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 Before Us?

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.

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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.

Settlers - Whose land is this?

The Moab Valley is part of the Ute ancestral homeland. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints colonized much of Utah, with faithful missionaries directed to settle in places with water and arable land, regardless of indigenous inhabitation. In 1855, the church sent 41 men to establish a community where the Old Spanish Trail crossed the Colorado River. When the Elk Mountain Mission arrived that June, a fort was promptly built near where Motel 6 stands today. Conflict between the mission settlers and Utes soon arose and the mission was abandoned in September of 1855. By the 1870s, ranchers and homesteaders began to trickle into the valley.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Elk Mountain Mission

Driven from their communities east of the Mississippi River because of religious persecution, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled in the Salt Lake City area of northern Utah and southwestern Wyoming where farming would be good. From this base, missions were sent out to surrounding areas establishing communities and wrestling control of the land from the local Indian tribes.

One of the church’s final missionary efforts was to establish a community in the Moab Valley. In June of 1855, forty men arrived to establish a settlement, build gardens, and evangelize along the Colorado River near the Old Spanish Trail crossing. Initially, local Utes were friendly, so the Mormons began trading weapons and ammunition. Friendly relations deteriorated when the Mormons built a stone fort-like compound and planted crops in the tall grasslands the Utes depended upon for food and hunting. Armed conflicts occurred and the missionaries were driven out of the Moab Valley by the Indians, abandoning the fort after just four months. This was the first failure of religion-directed settlement in Utah.

Listen to Kathryn Jackson, a descendant of William Moronia Behunin, member of the Elk Mountain Mission, talk about the first attempts by the group to 'settle' the Moab Valley.

The Next Arrivals

When the Mormon pioneers’ settlement in Moab failed to gain a foothold, the valley became a welcoming place for a variety of enterprising and ambitious arrivals. By the 1870s, Americans and Europeans arrived to establish ranches, farms, and fruit orchards. Moab became nationally known for its produce. But, it wasn’t until 1887, when the Ute people were relocated to reservations, that the Moab Valley was relatively open for permanent settlement.

The San Juan Mission and Hole-in-the-Rock

Forty-five years after the Elk Mountain Mission was abandoned, the church once again called on missionaries to establish a settlement in southeastern Utah. A caravan of 250 adults, 83 wagons and 1000 head of livestock, headed toward Montezuma in San Juan country, over country described as “nothing but rocks and holes, hills and hollows.” After carving a wagon-wide path through Hole-in-the-Rock, they descended 2,000 feet to cross the Colorado River and settled on a few acres of good farmland they named Bluff (city). Farming was difficult due to frequent floods, so many settlers relocated north in today’s cities of Blanding and Monticello.

Elk Mountain Mission

Painting & Line Drawing
of Elk Mountain Mission

Many Euro-Americans passed through lands traditionally occupied by Ute people on their way to somewhere else. While trappers and explorers traded with the Ute and used only the resources they needed before moving on, Brigham Young’s missionaries were different. Their belief in “ownership” of the land, crops, and livestock was foreign to the Ute, leading to armed conflict and the mission’s abandonment. This painting is the artist’s idea of what the mission site might have looked like in the mid-1800s.

Colt Revolver

32.20 Colt Revolver
& Leg Irons

In Moab and other rough and tumble western towns, community leaders and lawmen armed themselves to deal with cattle rustlers, misbehaving cowboys, and outlaws. This single action revolver was used by Sheriff J.B. Skewes from 1929-1951 before being passed along to Deputy Sheriff Emit Pittman. The leg irons were used to capture and detain the Hole in the Wall Gang at Robber’s Roost. The revolver was donated by Emit Pittman’s son Evert, and the leg irons collected by Lloyd Pierson.

Barbed wire

Barbed Wire Fencing

In the mid- to late 1800s intense competition for prime grazing land often exploded into “range wars” between ranchers, homesteading farmers, and sheepmen. Wire fencing separated cattle and sheep, and the double strand wire with barbs, patented by Michael Kelly in 1868, kept cattle from leaning on the fence and breaking it. This display features several wire styles from Baja, Mexico, and Iowa, and was donated by Dr. Bill Hubel of Iowa.

Moab Beginnings - Why Moab?

By 1880, the tiny village had grown into a bustling community in need of a Post Office. To be authorized, however, the community needed a name. A committee was formed and William Pierce, a local farmer, and occasional dentist suggested the name of Moab. In its biblical reference, Moab was a dry, sandy wilderness whose climate mirrored the arid climate of the Utahn settlement. Once the name secured government approval, Pierce became the first postmaster of the newly named town. Within five years of its naming, Henry G. Crouse, also a postmaster, tried to change the name, arguing that the Moab in the Bible was the location of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, therefore an inappropriate name for the community. Each time it was brought to a vote, the name change failed.

Early entertainment in Moab often resulted from communal work such as hog butcherings, quilting bees, and fruit peeling gatherings. These events brought people together by necessity but often turned into huge social gatherings. Early settlers liked to dance, transforming utilitarian events into all-night affairs, usually held in private homes. Initially, fiddles and accordions provided accompaniment, but in 1898 the first piano arrived by rail and wagon from Boston, and a new dance hall was constructed to house it and the parties that followed.

The Fourth of July and July 24th (Utah’s Pioneer Day celebration) also were prominent party days that began with several local women roaming the streets at dawn, serenading the community. This was followed by horse races, a picnic, and skits put on by the children.

Historian Bruce Louthan and Moab Cowboy Kenny Allred shout out "Good Old Moab, Yep".

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Minutes of Grand County Commission’s inaugural meeting in 1890

Minutes of Grand County Commission’s inaugural meeting in 1890

Early in 1890, Grand County was separated from Emery County to become its own governmental entity. A group of appointees met on May 5, 1890 to elect officers and begin the process of establishing a new county government. The minutes from this inaugural meeting are visible, while subsequent entries reveal trends in Moab area crime: alcohol possession in the 1930s, and disorderly conduct during the uranium boom of the 1950s.

Ballot box from Grand County’s first election

Ballot box from Grand County’s first election

This ballot box was used during the 1880s in Grand County’s first election, and by the Miner’s Basin community in the La Sal Mountains

Tobacco Can

Tobacco Can

Mining claims often were made by filling out a Notice of Location form, sealing it in a weather-resistant container, and place it under cover – typically a conspicuous pile of rocks. This well-worn tobacco can contained a Notice of Location and was found in Miner’s Basin in the La Sal Mountains above Castle Valley.

Moab Development - How did we grow?

By the early 20th century, Moab had become a vibrant town. A telephone line and municipal water system were operating, automobiles arrived, and a bridge over the Colorado River paved the way for the Moab Garage to serve vehicles and travelers. Electricity arrived and the Ides Theater showed silent films. The Cooper-Martin Store, Moab Co-op, and Hammond’s Mercantile offered a wide variety of merchandise, the Maxwell House Hotel began hosting out-of-towners, and business leaders established the First National Bank. Ranching remained a major economic force with large livestock operations in the region, including the Scorup-Somerville Cattle Company guided by its legendary owner, J.A. “Al” Scorup.

1908 ... J.N. Corbin ran the first telephone line into Moab and a municipal water system went online. 1909 ... The first automobile arrived in Moab
1912 ... The first bridge crossed the Colorado River; the Moab Garage formed to serve the growing number of vehicles; the Ides Theater opened to show silent movies; and the Cooper-Martin Store, Moab Co-op, and Hammonds Mercantile provided general merchandise to the community.

1915 ... Electrification arrived in Moab
1916 ... First National Bank was established by owners of the Cooper-Martin Store.
1918 ... Scorup-Sommerville Cattle Company was one of the large operations in Utah
1919 ... The Grand Valley Times and The Independent were bought and combined by Loren “Bish” Taylor in 1919 and renamed the Times-Independent.

Courthouse Wash
Halfway Station

Courthouse Wash
Halfway Station

This signed 1905-era lithograph features the Courthouse Wash Halfway Station which was built in 1883. Located half-way between Moab and the railroad station in Thompson Springs, the station provided lodging and meals for travelers and a water break for horses, on the 35-mile journey. Remaining walls of the stone building can be seen in Mill Canyon northwest of Moab. Created and donated by former Museum Board President Pete Plastow.

J. A. “Al” Scorup hat

J. A. “Al” Scorup hat

This well-worn felt cowboy hat with leather band and Grosgrain ribbon belonged to Al Scorup, owner of the historic Dugout Ranch and co-owner of the S & S (Scorup-Somerville) Cattle Company. “The Cattleman of the Canyons” was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum after managing Utah’s largest cattle operation on land adjacent to what is now the Needles Section of Canyonlands National Park. Donated by Ella Shupe.

Times-Independent newspaper typeset

Times-Independent newspaper typeset

In 1896, just three weeks after arriving in Moab from Colorado, Justus N. Corbin started the Grand Valley Times newspaper (operating today as the Times-Independent). The paper published weekly accounts of Moab region happenings, proudly promoting anything that would boost the town’s infrastructure and commercial potential. The T-I advertised for a town doctor and even called for the formation of a town baseball team. On loan from the Times-Independent.

Uranium Boom
How did Moab become “Boomtown”?

Although prospecting for valuable minerals had attracted ambitious and world-weary men to southeast Utah for decades, it wasn’t until 1952 when Charlie Steen discovered one of the country’s richest uranium deposits. Inspired by nation-wide coverage of Charlie’s rags-to-riches story, thousands of prospectors and their families streamed to Moab. In just a few years Moab’s population grew from 1,200 to 6,500 and “Boomtown” Moab crowned itself the uranium capital of the world.

Yet the boom created new challenges for Moab; its basic infrastructure was inadequate to support the new arrivals. Residents rented out rooms and their backyards for camp trailers because there wasn’t sufficient housing stock. Increased demand caused water shortages in parts of town and the sewer system often backed up. Schools had to operate with multiple shifts and there was a waiting list for making phone calls. Despite the problems, most Moab residents remember the boom fondly as an exciting, prosperous time with plenty of work and parties to attend. The boom changed Moab forever; it emerged with improved infrastructure, more businesses, and prospecting roads over much of the surrounding country, poised to capitalize on the next boom.

Uranium Prospecting goes back before the boom: Bob Baldwin remembers his father prospecting uranium by pack mule for Madame Curie.

Charlie Steen's Boots

Charlie Steen's boots

Charlie Steen wore these boots on July 6, 1952, when he discovered the purest source of uranium in Lisbon Valley. His discovery was published in newspapers nationwide, inspiring thousands of prospectors to seek their own fortune. Soon Moab was transformed from a farming and ranching community into a wealthy mining and mill town. Steen’s Mi Vida Mine and processing mill established him as the King of Uranium. Boots on loan from the Steen family.

Buck Rogers Geiger counter

Buck Rogers Geiger counter

This Model 111B is the first portable scintillation Geiger counter. By the 1960s, radiation detection technology had advanced to produce an updated version of the 1950s Babbel Model 600A. Donated anonymously, possibly by Dan O’Laurie, an early investor in Charlie Steen’s mine and major Museum benefactor.

Yellowcake Vial

Yellowcake Vial

This small vial is a sample of processed uranium otherwise known as “Yellowcake.” When the Atlas Uranium Reduction Mill closed in 1984, the population of Moab decreased as people abandoned their homes to find work elsewhere. To replace the economic loss created by the mill closure, the local Chamber of Commerce and the City Government promoted the outdoor recreation industry. Donated by Howard Balsley.

" the richest town in the U.S.A"

McCall’s Magazine: “the richest town in the U.S.A.”

In 1956 McCall’s, a monthly American women’s magazine, reported that Moab had the highest percentage of millionaires of any town in America. The author was intrigued: “You would never know it to look at the town. You can stand all day at its single traffic light and not see a sign of new wealth. No mink coats. No sports cars. No fancy shops. No hot nightspots. No flashy neon signs.”

Gateway to the Canyonlands
What came after the boom?

Charlie Steen’s discovery brought the uranium boom to Moab with a bang. However, the bust was a slow decline with several steps. The first step came in 1958 when the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] announced they would only buy uranium from reserves developed by that year. The announcement ended prospecting overnight. Uranium prospectors coined the phrase, “57 you’re in heaven, 58 you’re too late.”

Government contracts to buy uranium lasted until 1966. The federal government hoped private nuclear power interests would replace national defense purchases. A government program allowed uranium producers to “stretch-out” their contracts to 1970, which resulted in more layoffs in the mines and the mill. The resulting loss of its major customer and primary financier caused the industry to shed jobs and people to seek new opportunities elsewhere. In 1960, even the opening of a new $25 million potash mine and mill had minimal effect.

Heart of the Canyonlands

But, by then the economic potential of tourism promotion began to take hold. In 1963, a year before the creation of Canyonlands National Park, the Moab Chamber of Commerce changed the town’s slogan from Uranium Capital of the World to Heart of the Canyonlands. Nuclear energy did cause a minor increase in uranium production during the 1970s, but the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 ground the growth of nuclear energy to a halt. The uranium mill closed in 1984, ending the industry’s period as Moab’s major economic force.


First Editions of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang

First Editions of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang

Pennsylvania-born author Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire, a book inspired by his experiences as a fire spotter and seasonal park ranger at what was then Arches National Monument. Robert Redford said Desert Solitaire “positively influenced many to not only treasure our natural heritage but to fight for its preservation as well.” Abbey’s writings galvanized the early environmental movement, and many believe The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired the formation of the militant group Earth First!

Bates Wilson
NPS hat

Bates Wilson
NPS hat

This iconic National Park Service hat belonged to Bates Wilson who, from 1949 to 1972, served as Superintendent of Arches National Monument (now Park), Natural Bridges National Monument, and Canyonlands National Park. Considered the “Father of Canyonlands,” Wilson was an inspirational and tireless advocate for preserving the southeastern Utah landscape for the public. Donated by Robin Wilson.

Federal Land Management Agency Shields

Federal Land Management Agency Shields

Almost 2/3rds of Utah's land belongs to the American people and is managed by federal agencies with very different purposes. National Park Service (NPS) manages Utah’s national parks and monuments, providing public access to natural and cultural resources while “protecting and preserving unimpaired for future generations.” U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands are managed for camping, hiking, hunting, timber harvesting, livestock grazing, and watershed and habitat protection. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages wildly diverse ecosystems for recreation, conservation, wildlife habitat and economic purposes.