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 just south of where the Moab Springs Ranch is 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 was bountiful. From this base, missions were sent out to surrounding areas establishing communities and wrestling control of the land from the local Native 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 Natives, 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. In the late 1800s, Moab was typical of a “wild west” town. A prospector who visited Moab in 1981 remarked that it was known as the toughest town in Utah because the surrounding country had many deep canyons, rivers, mountains, and wilderness areas. For this reason, it became a favorite hideout for many outlaw gangs. Among the most infamous of these outlaws were Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.

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.