Zion National Park was Originally Named Mukuntuweap National Monument.

Meg Pinsonneault
Dec 9, 2015 · 3 min read
Zion National Park // Photo by Meg Pinsonneault

Zion seems like a fitting name for such a beautiful and breathtaking place — until you learn the origin of its name.

With its red twisting canyons and insane vistas, Zion National Park is one of America’s most popular national parks at over 2.6 million annual visitors. And for good reason. I was utterly blown away and totally intrigued by my first visit to Zion National Park. Truly incredible. And when that happens, I typically start researching the history of the place. In particular to Zion, I wondered how the park got its name. Of course, we all know there’s a heavy Mormon influence in Utah. But what really went down in Zion Canyon? Here’s what I learned.

Before the 1850s, this land belonged to the Southern Paiute Indians. They called it Mukuntuweap, which translates as “straight canyon” or “straight arrow. The name likely refers to Zion’s dramatic canyon walls and famous soaring monoliths created by erosion over millions of years.

But in 1851, Mormon pioneers became the first white settlers in the Virgin River area. by 1858, the Mormon settlement moved into the immediate vicinity of Zion Canyon. Conditions were very harsh, sometimes catastrophic, and Mormon pioneers endured great sacrifice to inhabit the canyon. They successfully tamed this once fearsome wilderness — but at the cost of its original owners.

Zion National Park // Photo by Meg Pinsonneault

After the introduction of European settlers and their aggressive agricultural practices, the Southern Paiute people could no longer hunt or gather natural foods. Although relations between Mormons and Paiutes were fairly peaceful, the Paiute people could no longer sustain their traditional way of life. And due mostly to disease, almost all of the Paiutes died after the Mormons moved into this area. Their numbers dwindled and the surviving Paiutes eventually fled to the south.

In 1872, explorers and geologists, John Wesley Powell and Grove Karl Gilbert, went on expedition to the Virgin River region and named the canyon Mukuntuweap. Powell, who had created wonderful relationships with Native Americans during his many pioneering expeditions, believed Mukuntuweap to be the only proper and fitting name for this special area.

In the early 1900s, word was getting around about this incredible place. Renowned painter, Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, is credited with bringing wide appeal to Zion Canyon. His paintings attracted a good deal of attention at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair — and that was it. The world feel in love.

In 1909, President William Howard Taft officially deemed the area Mukuntuweap National Monument, after the original Paiute name. Local residents were angered and outraged. Mormons everywhere were incredibly insulted. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints complained loudly and viciously against the name for many years.

Zion National Park // Photo by Meg Pinsonneault

The Director of the newly created National Park Service, Stephen Tyner Mather, suffered from periodic bouts disabling depression. In 1918, Mather was in the throws of a tough attack and promoted the Assistant Director of the agency, Horace Albright, to Acting Director in his leave. Albright, arguing that the name “Mukuntuwea” would deter visitors because it was foreign and hard to pronounce, quickly and swiftly altered history and changed the park’s name to Zion National Monument. Mather returned as Acting Director in 1919, but the damage had already been done.

I found this little-known nugget of history to be a little sad. My question is, why can’t we change the name of the park to Zion Mukuntuweap National Park? Because that seems like the only appropriate and fair action to take. I would love to see Obama rename this park in the final year of his administration to honor our Paiute Indian ancestors. What a great parting gift.

Meg Pinsonneault
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