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Reading 1: Early Uses of Bryce Canyon
Erosion has shaped colorful limestones, sandstones, and mudstones into a remarkable array of fantastic shapes below the rim of Utah's Paunsaugunt Plateau. Tall, thin ridges of rock called "fins" form as water weakens rocks fractured in the faulting process. The fins continue to erode over time and become pinnacles and spires. These rock formations, called "hoodoos," are made even more spectacular by the presence of oxidized minerals that create over 60 gradations of red, yellow, purple, and white. A legend of the Paiute Indians, who inhabited the area for hundreds of years before the arrival of European Americans, claims that the hoodoos are ancient "Legend People" turned into stone as punishment for bad deeds. This description captures the fanciful quality of the remarkable and rugged terrain of Bryce Canyon.
Early 19th-century travelers in the region reported little on the wonders of Bryce Canyon. Although early Spanish explorers and traders traveled in the general area, there are no records to show that they ever went into Bryce Canyon. It seems likely that fur trappers and traders would have passed through the region between 1800 and 1850, since the name of the Paunsaugunt Plateau above the canyon is derived from a Paiute word meaning "home of the beavers." Yet, extant trappers' journals, letters, and reports do not specifically describe the unusual scenery that characterizes Bryce Canyon. Similarly, the prospectors and entrepreneurs who opened many remote areas of the western United States during the 1850s and 1860s found little of interest in the vicinity. The terrain is so rugged that even the famous John Wesley Powell 1867 survey of the Green and Colorado Rivers and plateaus avoided this area of Utah. As Captain Sutton, a member of the survey, reported, it was "traversable only by a creature with wings."¹
Mormons began settling Utah in the late 1840s when Brigham Young and his followers established Salt Lake City. Young hoped to form religious colonies in southern Utah as well, but the missionaries found the region of Bryce Canyon inhospitable and generally unsuited for farming. Seasonal early and late frosts associated with the high altitude made crop production risky. Some arable land existed on the top of the Paunsaugunt Plateau and in the canyon bottoms below the rim, however. In the mid-1870s a small group of Mormon pioneers decided to try to capitalize on the land's potential. They settled in the adjacent valleys that seemed suited for grazing livestock.
Ebenezer Bryce and his family were among the Mormons who accepted the challenge to settle the region. He agreed to move from Salt Lake City to southern Utah because he thought the climate might improve his wife's poor health. In 1875 the Bryces; joined several other families at Clifton (cliff town), which was named for its proximity to the pink cliffs of the canyon. Apparently not satisfied with that settlement, they soon moved upstream along the Paria River to found New Clifton. Between 1878-1880, Ebenezer Bryce and other settlers built a seven-mile irrigation ditch from Paria Creek in order to raise crops and provide water for their livestock. To make firewood more accessible, Bryce also built a road that terminated at the mouth of the canyon. In 1880, when Mary Bryce's health failed to improve, the Bryces moved to southeastern Arizona because of its year-round warmth. By this time, local settlers already referred to the area as "Bryce's Canyon."
When asked about the spectacular scenery near his farm, Bryce reportedly said only that the canyon was "a hell of a place to lose a cow." Many years later a grandson of one of the Mormon settlers remarked:
Many of us remember them [grandparents] telling us about this canyon as well as of Cedar Breaks. But they could do little about it. They were too busy trying to make a livelihood for their families. There were no roads, just poor trails, their wagons and wagon wheels were worn out, their horses or ox teams were poor and unable to make any trips, save for the bare necessities.²
These Mormon pioneers were interested primarily in growing crops and raising cattle to provide for their families, and in establishing churches. They were a determined, God-fearing group, whose struggle against the harsh realities of everyday life left little energy for contemplating the magnificent scenery themselves or spreading word of it to others. It would be decades before the American public became aware of this special place.
Questions for Reading 1
1. What geological formations make Bryce Canyon unique? How are these formations created?
2. Why was there a lack of interest in the Bryce Canyon region until the late 19th century?
3. What did the Bryces and other Mormon settlers do to make the land near Bryce Canyon more hospitable?
4. What prevented Mormon pioneers from fully appreciating the magnificent scenery of Bryce Canyon?
Reading 1 is compiled from Janene Caywood, "Bryce Canyon Multiple Property Submission" (Garfield County, Utah) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1994; Nicholas Scrattish, "Historic Resource Study: Bryce Canyon National Park," Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1985; and primary sources located at the site.
¹Dorr G. Yeager, Your Western National Parks (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1947), 163.