The Arrival of Mormons at Bluff – Hole in the Rock expedition

On April 6, 1880, a group of 236 Mormon pioneers reached their destination at Bluff after an incredibly arduous journey across southern Utah. Their church-sponsored journey became known as the Hole in the Rock Expedition, named for the passage the pioneers chose at Glen Canyon.

Hole-in-the-Rock used in the lowering of wagons and oxen by the pioneers of 1879-80 as they crossed over into Bluff. [Utah State Historical Society]

Before 1880, very few white settlers called the Bluff Valley home, partly due to the rough landscape that characterizes Southeast Utah, with the many mesas, slickrock domes, washes, thick desert forests, and of course sand. LDS Church President John Taylor called upon Mormons from sixteen Southwest Utah villages to make the journey eastward in search of farmable land, to build a springboard for future colonies, and to improve relations with the existing Native communities. 

Responding to the call, a group of Mormon pioneers established a shortcut by way of Escalante, opting against the well-traveled but longer routes to the North, finding a cut in the west wall of Glen Canyon, which they called “Hole-in-the-Rock.” This proved to be the most formidable obstacle along their journey. 

The cut was not yet wide enough to accommodate the livestock-drawn wagons, so the exploring parties, motivated by snowfall behind them in their path back home, blasted their way through the narrow crack and built a roadbed just wide enough for the wagon wheels. Miraculously, all 83 wagons managed to descend the Hole in the Rock without animal or human casualties. 

When the pioneer families arrived at Bluff in April 1880, they laid out the original Bluff Fort with log cabins, a church, a school, and a co-op store in the center, and encircled it with agricultural fields. 

Men hiking down Hole-in-the-Rock. This collection contains photographs taken by a group in the 1940s of the Hole-in-the-Rock area of southern Utah where Mormon settlers lowered their wagons over a precipice of rock in a narrow crack in the canyon rim during 1879-1880. The Mormon settlers were part of the San Juan mission to homestead in Bluff, Utah. [J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah]

According to the City of Bluff:

“Farming along the San Juan River proved uncertain, for the river either flooded or went dry too often for dependable irrigation. Large-scale livestock production in the 1880s and 90s brought prosperity to Bluff. The original log cabins were replaced by hand-hewn, red rock houses in the Victorian Eclectic style, some quite large and elegant, others built of wood frame lumber. 

Because they could not tame the San Juan River, many of the original pioneer families left Bluff for Grayson, Utah, now known as Blanding, twenty-five miles to the north.”

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This article was originally published in the Moab Sun News’ Moab History Column, written weekly by Museum staff.