In 1912, Carlton Cumsee’s parents came to look at land for sale in the Escalante Desert of Iron County. The land looked lush. “Grasses flourished…. Wild horses frolicked on the benches, deer roamed the hills, pools sparkled in low places.” So the Culmsees bought lots of land.
But rain had been falling much more than usual that spring. Utah was in the “wet” part of a “wet-dry” cycle. In the West, the “dry” part comes around eventually. The Culmsees found that out, and their investment dried up.
The Paiutes tell a similar story about this area. In this story, people migrated eastward from a place of “endless waters” to the “red mountains.” (The ancestors of the Paiutes really did migrate to Utah from California.)
At first they prospered as farmers and hunters. But then the climate turned dry. Their god Shinob told the group to “take council from the animals”—to quite farming and become nomadic hunters and gatherers.
It's true that people began to stop farming in Utah around 1200 A.D., probably because of a severe drought. After that, the indigenous people mostly made their living by hunting and gathering until settlers arrived.
In 1864, Joseph Holbrook of Davis County told the Deseret News that “he sowed twenty bushels of oats, planted fifteen acres of corn and ten of sugar cane this year, and that he does not expect to get a bushel of oats or corn nor a pint of molasses, owing to the drouth.”
The most severe drought on record hit Utah between 1895 and 1907—a very long dry period. During those years, the “once-rich meadows on [Boulder Mountain] turned to dust beds. Herds of sheep were bedding by the streams and dying along the banks…. The cattle lingered around the mud holes [and] would flounder in the mud and die.”
The second worst drought, from 1931-41, hit northern Utah especially hard. In Utah in May 1934, the streams that would usually be full of melted snow looked more like August streams, with much less water flowing than usual. That summer, Utah farmers had only ¼ of their usual irrigation water. Crops dried up, people lost jobs, and livestock growers had little feed for their animals.
In fact, some Duchesne County farmers had to harvest tumbleweeds to feed their cows.
Go back to Water Questions.
Sources: Utah Historical Quarterly 49:1; A History of Davis County, but Glen M. Leonard; A History of Duchesne County, by John D. Barton; A History of Garfield County,” by Linda K. Newell.