This is a nod to Zion National Park history, featuring Isaac Behunin who named this cathedral Zion. When I initially read his history, I felt a deep kinship to this ancestor, my fourth-great grandfather. He sounds like my kind of guy, and I just had to share. Also, after writing this story originally for family, it continued to evolve for me in the the most uncanny way. Eighteen months after initial publication of this article, I was invited to research and write a national historic register nomination for the Ephraim Relief Society Granary on behalf of Ephraim City and Granary Arts. As part of that job, I got to work as Creative in Residence onsite. Come to find out, this building that beckoned me from afar was situated on the very land that Isaac Behunin and other ancestors had plowed! This was the original site of Fort Ephraim where they had first settled. How weird is that?
My husband photographs a Utah national park
Before Landing in Zion:
To set the stage for our saga, Isaac Behunin and his wife Mariba lived in Oswego, New York and converted to the Mormon church in the very early days. Family stories say that that 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 very pioneer company in an unrelated story that beckoned me out of bed at 3 a.m. Read that one 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. They were the first Mormon Pioneers to settle the town of Ephraim. After arriving, Isaac Behunin directed his sons to build a dugout, which caused other settlers to scoff,, Within days, however, a massive early blizzard hit. It was so cold the animals outside froze to death. The Behunin family spent their winter in comparative warmth and comfort when others were camping in wagons. (Reference: that story is told in Saga of the Sanpitch, by Macel B. Anderson, on file in the Snow College Archives.) Note that there is a monument about Isaac Behunin and the settlement of Ephraim Fort today on the campus of Snow College.
A block west, there is another marker the corner of Ephraim Square, home of the Ephraim Co-op and GranaryArts which is located in the historic Relief Society Granary. In other words, that second monument is in the parking lot where I was doing my research for the national historic register nomination, and where I set up shop as a Creative In Residence in January of 2019. As mentioned above, that was 18 months after I originally wrote this story.
He built the first sawmill in Ephraim on Pine Creek, and sometime after the original dugout he and his family built a beautiful home of oolite limestone in the nearby town of Spring City. It is located at 19 East, 100 South in Spring City, Utah in Sanpete County.
Later, Isaac Behunin ventured farther south to help build the St. George LDS Temple. It was around this time that he built the first cabin in Springdale, in the shadow of Zion National Park. This is the place that became his personal sanctuary and temple. By this time, he was a weary religious refugee, having journeyed 3,500 miles by covered wagon. He had lived in 22 temporary homes including that dugout their first winter in Ephraim. It is hard to wrap my mind around all the hardship experienced in one lifetime.
He named his cathedral and sanctuary Zion
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 the towering cliffs and sandstone of Utah speaks to my own soul. These wild spaces are sacred to me and I feel a strong sense of place when I am there.
Raw beauty has a way of stirring my spirituality, and in addition to this connection to nature that I always feel outdoors I had an oddly incongruent feeling that I was home. I say that it was odd because I have never lived nearby and never spent time there before I was an adult. Yet, when I first went there, it instantly felt like the red sands, desert plants, and arid breezes were in my DNA. I now know that I have connections I did not understand when I first experienced these other-worldly feelings. Could genetic connections be why? I can’t know, of course, but it does make me wonder if our ancestors beckon us to places where they lived, or if somehow our DNA contains wisps of memory we have yet to understand.
Brigham Young resisted the name Zion
The story goes that Brigham Young, who never visited the actual Zion canyon, wasn’t enamored of the name or the place. One account said that when Brigham Young visited Springdale, he found tobacco growing and old distilling whiskey. That may have been true, but these things did not make one a Jack Mormon in those days; I feel the need to point out that early LDS rules were much more flexible on these points. But I digress. Related to the name, an account on FamilySearch tells the story:
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.
I love the lore that folks responded by calling it “Not Zion,” or “Little Zion” which surely contributed to the fact that the name 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:
Regarding the name, 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.”
The family account goes on to say 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. You can find photos of that on FamilySearch.
A 1979 family history says that, “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.” (As reference: here is information gleaned from the Isaac Behunin’s biography and through correspondence with members of his posterity: Reference link here.)
The Isaac Behunin story keeps evolving for me:
Now fast forward a year from the time I originally wrote this article. In the summer of 2018, an architect friend of mine, Shalae Larsen, asked if I would be interested in researching the Ephraim Relief Society Granary and then write the narrative portion of a National Historic Register nomination. That building is now home to Granary Arts. I was excited about the job and I remembered my many ancestors who lived in Sanpete County. What I did not know was that when I made my first visit to see the Relief Society Granary in person, I would park next to a monument that honored the original settlers of Ephraim Fort. It was located on the very property I had been hired to research! A block down the street is another monument that opens with the name of Isaac Behunin. It also mentions another ancestor, Reddick Newton Allred.
Then, in January of 2019 while I was at the Church Archives in Salt Lake City doing additional research for the Granary, I was immersed in microfilm looking for something else, and I happened to scroll onto these wonderful drawings of Isaac’s rock home in Spring City (below). They were done by students as part of a project to catalog vernacular architecture in Sanpete County. That project was led by Professor Thomas Carter, with whom I had breakfast a few weeks prior. This project had been started early in Carter’s career, and around the time of retirement it culminated in the publication of his spectacularly beautiful book, Building Zion, The Material World of Mormon Settlement. There, my spirit thrilled to find my own ancestor’s stories and voices. I wept more than once finding details that I’ve never seen elsewhere. Again, I felt that deep kinship. This national historic register nomination was not just a paid job, this was the story of my people. I should also point out that while this story is about a paternal ancestor, the research I was doing for the Relief Society Granary especially honored the women whose stories are largely lost to history.
At the end of January 2019, I had the chance to work as a “creative-in-residence” at GranaryArts in the C.C.A. Christensen cabin. For several days, I got to set up shop on land that my ancestors plowed. And as if to push the envelope of just how weird it might get, the architect who partnered with with me on the national register nomination, Shalae Larsen (IO Landscape Architecture), is a direct descendant of C.C.A. Christensen. When she was invited to do this job, she had no idea that her ancestor’s cabin was on the very property where we would be working! Both of us had ancestors with ties to this land. Of all the people in the state who could have worked on this job, why us? Why did it come to two out-of-towners with no network connections in Ephraim today?
Each time I found a detail, story or voice, I felt a quiet sense of awe and wonder that I cannot quite explain. As “out there” as may sound, I have come to believe our ancestors want to be remembered. If we show an interest, they have ways of revealing their lives to us.
But fair warning: don’t go down this path unless you’ve got some capacity to spare. These stories can draw you in and not let you go until they are good and done with you. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I spent on this project–far beyond what I was paid. Truly, though, I already I feel rewarded in ways that money can never measure. Someday, I hope I get to meet Isaac Behunin on the other side and say, “Hey, I know you! We have so much to talk about.”
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 books: How to Storyboard, and Remember When, the inspiring Norma and Jim Kier story.
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