Town History

In prehistoric times until about 1300 A.D., the area around Bluff was home to two distinct desert cultures, the Basket Makers and the Cliff Dwellers, also generally known as the Anasazi culture. Abandoned dwellings, farms, roads, burial sites, petroglyphs, and pottery remain behind today, telling the stories of ancient inhabitants who were well adapted to the country many centuries ago.

Following these prehistoric cultures, nomadic tribes of Paiutes, Utes, and Navajos were well established in the San Juan country area by the late 1500′s. San Juan Band Paiutes hunted rabbits, deer and mountain sheep; foraged for seeds and roots, and irrigated corn, squash and melons along the river bottoms. Utes took full advantage of the introduction of the horse and lived a life similar to the Plains Indian cultures.

In the mid-19th century, Utes were hired by explorers and pioneer groups to guide expeditions and fight neighboring Navajos, who had migrated from northern Canada and spread into southern Utah. Navajos farmed the San Juan River flood plains and pastured sheep in the nearby mountains. After a number of conflicts, government military campaigns, and the tragic Long Walk to New Mexico, the southwestern domain was once again opened to Native American and Anglo use which precipitated rapid and dramatic changes to Navajo and Ute ways of life. While Paiutes no longer have a presence in the region, these three Native American tribes played significant roles in the development of the area.

Spanish explorers in the 1700′s may have traversed this area, but no white settlers called the Bluff valley home until 1878. Historic Bluff City was founded in 1880 by the famous “Hole in the Rock” expedition of Mormon (Latter-Day Saint) pioneers, whose mission was to establish an agrarian community on the San Juan River. The original fort and historic village of log homes was laid out with the church, school, and co-op store in the center, and was surrounded by agricultural fields and orchards. Farming along the San Juan River proved uncertain, for the river either flooded or went dry too often for dependable irrigation.

During the livestock boom period, 1886-1905, Bluff’s original rough log cabins were replaced by substantial hand-hewn red sandstone houses in the Victorian Eclectic style, some quite large and elegant, others built of wood frame lumber. A number of these homes are now listed on the National Historic Register. A virtual tour has been assembled for those of you interested in the early architecture of Bluff.

Bluff’s 20th century economic history is replete with the rise and fall of mining ventures in coal, oil and uranium, together with the challenges of cattle ranching and farming along the erratic San Juan River.

Today, Bluff is an active center for artists and crafts people as well as others involved in oil exploration, farming and ranching. Within this area of national parks, prehistoric sites, diverse cultures, wild canyons and river recreation, tourism has become a strong component in the local economy.