Your browser version is outdated. We recommend that you update your browser to the latest version.

Settlement of Escalante by Jerry C. Roundy


The first known Anglo white men to enter Escalante Valley was a detachment of 62 officers and men of the Iron County Militia and the Utah Territorial Militia who were ordered into service on Aug 15, 1866 by Brigadier General Erastus Snow, an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) and commander of the Southern Utah Military District.  Their orders, issued at St. George, were to explore for Indian trails from the Buckskin Mountains (Kaibab Plateau) to the mouth of the Green River.  After finding a variety of potato growing wild when they entered, what is now known as Escalante Valley, they dubbed the area ‘Potato Valley’.


In June of 1872 John Wesley Powell sent his brother-in-law and chief surveyor, Almon Harris Thompson, from Kanab to the Dirty Devil River to retrieve a boat (the Canonita) that had been cached at the confluence of the Dirty Devil and the Colorado the year before.  When they entered Escalante Valley and found a river, they thought they were on the Dirty Devil.  However, climbing high upon the Escalante Fold, they discovered the river they were on was actually an “unknown, unnamed” river; later to be the last mapped river in the continental U.S.  Since it was nearly 100 yrs since two Spanish priests, Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante (1776) made their famous, circuitous journey, Thompson decided to name the river and the basin it drained into, “Escalante”, in honor of Father Escalante.


There had been talk in towns such as Panguitch, Beaver, and possibly other surrounding towns about a place called “Potato Valley”.  Panguitch had a short growing season which made it almost impossible for fruit trees to produce, and many were looking for a milder climate.  Livestock men were also looking for a place that had a winter and a summer range in close enough proximity to feed in shorter distances year-round; Escalante Valley, or, as it was known then, Potato Valley, was just such a place.  Settlement of most places in Utah was the direct result of a call from the Prophet of the LDS Church for a group to settle in a particular area.  However, there was nothing in church policy that forbid anyone, once they had colonized a new location, from looking elsewhere for a different place to live if they felt they could better their situation, Escalante is such an example.  Individuals had scouted the country and felt they could better their situation here.

July 1875

Almon H. Thompson once again came into Escalante Valley with his survey crew, this time to survey and explore the Kaiparowits Plateau.  At the same time, some Mormons from Panguitch were in the valley digging irrigation canals for farming, intending to establish a town the following year.  On August 5, 1875, four Mormons rode into Thompson’s camp, a mile North of the present town, on Pine Creek, and told him they were thinking of establishing a settlement here.  Thompson told them he had already named the river and the basin Escalante and “advised them to call the place Escalante.”


In March, 1876, Josiah Barker brought his family from Panguitch to Escalante.  His son, Peter, was driving the lead wagon, and riding with Peter was his sister, Mary Alice, and her girlfriend, Kate Jacobs.  When they got to where the valley opened up, Peter, stopped and lifted 16yr old Mary Alice down from the wagon, and she became the first Anglo white woman to set foot in the valley.  Kate was only a breath behind, and Mary Alice’s mother was in the next wagon.  Mary Alice later became a mid-wife and delivered over 600 babies during her 35 years of practice.  Within a month of their arrival, other families arrived and Escalante soon became an established town.  At first it was proposed that the town be built on the North side of the river, with the South side being left for farms.  However, in April, a decision was made to move the site of the town to the South side onto higher ground and farm the North instead.  It is disputed whether it was Alma Barney or Josiah Barker who suggested that the town be moved to the South side of the river; after a meeting was called, it was decided that the better choice would be on the South side.