Dead Horse Point: Mysteries obscure name of popular state park

Competing legends have obscured the meaning behind the name of Dead Horse Point – if ever there was a rhyme or reason behind the name for a park that is “hot, dry and beautiful.” Photo courtesy Utah State Parks

D.B. Cooper.

Stonehenge.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke.

How Dead Horse Point State Park got its name.

These are a few of history’s great mysteries, destined, perhaps, to remain unsolved until the end of days.

That’s the possibility raised by Park Ranger Spencer Stokes in a lecture entitled “Truth in the Name” presented June 27 at the Moab Information Center. Competing legends have obscured the meaning behind the name of Dead Horse Point – if ever there was a rhyme or reason behind the name for a park he said was “hot, dry and beautiful.” Stokes’ lecture was part of a series sponsored by the Canyonlands Natural History Association and the Moab Museum,

The top of the mesa narrows to about 100 feet, making for a natural corral with cliffs on all sides but one. The neck, as it is called, is connected to the much larger Island in the Sky area of the adjacent Canyonlands National Park.

Stokes said the park was founded in 1959, after the San Juan County Commission purchased the land from the federal government and gifted it to Utah State Parks. This occurred before Canyonlands was named as a national park.

“A thousand people came to the park that year,” said Stokes. In 2018, three-quarters of a million people visited Dead Horse Point, which sits at 5,600 feet. With only 10 inches of water a year on average, there are not a lot of resources other than small desert animals and plants. And a landscape that takes the breath away with its layers of rock carved out over eons. It is a peninsula of sandstone cliffs.

There are three legends that have blurred history and created endless cause for speculation, and they also provide the mind’s eye with images of raw negligence at best or, at worst, cruelty bordering on sadism.

Legend Number One: The Rustlers

Stokes said horse thieves used the neck as a natural corral. They’d push horses up the neck and then use a single fence to trap them as they were surrounded by sheer cliffs on all other sides. Stokes said they would cull from the herd the horses they wanted and leave the rest behind. It’s unclear how one could rustle wild horses, which by definition were not owned by anyone.

In any event, Stokes said that after one such raid they “either forgot to open the gate” or did so on purpose. Horses died en masse, according to the legend. But wouldn’t the name then be, Dead Horses Point?

Legend Number Two: The Ranchers

Dead Horse Point State Park Ranger Spencer Stokes presents a lecture on the mysteries of how the park was named during the latest in a series of lectures sponsored by the Canyonlands Natural History Association and the Moab Museum. Photo by Doug McMurdo

In a frontier with limited grazing opportunities, Stokes said ranchers in the area saw wild horses competing with cattle for food and water and they purposely herded them to Dead Horse Point and left them to either starve or dive from the top of the mesa 2,000 feet above the river and its life-giving water.

Legend Number Three: Settlers versus Utes

Conflict between Mormon settlers and local tribes doomed the first attempt at white settlement in the Moab of the 1840s and ’50s. “The times were really tumultuous,” said Stokes.

That first Mormon settlement was abandoned in 1855 and the Native Americans would remain unmolested for only another 20 years, when the settlers returned.

“The Ute tribe relied heavily on horses for travel, hunting and fighting,” said Stokes. The legend, he said, has it that the settlers rounded up every wild horse and Indian pony they could find and herded them to the point, where they were left to die, “to keep the Native Americans from getting them.”

While less than uplifting, the stories certainly meet the definition of legend, which Stokes defined as, “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical fact, but is unauthenticated.”

He cited common legends, such as the George Washington “I cannot tell a lie” fable most American children were taught was a fact, or King Arthur’s leadership of Britons against the Saxons.

And Stokes also pointed out Dead Horse Point isn’t the only place name shrouded in mystery. He cited the legend behind Toad Suck, Arkansas, so named according to legend because the ferry operator and his crew “sucked alcohol like a toad.”

The oddly comforting name of Hot Coffee, Mississippi supposedly began as no more than a shack where a wayfarer could get a cup of joe as a town eventually grew up around it.

Stokes wouldn’t favor one legend over the others when it came to the legends of Dead Horse Point. “It’s up to you to decide,” he said.

Then again, it’s been said there’s no point beating a dead horse.