Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park in Utah by picking up the story of human presence in this southwestern corner of Utah. For the history of the ancient ones, the American Indian at Zion, check out Part II, and for the geologic history and formation of Zion, see Part I.
During the time leading up to the mid-1800s, the Zion area was wild and populated thinly by the Southern Paiute. They may have avoided Zion Canyon itself because they believed it was inhabited by capricious spirits. Their names for features in the canyon indicate as much: Temple of Sinawava (Coyote the trickster), Mount Wynopits (god of evil), etc. All this time the area was claimed by Spain, and then by Mexico once they had gained independence.
In the late 1700s Spanish explorers penetrated southern Utah, apparently missing the Zion region. But the reports of Escalante, Dominguez and Rivera, and the beautiful maps of the artist-cartographer Bernardo Miera, greatly helped later white settlers. In particular the Mormons were intrigued by the Spaniards’ tales of Utah, a fact that would determine the future for the Zion area.
In the early 1800s, trappers and mountain men, while mostly staying to the north and east, did explore Utah. They found (a word I use loosely) many of the old Indian trails like the Old Spanish Trail. These would several decades later be used by white settlers. John Fremont explored Utah in the mid 1840s but he too missed Zion.
It should be noted however that the quirky and tough mountain men befriended many natives that they met. (They preferred Indian to white women as brides.) Some of them took secrets of their travels to their graves. So the odd mountain man could have walked up the Virgin River looking for beaver sign. Or even wintered in the relatively mild climate of SW Utah. We know Jedediah Smith, perhaps the widest-traveled mountain man (and my personal favorite), knew of the Virgin River. We just don’t know if any of them stepped foot in Zion Canyon.
Led by their leader and prophet Brigham Young, in the summer of 1847 thousands of Mormons arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. This was after their persecution back east (their founder and original prophet Joseph Smith was murdered while in prison). At the time the area was beyond the boundaries of the U.S. A year later that changed as all of Utah (including Zion) was part of the huge area ceded to the U.S. by Mexico. This was the result of Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American war.
That didn’t deter Brigham Young. He later became territorial governor of Utah, but the relationship between the government and Mormons has always been a tempestuous one (it’s a great story of its own). After being named president of the Mormons, Young sent parties to explore SW Utah in the 1850s. A mission to convert the Southern Paiute was established near what is now St. George not far from Zion. They took Indian lands in order to grow corn and other cash crops, including cotton. It didn’t take long for many Paiute to die of disease and starvation.
Because cotton and tobacco could be grown in the mild climate of SW Utah, and also because many of the settlers were originally from the American South, the area was named Dixie. The mission and settlement was largely unsuccessful and many fled. But Young kept it alive, sending more settlers south. He also sent Mormons to other places in the intermountain West. Mormons discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California and even founded Las Vegas (of all places).
ZION & THE POLITICS OF PLACE-NAMES
John Wesley Powell (another favorite figure of mine) led an expedition to the Zion area in 1872, recording the canyon’s name as Mukuntuweap. This is a Southern Paiute name meaning “straight canyon” or “arrow quiver” depending on who you believe. Powell may have been using the actual Indian name for the canyon or he may have gotten it wrong. But in 1909, when the area was given national monument status, it was called Mukuntuweap.
This is despite the fact that it was named Zion decades earlier. In 1858, the Mormon Indian interpreter and explorer Nephi Johnson explored the canyon (he is recorded as the first white person to see it). Despite the typical Mormon take on it that he was just exploring, he was very likely looking for a place to hide and lay low.
Johnson was directly involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, not far north of St. George. About 120 California-bound emigrants from Arkansas, including women and children, were murdered by Mormon militia-men (disguised as American Indians). A group of Southern Paiute, under direction of Johnson, also took part.
In 1861 another Mormon settler named Isaac Behunin, armed with information from Johnson, entered the canyon and built a one-room log cabin at the site now occupied by Zion Lodge. Like anyone, Behunin needed a name for his spectacular new surroundings: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.”
Under great political pressure from Mormons, who had all along been calling the place Zion and who were angry about the Paiute name, the acting director of the Park Service bowed to pressure and renamed it Zion. This was fortuitous for the Mormons, since the iconic director of the NPS Stephen Mather, who was dead-set against a name-change, was on leave at the time, suffering one of his long bouts of depression.
When the fantastic canyon, which by this time was well known thanks to the wonderful paintings of Frederick Dellenbaugh (see below), became a National Park in 1919, it was called Zion. And so it remains today.
Zion is a biblical word meaning place of refuge and peace. Considering their long migration to seek refuge from persecution, it’s a name near and dear to Mormons. But Nephi Johnson and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in a way twists the ideal of Zion.
A road was completed up Zion Canyon in 1917 and Wylie Way Camp was established to house pioneering visitors. Early tourists came to Zion in special convertible buses. Using these buses, Zion became part of the “Great Circle”, which took in Bryce Canyon, Zion and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. When you take the shuttle bus or drive up Zion Canyon today, as you crane your neck trying to view the soaring canyon walls, you may wonder why that fantastic original idea of topless buses didn’t last.
Zion became Utah’s first National Park in 1919, and in that year about 3700 people visited. William Wylie’s camp was purchased and Zion Lodge was completed in 1925. Tourist access continued to increase when the road to Zion became a thru-route in 1930.
After three years of innovative but dangerous road engineering that cost one worker his life, a tunnel was completed through the high cliffs east of Zion Canyon, connecting the park to points east. The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, with its charming skylight windows overlooking Pine Creek Canyon (its route is very close to the cliff wall), is still one of the country’s most marvelous road-works.
The same year the tunnels were finished (there are actually two), tourist numbers had increased to about 55,000. Visitation hit one million annually by 1975 and two million in 1990. In 1997, with visitor numbers exploding and the canyon becoming a veritable parking lot in summertime, the Park Service instituted a long-overdue mandatory shuttle system. From mid-March to the end of October, and also Thanksgiving weekends, you must take the free shuttle to access Zion Canyon.
Annual visitor numbers are now in excess of 2.5 million. So Zion can be quite a busy park. Next post in the series will focus on ways to come away from Zion with a positive experience while avoiding the potential negatives of all those fellow visitors.