The Founding and Naming of Moab

Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, September 1995

The now-prosperous town of Moab had a rocky beginning. Its would-be founders faced hostile Ute Indians who prevented white settlement for over twenty years. Even the name Moab has had to survive a serious challenge.

The first white settlers of this region just east of the Colorado River in what is now Grand County had a special purpose. During the April 1855 LDS General Conference, forty men were “called” to establish a mission to the Utes at the north end of “Little Grand Valley,” still generally known as “Spanish Valley” because the Old Spanish Trail cut through it. Led by Alfred Billings, the Elk Mountain Mission (named for the mountains just to the east, now known as the LaSal range) departed Salt Lake City on May 7, 1855. Billings described the mission simply: to minister to the Indians and to grow some grain. The Elk Mountain Mission was to be a part of a far-flung network of Mormon settlements referred to as Brigham Young’s “outer cordon” of settlements.

The Billings party experienced great difficulties on their journey southeastward. The crossing of the Green River alone took two days, as the missionaries struggled to drive their 65 oxen, 16 cows, 2 bulls, and 1 calf across the ford. Roughly following parts of the Old Spanish Trail, the party established their camp about a half-mile north of the present town of Moab. There they built a stone fort, a stockade, and a log corral for their livestock, and immediately began to plant crops. The missionaries found the soil to be highly fertile, and a variety of crops grew well around the region.

The Utes were reportedly confused over the missionaries’ motives; while they spoke of peace and bringing the word of God, the Billings party simultaneously prepared defenses. The Utes initially proved to be friendly; the prominent chief Arapeen greeted them and preached to his fellow Indians in both Ute and Navajo. One female and fourteen male Utes accepted baptism into the Mormon faith. Brigham Young sent word to the mission, counseling them to live and travel among the Indians, leaving only a skeleton force to protect the fort.

Troubles began almost immediately, however, and reached a head in early autumn. The missionaries accused the Utes of repeatedly raiding their food supplies, and they moved to protect them within the fort. On September 23 the Utes attacked the fort, killing three missionaries and wounding Billings, while setting fire to the hay and corn crops. The remaining party members quickly decided to abandon the mission and managed to make their way back to established Mormon villages to the north.

Permanent settlers did not return to the region until 1877. In the spring of that year William Granstaff (“Nigger Bill” in the coarse language of that day) and a French-Canadian trapper known to history simply as “Frenchie” arrived in Spanish Valley, apparently prospecting. Bill and Frenchie moved into the old Billings fort, each claiming half of it as well as half of the valley. Granstaff grazed his cattle in a small canyon that still bears his name. Other settlers arrived soon thereafter and settled throughout the valley. Granstaff eventually ran afoul of the authorities, who accused him of selling liquor to the Indians; he found it expedient to move to Colorado in 1881.

William Pierce, one of the newly arrived settlers, decided to call the new settlement “Moab,” or “land beyond the Jordan,” a Biblical land where Semitic relatives of the Hebrews dwelled. On March 3, 1890, Grand County was established, named for the Grand River which bisected it, with Moab as the county seat. (In 1921 the Grand River was renamed the Colorado.) Fifty-nine residents of Moab immediately complained to the new County Court about their town’s name; they argued that it was “so unfavorably commemorative of the character of an incestuous and idolatrous community existing 1897 years before the Christian era…[we want a name] more appropriate, significant, or expressive of moral decency and manly dignity, and in harmony with the progressive civilization of the present….”

The disgruntled petitioners suggested “Vina,” apparently for the abundant fruit crops that they coaxed from the earth. Unfortunately for them, they lacked the necessary votes and the little town remained Moab.

Sources: Grand Memories (Moab: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, 1972); Jonathan Van Cott, Utah Place Names (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990); Eugene E. Campbell, “Brigham Young’s Outer Cordon: A Reappraisal,” Utah Historical Quarterly 41 (1973).