The Settlement of the Ashley Valley by Dallin H. Oaks Research completed by the Church Historical Department
Contributor: Joannem Created: 3 years ago Updated: 3 years ago
The settlement of the Uinta basin is unique in Utah history because it was not directed by the Presidency of the Church or initiated by pioneers they called. Twice in the early history of the Utah Territory, our Church leaders sent expeditions into the Uinta Basin to examine its suitability for settlement. Both times they returned with negative reports. In 1861, the second of these reports declared: "The area is one vast contiguity of waste, and measurably valueless, excepting for nomadic purpose, hunting grounds for Indians and to hold the world together." A month later, President Abraham Lincoln signed an executive order establishing the Uintah Indian Reservation. That act kept Mormon settlers away from the Uinta Basin for almost fifteen years.
By the mid-1870s, most readily available land in the settled areas of the Utah Territory had been taken up, and the pressures of expanding population would soon produce a second period of colonization. The Uinta Basin was then ripe for settlement. When it became known that the Ashley Valley was not part of the Indian reservation, the door was open, and pioneers responded without call.
The first non-Indian settlers came to the Ashley Valley in 1873. A former Indian agent, Pardon Dodds, and two other non-Mormon men established cattle ranches on Ashley Creek, about two miles northwest of the present temple site. Four mountaineers, single men, also spent the winter. The following year, 1874, Robert Snyder located a ranch, and in 1876 brought his wife and children to the cabin he had built. The Snyders were the first Mormon family to take up residence in the Ashley Valley.
The following year, 1877, saw the arrival of about a half dozen other Mormon families. Thomas Bingham of Weber County came by way of Heber, scouted the Ashley Valley, and returned home north over the Uintas to Fort Bridger. After calling on President John Taylor and obtaining his approval to raise a company to settle in the Ashley Valley, Bingham assembled several families in about a dozen wagons. It is significant that one who had traveled by way of Heber and returned by way of Wyoming chose to lead his wagons to this valley by coming over the Uintas. After a journey of thirty days, the Bingham party arrived in the Ashley Valley in November 1877.
Two months later, on January 6, 1878, the Saints in the Ashley Valley assembled and, following the procedure specified by President John Taylor, elected Thomas Bingham as presiding elder. This was the first formal Church organization in the Uinta Basin.
Thomas Bingham was a diligent promoter of settlement in this valley. On March 20, 1878, he wrote a letter to Elder Franklin D. Richards that gave a positive report on the soil and climate of what he called this "out-of-the-way-place" and concluded: "I think this is as good a country as any I know of in Utah that is not settled, where there is a chance for poor men to make comfortable homes." Significantly, Bingham's letter also stated: "There are about the same number of 'gentiles' in this country as there are 'Mormons.' We anticipate a large immigration to this part the coming season. We hope they will be Latter-day Saints."
I believe it was not a coincidence that a few weeks later, at the general conference of the Church on April 8, 1878, four men residing in various locations in Utah were called on missions to "Ashleys Fork." These were apparently calls to colonize. The only other missionaries called at that conference were proselyting missionaries sent to England, Europe, Australia,
and various far-away locations in the United States. The four Ashleys Fork missionaries, some married and some single, came to the Ashley Valley in the summer and fall of 1878 and were among the first to settle upon what was then called "The Bench," the high ground where Vernal now stands. As we will see, five more missionaries were called to the same location that fall, making a total of nine.
A month after that April conference, 1878, Thomas Bingham provided the Deseret News with a report that he requested them to publish for the benefit of the many who were then about one hundred inhabitants in his valley and that the Indians were very friendly.
That same month President Abram Hatch of the Wasatch Stake, which then included all of the Uinta Basin, traveled from his home in Heber. His brother, Jeremiah Hatch, who accompanied him, decided to settle in the Ashley Valley. That October conference, he and four others were called on missions to Ashleys Fork. Hatch joined others called the preceding April in settling on this bench, which came to be called Hatchtown. (After about a decade the name of this settlement was changed to Vernal.) Other stalwart LDS pioneers came to the Ashley Valley that year without call, including Nelson Merkley and his family.
As the LDS settlers grew in numbers, the Church organization matured. On Sunday, June 1, 1879, stake president Abram Hatch held a special conference and organized the approximately thirty families then in the Ashley Valley into three districts. Installed as district presidents were Frederick G. Williams over the Saints along the Green River, Thomas Bingham over those in Dry Fork, and Jeremiah Hatch over the pioneers in the Central Valley.
My great-grandparents arrived in the Ashley Valley December 7, 1879. Martin and Abigail Reynolds Oaks, then in their thirties, and their three young children were of a group of nineteen who bravely brought wagons over the horse trail from the Heber Valley. Other members of the party were Abigail's brother, William G.B. Reynolds and his wife and three children, another brother, Beldon M. ("Bob") Reynolds, who was single, and a sister, Wealthy Ann Brown, and her husband and two children. Their journey required twenty-two days, and their coming was ill-timed. Unknown to them, the Hatchtown settlement was then gathering into a crude fort to defend against possible Indian attacks following the massacre two months earlier in Meeker, Colorado. And unknown to everyone, the winter of 1879-80 was to be the most savage in memory. For about six months all contact with the outside world was cut off by high snows and bitter cold. Almost all of the cattle in the valley froze to death, and food supplies ran desperately low as the winter persisted through April. The pioneers of this valley barley survived.
My great-grandparents, their little children, and the fourteen other members of their party endured the incredible hardships of that winter in a one-room long, low log cabin a half mile southwest of the fort at Hatchtown. That would be very close to the location of the new Vernal Temple. The oldest of their three children was seven-and-a-half-old William Hyrum Oaks, the grandfather I knew personally as I was growing up here in Vernal. His parents subsequently homesteaded the 160 acres northeast of Maeser Corners, including the land where the Uintah High School now stands.
As more LDS and other settlers came to this valley, the Territorial Legislature organized the Uintah County in 1880. That summer two other pioneers of great importance to me came to the Ashley Valley: William P. and Melissa Reynolds, my great-great-grandparents (parents of Abigail Oaks). William and his son, William G.B.Reynolds, built the first grist mill in the Ashley Valley.
The Church in this valley came of age when the Ashley Stake (later known as the Uintah Stake) of Zion completed its organization on May 8, 1887. Elder John Henry Smith of the Twelve was the senior apostle at the conference. His journal notes that it took three days to travel to the valley; a half day by train to Price and two and a half dusty days by buggy from there. Installed as president was Samuel R. Bennion of Salt Lake County, called and sent to the area by the President of the Church the proceeding summer. The total stake population was 1,180 in six wards at Dry Fork, Glines, Jensen, Maeser, Naples, and Vernal.
My great-great-grandfather, William P. Reynolds, and my great-grandfather, Martin Oaks, were both called to the first high council in the Ashley Stake, and my great-grandmother, Abigail Reynolds Oaks, was called as the first stake Primary president. Martin died in 1894, but for over sixteen years Abigail drove her carriage over rough roads and trails teaching leaders and children in the Primaries of this far-flug stake. "Aunt Abby," as she was known to many, left a heritage of fearless and unselfish service. We bless her memory and the memories of all of the great men and women who pioneered the Ashley Valley.
The Ashley Valley and the entire Uinta Basin has been illuminated by the vision and sanctified by the sacrifices of its Mormon pioneers. Along with them we also honor the good men and women of other faiths, whose neighborly relationships with the Latter-day Saints have consistently enriched the life of that valley. As we honor these pioneers, we also honor their predecessors in the Uinta Basin, the children of Father Lehi, who kept the peace as the pioneers were settling there. This was a time when raids and massacres were still common in other areas of the west, but we rejoice that the soil of the Uinta Basin was never stained by the bloodshed of casual or sustained warfare.
Some of the most important sacrifices that laid the foundation for the Vernal Temple were those of the faithful Saints of the Uinta Basin who regularly endured long journeys to receive blessing and perform services in the temples of the more settled areas of this state. Many present residents of the Basin have taken these journeys by automobile, but we should remember that for nearly a half-century our ancestors did this by wagon and buggy.