Part I: The San Juan Mission
When Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, was murdered in Illinois, Brigham Young became the new leader. He decided to move the church headquarters from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah. The first wagons arrived in July of 1847. They were in a wilderness where the only other inhabitants were scattered bands of American Indians. At that time, much of the land west of the Rocky Mountains was claimed as part of Mexico, but the Mexican-American War changed all that in 1848.
Young envisioned a new state called Deseret that spanned across lands that now lie in several states. He set out to colonize as much of the wild west as possible. When he died in 1877, there was still a lot left undone. One gaping hole in the overall plan was the area referred to as the San Juans, located on the east side of the Colorado River and extending across Utah into Colorado and Arizona. There was no substantial church presence in that remote country. The San Juan’s of Utah were cut off from the rest of the state by the canyons of the mighty Colorado River.
Numerous settlements were thriving on the west side of the river, including Cedar City, Parowan, and Paragonah. The town of Escalante had been established in 1876. It was on a direct line between Cedar City and the San Juan area. Other routes to the San Juans already existed but a direct line road would cut the travel distance in half. Because of canyons carved by the Colorado River, no one had ever gone that way. There was not even a footpath that connected the two points.
Church leaders believed a convoy could be sent east from Escalante. Scouts were sent to confirm such a mission was possible. Although the scouts made no attempt to find a specific route for wagons to travel, and made no attempt to cross the barren country to prove it could be done, the San Juan Mission was called in 1878.
During the last weeks of October and into November of 1879, a main convoy of wagons traveled the well established wagon road between Cedar City and Escalante. Along the way, they were joined by other wagons coming from different directions and the convoy grew to more than a mile long.
Escalante was the last outpost where supplies could be obtained. From the time they left the small community, the pioneers would be pushing their way into country farther and farther away from civilization. The farther they went, the more difficult it would become to send riders back to Escalante for replenishment.
When the main convoy of pioneers left Escalante there were still a lot of wagons unaccounted for. Instructions were left for lagging wagons to follow the road and meet them at Forty Mile Spring, where a base camp would be established until a suitable road could be built to the Colorado River. The wagons averaged about ten miles each day and camped at locations now called Ten Mile Spring, Twenty Mile Spring, Coyote Holes, and Forty Mile Spring. It was at Forty Mile Spring that the first mission headquarters was established during the last week of November and from which work crews were dispatched to build a road to the River.
Along the way they passed a natural rock garden with numerous formations now known as Devil’s Garden. The arches and rock formations within Devil’s Garden have earned it a distinction from anything else along the trail. (Today, an outhouse and picnic area is available.)
A short distance from Forty Mile Spring is Dance Hall Rock. This unique rock formation forms a natural amphitheater with a dance floor large enough for huge crowds of people. The pioneers had several fiddle players in the group. Such a break from the grueling work schedule was irresistible and provided many hours of entertainment for the pioneers.
As added wagons and animals arrived at Forty Mile Spring, the convoy grew to 200 men and women, 50 children, 200 horses, and more than 1,000 head of cattle. A small city of tents and wagons covered the desert floor on all sides of the small spring.
On December 17, four scouts were sent to find a route where a road could be built across the wilderness. At that same time, work crews set up camps at 50 Mile Spring and at the top of Hole in the Rock. While the explorers fought ankle-deep snow and freezing temperatures in their trek across uncharted territory, work crews chopped away at solid rock on the west side of the river and began building roads up the steep banks on the east side.
While the explorers faced dead-end canyons, mesa tops with sheer drop-offs, and 12 days of travel with eight day’s worth of food, work crews received a fresh supply of dynamite from the Church. By the time the explorers reached Fort Montezuma work crews blasted away at everything blocking their path. When the explorers returned with news that a route had been found, work crews were within two weeks of lowering the first wagon down the narrow passage they had named Hole in the Rock.
On January 26, 1880, the first wagon rolled onto the raft at the bottom of Hole in the Rock and sailed across the Colorado River. Twenty-five more followed before the day was over. It seemed like a giant leap, but was only a small step toward completion of their mission.
Join us next month when we pick up the trail on the east side of the river.
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