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.

This is a nod to Zion National Park history, featuring Isaac Behunin who named this cathedral Zion. 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, which stood in majesty above the later years of fourth great-grandfather’s life.

When I initially read his history, I felt a kinship to this 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 neat our history is. There are multiple uncanny notes about this story, one of which happened in late 2018, a year after writing this article in the summer of 2017. I’ll add that new thread at the bottom of the article.

Behunin-Beck house built by Isaac Behunin in Spring City. by David Jay Fulmer, creative commons

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. His family was the first to settle the town of Ephraim where his family spent their first winter in a dugout.  Other settlers scoffed at their dugout, but within days a massive blizzard hit that froze animals to death. The Behunin family spent their winter in comparative warmth and comfort when others were camping in wagons. Note that there is a monument about Isaac Behunin and the settlement of Ephraim Fort today on the campus of Snow College, and another one on the corner of Ephraim Square, home of the Ephraim Co-op and GranaryArts which is located in the historic Relief Society Granary. He built the first sawmill in Ephraim on Pine Creek Isaac and a beautiful home later a beautiful oolite limestone home at 19 East, 100 South in Spring City. He also helped build the St. George Temple. Ultimately, he wanted to move to a warmer climate and so he 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 sit in 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.

Behunin Posterity:

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.

Monument to the founding of Ephraim Fort- I took this photo after being floored that this monument is on the property where I will be working

The Isaac Behunin story keeps evolving for me:

In the summer of 2018, a year after writing this story originally I had the opportunity to help write a nomination to get the Ephraim Relief Society Granary on the national historic register. That building is now home to Granary Arts. I was excited about the job because of my many ancestors who lived in Sanpete County, and I knew that Isaac Behunin’s family were the first white settlers in Ephraim Fort. What I did not know was that when I made my first visit to see the Relief Society Granary in person, I would find a monument with my ancestor’s name on that very property!

Then, just last week I happened across beautiful drawings of his rock home in Spring City. Now it turns out that I will be spending time working as a “creative-in-residence” at GranaryArts in the C.C.A. Christensen cabin. This is the very land my ancestors plowed. And as if to push the envelope of just how weird it might get, the architect who is partnering with me on this project, Shalae Larsen, is a direct descendant of C.C.A. Christensen. When she was invited to submit for this job, she had no idea that her ancestor’s cabin was on the very property where we would be working. While doing this project, I have found more details of my ancestors’ lives than I could have possibly imagined. My female ancestors’ voices have jumped off the page, drawings for Isaac Behunin’s home buried in microfilm, and connections I never knew existed. This all gives me a quiet sense of awe and wonder that I cannot quite explain.

Rhonda Lauritzen
Rhonda Lauritzen

Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden, Utah and work together in it, weaving family and business together. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her latest book Remember When, the inspiring Norma and Jim Kier story.

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4 thoughts on “Zion National Park History: Isaac Behunin’s Cathedral

  • July 30, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    Good job Rhonda, I enjoyed reading your article on my great great grandfather. Janet and I enjoy Zion canyon and reading about the history.

    • October 1, 2017 at 2:59 pm

      Rod, thank you for your lovely comment on my article. And I apologize for not acknowledging your comment sooner: it got flagged as spam originally and I just saw it now. Isn’t it fun to have this heritage?

  • May 15, 2018 at 6:17 am

    My mom is a Behunin (Buchanan) and I love to visit knowing my ancestors were strong in both spirit and body to have settled there.

    • May 15, 2018 at 1:53 pm

      Heather, wow! It makes me happy to see that you found this and learned more about your family. Did the name Behunin later change to Buchanan? If so, I had no idea!


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