History of Zion National Park, "A man can worship God among these grand cathedrals as well as he can in any man-made church; this is Zion." Isaac Behunin, who named the park. Photo of Zio in dramatic light with dark clouds overhead.

I am not starstruck by royalty in a genealogy line, but this is an unapologetic attempt at “my granddad is cooler than your granddad.” Since we’re using kingly terms, my family’s tale features the Great White Throne of my fourth great-grandfather’s life. This is a nod to Zion National Park history, featuring Isaac Behunin who named this cathedral Zion.

When I read his history last week, I felt a kinship to my ancestor and I wanted to share his life story. He sounds like my kind of guy, and since I spend so much of my life telling other people’s stories, I wanted to give my own family one. I often see their vacation photos from places like Zion, and I don’t think they have any idea how cool our history is.

An abandoned dugout like the one the Isaac Behunin family would have spent their first winter in.
An abandoned dugout like the one the Isaac Behunin family would have spent their first winter in.

To set the stage, Isaac Behunin and his wife Mariba converted to the Mormon church in the very early days and it is said he acted as a bodyguard to Joseph Smith. His wife passed away, he remarried, and the whole family made the Trek west in the Milo Andrus company.

On a related note, I stumbled upon the journal for that company in a story that beckoned me out of bed at 3 a.m. Read that here: My uncanny discoveries and the prayer that preceded them.

After arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, the Behunin family was called by Brigham Young to settle in Sanpete County. Isaac later helped build the St. George Temple, and then built the first cabin in Springdale, a place that became his refuge and temple.

By this time, they were weary religious refugees, having journeyed 3,500 miles by covered wagon. He had lived in 22 temporary homes including a dugout their first winter in Ephraim. That surely wasn’t the worst place he had slept.

He named his cathedral and sanctuary Zion

The story goes that Brigham Young, who never visited the actual canyon, wasn’t enamored of the name. One account said that when Brigham Young visited Springdale, he found tobacco growing and old distilling whiskey. That may have been true, as LDS standards were rather flexible in those days on those points.

The State of Utah’s Division of History site says this:

Isaac is credited with giving Zion Canyon its name, when in the presence of friends and the grandeur of the canyon, he said, “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as he can in any man-made church; this is Zion.”

Reading this, I feel a kindred spirit to my fourth-great grandfather because that is how I feel in the towering cliffs and sandstone of Utah. I have often described these places as feeling sacred, and I have this powerful sense of place that—until I read these accounts—seemed like a very old feeling. I first visited these places when I was 18 and felt home, as though these places were in my DNA. Now I believe they are. Reference link here.

Another account on FamilySearch tells about the famous naming of Zion National Park:

It was great-grandfather Isaac who proposed the name….He wrote a letter to President Brigham Young and he said to him, “Come on down and bring the saints down here. You stopped too soon because I have actually found Zion.” President Brigham Young wrote a letter back and he said, “That is not Zion,” he said, “Zion is where the saints are at.” Reference link here

Lore goes that some folks started calling it “Not Zion,” but the name still stuck.

The above account continues:

“Old father Behunin proposed the name Zion, to which the others agreed. Isaac Behunin had been with the Mormons ever since they left New York…Here in Zion he felt that at last he had reached a place of safety where he could rest assured of no more periling and persecutions. No wonder he proposed the name Zion, which inspires a resting place.”

This canyon was Zion to the people who lived here:

Isaac’s son, Elijah C. Behunin (my third-great uncle) wrote this in his personal history:

“We never called this section ‘little Zion’ either, it has always been Zion to us. When Brigham Young came to Springdale he advised the people to call this section “No Zion” (Sic?) but I only know of two people who ever applied that name to this canyon. Brigham Young always thought of “Zion” as Jackson Co. Missouri, but this canyon was Zion to people who lived here. Brigham Young never came up into the canyon. In fact, he was at Springdale about 1867, but there was nothing but a trail reaching up into Zion at that time.”

"This canyon was Zion to the people who lived here." Elijah Behunin, son of Isaac Behunin who named the park. Photo of the Great White Throne

My husband photographs a national park
My husband photographs a national park

It was said that Isaac would silence for long stretches, soaking in the grandeur of that sacred place. He had truly found a place of peace and refuge. In his old age, he could no longer care for his own place and moved to “Long Valley.” He is buried in the Mt. Carmel cemetery, where a large marker honors him.

Elijah C. Behunin said this about Isaac Behunin’s last days:

“My father never left Zion because of trouble with anyone. He was a quiet, unassuming man who minded his own business and wanted everyone else to do the same. He was a very temperate man and beloved in Mormonism. He died in the belief of a glorious resurrection.”

Isaac Behunin is buried at the Mt. Carmel cemetery where a large marker honors his life.

A nice personal ending to our tale:

The lineage of Isaac Behunin is scattered far and wide throughout the nation. Wherever they are, they are known to be talented and progressive people. Written 1979. Here is information gleaned from Isaac Behunin’s biography and through correspondence with members of his posterity. Reference link here.

Rhonda Lauritzen
Rhonda Lauritzen

By Rhonda Lauritzen, founder and an author at Evalogue.Life, where we tell personal and family stories that inspire. (Let us help you tell yours!) Rhonda lives to hear and tell about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She and her husband Milan restored an old Victorian in Ogden and work together in Evalogue.Life, weaving family and business together.

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