Native American History
The Fremont People, a tribe of Native American hunters and farmers, were the first to settle near Capitol Reef National Park. They cultivated crops like lentils, maize, and squash in the fertile region and created advanced irrigation systems and stone granaries to store their harvest. Evidence of their presence, such as carvings on rocks and canyon walls, indicates that they lived there from approximately 700 AD until at least 1250. It is believed that severe drought forced them to leave the region then.
Later, around 1600, two other Native American groups, the Southern Paiute and the Utes, established communities in the area. However, in the 1800s, early settlers displaced them from their lands.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City wanted to establish missions in remote areas of the intermountain west. In 1866, a group of Mormon explorers, with a quasi-military approach, ventured into the high valleys to the west in pursuit of American Indians. As time went on, settlers moved into these valleys and established towns like Junction (later renamed Fruita), Clifton, Giles, Elephant, Caineville, Aldridge, and Hanksville. Major John Wesley Powell's expeditions also contributed to the exploration of the area.
Soon after, more people arrived, and small communities formed along the life-sustaining Fremont River, including Loa, Fremont, Lyman, Bicknell, and Torrey. In 1880, Nels Johnson settled in Capitol Reef country and claimed his homestead in Fruita. The settlers in Fruita recognized the abundance of water and the heat that reflected off canyon walls, nourishing the soil. Johnson was the first to plant orchards of various trees such as apples, peaches, pears, plums, walnuts, and almonds. He later married Mary Jane Behunin, whose father Elijah Cutler Behunin was another early resident of Fruita. Behunin's small cabin, located along Utah Highway 24, still stands today.
Establishing the Park
In 1878 Franklin D. Richards, a Mormon settler, founded Fruita in Wayne County. Today, Fruita is the site of the park headquarters. At the same time along the Fremont River, other pioneers were also trying to start their small communities.
Fast forward to 1910, Ephraim P. Pectol of Torrey envisioned "Wayne Wonderland" becoming a national or state park. With the help of Joseph H. Hickman, a member of the Utah state legislature, 160 acres were allocated for the park.
In 1933, Pectol was elected to the legislature, and convinced them to propose Wayne Wonderland as part of the national park system. Finally, in 1937, Capitol Reef National Monument was established with the help of key individuals like E. P. Pectol, J. E. Broaddus, a Salt Lake writer, and Dr. A. L. Inglesby of Torrey.
Eventually, due to the growing popularity of the Canyonlands area thanks to Lake Powell, the monument was expanded to include most of the Waterpocket Fold. In 1971, this stunning natural wonder was officially designated as a park within the national park system.