In 1849 Elder Parley P. Pratt, the great-great-grandfather of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, led the first Mormons into southwestern Utah, describing it as “a country…turned inside out, upside down, by terrible convulsions in some former age.”
On October 6, 1861, Brigham Young called 300 Mormon families on the Cotton Mission—a church-led effort to settle the Virgin River Basin in southwestern Utah. The area became known as “Dixie” for the cotton and sugar cane it yielded. The Mormon emigrants, along with a smattering of pioneers already in the valley, established Grafton astride the Virgin River just west of Zion Canyon.
Young spoke at Grafton in 1861, warning against gentile encroachment in the area: “The country from Toquerville to Adventure is a good place to hide up women and children and defend them in time of war, for no army could get into these pockets and openings, if there were a few men to oppose them.”
On January 8, 1862, the Virgin River flooded Grafton after 40 days of constant rain, collapsing adobe homes and dispersing sand bars across farmland. The town was relocated 11⁄2 miles to the north.
When early settler Nathan Tenney’s wife went into labor during the flood, Nathan and several other men lifted, shoved and floated their wagon-box home to higher ground. The Tenneys named their son Marvelous Flood in honor of his unique birth.
New Grafton was self-sufficient. Settlers harvested cherries, peaches, apples, pears, grapes, currants and grain. A cotton mill and molasses mill provided the town’s chief exports in the early days; later cattle herding and silk production diversified the economy. In 1864 Grafton reached its largest population of 168 souls.
In 1866 local Paiutes began to attack the settlers’ cattle herds. In April of that year they murdered three members of the Berry family as they traveled from Grafton to Kanab. The conflict prompted the Mormon church to relocate all Graftonites to Rockville. Only about 40 people returned to Grafton in 1868.
The town rebounded and grew steadily after a silkworm craze in 1874, when residents planted large mulberry trees— still standing today—to feed the lucrative worms.
The completion of the Hurricane Canal, which opened new farmlands in the Hurricane Valley, spelled Grafton’s demise. The town could never fully control the turbulent Virgin River. Said one resident: “The making of ditches in Grafton was like the washing of clothes in a household, it had to be done every week.”
In 1944 last holdouts Franklin Stephen Russell and Mary Ellen Ballard Russell moved from their home next to the adobe schoolhouse/church to St. George. They had bought the building (seen opposite below) in 1910 for $200 and a cow.
Hollywood has resurrected picturesque Grafton as the backdrop for numerous Westerns, including Child Bride of Short Creek, Arizona Kid, Red Fury, Ramrod and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the latter, Paul Newman took his idyllic bicycle ride with Katharine Ross along the streets of Grafton.
Located just off Route 9 between Virgin City and Rockville in Washington County,Grafton today includes the adobe schoolhouse/church, several homesteads and a graveyard nestled beneath Mount Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.