Katchina Daisy

The Cedar Mesa Project

The Mormon Trail

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"The Country here is almost entirely solid sand rock, high hills and mountains cut all to pieces by deep gulches which are in many places altogether impassable. It is certainly the worst country I ever saw."
Lyman, Platte D. Journal, December 1, 1879 from First Whiteman in San Juan County, Utah, Utah Historical Quarterly, 1929 Vol.2, No:1:11-13.

In the spring of 1879, Silas Smith and twenty five special scouts were "called" by the Mormon Church to find a place in Southern Utah for a Peace Mission on the northern edge of the Navajo Nation. The Church also "called" eighty families to be ready to start for the "place" as soon as it was found. The scouts departed from Paragonah, northeast of Cedar City, in mid April and crossed the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry. From Tuba City, Arizona, they made their way northwestward towards the Utah-Arizona line. Two of the scouts were accompanied by their wives and young children. They were to become the nucleus for the beginning of the new settlement.

The advance party reached the San Juan River in late May and camped at the mouth of Montezuma Creek which they decided was the place to plant the new colony which they would call "Montezuma." Leaving the two scouts and their families in Montezuma, the remainder of the group departed for western Utah in late August, 1879. Wanting to find a shorter route, they headed north, by way of Castle Valley, crossing the Colorado River at Moab, and eventually through Salina Canyon. They arrived back in Paragonah in September, having traveled almost a thousand miles round trip, a little more than four hundred and fifty miles in each direction.

The eighty families who had been called, knowing that Montezuma was the selected place, decided to take the Escalante Cutoff, a more direct route about three hundred miles. This route was only five percent explored and ninety-five percent imagined.

Starting in October of 1880 from different gathering places, they believed that they had plenty of time to miss the winter storms. Their wagons converged at Escalante and then, moving at a snail's pace, traveled southeastward to the west rim of the Colorado River, arriving the middle of November. At this point by means of picks, shovels, bars, hammers, drills and a limited amount of black powder, they blasted a dugway down the cliff face to the river.

On January 27, 1880, they began easing their way down the three quarters of a mile trail to the river. Every wagon was roughed-locked and a rope tied to the back of it to keep it from tipping forward. Throughout this ordeal not one man, woman, or child was lost; not so for wagons and stock, however. This cut is known today as the Hole in the Rock and is still visible on the north side of Lake Powell.

After crossing the Colorado on log rafts, they cut a trail up the lower cliff face on the southeast side of the river. Their route went up Cottonwood Canyon between the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, then north across Cedar Mesa, the time now being late February and early March, 1881. They thought they could get around the southern end of Comb Ridge at the San Juan River, but finding this impossible, they turned north, cutting a trail up the sloping sandstone face, known today as San Juan Hill. The grade was so steep that the mules had to go up on their knees. This trail is still visible today.

On April 6, 1880, they reached the mouth of Cottonwood Wash, having been on the trail for six months instead of the six weeks originally planned; half of the group stopped and settled there in what is now known as Bluff. The rest of the company went on the extra fifteen miles to Montezuma.

The route that these settlers of southeast Utah blazed was used less than a year before it was abandoned for a much easier route. Much of the original is still visible today.

From: "Indians and Outlaws" 1962, by Albert Lyman. Bookcraft Publishers.

By Nick Pratt

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