First Settlement of San Juan County, Utah


Kumen Jones

After Uncle Sam's "Blue jackets" got through with their "trimming up" of the Navajos in Northeastern Arizona, along in the late "sixties," under the leadership of Kit Carson, the Indians were left in extremely hard circumstances with very little to live upon. Being a thrifty, resourceful people, many of them crossed the Colorado River to the Mormon frontier in search of something to replenish their wasted substance. Finding small scattered settlements and many lone ranches with sheep, cattle, horses, etc., the Indians without ceremony appropriated what they wanted, and made back in haste for their own country.

This onesided traffic soon became unbearable, and the Mormon church authorities sent a number of missionaries over to the chief men of the Navajos. These missionaries succeeded in making peace, and they invited the leading men of the tribe to a council with the high officials of the church, where a regular treaty was made, followed by exchange of presents and the smoking of the sacred peace-pipe.  Not long after this an event occurred which tested the strength of this peace compact, revealing to each party whether it was to be more than a "scrap of paper." The Navajos, assured by the terms of the treaty, crossed the river on a friendly expedition, and after starting on their return trip they were caught in a heavy snow-storm in the Wasatch Mountains. In this delay, and their provisions exhausted, they killed a calf to eat, and the owners of the animal, happening on them about that time, opened fire without waiting for a word of explanation. Three of the four Navajos were killed, and the fourth, severely wounded, worried his way back to the Navajo country, a feat which an ordinary person would have perished in attempting.

When the wounded Navajo reported among his people that their newly-made Mormon friends had treacherously broken the peace treaty, a wave of indignation swept quickly over them. The Indian who had been treated so roughly belonged to one of the influential families of the nation, and war to the death was immediately declared. Frenzied excitement prevailed, and all the white people on or near the western side of their reservation, were notified and ordered out of the way.

The Mormons, leaders and people, were shocked and surprised when they heard of what was taking place. The church authorities immediately drafted their old Indian missionaries into service, and these missionaries, daring and obedient, faced the perilous situation to allay the danger threatening their people. What they accomplished by thus taking their lives in their hands has gone into Mormon history, and is good evidence of the diplomacy and wise policy of the Mormon leaders. It proves also the genuine stuff of which those old experienced scouts were made.

These missionaries convinced the angry and excited Indians that the murdering of their people was not done, nor sanctioned by their Mormon friends, but that it was done by non-Mormons, hard characters, by whom the Mormons themselves were also being robbed. A party of representative Navajos were taken back to the place of the trouble, and were convinced of the fact that the former treaty had not been broken by the Mormons. And again they were loaded up with presents and given added assurance of the desire on our part to stand eternally by the treaty of friendship and peace.  It was with these things in mind that the leaders of the church, in 1879, selected seventy-five or eighty young men, mostly married, to establish an outpost, and were given the mission of "cultivating and maintaining friendly relations with Indians whose homes were near the section where the state of Colorado, and the territories of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona corner together."

In pursuance of the above arrangement, an exploring party was organized and started in April to find a way into the proposed region. It consisted of about twenty-five men, most of them young men, (I among them) under the leadership of Silas S. Smith, who proved to be a careful, wise and successful scout. From our starting point in Iron county in Southern Utah, we traveled south-east to Lee's Ferry, thence to Tuba City, and from there north-east through the Navajo country, reaching the San Juan river about twenty-eight miles below the "four corners." We spent three months exploring the country in every direction, and traveled on north by the Blue Mountains, crossing Grand River and Green River, returning home by way of central Utah.

While our party were out on their exploring trip, another party was sent from Escalante to find a more direct route into the San Juan country. This outfit came down as far as the western brow of the Colorado river gorge, and looking down through the "Hole-in-the-rock" to the water of the river, and to a canyon leading out on this side to a flat looking country, went back and reported that it was all clear sailing for a wagon road to the San Juan. This report was prompted more by the desire to encourage travel through the little village of Escalante, than to find a feasible place for a permanent road.  By the latter part of October, 1879, the settlers selected for San Juan were on the road headed in that direction. They had all been advised to provide themselves with provisions for at least a year, and with clothing, seeds, tools and implements to begin farming, and to build places of shelter from the elements and safety from the Indians.

After the main body of the company had arrived at what is called Forty-mile Spring, the last camping place where sufficient water for so large a company is found, twenty miles from the river, exploring parties were sent out to see just what was ahead of us. The discovery was soon made that we had been led into a trap, as deep snows had fallen on the mountains back of us, and the next to impossible loomed up before us. The writer, then a young man, was one of three sent out for the purpose of returning with an official report. After eight days of exploring the report was made about as follows: One reported that the idea of making a way through by the "Hole-in-the-rock" was absolutely out of the question. The second scout reported that the way was quite feasible, and the men of the company could make a fairly good wagon road without much trouble. The third reported that by getting experienced men, tools, powder, etc., a way could be opened to get the outfit through the country, but there was no place in sight for a permanent wagon road.

The latter report was accepted, and steps were taken to act upon it. Silas S. Smith returned and visited the Territorial Legislature, and the leading officials of the Mormon church, from both of whom he received appropriations for blasting a way across the river and over the broken country out to where Bluff, Utah, was afterwards located.  In the company there were eighty-two wagons, and about that number of men and boys old enough to handle a team. The company put in about fifty days on the "Hole-in-the-rock," getting down with their outfits to the river, and they put in the greater part of three months getting across to where Bluff was begun. It was a severe winter, but the pilgrims enjoyed good health. Each Sabbath day was duly observed by all resting from their labors and holding services. Each night before retiring the bugle sounded as a signal for all to observe evening prayers. Dancing parties were frequently held on the flat bed rock, also singing, games, readings and other amusements.

Three babies were born on the way, and with the assistance of two old-time nurses, and the blessing of the Good Father, all went well with mothers and children. And the Good Father had a kind watch care over our whole company of pilgrims, bringing us through without death or serious sickness or accident of any nature. Nearly everyone was helpful and kind and good-natured, and in very rough places men would rally to each other's help, steadying the wagons down the slick rocks with long ropes, and pushing and pulling up the hills. With them was an old-timer named Barnes whose ponderous laugh echoing through camp would bring at least a good-natured smile to the face of all who heard.

Looking back at it now, and considering how that large company, working and blasting their way through a country of that nature, and being there during six months of one of the severest winters, it looks to me as though there was something more than human power and wisdom associated with it.

When that bedraggled company of tired pilgrims straggled into the present site of Bluff, many of their teams, which consisted of horses of all sizes and descriptions, as well as oxen, mules and burros, were unable to proceed farther; at least they would have to stop there for some time, and some of them remained there on that account. Most of the original settlers at Bluff, however, remained there from religious and conscientious motives. And under the blessing and protection of a kind Providence, they were prospered and preserved to accomplish, at least in a large measure, the mission assigned them.

For forty years there was but one of the original colony, a very dear friend of mine, killed or harmed by the Indians. And no Indian was killed by one of our party. A quiet, orderly Christian civilization was established in the midst of these Indian tribes: Utes, Piutes, Navajos, etc., many of whom were savage outlaws.

Many children have grown up in our colony who are developing into good strong characters, and filling places of responsibility in the different communities of south-eastern Utah. During our stay of almost forty-five years in San Juan county, Utah, there has never been a suspicion of any social or moral laxity between our people and the Indians.