Spirit and Grit: Ranching in Canyonlands

Thousands of years of human history have unfolded across the Dead Horse Point State Park landscape. The Park's name originates from its storied ranching history. One legend claims a group of cowboys cornered a herd of wild horses on the point. The horses, in a frenzy of exhaustion and thirst, could see and smell the water below and leapt to their deaths.

Take a look back in time at this colorful chapter of regional history—and learn how cattle hands survived in Canyon Country: Did cattle hands really camp for months? What happened before cattle ranching? How did they raise babies in the desert, much less thousands of cows? What about cowgirls?

Explore the Exhibits

Explore concepts of Spirit and Grit: Ranching in Canyonlands exhibition displayed at Dead Horse Point State Park.

Lavender and Thornell NPS Photo

Ranch Life

Ranch; /ræntʃ/ | "a large farm for raising horses, cattle, or sheep"

Ranch life in the American West conjures idyllic landscapes, traditional values, and recognizable iconography. Some recall childhood heroes from film and others dream of freedom from urban congestion. Whatever the term "ranch" summons for you, the landscapes surrounding the Colorado River in Southeastern Utah challenge all perceptions of ranch life.

Lavender and Thornell NPS Photo
Cy Thornell NPS Photo

Cow Camps of Canyonlands

Shelter; /ˈʃeltər/ | "something that covers or affords protection."

If you stand at the edge of Dead Horse Point on a clear day, straining your eyes to the South, in the far-off distance you may catch sight of Beef Basin, a place named for the 19th Century cattle operations that would fatten up their stock on the basin's native grasslands before driving them to the Green River Stockyards to be sold for profit.

Long before it became known as Beef Basin, with cattlemen and cowhands driving cattle through the canyons, Native Americans thrived for thousands of years as an agrarian society, utilizing the naturally occurring rock shelters and alcoves for shelter and grain storage. By the late 1800's, cowboys, outlaws, and government treaties had forced the last remaining bands of Paiute, Ute, and Navajo to take advantage of the same unique features.

Cy Thornell NPS Photo
Heidi Redd by Tim Peterson

Women on the Range

Grit; /ɡɹɪt/ | "firmness of character; indomitable spirit."

The narrative of cowboys riding the range is so ingrained in us by popular culture that the idea of women as cattle hands (rather than token sideshows) seems implausible. Filmmakers like John Ford have distinguished this region with iconic portraits of Western life, but what those films didn't feature was the cowgirls of Canyonlands.

Heidi Redd by Tim Peterson
Newspaper Rock, Indian Creek, Utah.

First Peoples

Indigenous; /ɪnˈdɪdʒənəs/ | "originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native UTE | Noochew PAIUTE | Nuwuvi HOPI Hisatsinom NAVAJO | Dineh."

Humans have called this landscape home for millennia. The long history of southeastern Utah includes many distinct cultural groups across time, beyond just the four named above. We are most familiar with the Ute, Paiute, Hopi, and Navajo due to the accessibility of their shared written and oral histories. Utah is named after the "Yutah" people, which is what the Spanish called the Ute (Noochew) when they explored the region in the 1500s. The Ute comprises numerous bands from across Utah and Colorado: including the Muache, Capote, and the Weeminuche, or Ute Mountain Ute in southeastern Utah.

Newspaper Rock, Indian Creek, Utah.

Experience the Process...

The Moab Museum is proud to collaborate with Dead Horse Point State Park and The Museum of Film and Western Heritage to utilize the Park's visitor center to exhibit Spirit and Grit: Ranching in Canyonlands. Display materials such as pedestals and cases were acquired through support from our local and regional communities. Collaborating with our partners, members, and donors makes exhibitions like this possible to share stories about this incredible region with a worldwide audience. To support the curation of exhibitions and future programming by the Moab Museum, please consider donating and/or becoming a member.

Spirit and Grit takes visitors through a journey of the Moab area from a perspective rarely told. See for yourself!

  • Simco Saddle

    Also known as “Simco-Longhorn”, this saddle company manufactures trail, barrel, Arabian, and roping saddles in Greenville, Texas. On loan from the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage.

  • Cow Camp

    This cow camp was constructed by Mark Beeson from his personal collection of historic artifacts. Part of the appeal for Beeson is that much of the local history involves his own family as a sixth-generation Moabite. Moab Museum has turned to Beeson for help in understanding the context and content of the museum’s own collections, some of which lack associated records. 

  • Tara Beresh and Elise Park

    Elise Park, Director at the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage, Center, and Tara Beresh, Archaeologist and Curatorial and Collections Manager at the Moab Museum, Right, collaborate to install a Simco Saddle on loan from the Moab Museum or Film and Western Heritage.

  • Exploring the Exhibit

    Admission is free to the exhibition in the downstairs of the Dead Horse Point State Park Visitor Center with admission to the park. 

  • Spirit and Grit: Ranching in Canyonlands

    The exhibition explores the landscape and the people who called it home before the Uranium Boom which popularized Moab and Grand County in the mid-20th century. 

  • Sheep Ranching

    Following the cattle empire, sheep were a profitable stock, especially with the added gain in mutton and wool. The first sheep shearers traveled from camp to camp and used shears like those in the foreground of this photo.

  • Cowgirls

    “When talking about foodways, housework, or children, there is a sense of the hardship—but also of the women’s ability to overcome the burdens, often through humor. This sense of competence is one of the major defining factors for this group of women. Many different words, stories, and memories are used to expand on this idea of strength, but all reflect a sense of confidence.” In Desert Woman by Amy Korpieski, 1990

  • Cow Camp: Views from afar

    Beeson's cow camp features objects including horse tack, era-specific cooking supplies, and a 100-year old bed roll.

  • Hay Storage at Camp

    Cy Thornell is pictured in this photo at Lost Canyon camp (circa 1938). Thornell was a nephew of Al Scorup’s, and not long after this photo was taken became the foreman of the Indian Creek portion of the ranch. 

Acknowledgments: A special thanks to Mark "Gene" Beeson, longtime local and local historian, for his professionally researched and constructed cow camp, Elise Park and the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage, and the staff at Dead Horse Point State Park for hosting this exhibition by the Moab Museum.