Zion National Park (1919)

The most prominent and recognizable landmarks in Zion National Park bear religious names: the Court of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob); Moroni; the Temple of the Virgin, the Temple of Sacrifice, Angel’s Landing, and the Great White Throne.“You’d be hard-pressed to find another national park so steeped in religious references.” [1] 

Zion's Great White Throne

Zion's Great White Throne

On the shuttle that ferries visitors between these spectacular sights, a recording tells riders that that “the name Zion derives from a Hebrew word meaning refuge or sanctuary,” but they do not learn that Zion National Park was originally called Mukuntuweap National Monument, nor why Mukuntuweap was jettisoned in favor of Zion. [2]

According to Native American Placenames of the United States,  “The word Mukuntuweap comes from the Southern Paiute family of language.  Mukkuntameans 'straight', uippy means 'canyon' [the 'y' is a vowel pronounced kind of like the 'u' in put, but without the lips rounded], "Straight Canyon.” [3]

John Wesley Powell’s Grand Canyon expeditions (in 1869 and 1871) ventured into what “Indians call … Mu-koon-tu-weap, or Straight Canyon.,” a name that Powell seems to have learned from his Paiute guide, Taú-gu. [4]  

But even before Powell’s expedition, Mormons had settled in Utah, including one Isaac Behunin, a sometime bodyguard for Joseph Smith.  Behunin was so taken with the Mukuntuweap canyon that he wrote to Brigham Young.  "Come on down and bring the saints down here. You stopped too soon because I have actually found Zion."  … Brigham Young wrote back,  “That is not Zion," he said, "Zion is where the saints are at.  Behunin, apparently unconvinced, stayed put and called it “Little Zion.” [5]

Still, it was the Powell expeditions that introduced Utah’s canyonlands to the vast majority of Americans living east of the Mississippi. Among the most influential presentations of Mukuntuweap to Americans were the paintings of Frederick S. Dellenbaugh. Dellenbaugh had been a member of the second Powell expedition, and his paintings of Mukuntuweap were displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and featured in Scribner’s Magazine. So striking were the images that some doubted the reality of what he painted, assuming that “Dellenbaugh had merely painted a fantastical dreamscape for surely such a beautiful place could not be real.” [7] 

In 1909, President William Howard Taft conferred “national monument status” on Mukuntuweap because it was an “extraordinary example of canyon erosion and is of the greatest scientific interest, and it appears that the public interest would be promoted by reserving it as a National monument.” (Proc No. 877, 36 Stat. 2498). [8]

The oversight of national monuments fell willy-nilly to states and federal agencies. When the National Park Service was formalized in 1916, its administrators lobbied to confer on Mukuntuweap national park status, but they worried that its name would alienate members of Congress. Acting director of the National Park Service Stephen Albright admitted that although he generally preferred to keep the “traditional” names intact, “Mukuntuweap was a problem.” [9]  Instead, he proposed changing the name Mukuntuweap to Zion.  Congress accepted Albright’s proposal, and Zion became a national park in 1919. 

The idea to change the name Mukuntuweap to Zion may have been bit of strategic repackaging for the immediate and laudable purpose of protecting public land, but this re-naming also shines a light on the everyday processes by which Natives were discursively displaced and replaced. Though more visibly done by corralling Natives onto reservations, “assimilating” them in  boarding schools, and using military might to squelch any resistance, naming places is an overlooked means by which the same ends were met.

During the time that Albright was busy trying to confer on Mukuntuweap National Park status, Utes and Paiutes were still defending their territory against both Navajo and US incursions.  Following on the major battles of the 1860s and 1870s (the Paiute and Bannock wars), Utes and Paiutes continued to fight against incursions into their territories well into the 1920s.  This fierce and stubborn resistance, such as the “Posey” war of 1923, provided the US with the needed excuse to impose limits on land holding of the Utes.  

To be sure, the US was also suspicious of Mormons in Utah. In the late 1850s, President James Buchanan sent troops to Utah Territories to stem Mormon dominance and secure US control of the territory; in 1878, the US Supreme Court decided against the religious liberty claim of Mormon George Reynolds to practice polygamy. When Utah was finally made a state in 1896, the ban on polygamy was written into the state constitution. 

It may seem strange that the name Zion was adopted for the site, given US animosity to Mormons. In Utah territory, Zion was associated with Mormons, but at least Mormons were white.  The US’s most pressing need to create white possession and dominance across the continent outweighed the problems that Mormons otherwise presented.  

Eschewing Mukuntuweap in favor of such a widely recognizable and authoritative referent, one shared by a range of white colonial settlers (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Mormon) was an effective means by which to conjoin this new western territory,  one of the last pockets of Native resistance. Zion replaced the “problem” that Mukuntuweap presented and unified a diverse range of whites in a generically meaningful scriptural signifier. 



[1] Lynn Arave, “Come to Zion, come to Zion: Utah park abounds in religious references,” Deseret News, May 22, 2010, E.1. 

[2] Author transcript, from the recording played during the week of April 7-13, 2014.  

[3] William Bright,Native American Placenames of the United States(Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 301.

[4] J.W. Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries explores in 1869, 1870, 1871 and 1872 Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1875), 111. Paul Reeve, Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes(Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 75.

[5] A History of Isaac Behunin posted at

https://familysearch.org/photos/stories/2073353, July 4, 2014. 

[6] Frederick Dellenbaugh, “A New Valley of Wonders,” Scribner’s Magazine35 (Jan-June, 1904), 1-18; Tiffany Taylor, Images of AmericaZion National Park(Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), 75. 

[7] Appendix D, Zion National Park Legislation, www.nps.gov.

[8] Horace Albright and Marian Albright Schenck, Creating the National Park Service: the Missing Years (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).  

Source: Zion National Park (1919)