American Folklore: Utah

American Folklore: Utah

Utah came to the attention of European explorers late in the exploration game in North America. No European was interested in settling there until the 1800s because of its desert climate, though it was home to Native Americans for thousands of years. Utah has some unique and interesting folklore. Here are some of the creepy highlights of it.

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Admitted to the union in 1896 as the 45th state, Utah was the home of Native American people from ancient times. The earliest known were the Ancestral Puebloans and the Fremont. The remnants of their civilizations were discovered by other, later Native groups who lived there, and they are believed to have disappeared around the 1400 A.D.s. Afterward, the Navajo, Goshute, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute tribes settled there.

The first known exploration of the area by Europeans was in 1540 by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a Spanish explorer. His expedition was looking for the famed and mythical Seven Cities of Gold that could supposedly be found in the New Mexico territory area. Numerous other Spanish expeditions went to Utah over the next two and a half centuries, but the Spanish were not interested in settling there, due to the desert climate of the region.

It wasn’t until 1824 when fur trapper Jim Bridger became the first known European to lay eyes on the Great Salt Lake that non-Native settlers began coming to Utah to stay. News of the lake’s high salinity made it an attractive prospect to health-minded pioneers. Eventually, the Mormons came to Utah and settled it permanently, as a place where they believed they could practice their religion in peace. It was as a Mormon settlement that Utah achieved statehood with the United States.

Here are some of the highlights of Utah’s unique folklore.

The Creepy Story of the Headstone of Lilly Gray

In the Salt Lake City Cemetery, there is a headstone that has inspired more tales than the actual women who lies underneath it. In fact, all signs point to Lilly Gray being an ordinary woman. What is unexplained is why her headstone reads: “Lilly E. Gray, June 6, 1881 — Nov. 14, 1958. Victim of the Beast 666.” That’s a pretty creepy thing for someone to put on a headstone.

Nothing much is known of the actual Lilly Gray, or what kind of person she was. Her death certificate indicates her death was from a few different ailments common to old age. There are no ghosts associated with her. So, why is her headstone so odd?

While no one knows exactly why this odd and disturbing phrase was put on Lilly’s headstone, there are a lot of theories. Because she was survived by her husband Elmer, some people speculate that he had the phrase put there as a form of protest against the government. Yet, when Elmer was asked about the headstone, he blamed Lilly’s death on the police and kidnappers and was found to be quite paranoid and anti-government.

Other theories include that she was a victim of a Satanic cult sacrifice, that she was an innocent victim of a witch hunt, or that she was killed on Highway 666, one of the most dangerous highways in the country. While no one knows the reason for the inscription, it inspires much speculation among the public to this day.

The Escalante Petrified Forest

The Escalante Petrified Forest is a state park that attracts a lot of visitors each year. It is undoubtedly beautiful and mysterious. However, there is also supposedly an ancient Native American curse associated with it. The legend says that if anyone takes a piece of petrified wood out of the forest, they will suffer from noticeable bad luck until they return the wood.

This legend does not stop dozens of people each year from taking wood home from the forest. However, most of these wood thieves do return the wood. Park officials have said that they receive loads of stolen wood back in the mail each year, often with letters attached apologizing for taking it, and telling of terrible things that happened to them after taking it. Car accidents, job losses, and various other injuries and accidents are the most common tales.

It is illegal to take anything from a state park, whether there is a curse or not. However, this park usually gets its stolen items returned.

John Baptiste was a Genuinely Creepy Guy

In the early 1800s, when Utah was first being settled by Europeans, a man named John Baptiste was among the first to be hired by Salt Lake City as a gravedigger for its new cemetery. According to legend, he was a pretty intimidating guy, and people stayed away from him, which he seemed to prefer. It was only after he had been employed by the city for three years that his creepy activities came to light.

A man came to have his brother’s body exhumed, to be re-buried in the family plot back east. When the grave was opened, the man’s body was found to be naked and face-down in the casket. This outraged his brother, and city officials set up surveillance one night at the cemetery to find out what was going on.

They spotted John Baptiste taking a body out of the cemetery in a wheelbarrow. A search of his house revealed tons of items of clothing that he had removed from bodies in the cemetery (he apparently also took their jewelry and sold it). He boiled the clothes, then re-purposed them for all kinds of things at his house. Officials estimated he robbed more than three hundred fifty graves there.

He was exiled to an island on the Great Salt Lake. Supposedly, his ghost still haunts the lake, with people spotting him carrying bundles of soggy, muddy clothes.

The Bear Lake Monster

This tale originates with the Shoshone Native American tribe and tells of a creature that looks like a large serpent living in Bear Lake. The creature has supposedly dragged some men into the lake. Because of this, the Shoshone refuse to bathe or swim in the lake, and won’t sleep near it.

The monster has been sighted by those of European descent, as well, with so many people reporting sightings in 1868 that the local paper ran a story about it. The monster is supposedly between forty and two hundred feet long, with large eyes, a head that looks like a cross between an alligator and a walrus, and a thick and brown body. It can swim at about sixty miles per hour.

Some say that the monster may be a Basilosaurus Cetoides, which is a carnivorous whale that was long thought to be extinct. While Bear Lake is freshwater and whales typically live in saltwater, the creature may have adapted to freshwater over the eons. Whatever it is, people have seen it, so it’s best to stay away from the shores of the lake after dark.


About the author

Ancestral Findings

Will founded Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been involved in genealogy research for over 24 years. The excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his Moneymaker surname.