Blue Mountain, known on some maps as the Abajo range, is one of three laccoliths found in San Juan County. Formed by magma that pushed up the earth's crust, Blue Mountain, La Sal Mountain, and Navajo Mountain bring to this part of the Colorado Plateau important life-giving resources. Each of these formations provides moisture from the springs at their bases, the storms they attract in the summer, and the snows in the winter. In a land of little precipitation, the average thirty-five inches of water that annually falls on the mountain stands in stark contrast to the ten inches found in the canyons and mesas below.
The prehistory and history of Blue Mountain revolve around the use of resources. While archaeological work at the higher elevations is scanty, reports indicate that the Anasazi used the mountain most intensely during the 800s (Pueblo-I period) by building seasonal structures in the foothills at approximately the 7,000-foot level.
During historic times, the Weeminuche Utes, along with some members of the amorphous San Juan Band Paiutes, laid claim to this region. Traditional camping areas nearby, such as a Paiute Springs, Allen Canyon, and Montezuma Canyon, had sufficient water and forage to allow Native Americans to live close to a convenient variety of hunting and gathering resources. Navajos also used the area, collecting a variety of coniferous, deciduous, and herbal plant products for medicinal purposes. Blue Mountain is called "Furry Mountain" by the Navajos, who say it has a male spiritual inner form whose female counterpart is the La Sals. Hunting traditions tell of how Black God placed elk upon it during the creative period, while other teachings say that the horse-head figure formed by trees on its east slope is a sign that a good breed of horses comes from this area.
Although the Old Spanish Trail passed close to the base of Blue Mountain during the first half of the nineteenth century, it was not until the 1880s that cattle companies like those of Edmund and Harold Carlisle or of I.W. Lacy started to monopolize its resources. Their outfits ranged cattle on the slopes of Blue Mountain, Elk Ridge, and the La Sals in the summer, then moved the herds to the canyons and foothills during the winter. Friction erupted as Native Americans watched their natural larder disappear into the mouths and under the hooves of thousands of cattle that overgrazed the grass and changed the face of the mountains through erosion. Conflicts shifted when the large cattle companies sold out to individual ranchers or to Mormon groups such as the Bluff Livestock Pool.
Monticello, founded in 1887, and Blanding (in 1905) gave increasing permanence in the area not only to the livestock industry but also to farming, lumbering, and limited mining interests. Water for these communities came from the mountain, which in some instances required herculean tunneling efforts to get, as one passerby claimed, "the water to flow uphill" to Blanding. By 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt had created the Monticello Forest Reserve comprised of 214,270 acres on Blue Mountain and Elk Ridge. Two years later the government officially changed the name to the La Sal National Forest and combined these holdings with those in the La Sals, in order to better supervise the use of the resources.
Today, Blue Mountain is important not only for its colorful history but also its multiple-use resources administered by the Forest Service. Water, lumber, hiking trails, game animals, campgrounds, and dramatic scenery add an interesting contrast to the sandstone canyonlands below. To many local people, it represents not only a triumph over challenges in the past, but also the means by which people can continue to survive in an otherwise harsh environment.
See: Charles S. Peterson, Look to the Mountain (1975); Robert S. McPherson, Sacred Land, Sacred View (1991); Allan Kent Powell, San Juan County, Utah (1983).
Robert S. McPherson