A Brief History of Zion National Park

Nov 16, 2017

A Brief History of Zion National Park

Zion National Park has quite a storied past that is very interesting and surprisingly entertaining. Learning the history behind such larger-than-life things like a national park can be eye-opening because it’s usually not information that is readily discussed or widely advertised. The details about Zion National Park history are informative and fun to know.

Like many areas in the State of Utah, the area we know of today as Zion National Park was first explored by Mormon pioneers, missionaries, and explorers. Initially establishing their Southern Utah footing in the Cedar City area, these early settlers eventually expanded all the way to the southern desert region near what was eventually dubbed the Virgin River and Zion Canyon. At this point in history (the 1850s), the area was harsh, wild, and had been scarcely explored, being inhabited solely by Southern Paiute Indians. As you can imagine, these early white settlers were completely astounded at the magnificent beauty of the towering cliffs, majestic slot canyons, and everything else that the modern world has come to know and love about Zion.

A man named Nephi Johnson, along with a Paiute guide was charged with the task of venturing into the main canyon to determine if the land could be satisfactorily farmed. When he returned with good news, these early Mormons commenced establishing a proper settlement, which was not easy from an agricultural perspective. By the early 1860s, the town of Springdale had formally been established. Naming the area Zion is credited to one of these early settlers, Isaac Behunin. Zion is a Biblical word that is prominent in the Mormon lexicon that refers to a place of spiritual sanctuary. To the LDS people, it symbolizes an eventual religious utopia and a final gathering place in the last days. The selection of this word to represent the area shows the level of respect and awe these pioneers had for it. Modern visitors surely wouldn’t disagree when seeing the unmatched beauty of Zion Canyon.

As was often the historical result of white settlers moving into an area on the western frontier, over time the Native Americans primarily died from disease and those who didn’t travel elsewhere (in this case further south) to make new homes for themselves. The next four decades (1870-1900s) saw an influx of outside visitors in the form of permanent settlers, explorers, railroaders, ranchers, and miners. Famous explorer John Wesley Powell gave an alternate name to the area, Mukuntuweap, which is the Paiute word for “straight canyon”. At the turn of the century, photographers and artists began making their way to render the now-famous sights of Zion. Some of these works were featured at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, MO, most notably paintings by famed artist Frederick S. Dellenbaugh.

Finally, in the summer of 1909, President of the United States William Taft declared the area as federally protected and officially named it Mukuntuweap National Monument, deciding to go with the Paiute name rather than the one chosen by Utah’s early pioneers. State residents were not pleased, to say the least, with President Taft passing over the name they had originally chosen for the area. In 1918, after almost a decade of grievances, the assistant director of the recently-formed National Park Service, Horace Albright, changed the name of the park to Zion National Monument. There is, in fact, a bit of controversy surrounding this decision as acting director Stephen Mather was, at the time, battling severe depression (which surfaced in extreme, periodic episodes, according to accounts). It was during one of these unfortunate sabbaticals that Asst. Dir. Albright took it upon himself to alter the name of the park. Then, only a year later in 1919, the word “Monument” was replaced with “Park”. Zion National Park has remained the official name ever since. Zion National Park history continued years later in 1956 when the boundaries of Zion were expanded to include the Kolob section, which before that point was its own national monument.

And the rest is, as they say, history. Hopefully, your appreciation and interest in this spectacular place have been increased now that you know a bit more about Zion National Park history.

A Brief History of Zion National Park

Zion National Park History



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