Leaving their homes east of the Mississippi River because of religious persecution, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) began arriving in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. By the 1870s, they had expanded settlements into the southern portions of what is today the state of Utah. Few Mormon families, however, were living in the region east of the Colorado River, and the area was void of any major settlement. In order to establish a stronger foothold, the Mormon Church organized the San Juan mission to select a site for settlement in the region.
A call to fill the mission was issued by the Mormon Church in 1878-1879. A scouting party under the direction of Silas S. Smith left Paragonah, Utah, in April 1879 to determine a route and search for a suitable place to establish the new colony. A site at the mouth of Montezuma Creek on the San Juan River was selected, but a viable route was still uncertain. If the expedition chose either route used by the scouts, it would mean a trip of nearly 500 miles (800 km). A short-cut, thought to be simpler, was chosen with a rendezvous at Forty-Mile Spring, south of the town of Escalante. The expedition, consisting of 250 men, women, and children, 83 wagons, and over 1000 head of livestock, gathered at the appointed place in November 1879.