Archaeologists have evidence that Paleo- Indians began to wander across the region that would become Utah about 15,000 years ago—hunting big game and gathering plant foods. The climate was probably cooler and wetter; food plants and game animals would have been more abundant than today. The early tribes continued their primitive hunting and gathering despite climate changes and the extinction of many big-game species about 10,000 years ago.
The first tentative attempts at agriculture were introduced from the south about 2,000 years ago and brought about a slow transition to a settled village life. The Fremont culture emerged in the northern part of the Colorado Plateau, the Anasazi in the southern part. Although both groups developed crafts such as basketry, pottery, and jewelry, only the Anasazi progressed to the construction of masonry buildings in their villages. Their corn, beans, and squash enabled them to be less reliant on migration and to construct year-round village sites. Thousands of stone dwellings, ceremonial kivas, and towers built by the Anasazi still stand. Both groups also left behind intriguing rock art, either pecked into the surfaces (petroglyphs) or painted on (pictographs). The Anasazi and the Fremont departed from this region about 800 years ago, perhaps because of drought, warfare, or disease. Some of the Anasazi moved south and joined the Pueblo tribes of present-day Arizona and New Mexico. The fate of the Fremont people remains a mystery.
About the same time, perhaps by coincidence, the nomadic Shoshoni in the north and the Utes and Paiutes in the south moved through Utah; none of these groups seemed to have knowledge of their sophisticated predecessors. Relatives of the Athapascans of western Canada, the seminomadic Navajo, wandered into New Mexico and Arizona between A.D. 1300 and 1500. This adaptable tribe learned agriculture, weaving, pottery, and other skills from their Pueblo neighbors and became expert horsepeople and sheepherders with livestock obtained from the Spanish.
The size of prehistoric populations has varied greatly in Utah. There were probably few inhabitants during the Archaic period (before A.D. 500), but many more during the time of the Anasazi and Fremont cultures (A.D. 500–1250), rising to a peak of perhaps 500,000. Except for the Athapascan-speaking Navajo, all of Utah’s historic tribes spoke Shoshonian languages and had similar cultures.
Explorers and Colonizers
In 1776, Spanish explorers of the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition were the first Europeans to visit and describe the region during their unsuccessful attempt to find a route west to California. Utes guided the Spanish expedition through the Uinta Basin.
Retreating to New Mexico, the explorers encountered great difficulties in the canyons of southern Utah before finding a safe ford across the Colorado River. This spot, known as the “Crossing of the Fathers,” now lies under Lake Powell. Later explorers established the Old Spanish Trail through this area of Utah to connect New Mexico with California.
Adventurous mountain men seeking beaver pelts and other furs entered northern Utah in the mid-1820s. They explored the mountain ranges, the rivers, and Great Salt Lake and blazed most of the trails later used by wagon trains, the Pony Express, telegraph lines, and the railroads. By 1830, most of the mountain men had moved on to better trapping areas and left the land to the Native Americans; some, however, returned to guide government explorers and groups of pioneer settlers.
Joseph Walker, who served under Captain Benjamin Bonneville, crossed the northwest corner of Utah in 1833 on a trip to California. He reported such difficult conditions that no one else attempted the route for the rest of the decade. California-bound wagon trains took heed and almost all followed a more northerly path through Idaho on the Oregon Trail.
In 1843, John C. Frémont led one of his several government-sponsored scientific expeditions into Utah. Frémont determined the salinity of Great Salt Lake and laid to rest speculation that a river drained the lake into the Pacific Ocean. Two years later, he led a well-prepared group across the heart of the dreaded Great Salt Lake Desert, despite warnings from the local Native Americans that no one had crossed it and survived. His accounts of the region described not only the salty lake and barren deserts but also the fertile valleys near the Wasatch Range. Mormon leaders planning a westward migration from Nauvoo, Illinois, carefully studied Frémont’s reports.
Langsford Hastings, an ambitious politician, seized the opportunity to promote Frémont’s desert route as a shortcut to California. Hastings had made the trip on horseback but failed to anticipate the problems of a wagon train. On this route in 1846, the Donner-Reed wagon train became so bogged down in the salt mud that many wagons were abandoned. Moreover, an 80-mile stretch between water holes proved too far for many of the oxen, which died from dehydration. Today, motorists can cruise in comfort along I-80 on a similar route between Salt Lake City and Wendover.
Native Americans vs. Settlers
The Paiutes and Utes befriended and guided the early explorers and settlers, but troubles soon began for these and other groups when they saw their lands taken over by farmers and ranchers. None of the tribes proved a match for the white population, which eventually drove the Native Americans from the most desirable lands and settled them on the state’s five reservations.
The Navajo’s habit of raiding neighboring tribes and white settlements brought about their downfall. In 1863–1864 the U.S. Army rounded up all the Navajo they could find and forced the survivors on “the Long Walk” from Fort Defiance in northeastern Arizona to a bleak camp in eastern New Mexico. This internment was a dismal failure, and the Navajo were released four years later.
In 1868, the federal government “awarded” to the Navajo land that has since grown to a giant reservation spreading from northeastern Arizona into adjacent Utah and New Mexico.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition