The film shown in the Bluff Fort Visitor’s Center, which tells the story of the pioneers who came through the Hole in the Rock, begins and ends with the question, “What causes ordinary people to do extraordinary things?”
Of course, the question is referring to those young families who left their established homes, businesses and extended families in Southern Utah, in 1879, to answer a prophet’s call.
They were asked to help settle a harsh land inhabited by two tribes of Indians, as well as outlaws and cowboys, in the southeast corner of the state.
The pioneer’s anticipated six week journey turned into a grueling six month odyssey over broken terrain that tested the limits of animals and humans alike.
However, that question also applies to the additional families who were called, some even before the original band had reached their destination.
Their willing response to the call is all the more remarkable because the second wave of settlers had heard of the hardships the first company suffered coming through the Hole in the Rock; consequently, they chose other routes.
One company of five families took a route through Muley Twist Canyon, traversing the Colorado River at Halls Crossing.
Among this group was a young mother, 25-year-old Josephine Wood. When her husband Samuel first told her they had been asked to go, she cried, “Will we never stop pioneering? My father and mother crossed the plains and now we are to go on.”
Unfortunately, their alternate course was not much easier than that of those who came through Hole in the Rock, as shown by a few entries taken from Josephine’s journal, detailing the last days of October and early November.
The following was shared at the dedication by her great great-granddaughter, Terry Hutchings-Baker:
“I don’t know what they call this place but I call it the Devil’s Twist and that is a Sunday name for it, for of all the roads on earth, I don’t think there is any worse than they are here.
“It is the most God-forsaken and wild-looking country that was ever traveled. It is mostly uphill and sand knee deep, and then sheets of solid rocks for the poor animals to pull over and slide down.
“I never saw the poor animals pull and paw as they have done today...they have not had a drink and they are almost given out. The wind is blowing terrible--you can hardly see and if you open your mouth you are sure to get it filled.
“There is no water and the children are crying again. Traveled over rock no human being should ever try to go over, but we kept going, until we reached the dreaded Colorado River.
“Before we started [across the river], I asked Fred (Frederick I. Jones)to nail the cover down on all sides so that if we were drowned we would all go together, and he did.
“The men started rowing and down the raft went into the water with a splash. My heart went faint, I went blind and clung to my babies.
“I shall never forget my feeling as we went down into the swift-flowing water. When the treacherous river was safely crossed, we did thank our Heavenly Father.”
Later, this remarkable woman would accept another church calling, from Bluff Bishop Jens Nielson, to be a midwife. Over the next 24 years, she would deliver 123 babies. With each new baby she would stay with the family for a week, doing laundry and fixing meals until the new mother could get back on her feet. Josephine was fondly known to everyone in the San Juan Mission as Aunt Jody.
Her story is just one of many remarkable tales that could be told about the pioneers who came after the original Hole in the Rock company.
On Saturday, October 10, 2015, a new stone monument honoring those families was dedicated by Elder Steven E. Snow, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Included in the audience of several hundred people were descendants of the two families that came with the original exploration party, the San Juan settlers who came between 1880 and 1882, and members of the Ute and Navajo tribes, representing the Native Americans the pioneers were sent to befriend.
It was fitting that Elder Snow be given this assignment, not only because he is the executive director of the Church History Department, but also because he is the great-great-great grandson of Apostle Erastus Snow, the man who issued the calls from Church President John Taylor to those who were sent to settle the San Juan Mission.
Apostle Snow also visited Bluff Fort on two different occasions – in 1880 and again in 1884 – offering advice, encouragement and an apostolic blessing on the new settlement.
Once again, the question, “What causes ordinary people to do extraordinary things?”could well be asked of those who attended Saturday’s dedicatory event, beginning with Elder Snow and his wife, Phyllis.
Twenty-one years ago, their family was called to leave their home in St. George, UT, so Elder Snow could serve as a mission president in California.
Sister Snow confessed she was somewhat worried about the call. They decided to take their four sons on a river trip, hoping to have some quality family time, before embarking on their full-time mission call. Perhaps providentially, they chose the San Juan River.
At one point along Comb Ridge, their guide asked if they would like to see part of the Hole in the Rock trail. They stopped and the family hiked up San Juan Hill. Sister Snow said that when she saw the words, “We thank thee O God,” carved into the rock she had “an amazing change of attitude, mind and heart.” She said she has remembered that experience often and it alway reminds her that “we can do hard things and still be grateful.”
That resolve would be tested again after the Snows returned from serving in California. They had just built a new home in St. George and were happy in their careers when Elder Snow was called into the First Quorum of the Seventy.
His first assignment was in Johannesburg, South Africa. Just as the pioneers who were called to settle Bluff did, the Snows gave up their home to answer a prophet’s call.
Now, as Church historian and recorder, Elder Snow said the Church’s goal is to keep the history of the Church “pure”. He observed that oftentimes, descendents of the pioneers tend to embellish the stories of their ancestors. “However,” he added, “the story of the Hole in the Rock pioneers doesn’t need embellishment; it is arguably the most difficult mission and colonization effort in the Church.”
His words were appreciated by the audience, largely made up of Church service missionaries who have also left their homes and families to give of their time and talents at Bluff Fort.
Currently, there are nearly 50 people working at the Bluff Fort Visitors Center, which is now open year round. To date, for the 2015 year, there have been 27,674 guests from all over the world that have visited the fort. In the month of September alone there were 717 guests from France and 359 from Germany.
The film and interpretive self-guided tours at the fort are provided in five languages.
“I know of no other site like this,” Elder Snow said, “built and developed with private resources and donated labor.”
Corinne Roring’s heroic part in establishing Bluff Fort was also recognized at the event. She passed away in June 2015.
The new monument dedicated on Saturday was paid by anonymous donors and other private foundations.