The first non-Native community in southeastern Utah, in the valley where Moab is now located, predated other white settlements in the area by 20 years. But it only lasted a few months.
The Elk Mountain Mission was founded in 1855 at the behest of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young. It was named after the Elk Mountains, now called La Sals.
To reach the Moab Valley, the 1855 mission followed a route used in 1854 by a Boy Scout troop appointed by Young.
Led by William Dresser Huntington, the 1854 party searched for a site for a Mormon presence along the Old Spanish Trail in southeastern Utah.
The 13 Boy Scouts left Springville, Utah, in October 1854. They headed southeast to the Green River, then south to the Grand (Colorado) River.
Huntington believed he had found the ideal place for a new settlement. “There is a beautiful valley by the Grand River,” he wrote of the Moab Valley in December 1854. “It has good soil and grazing land, is very well forested and irrigated, and is about 50 miles from the Elk Mountains.”
Huntington’s crew camped there briefly and then continued south to the San Juan River and on to a Navajo village in present-day Arizona.
They were led by some friendly Sheberetch Utes – a small gang that lived near the La Sal Mountains.
The Scout troop returned home just before Christmas and Huntington reported to Brigham Young. As a result, Young called for the Elk Mountain Mission, and 41 men joined.
Alfred Billings, age 29, was elected mission president and authorized to serve as military, civilian, and religious leader for the other 40 missionaries.
Oliver Huntington, William’s brother, kept the official records of the Elk Mountain Mission as well as a private journal in which he frequently criticized Billings.
The mission left Manti, Utah on May 22, 1855 with 15 wagons, 65 oxen, 16 cows, 13 horses, and other livestock. The group also had tools for farming, blacksmithing, and construction. They had plenty of black powder, bullet lead, and primers—enough to trade and stock their own guns.
It took them six days to cross the fast-flowing Green River in a wagon converted into a boat. Many of the reluctant oxen had to be tied to the boat and dragged across.
They reached the Grand River on June 10 and crossed it without difficulty.
Since it was late in the season, they were eager to plant crops. To this end they dammed the Mill Creek, which now flows through Moab, and built an irrigation ditch two miles long.
But cracks were already showing. During a June 17 meeting, many men opposed Billings’ plan for a single, common farm regime. Instead, they decided to split into four separate groups or “messes,” each with their own leadership.
Towards the end of June, Billings decided to build the mission’s fort a mile from the farming properties, further angering some mission members who wanted the fort near their farming properties.
Despite this, a wooden palisade was built, then four separate rock houses – one for each of the casinos.
Toward the end of June, the first Utes began to appear, friendly at first and willing to be baptized as Mormons.
On June 30, Sheberetch arrived Chief Quit-sub-soc-its, nicknamed St. John, but was upset when he built and planted the Mormons in the valley. Billings appeased the chief by giving him a few gifts, and the Mormons began trading with the Utes expeditiously.
During July, other large groups of natives came to the fort, curious and eager to trade. They came from all over western Colorado, Utah, and from Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
But not all natives were friendly. Chief St. John’s brother told the Mormons they could not build a permanent fort in the valley, and another Ute said they must leave immediately.
St. John smoothed things over with the Utes, but tensions lingered. Utes took some of the Mormon cattle and helped himself to the settlers’ gardens. To the Mormons, it was theft. To the Utes, simply part of the price the Mormons paid to occupy their land.
Amid these tensions, Billings granted 19 mission members leave to visit their homes near Salt Lake City. Only four would return.
On August 31, Billings and five other men, accompanied by five Ute leaders, set out south to trade with the Navajos.
You had a successful journey. But they apparently traded much of their ammunition with the Navajos, leaving themselves short. Also, the voyage led to more animosity with the Sheberetch Utes, who believed they had exclusive trading rights with the Mormons.
A week after Billings and the other dealers returned, six more missionaries were allowed to go home to visit families, leaving only 16 members in the mission.
Four men decided to go hunting in the La Sal Mountains on September 22, and Utes followed them. Two of the hunters were killed, although the reasons for the killings are not clear.
On September 23, as several men were moving cattle near the fort, one was shot by a ute, and the others hastily carried him back to the fort. He died that night.
“By daylight the next morning, the Indians began to gather in large numbers,” the Deseret News later reported. “The remaining 13 brothers, on the advice of a few Indians who were still friendly, took their horses and set off for Manti, their enemies squabbling over the cattle and spoils in the fort.”
They rushed north and camped by the Green River. Most arrived in Manti on September 30th.
After the mission was abandoned, the natives blocked other potential settlers for decades. But by 1880 the Sheberetch Utes were gone, ravaged by disease and war. The few remaining members are believed to have joined other ute bands.
In the late 1870s, with the Utes mostly gone, new settlers began moving into the valley. One was an African American named William Granstaff who prospected in the area, lived in the abandoned fort of the Elk Mountain Mission, and raised cattle in what is now Granstaff Canyon.
Cabins were built in the parish around 1880. One that still stands is said to have been built by Randolph Stewart, the first Mormon bishop of Moab. But many non-Mormons also settled in the area: ranchers from Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and other parts of Utah, along with prospectors and merchants.
Albert Billings’ leadership and his eagerness to trade with the Navajos while ignoring Utes concerns has been cited as an explanation for the failure of the Elk Mountain Mission.
“Primarily because of Indian trade, the mission was vulnerable and hopelessly undermanned,” wrote authors Tom McCourt and Wade Alison. “A stronger, better, more dedicated mission leader might have led to a very different end result.”
Sources: “The Elk Mountain Mission” by Tom McCourt and Wade Allison; “A History of Grand County”, by Richard A. Firmage; Historic Utah Newspapers at https://digitalnewspapers.org; Elk Mountain Mission memorial and The Old Log Cabin plaque, both at 65 North, 200 East, Moab, Utah.