Early History of Castle Valley

Courtesy of Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

Like most of Utah, Castle Valley abounds in history —ancient and modern. Prehistoric Indians knew its castles and steeples; its sandstone cliffs. Trail blazers and trappers such as Wolfskill, Robideaux, Gervais, Provost, Sublette, Fitzpatrick, Fremont and Kit Carson traversed it. And there were those who tarnished it: Butch Cassidy, Elza Lay, Matt Warner and others. While surveying for a railroad route, Lieut. J. W. Gunnison came through the area and fixed his name on a butte and a valley, and later John W. Powell saw its grandeur via the mighty Green River.

Powell immortalized much of Utah's most spectacular country in his report of this journey, and he did not slight Castle Valley:" . . . Extensive sand plains extend back from the immediate river valley as far as we can see on either side. These naked, drifting sands gleam brilliantly in the midday sun of July .... Just opposite, there are buttes, outliers of cliffs to the left. Below, they are composed of shales and marls of light blue and slate colors; above, the rocks are buff and gray and then brown. The buttes are buttressed below, where the azure rocks are seen, and terraced above through the gray and brown beds. The eye can trace these azure beds and cliffs on either side of the river, in a long line extending across its course, until they fade away in the perspective. These cliffs are many miles in length and hundreds of feet high; and all these buttes —great mountain masses of rock —are dancing and fading away and reappearing, softly moving about —or so they seem to the eye as seen through the shifting atmosphere. On landing, we see evidences that a party of Indians have crossed within a very few days. This is the place where the lamented Gunnison crossed in the year 1853...."

Above and below this historic spot for great distances, the Green River tumbles down a giant stairway of wild cataracts that lie deep in the bottoms of impenetrable canyons. It is a quiet spot where the river runs deep and broad —a plateau that forms a natural pass for travel from east to west and vice versa. It was here that Spaniards from New Mexico crossed on their trading missions to California, creating the fmous Spanish Trail. After leaving the river they travelled westward to the Ferron area, then turned southwestward to Salina Canyon and on to California. Upon consulting a map, it is easy to see that they would have crossed the headwaters of the San Raphael River, which refreshed them through this span of their journey. These same streams —Huntington, Cottonwood and Ferron creeks —sustained the first LDS settlements in Castle Valley.

Although a missionary party en route to Moab painstakingly made its way over the trail in 1855, and three men —Dimmick, William and Oliver Huntington —explored the area during the 1850s, serious colonization did not begin until much later, and then it started as a sporadic movement of stock herders who brought their herds here when feed was scarce in Sanpete, Sevier and other settled valleys.

In the spring of 1875 four stockmen, Leander Lemmon, James McHadden, Bill Gentry and Alfred Starr, brought horses over the mountain from Sanpete through Huntington Canyon into what is now Hntington, and McHadden and Lemmon, intrigued by the area, decided to homestead 320 acres and were soon working on an irrigation ditch. These two men are given the credit as being the first settlers in the valley, but perhaps the honor should be divided four ways, for all four men built dugouts and stayed through the winter of 1875-1876. Lemmon built a log cabin on his homestead the following year, and soon herds of sheep and cattle were brought in.

"At a priesthood meeting at Mt. Pleasant in September 1877, encouragement was given to settle Castle Valley. Christian G. Larsen was chosen leader. Soon after, seventy-five men from the various wards in Sanpete Stake were called, but only a few responded. Subsequently Orange Seely was called to superintend the founding of these settlements. In the fall of 1878 the Church authorities made a second call and several more responded. Vivid memories of the Black Hawk War and the not too favorable reports on the region made volunteers reluctant to chance moving again. Even the Indians avoided this country. They said the water gave their women 'big necks' and that the winds blew unmercifully. Their name for the valley was 'Blow Valley'."

The first attempt at forming a colony on Huntington Creek was in November 1877, when a group of settlers from Fairview answered the call. This company travelled through Spanish Fork and Soldier canyons and what two years later would be Price, Utah. Included were Elias and Jehu Cox, Benjamin and Heber Jones, Fredrick Fenn, William H. Avery, Anthony Humbel, Elam Cheney, Charles H. Holingshead and Elam McBride. Four women, Sarah Jane Jones, Eliza J. Avery, Rilda McBride and Olive Humbel, were also in the company. They built dugouts on the north side of the creek and stayed in the valley that winter.

In the spring the Avery ditch was dug to convey water to the Avery homestead and others. Crops were planted and watered once or twice, but the prospects of realizing a good harvest were so poor that by July the settlers had all left Huntington Creek to return to their former homes.

In November several of the men and a few women returned, and in December the wife of Benjamin Jones gave birth to a daughter whom they named Celestial Castle —a fitting title for one born in such surroundings. William Avery had succeeded in building a log cabin, where a Christmas dance was held, with David Leonard, Sally Wimmer and David Cheney providing the music. The group numbered forty-two men and seven women, necessitating some planning. The men were finally given a number and divided into six groups, with one group dancing at a time. It is said that the women were extremely popular. A large piece of venison, potatoes, bread, butter, salt and pepper constituted the refreshments, which were prepared over a huge bonfire built in front of the cabin.

Crops were planted along the north side of the creek in the spring, and the people realized a good harvest of potatoes, grain and sugar cane. After a molasses mill was brought in, a nutritious and delicious supplement was added to the food supply.

Settlers kept arriving, swelling the population to 1,000 by 1900. Thus did Huntington grow and prosper, becoming a permanent settlement in Castle Valley.

In October 1875, the same need that took the Huntington stockmen into Castle Valley —scarcity of feed—sent Orange Seely and a company of men from Sanpete County with a herd of United Order stock through Cottonwood Canyon to the Castle Dale/Orangeville area. The other men were John Jorgenson,

Aaron Oman, August Nielsen, Jacob Jensen, Tim Fullmer and two Indians, Aub and Piggy, the latter two assisting in finding trails and establishing peace with itinerant Indians. Camp outfits and supplies were transported in two wagons drawn by eight oxen, and the herd numbered 1500 head of sheep and about 1400 head of horned stock. The journey of forty miles took fourteen days. Upon their arrival at Cottonwood Creek, the men constructed a dugout twenty by thirty feet which they used as headquarters through the winter of 1875-1876. This was the initial thrust into the Cottonwood Creek area.

The settlers who came through the canyon in 1877 in answer to the call of the Church numbered fourteen men. Among these were Erastus Curtis and his two sons, William B. and Erastus, Jr., who located a farm and built a log cabin on Cottonwood Creek about one and one-fourth miles northwest of the present site of Orangeville. Erastus, Sr., returned to Sanpete, hoping to be back before Christmas with his two families, but bad weather and deep snow prevented the return until July 21, 1878. Yet Erastus Curtis's were the first families to settle on Cottonwood Creek.

It was not until 1879 that settlement began in earnest. By October of that year Orange Seely had made preparations to move, but it was with the unhappy knowledge that his wife was very reluctant to leave her comfortable home in Mt. Pleasant to face again the hardships of pioneering. Upon their arrival in late October, she found little to comfort her. The only thing to be seen was a road stretching straight through the flat from the dugout on the Wellington Seely farm on the northwest to the creek bottom on the southeast where their log room awaited them. It was bare, desolate country; the only trees were along the creek beds. And in spite of towering mountain castles that defy description, only sage, prickly pear and greasewood adorned the sunburnt land.

Orange Seely tried to get the incoming settlers to stay on one side of the creek or the other, but they failed to heed him. Finally, two settlements about four miles apart seemed to be emerging, one on the northwest side of the creek, the other on the southeast, and the settlers decided that each should have a name. A real misunderstanding arose. "Some contended that the lower town, now Castle Dale, should have been Orangeville because it was the home of Bishop Orange Seely, in whose honor the name was suggested by Erastus Snow, and Orangeville should have retained the original name of Castle Dale because the settlers first located there. A friendly rivalry soon sprang up. Orangeville people were dubbed 'Skillet Lickers,' because molasses was made there, while the Castle Dale people were called 'Woodenshoes' implying that Danes had settled there. At first all meetings and social gatherings of both towns were held in the bowery on Wellington Seely's farm."

Although the settlers had hoped to have their county named Castle County, by act of the legislative assembly in 1880 it was given the name of Emery County in honor of Territorial Governor George W. Emery. Castle Dale was made the county seat. 

In the spring of 1878 Sylvester Wilson and his brothers, with their families, and Charles Swasey and brothers, located on a spot five miles east of Castle Dale which was given the name of Wilsonville. During the year an overland mail route was established between Salina and Ouray, Colorado, a post office being set up here with Sylvester as postmaster —the first in Castle Valley. He was also granted the contract to carry the mail over this route, called the Star Mail Route.

The mail was brought by horseback from Sanpete County via Salina Canyon, the first settlers receiving it only once a month. One year John K. Reid spent the winter in Manti. In the spring he brought with him two sacks of letters which had accumulated in Salina.

In 1878 the initial settlement on Cottonwood Creek petitioned for a post office for "Castle Vale." The following year, John Reid received a commission as postmaster, but the name had been changed to Castle Dale. The office was set up in the Reid dugout in Orangeville, which at that time was known as Upper Castle Dale, but he had to go to Wilsonville for quite some time to open the mail pack. In November Castle Dale was given a separate pouch and men took turns going to Wilsonville to carry the mail.

Sylvester Wilson and his brothers, George, Nick Chris, Davis and Silas, built a large one-room log house that served as a schoolhouse, church and amusement hall, and Harmon Curtis was the first schoolteacher. He taught for three years and had from twelve to fifteen students of all ages from Wilsonville and neighboring ranches. The desks were homemade benches and the books were brought in from Sanpete County by horseback. School did not convene for more than four years.

Wilsonville did not grow as did the other settlements. It consisted of a few farm houses and not more than seven or eight families at the most. It has been a ghost town for many years, the underlying causes being the removal of the post office and the ending of the school. There remains a little cemetery of five graves, which, through the courtesy of Sam Aikens, have received some restoration and a fence.

Colonization on Ferron Creek, which like that on Cottonwood Creek began as one settlement and ended up as two, was accomplished in much the same manner and at about the same time as the foregoing communities. Joseph Swasey came there with horses in 1875 and Billy Belong, John Leveredge and Jed Pullen brought in cattle. After the call from the Church, settlers began to trickle in. Among the first were Nicholes and Helena Larsen, Peter F. Petersen and wife, Swen and Johannah Larsen and sons. They came from Ephraim by way of Salina Canyon and arrived in the fall of 1877. The weather was quite moderate, and besides constructing their dugouts, a garden spot was chosen and fertilized with material from where the sheep and cattle had bedded.

By Christmas Eve, an irrigation ditch was staked out. "The first Christmas was celebrated as fully as possible. The women cooked all the good things their supplies allowed, trading with the stockmen for meat. For fun, the women traded clothes with their husbands. It was a sight to see women with stubbles of beard on their faces, and men with fair, rosy cheeks!"

When spring finally arrived, farms were chosen about five miles from what would become Ferron, on land that is now Molen (named for settler Michael Molen). "The new location was level, grassy and free of rocks. Getting water onto the ground was easier. Before long new dugouts were built, with corrals and sheds. They also made a new ditch and named it the Peterson ditch after Peter F. Peterson."

Other settlers arrived, some by call from the Church; others were lured by an advertisement in the Deseret News stating that certain kinds of laborers were needed in Castle Valley. In the fall of 1878 all the women returned to Sanpete County to avoid the harshness of winter —all, that is, but Ann Singleton Wrigley, who was made of sterner stuff. "Alone she faced winter, the solitude and terrors of a wild, untamed country with only a dugout for protection. She took care of her small brood; the oldest child, Clara, was only five. Here is an untold story of bravery, daring and determination that is rare in any history.... Ferron could have done itself honor by adopting her name as 'Ann's Town' instead of the name of a government man who casually passed through on a surveying job."

With the coming of spring 1879, all the wives returned, and other settlers came too, among them Andrew and Hyrum Nelson and John C. Lemon, who soon decided to settle back on the higher ground, thus becoming Ferron's first settlers. Because of the many rocks, making a ditch and clearing the land was a tremendous task. But they persevered, finally preparing forty acres which they sowed to grain. What a tragedy when grasshoppers mowed it down when it was about a foot high.

Other calamities occurred: the following winter was severe and many of the livestock froze or starved to death. And hunger among the people was not unknown. When there was no flour or wheat, they subsisted on potatoes; they even tried prickly pears.

Space is much too limited to delineate all the struggles that these heroic people underwent in subduing the barren wastes of Castle Valley. Theirs was not an isolated story; settlers in many areas of Utah experienced the same conditions, and met them with the same heroism. Lillian Nelson, in her article on Ferron in the Daughters of Utah Pioneers' book, Castle Valley, has put it most aptly in her beginning paragraph: "Today, Ferron with its modern homes, its lawns and tree-lined streets, is an oasis in the desert. Perhaps our pioneers had a vision of such a beautiful place; but this is doubtful. It is only necessary to travel a few miles in any direction to find the kind of country that greeted the first comers."

 Bibliography: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, An Enduring Legacy, - Vol. I-XII (12). Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Printing Company, 1978.



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Last updated: 06.02.2015