First People

Our Story Begins...

The land on which we stand is old—very, very old—about I.7 billion years old! Humans have walked on this vast and varied landscape for millennia. The Indigenous peoples of the Moab Valley and southeastern Utah moved seasonally in search of water, shelter, and other resources required to sustain their communities—until they were forced from their traditional lands upon the arrival of Europeans. Undaunted explorers and well-funded expeditions opened the region to settlers seeking to establish roots, leading to inevitable conflict. The diverse experiences and perspectives of human life are told here through stories, songs, artifacts, and pictures. Have a look!

Who came first?

Many tribes settled into this environment, the Colorado Plateau, developing a complex relationship with its ecosystem, their roles within it, and in turn, adopting cultural traditions and ceremonies based on learned respect for the land and its resources. As varied as there are cultural traditions, so too, are the countless tribes with histories rooted in encounters, migrations, and settlements across the Intermountain West and Southwest. We are most familiar with the tribes whose relationships to this land have been shared through written word and oral histories – the Ute, Navajo, Paiute, and Hopi. We acknowledge that no one individual is representative of an entire culture of people, however, we are honored by each perspective that enhances our ability to learn about the sacredness of this place so many of us call home.

Who were the Fremont?

The name “Fremont” refers to a people identified by their distinctive material culture, including gray ware pottery, unique basketry, and rock art. The Fremont inhabited sites in Utah, as well as parts of Nevada, Idaho, and Colorado, during the Archaic (approx. 8000 to 1000 BC) and Basketmaker II (approx. 1500 BC to AD 50) periods. While connections have been drawn between the Fremont and other ancient cultures, the distinctiveness of their lifeways makes it apparent that they were as unique as the human forms they pecked and painted into sandstone walls, adorned purposefully with regimented costumes, headdresses, and ornaments. Archaeology suggests that the Fremont utilized not one, but two subsistence strategies – seasonal hunting and gathering and farming. It is probable that, like the Ancestral Puebloans or Hisatsinom (formerly labeled Anasazi), these people are ancestral to various contemporary Native American groups.

Language and Lineage

Attempting to trace connections between tribes across space and time can be confusing, even for anthropologists. Instead of analyzing ethnic affiliations through DNA studies, as is common in western archaeology, some Native Americans define their connections to other tribes in degrees of linguistic variation. This approach is also referred to as glottochronology, or “the use of statistical data to date the divergence of languages from their common sources.” The “Uto-Aztecan” linguistic family includes the Ute People and extends into Mexico and the Aztec Culture. The earliest wave of Navajo to reach the Colorado Plateau region (prior to AD 580) were of the “Proto-Navajo Apachean” family, a divergence from the Athabaskan Dineh in Alaska. By looking at language correlations, we can gain insight into historical migration patterns as well as cultural affiliations.

The state of 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 word, later shortened to “Ute,” refers to the seven bands from Utah (Northern Utes), five bands from Colorado, two bands from Southern Ute, and three from Ute Mountain. The Southern Ute Tribes include the Muache, Capote, and the Weeminuche, or Ute Mountain. Distinctive petroglyphs in Arches National Park estimated to be more than 900 years old, indicate that the Ute once hunted and camped there. Today members of the Ute Mountain Ute sit on a five-tribe coalition to help co-manage and protect the Bears Ears National Monument, a land the Ute recognize for its ancestral and cultural significance to Native Americans.

It is difficult to follow the movements of the Dineh (Navajo) archaeologically, due to their expansive migration routes and numerous dialect sub-groups, however, the presence of projectile points in the four-corners region indicate that bands of early Navajo may have arrived by AD 200. The plethora of arrow and spear points used in the local area indicate hunts for game animals such as bison, elk, deer, and antelope, while habitation sites are found on bluffs and mesas with villages enclosed by stockades. These earliest tribes of Navajo would eventually move into northeastern Utah/northwestern Colorado to form the Eastern Fremont. The historical record of the Navajo paints a vast picture of aggressive defensiveness as a sizeable tribe battled, negotiated, and maneuvered tirelessly to retain control of their homelands. Today, the Navajo Nation is the second-largest federally recognized tribe in the U.S., spreading across the Four Corners.

The Southern Paiute are descended from one group of hunter-gatherers who migrated east from southern California around AD 1000. In the late 19th century, the Paiute in southern Utah merged into five bands: Shivwits, Indian Peaks, Kanosh, Koosharem, and Cedar. A complex history of federal neglect has resulted in the loss of original lands, and longstanding efforts by the people to regain recognition and community stabilization. Today, most Paiute live in northern Arizona and in Southern Utah, where they live in and around Navajo Mountain, White Mesa, and Blanding, Utah. The Paiute have shared territories with the Navajo for more than 160 years and strive to acquire land that is federally designated as exclusively Paiute. The San Juan Band of the Southern Paiute is most closely related to Moab and Grand County’s immediate history.

The Hopi, whose name means “the peaceful ones,” reside in 12 villages on three mesas in northeastern Arizona. It is believed the ancestors to the Hopi are the Hisatsinom, the ancient cliff-dwellers who lived in the Four Corners region as many as 2,000 years ago. This culture has the longest documented history of occupation in the Four Corners area of any Native American tribe in North America. The traditional building structures of the Hopi are iconic in the southwest, recognizable by their stone and adobe mud walls surrounding open-area plazas, round and square kivas with underground chambers. The unique culture of the Hopi people has changed very little since their first contact with Spanish explorers in AD 1540, and may factor into the public’s fascination with the culture most commonly associated with the ancestral ruins scattered across this landscape.

Hidden Valley Load Basket

Photo Jonathan Till

Hidden Valley Load Basket

This yucca load-bearing basket was found in the cliffs southwest of Moab by David York, Travis Hoag and Steve Walden in July 1990. The basket dates to 885-1020 A.D. and likely was used by Ancestral Puebloans to carry items such as food and small children. Intentional piercings in two locations suggest the owner wore the basket on their back, supported by a band around their forehead, keeping hands free to fill the basket. Exhibited courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management and Edge of the Cedars State Museum in Blanding, Utah.

Mammoth Tusk

Mammoth Tusk

Evidence that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers hunted mammoths and other mega fauna is demonstrated by findings of mammoth remains embedded with Clovis points. This portion of an Ice Age mammoth tusk has been carbon-dated to about 10,300 years ago, making it the youngest mammoth ever found on the Colorado Plateau. Discovered by Don Swasey upriver from Moab in Professor Valley.

European Arrival - Who came next?

The first explorers and settlers of the west were Indigenous peoples. European and American exploration began by the mid-1700s and continued throughout the 1800s. Routes mapped by the Rivera expedition in 1765 and a Franciscan expedition in 1776 helped blaze the initial route of the Old Spanish Trail. The mid-1850s saw an increase in exploration, primarily to map western lands unknown to Europeans. The 1859 expedition led by U.S. Army Captain John Macomb and physician/geologist John Newberry sought a route to transport military supplies from New Mexico to Utah, survey the region crossed by the Old Spanish Trail, assess resources, and locate the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Related Stories

Spanish Exploration and the Old Spanish Trail

OST mules

Beaver Pelt

Beaver Pelt

From 1800 to 1840 European demand for clothing made of fur was so intense that numerous trappers and fur companies hunted the rivers and streams from the Rocky Mountains to the Cascades. During the four-year period from 1835 to 1838 more than 25,000 beaver were trapped by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company alone! Demand for beaver pelts ended when fashions changed and consumer preference shifted to silk. On loan from Greg Halliday.

Replica of Robidoux Etching

Replica of Robidoux Etching

Trappers were some of the first non-indigenous people to live in the region after Dominguez and Escalante passed through. They traded with the local tribes and, as seen here, some trappers marked their presence with inscriptions. Antoine Robidoux trapped along Utah and Colorado rivers and established trading posts in both states. This replica of Antoine Robidoux’s inscription was made from a mold created by Glen Ungerman for the Salt Lake City Corral of Westerners.