Lost and hungry scouts: A San Juan County Mormon Christmas story

When we think of Christmas Eve, we think of glowing fires, comfortable couches, a glass of eggnog, and families sheltered inside safe and warm.

For four Mormon scouts in southeast Utah that cold Christmas season of 1879, there was only fresh snow and their weary, wet horses.

The men were out of food, and worse, they were lost in the deeply incised canyons of Cedar Mesa. Bears Ears rose to the northwest behind them.

Beyond Bears Ears and 100 miles farther west, 234 devout followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints depended upon the scouts to find a way out of the maze of canyons, down to the San Juan River, and east to Montezuma Creek.

The Mormons were on a mission to establish a new outpost in southeast Utah and to extend their faith to Native tribes. The wagons and livestock had rolled eastward with enthusiasm and high expectations. Families had danced and sung together at Dance Hall Rock.

They looked forward to farming and irrigating acres along the river. The journey was to take six weeks, but that had been months ago and now it was the dark days of winter solstice. Where were the scouts?

Mormon leaders thought the new mission could be created by bringing wagons to Escalante, then through a series of canyons towards the San Juan River. An earlier scouting expedition had seen landmarks including the Abajo or Blue Mountains.

Those first scouts thought it could be done, but no one had ever ridden the route and certainly not attempted it with families, small children, 83 wagons, and hundreds of loose cattle, horses and a few dairy cows.

The last Mormon mission call to start a new settlement and the only large eastbound wagon train in American history would cross some of the deepest canyons on the continent on a route difficult to traverse even today with modern four-wheel drive vehicles. The problem was the route taken to cross southern Utah.

It included building a steep dugway, a hole in a cliff or rock, named Uncle Ben’s Dugway, in what is now Glen Canyon to drop almost 1,000 feet, cross the Colorado River, and then ascend upwards into what is now San Juan County.

From a houseboat on Lake Powell, boaters can stare up at the Hole-in-the-Rock the Mormon pioneers made. With binoculars I have looked and wondered how even with oak staves pounded into the sandstone and brush, logs, and dirt used to make a narrow platform to add a few feet of width, how so many wagons, people, and livestock could have descended such a gap.

At the bottom, workmen prepared a ferry that enabled families to cross the Colorado River, breathing easily on the other side until they realized that more slickrock loomed ahead.

Who had conceived of this route? Would it really work for all the families and wagons?

George B. Hobbs, who had been on the initial exploratory trip, Lemuel H. Redd, Sr., George W. Sevy, and George Morrell each on horseback had only two pack animals with eight days rations.

As they headed across broken canyons, they encountered cliff dwellings from the first inhabitants and even segments of constructed Ancestral Puebloan roads, traces of the prehistoric past untouched in the Bears Ears region. Hobbs referred to “the old Cliff Dweller trail again,” which took them over Clay Hills Pass.

On December 23, 1879, with eight inches of snow on the ground, the scouts prepared a large pancake that night using up the last of their food supplies.

Christmas found them close to Elk Ridge with no landmark, no way to find the river, lost in a maze of pinon and juniper trees, dark green set amidst red rock.

Looking for landmarks, Hobbs climbed a small outcropping later christened Christmas or Salvation Knoll.

From that elevation he could see down the long red spine of Comb Ridge south towards the San Juan River, with the snow-covered Abajos to the east. Now he knew where he was. He knew where they needed to go.

Salvation Knoll is marked on Highway 95 as it crosses just below the Bears Ears. An interpretive sign leads to a trail to the top of the knoll.

Hiking it, one looks out at all of Cedar Mesa spread far and wide. I’ve marveled at the courage of the Mormon pioneers and the dedication of their scouts.

After that snowy night, on horseback the scouts descended through the canyons and then rode the old Bears Ears trail in Comb Wash on the western side of Comb Ridge and then to the south, spied another trail ascending the cliff.

They had made it through Comb Wash only to be blocked by a major gulch, Butler Wash.

Three days without food, the scouts sought shelter in Butler Wash, close to the river, in a small Ancestral Puebloan ruin now known as Hobbs’ Ruin. I’ve hiked into it, alone, absorbed by the silence, the upright walls, the patterns of rock chips in the 800-year-old masonry, wooden lintels still in place, petroglyphs carved on the back wall, and a nice flat plaza area sheltered from the west wind.

There I imagine Hobbs had lain down his bedroll, trying to sleep, worrying about the wagons full of family days behind him, children cowering in the cold, doing his best to ignore the empty ache in his belly.

Hobbs wrote, “Night overtook us. We camped in this small canyon, this being our third day without food. I cut my name in the rock with the date I was there, not knowing that I would survive the journey.”

Finally, up and out of the wash, the scouts rode towards what would become the townsite of Bluff, only to find a calf that they considered butchering and eating.

But they restrained themselves and a little later came across a family camp of Coloradans who had been there since August.

Western hospitality prevailed. The men finally ate — fresh biscuits, roasted meat. They tried to eat slowly, tried not to show their hunger, eating every crumb of the biscuits, licking their fingers, trying to be satisfied with the food provided.

The scouts turned back, returned to the wagons, and led the San Juan Mission southeast across Cedar Mesa at the head of Grand Gulch. They had used fragments of Ancestral Puebloan roads and for miles the Mormon families saw the prominent Bears Ears.

From Clay Hills, the wagon train crossed Harmony Flat, Grand Flat, Mormon Flat, skirted Kane Gulch, with male road crews always working ahead of the wagons.

But the mission to Montezuma Creek never made it. The exhausted settlers, having spent days and weeks navigating through tight canyons lined with cliff dwellings, finally skirted the southern edge of Comb Ridge to arrive at a tall sandstone escarpment of bluffs that glowed golden before sunset.

The wagon train stopped 17 miles west of their destination. They paused where Cottonwood Wash drained south from the Abajos and huge cottonwood trees spread out across the riparian zone at the river’s edge. This would do. This was their place. They named it Bluff City.

At Christmas time, I think about the dedication of those Mormon scouts and the resilience and optimism of the LDS families willing to uproot their lives to begin anew.

In many ways the settlement of San Juan County, and the town of Bluff is a Christmas story – a story of faith and perseverance on the American frontier.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.

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