo, and Euro-Americans—followed as they struggled to wrest a living from a beautiful but sometimes stingy land.


Excerpts taken from Robert S. McPherson, A History of San Juan County: In the Palm of Time, Utah Centennial County History Series (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1995), inside dust jacket, 95-97.

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