Pioneering spirit still exists in small town founded by Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers

In this oasis on the barren desert of southeastern Utah --settled more than 100 years ago by the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers-- a spirit of pioneering still exists today.

"In a lot way, we still feel like we're pioneers," said Donald V. Jack, president of the Blanding Utah West Stake, which includes the Bluff Branch in this unincorporated town of about 225 persons. The stake spreads out across the vast desert for 95 miles from east to west and 75 miles from north to south, and includes two Indian reservations."The San Juan Mission is still alive," Pres. Jack said.

The San Juan Mission to which the stake president referred was undertaken in 1879-80 by Mormon colonists, who according to historian Andrew Jenson suffered more hardships than any other Mormon settlements in the Rocky Mountains.

The San Juan colonists were called by the Church to settle in southeast Utah for at least three reasons; to establish peaceful and friendly relations with the Indians of the region, to establish additional Latter-day Saint communities and to place "solid citizens" in an area that was threatening to become a center for outlaws. (Church News, March 29, 1980.)

In the fall of 1879, 80 families, consisting of about 230 persons, were assigned to the San Juan Mission expedition. Their destination was a site near present-day Montezuma Creek. They left Cedar City in October of that year for what they thought would be a six-week trek. Instead it turned out to be a six-month grind of endurance and courage.

As the colonists made their way eastward from Escalante in Garfield Count, they were beset with problems. Sufficient water for both the colonists and their stock was difficult to find, and there was no wood for fuel and little forage for the animals.

By late November, the hearty group reached the west wall of Glen Canyon, high above the Colorado River, at a place known as the Hole-in-the-Rock. It wasn't really a "hole," but a narrow, steep cut in the canyon's sandstone wall-- the only break in the wall for many miles in either direction. What the San Juan Mission pioneers accomplished here was nothing less than an incredible feat.

The "hole" in the canyon wall dropped almost straight down for about 100 feet and then declined a little less steeply for another 300 feet. The steepness of the "chute," however, wasn't the only seemingly impossible problem the colonists faced; the opening was too narrow for the wagons to pass through.

During most of December and much of January, nearly 50 men, using blasting powder and tools, worked from daylight to darkness to widen the crack in the canyon wall enough for the wagons to pas through. Ropes were tied to the wagons and all available persons held onto the ropes to slow the progress of the wagons as they were driven down the canyon. Then, after reaching the bottom of the canyon, the wagons had to be ferried across the Colorado River.

On April 5, 1880, the weary pioneer company arrived on the lower San Juan River. But they were too exhausted to travel the remaining 18 miles to Montezuma so they stayed and established the settlement of Bluff, a name taken from the bluffs that rise above the town like massive sentinels.

"No pioneer company ever built a wagon road through wilder, rougher, more inhospitable country" than the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition, historian David E. Miller wrote. (Church News, Jan. 26, 1980.)

Today, no descendants of the San Juan Mission pioneers live in Bluff, according to Branch Pres. Kevin Guymon.

But the pioneering spirit that resulted in the founding of this quiet oasis along the banks of the San Juan still lives on. The challenges of today aren't much different from what they were more than a century ago.

Those challenges include the remoteness of the area, long distances between most of the homes of members, the blending of two cultures and in some cases

language barriers that have to be overcome.

Only a few of the branch members, including Pres. Guymon and his family, live in the town of Bluff, where the small branch meetinghouse is located. About three fourths of the branch membership are Native Americans living on the Utah side of the Navajo Indian Reservation. The rest of the members live in Blanding, about 25 miles to the north, and are called by the Blanding West stake presidency to serve in leadership positions in the branch.

"Staying in contact with our members on the reservation," said the branch president, "is a great challenge. The distances are tremendous, and members live far apart." The branch stretches across the reservation for nearly 30 miles to the Arizona-Utah state line.

But vast distances aren't the only problem causing difficulty in staying close to the members. In addition, Pres. Guymon explained, none of the branch members on the reservation have a telephone, so it's not possible for the leaders to stay in contact with them by phone.

An elementary school teacher during the school year and a melon grower in the summer, Pres. Guymon, at age 30, feels the weight of his calling. He has been branch president for two years. He and wife, Julie, have four small children.

He said he tries to visit branch members every Tuesday with his counselors in the branch presidency, and once a week he goes out with the full-time missionaries, who live in Montezuma Creek. The missionaries serve the Montezuma Creek Ward, which is in the Blanding Utah Stake, as well as the Bluff Branch. The ward and branch in Montezuma Creek and Bluff, along with the Mexican Hat Branch in the Blanding West stake, cover all the Navajo Indian Reservation on the Utah side, an area of 2,000 square miles.

At one time Bluff was the "mother" settlement from which Blanding, Monticello and other communities, tucked in the southeast corner of Utah, were established. Settlers from Bluff, which later included LDS refugees from Mexico at the time of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, strengthened the other communities. But today the reverse is true. The Bluff Branch is being strengthened by members from Blanding as they serve in various leadership positions.

"There is just not enough leadership in the Bluff Branch without help from the Blanding members," explained the stake president.

Members of the stake also provide leadership help to a branch on the White Mesa Ute Indian Reservation between Blanding and Bluff, and to an LDS group at Halls Crossing near Lake Powell.

In the Bluff Branch, five couples from Blanding have been called to help. Both counselors in the branch presidency, the Melchidezek Priesthood leader, the ward mission leader, the Relief Society president and one counselor, and both the Young Men and Young Women presidents are all from Blanding.

Each Sunday and often during the week, the five couples make the trip to Bluff for meetings or activities, or to visit members in their homes. On a recent Sunday as home teaching was discussed in priesthood meeting, one of the brethren from Blanding reported he had traveled 125 miles from the time he left his home until he returned later that evening in trying to meet with his assigned families. Each home teaching partnership is assigned between six and nine families, most on them on the reservation.

Pres. Jack, a school administrator who has been stake president for seven years, said one of the greatest challenges in the stake "is to make our wards and branches so inviting as to blend the two cultures. We have to open our hearts to embrace the diversity."

Attendance at Church meetings in the Bluff Branch averages around 35. The branch membership totals about 180, including the families from Blanding. Pres. Guymon said attendance has risen from as low as nine people to what it is today. "We've had as many as 50-60 people or more come out for meetings."

Pres. Guymon has encouraged youth leaders to have an activity for the youth each week. Last June, 12 youth from the branch went to the Manti Temple to do baptisms for the dead. It was the first temple trip for youth the branch has held.

Among those making the trip were Karen Black, 19, and her sisters, Sharon, 18, and Valentina, 13, who live on the reservation some 35-40 miles from Bluff. "It was a special trip," commented Karen, who serves as second counselor in the Primary. "I have never been on anything so spiritual." Sharon, who is second counselor in the Relief Society, said a testimony meeting was held "in a grove of trees" near the temple after the baptisms were performed. "A lot of tears were shed," she said.

"I think the branch," said Pres. Guymon, "is really fulfilling the mission of the original San Juan pioneers; that is to teach the Lamanite people so they would know the gospel. I've gained a lot of respect working with the Lamanites. They are filled with so much warmth, love and acceptance."

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