Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Settling Bluff


Dublin Core


Settling Bluff


Learn about the harrowing expedition that settled the tiny San Juan County community of Bluff!

In 1888, a hardy group of Mormon settlers founded the town of Bluff, Utah. The party, which has since become known as the Hole-In-The-Rock Expedition, had been sent to present-day San JuanCounty to establish a religious mission among the local Indians and open the region to further white settlement.

By November of 1879, the settlers, who came from towns across southern and central Utah, were congregating at Forty-Mile Spring just south of Escalante, and immediately realized they were up against some of the most rugged and forbidding terrain in the western United States. The trail they planned to follow was supposed to be a “short cut” that would take them directly across the Colorado River, and lop almost 500 miles off their trip. Instead, what they encountered was a narrow notch in the canyon wall, nicknamed the Hole-In-The-Rock that led down to the Colorado River more than 1000 feet below. Opting to take their chances going down the steep crack, the expedition blasted, chiseled, and shoveled a path toward the river. When they neared the bottom, the settlers realized their only hope of reaching the river safely would be to build their road out from the canyon wall. So they pounded oak timbers into a series of holes they had drilled into the rock and then drove their wagons down the wooden road to the ferry that would take them across the Colorado. On the far bank, the group clawed their way back up another canyon face and across more rugged ground, until, exhausted and hungry, they drove their wagons into the flatlands along the San Juan River where Bluff now stands. It had taken the settlers nearly six months to travel a distance they thought would only take six weeks.


Brandon Johnson for Utah Humanities © 2007


Image: Bluff, Utah. San Juan River in Bluff City, Utah area. Bluff City, later simply called Bluff, is halfway between Mexican Hat and Blanding. The town was settled in 1880 by the Mormon Church's San Juan Mission expedition and called Bluff City because of the bluffs along the San Juan River. It was the first Anglo-Saxon settlement in San Juan County. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.

See Lamont Crabtree’s entry on the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail in the online Utah History Encyclopedia. Also see David E. Miller, Hole-in-the-Rock: An Epic in the Colonization of the Great American West (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1966); Linda King Newell and Vivian Linford Talbot, A History of Garfield County (Salt Lake City: Garfield County Commission and Utah State Historical Society, 1998), 157-164; and Robert S. McPherson, A History of San Juan County: In the Palm of Time (Salt Lake City: San Juan County Commission and Utah State Historical Society, 1995), 97-101.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org