Remains of the Elk Mountain Mission fort of 1855, courtesty of the Dan O’Laurie Museum of Moab
If you think it’s hot now, just step outside a building or out of the shade and imagine how it would feel -- in the full glare of Moab’s mid-summer sun -- to stack rows of hot sandstone blocks several feet deep, up to a height of 12 feet, over a 64-square-foot space.
That kind of grueling, hard work is what the first white men to attempt settlement in the Moab Valley undertook upon arrival in the summer of 1855, following weeks of travel by horse and wagon across vast stretches of barren, dreary desert, wild mountains and muddy rivers.
According to historical accounts, 41 men on a Mormon colonization mission arrived in mid-June and chose a spot to build a fort just south of the Colorado River (known then as the Grand River). It took about 30 days for them to erect a 130-foot corral, plant ten acres of crops, dig a three-mile-long irrigation ditch to water the crops and livestock, and complete the stone structure.
The fort of the Elk Mountain Mission was dedicated July 15, 1855; meantime, the settlers established a successful horse-and-cattle trade and supply store frequented by Native Americans. But the outpost was a short-lived venture, eventually torn asunder by conflict with Natives associated
with hostile roaming tribes from the north and central areas of Utah and western Colorado.
After the colonization effort failed in late September, no one tried to settle the valley again for 20 years. Today, only rubble remains where the outpost had been, and local historians have been looking at ways to memorialize the fort, or maybe to rebuild.
“What we need to to is follow through on a study and decide: Is it really rational to rebuild, or what?” said Bruce Louthan, chairman of the Grand County Historical Preservation Commission. The board had the fort on its priority list for projects to pursue in 2008, but recently redirected $1,000 for a feasibility study on reconstruction of the Elk Mountain Mission to a study on proposed reconstruction of the Dewey Bridge (which burned in April).
Louthan said rebuilding the fort “is obviously something that could be done, but it would take a serious amount of money to do that.”
“We would need to find somebody to do a study, and once you build it, you would have to maintain it,” he cautioned.
Louthan has suggested a possible alternative in the meantime is to persuade the Utah Department of Transportation to provide a turn-out as part of a road-widening project planned for North Highway 191. He envisions motorists being able to pull into an area near the old fort site with an informational kiosk that tells about the original settlement. The state road project may be several years away, however.
The Moab Camp of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers had a stone monument built to commemorate the Elk Mountain Mission, and once had it placed 800 feet from the fort site (by Black Oil Co., near 900 North Main). But the monument was moved farther south to the site of the previous Moab Chamber of Commerce building and visitor center, then moved again when that building was sold to an individual property owner. The monument now stands embedded in concrete near the DUP Building on East Center Street.
Inalyn Meador, DUP president, said the group is raising funds to update the intepretive plaque on the monument so that it can remain where it is and state accurately where the old fort was.
A significant question is whether the hand-hewn fort could be rebuilt where it originally stood -- near the stone house known most commonly among locals as the Grande Old Ranch House -- and if a landowner would be willing to dedicate a parcel of property in perpetuity for reconstruction of the fort.
Historical board member D.L. Taylor, whose great-great-grandfather Norman Taylor came to Moab to settle in 1871, built the ranch house (now the Desert Bistro) in 1875. Taylor said the original Mormon explorers and his ancestors who came later chose the site for building mainly because of spring water nearby. Spring Creek united with “Pack-saddle” Creek to form a tributary emptying into the river near the portal to the west, and was a prime area for cultivation.
“The big spring there caused them to settle there. It flowed into the pasture land, and that’s the reason they selected it for the fort and later for family,” Taylor said.
According to historical accounts of the Mormons’ arrival, under leadership of Alfred N. Billings, corn planted by the Natives was already sprouting tassles by mid-June. The settlers immediately planted crops and boasted knee-high corn by mid-July.
Unfortunately, they had arrived in the midst of a statewide war between settlers and roaming Ute Indians who reportedly had among them a number of warrior-oriented members who didn’t like sharing space and resources with white men. But the Mormons were encouraged by others of the tribe -- including Ute Chief Wakara -- and Navajos in the vicinity who were friendly to settlers and open to trading goods, livestock and supplies. But according to one account, the religious group offended some of the Utes by opposing an established slave trade that involved Paiute children. And they added insult to injury by refusing an offer of squaws as wives.
Eventually, some Natives started raiding the fort’s crops and livestock, and tensions mounted. Members of the settlement complained in journals and correspondence to church headquarters in Salt Lake City that things took a turn for the worse as winter began dusting the peaks of the Elk Mountain range (now the Manti-LaSals) in the fall.
A three-day gunbattle -- the Elk Mountain Massacre -- erupted Sept. 23, 1855 when, purportedly, a Ute Indian enticed James Wiseman Hunt from the fort with the offer to give him a horse grazing near the mountains. By some accounts, it was Wiseman’s missing horse. Another story suggests the Ute was offering Wiseman a free horse. After he left the fort, Wiseman was shot in the back and died 13 hours later inside the fort after being rescued by Billings, who was also shot and lost a finger for his bravery. Two other men who had left the fort earlier and were returning were also killed: William Behunin and Edward Edwards.
The next day, more hostile Natives began gathering and taunting the fort’s inhabitants, fires were started, and the flow of water to the fort was blocked. With no reconciliation in sight, some of the Natives who had remained friendly to the Mormons offered to help them flee. According to a letter to church President Brigham Young, 13 survivors of the Elk Mountain Mission made it to Manti without mishap on Sept. 30, and the fort was abandoned.