ZION NATIONAL PARK -- THE name of the majestic gorge with sheer sandstone walls half-a-mile high seems to fit so well that its origin is rarely questioned anymore. But in fact, Zion has been known by at least half-a-dozen other titles.
A reference in National Geographic magazine reminds us the Zion name was not an instant fixture. A map supplement in the October 1992 issue mentions that Brigham Young emphasized to early settlers in the Springdale area that the canyon was not Zion, despite their heavenly descriptions. So, some of the settlers started sarcastically calling the area "Not Zion" in the 1860s. The first white man to see Zion is believed to have been Nephi Johnson, who in November 1858 rode halfway up what is now known as the paved "Gateway to the Narrows" trail to "Zion Stadium," a natural amphitheater. By another account, he only went as far as the Great White Throne.
Johnson was a Mormon scout, looking for good places for the Saints to settle. He had an Indian guide with him who refused to go any farther than the present site of Springdale. The Indian said the devil lived farther up, in the area where the sun never shined, and he feared injury and death from evil gods who dwelt there.
Other information indicates there may have been occasional fatal falls by Indians who climbed up rock footholds to the tops of the plateaus and peaks, so they likely regarded Zion as a dangerous area.
Indians apparently knew the canyon by various names. "Ioogoon" is one, translating to "Arrow quiver" or "Come out the way you came in."
Explorer John Wesley Powell visited Zion in 1872 and applied some Indian names to the gorges there, such as "Mukuntuweap" (meaning "Straight Canyon") to the North Fork of the Virgin River and "Parunuweap" ("Water that Roars") to the East Fork. He was one of the first to call broader attention to the area's scenic wonders - something settlers struggling to survive had no time to appreciate or promote.
NEPHI JOHNSON, for one, was apparently not overly impressed by Zion - at least from a settler's point of view - and didn't even report his discoveries to others. It just didn't seem promising for farming. Johnson also found little evidence of previous Indian settlements there.
Several years later, Joseph S. Black, another Mormon pioneer, followed the Virgin River into Zion and was so impressed by the natural beauty that he provided was seemed to be unbelievable descriptions of the area to other settlers. Some of the more skeptical of them dubbed the place "Joseph's Glory" in reference to what they thought were his exaggerated claims.
Isaac Behunin was actually the first to settle there. In January 1862 he built a cabin in Springdale. In the summer of 1863 he raised a one-room cabin not far from where Zion Lodge is now. Behunin also built a canal, planted fruit trees and grew cane and garden vegetables in Zion. Behunin Canyon northwest of the Emerald Pools is named in his honor.
Other settlers followed. William Heaps built a log cabin at the mouth of Emerald Pools Canyon, and John Rolf established several cabins in Zion, including one near what is now the Grotto picnic area.
Behunin may have been the first to use the name by which it is today world renowned. He called the canyon "Little Zion." Other reports indicate the area was also referred to as "the Heavenly City of God" in the 1860s.
"Little Zion Valley" was another name used to describe the area, as evidenced by many references in Utah newspapers, like the Washington County News of July 1, 1909. By 1917, it was "Little Zion Park" as an often-used title.
According to research by the Washington County Chapter of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, it is not exactly known what the name Zion referred to. It might have been related to the peaceful security settlers felt in Zion Canyon because the Indians stayed away from there or because the towering walls offered natural protection.
Another possible derivation may be from the United Order, a Mormon pioneer system of sharing all things in common, that was prevalent in southern Utah at the time. This could have made for a utopia - a Zion - at least for a short time.
By 1875, however, no one was living in Zion Canyon, possibly in part because the United Order con-cept had been discontinued and many residents had moved away. In 1863, as many as 20 families may have been living on the North Fork of the Virgin River, yet by 1864 only nine were left. Frequent and unpredictable flooding was another problem for settlers in the Zion area.
G.K. GILBERT, who visited Zion in 1872, is credited with naming "the Narrows" and for being the first explorer to fully appreciate their wonder.
The area was mapped extensively in the 1880s by the U.S. government, but Zion was basically cut off from the thoroughfares of the rest of the world until well into the 20th century, with no railroad nearby and poor roads.
Arable land in the canyon continued to be farmed by residents of Springdale and Rockville until the area earned national park status. Sheep also grazed in the area until 1909. Perhaps unjustly, farmers and ranchers received no financial compensation for the loss of their land when the canyon was included in a national monument.
In 1909 part of Zion was set aside as Mukuntuweap National Monument by President William Taft. By 1918, President Woodrow Wilson had enlarged the area and changed the name back to Zion because the Mukuntuweap name was an unpopular title locally. (Parunuweap was retained as the name of a small canyon southeast of Zion.)
A lower section of Angels Landing.
The Rev. Frederick Vining Fisher, an Ogden Methodist minister visiting the canyon with friends in 1916, is credited with giving several Zion landmarks the "heavenly" names that persist to this day. Among them: the Great White Throne, the Three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and Angels Landing.
Today's park is rife with connotations and descriptions of that variety that seem so appropriate to Zion: the North and South Guardian Angels, Tabernacle Dome, Mount Moroni, the East and West Temples, the Altar of Sacrifice, Kolob Arch, Cathedral Mountain, the Temple of Sinawava.
In 1929, Congress gave Zion national park status, and the boundaries were extended to their cur-rent range.
By 1923 the railroad had reached Cedar City, and a graded wagon path was prepared as far as Weeping Rock. The Zion tunnel was started on the fall of 1927 and, when completed in 1930, this engineering marvel of its time soon improved accessibility to the park.
Today, the name Zion usually summons images of a popular scenic attraction that's also a place of refuge for the wildlife protected within its borders. Still, a visit to Zion - even in the 1990s - reveals there are several religious groups that frequent Zion and who regard it as exactly that - a sacred area. One group even believes it to be the ancient home of Abraham and Israel.
But even for those not inclined to zealotry, no other name seems to better fit this spectacular area than the name most everyone knows it by - Zion.
(-Revised from a Deseret News article by Lynn Arave and Ray Boren on April 29, 1993.)