Escalante History – Through the Years
By Jerry C. Roundy, Escalante Historian
A detachment of 62 men of the Iron County Militia and Utah Territorial Militia were the first known white men to enter the Escalante Valley on August 15, 1866. They were ordered by Brigadier General Erastus Snow, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and commander of the Southern Utah Military District, to explore for Indian trails from the Buckskin Mountains (Kiabab Plateau) to the mouth of the Green River. After finding potatoes 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 brother-in-law, 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 “ unnamed” river; later to be the last mapped river in the continental U.S. Since it had been nearly 100 years since two Spanish priests, Atanasio Dominquez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante (1776), made their famous, circuitous journey, Thompson named 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 other surrounding towns about a place called “Potato Valley.” Panguitch had a short growing season and many were looking for a milder climate. Livestock men were also looking for a place that had a winter and a summer range 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 result of a call from the Prophet of the LDS Church. 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.
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 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 16 year old Mary Alice down from the wagon, and she became the first 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.
Josiah Barker used his experience with surveying and sat on “Meetinghouse Hill” and laid out the streets into six rods wide and blocks into 28 rods square (or five acres). Each block was then divided into four lots, 1.25 acres each. Lot assignments were made by the head of each household by drawing a piece of paper from a hat with the lot assignment on it.
The population of Escalante has varied over the years; at its peak in the 1940’s, the population was as high as 1200. After World War II, the population began to decline. Today (2018), the population hovers at 800.