NEW HARMONY, Washington County — In the center of a green valley beneath the towering red pinnacles of Kolob Canyons, BYU archaeologist Richard Talbot and his crew paused from their excavation work, gazed around them at the stunning panorama, and reverently contemplated the lifestyle and commitment of the Latter-day Saint pioneers who built Fort Harmony in 1854.
From 1854 to 1862 at this spot, hundreds of Mormon pioneers lived, labored, worshiped and died.
In 1847, after an extremely torturous journey westward, LDS Apostle Orson Pratt was the first Mormon pioneer to enter the Salt Lake Valley. Two years later, on a bleak wintry day in 1849, Orson's brother, Apostle Parley P. Pratt, at the head of a carefully chosen 50-man company, began an arduous trek south to explore the unsettled wilds of southern Utah. Church President Brigham Young was deeply convinced that settlement of southern Utah was critical for what eventually became myriad reasons — the need for new resources (iron ore, cotton, lumber), missionary work with American Indians and defense of the northern settlements.
Parley's expedition slowly snaked its way south through snow-clogged mountain passes and wind-swept valleys until it finally reach the Virgin River, near what later came to be called St. George. After a brief stay, members of the company trudged their way back north for about 30 miles, arriving in a beautiful horseshoe shaped valley surrounded by mountains and giant red sandstone cliffs. Parley had a strong feeling that the valley should be the place for a settlement.
In 1852, a settlement was built on Ash Creek at the bottom of the valley, but when Brigham Young visited two years later, he strongly felt that a fort should be built farther north — in the middle of the valley. Young and Parley P. Pratt then rode together northward up the creek to a spot where Young indicated the new fort should be built — and the new fort came to be named Fort Harmony.
It was a huge fort — a square of 200 feet per side of adobe bricks, with walls 3 feet thick and as high as 12 feet.
"Fort Harmony was the first Mormon community south of Parowan, the first county seat of Washington County, a resting place for more than 10,000 travelers, and the headquarters for the first organized Native American mission of the LDS Church," said Lyman Platt, director of the Fort Harmony Historical Society.
On Christmas Day 1861, the dream of the fort began to turn into a nightmare as a fierce storm swept into southern Utah. There were driving sheets of rain interspersed with snow and sleet. For weeks, a series of violent storms slammed the fort while families huddled inside.
Little by little the adobe bricks disintegrated under the onslaught. Buildings outside the fort began to collapse. After almost a month of pounding, large gaps appeared in the outer walls. With collapse imminent, the frightened, cold families moved outside the fort and huddled in wagons as best as they could.
In early February a huge portion of the fort wall collapsed, reportedly killing two young children in a room nearby. The beleaguered settlers then struggled to form a small community five miles west named New Harmony, and a portion of them wandered up the valley and formed a little town named Kanarraville.
The fort site lay largely undisturbed until a few years ago.
On the still morning of June 13, 2011, before Talbot and his crew settled into this year's excavations of the fort, a morningside service was held at the site. Members of the Fort Harmony Historical Society and interested citizens of southern Utah listened to inspirational music and insightful remarks from Kim Peterson about the fort, its significance, symbolism and the importance of preserving it for the benefit of future generations.
In actuality, this current excavation of the fort is not the first for Talbot and his crew. Four years ago they excavated small portions of the site, finding many artifacts of glass, ceramics, a woman's monacle and a thimble.
The latest BYU team of archaeologists uncovering the fort consists of Richard Talbot, Christine Edmunds, Michael Searcy, Rachel Harris, Lane Richens and Sara Stauffer. Working alongside them is a team from Southern Utah University — Barb Frank, Emily Dean, Sarah Horowitz, Donna Clark and Aubrey Patterson.
So just what has been uncovered?
In a northwest room — 15 feet by 15 feet — the team found a possible dwelling buried under a collapsed wall section, a circular oven on a lower floor, possibly a kitchen, a fireplace with hearth, a ladies hair pin, bits of porcelain dishes, clay pots, nails and leather.
There also may have been a chapel or schoolhouse above.
In a southeast room they uncovered the possible two sides of a room, a porcelain dish, glass and clay pot pieces.
In an area west of the south gate they found bones, glass and nails. The old well contained bits of charcoal, glass and mortar. More than 40 porcelain dish patterns have been discovered in the 2007 and current digs. Importantly, the archaeological findings are matching the historical records.
"This is a rare opportunity to look back at the original settlement, find the details of the lives of the same pioneers who traveled across oceans and plains to reach Utah, then southward to this area," observed Talbot. "Remarkably, in some cases the history of this area is being rewritten," Platt said.
Scores of men, women and children of southern Utah have donated their time to help Talbot and his crew by sifting dirt piles, clearing weeds, metal detecting and providing refreshments. It has truly been a community effort in tandem with the teams from BYU and SUU.
"What has impressed me is the caring of southern Utahns by pitching in to help, providing support and wanting to see this fort preserved," Talbot said. "It's been very inspiring to say the least."
So beyond the current excavations, what does the future hold for Fort Harmony?
According to Platt and Clayton Huckaby, executive director of the Fort Harmony Historical Society, the nonprofit society is welcoming private and organizational donations to help fund the continued excavation of the fort, erect a museum and create a learning center where travelers on nearby I-15 can stop, rest, view the remains of the fort and its uncovered artifacts, watch videos and thus better understand the lifestyle, work ethic and deep faith of this important early Mormon pioneer community.
"What's needed here is a teaching museum where people can see what's been found, participate and feel the spirit of this place," Talbot said. "It's a very important chapter in early Latter-day Saint pioneer history and we're very happy to be a part of uncovering and preserving it."
If Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt and the many pioneers who helped build, lived in and in some cases died at Fort Harmony sacrificed tremendously in the process — and it's appropriate that we honor their lives by resurrecting the evidence of their labors, telling their stories, and then creating an uplifting and informative experience for all who'd like to visit the fort site in the future.
Steve Gibby is a multiple-Emmy-winning television producer, director, DP and cinematographer. He writes field production articles for multiple TV/film trade magazines, and has also written many television documentary scripts. A resident of Harmony Valley and BYU graduate, he also is a great, great-nephew of Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt. Email: [email protected] Contributing: Edwina Jones.