I first heard about the supposed valley curse in 1990. A friend had gone away to college and come back before finishing. He said, “It must be the valley curse.” When I asked what that was, he explained that when the Utes were forcibly removed from the Grand Valley in 1881, they cursed the white settlers coming in on their heels. The Utes were said to have condemned anyone who lived here to return, whether they wanted to or not.
In the early 1990’s, another friend elaborated on another part of the “curse.” She said that if someone dug dirt up from the base of the Bookcliffs and took it with them, then they could break the curse (or was it from the base of Mt. Garfield specifically? I don’t remember any more). She indeed dug up dirt from the Bookcliffs and put it in a mason jar. She took the dirt with her and has lived far away for many years, though she does visit from time to time. Yet the first friend never dug up dirt from the Bookcliffs, at least as far as I know, and he has successfully “broken the curse” by living far away on what seems a permanent basis.
The details of the curse have evolved over time. A younger coworker says that as she understands it, only people born here in the valley are subject to the whims of the curse. Another coworker, also younger, says that you do not have to be a valley native for the curse to get you, but that in the versions of the curse she has heard, one must take dirt not only from the Bookcliffs, but also from the Grand Mesa and the Colorado National Monument. Other recent blogs and articles confirm that someone wanting to leave the area must also gather dirt from multiple sources, including the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers.
The recent article, Dirt & Curse: Leaving the valley? Better take some dirt, quotes former Museum of the West curator of collections and archives, Erin Schmitz, as saying that the myth of the valley curse may have had its origin in a poem submitted to a contest by a Grand Junction High School Student in the 1930’s (Daily Sentinel, 8-31-2017, Kelly Slivka). Yet the Mesa County Oral History Project began interviewing pioneers and the children of pioneers in 1976, and not a single person who has worked on digitizing hundreds of those recordings here in the library has encountered an interview where an old timer mentions anything like what we now know as the valley curse. This lack of mention by early residents points to a more recent origin for the valley curse as urban legend. Another coworker with great knowledge of local history says that some newspaper articles from the 1980’s do mention a local curse, but reference it only in a vague way.
Is it possible that the legend of the valley curse, perhaps just a rumor before the 1980’s, evolved into a full-blown urban legend in the aftermath of Black Sunday in 1982, when Exxon pulled out of its oil shale operation and the local economy tanked for years? Could it be that people stuck here working low wage jobs or with no jobs at all looked around and said, “Why am I still here? This place must be cursed.” Things have changed, yet the curse myth persists.
It’s fun to talk about the curse. It’s a common bond most locals have. But as we celebrate 140 years of Grand Junction history this year, one might also wonder about the absolving psychology of a myth that blames the Ute for making the very non-native people who displaced them live here.