The Utah UFO Display-A Biologist’s Report: The Uintah Basin & Rethinking Skinwalker Ranch Contexts
photo credit Jeremy Christensen
Vlog link is here
In continuing my attempts to correct my own textual/historical gaps in UFO literature, I decided to plunk down and read a text I’ve had for years but never cracked. I don’t know why, because it’s a fascinating study, not only in terms of cases collected and examined, but the author’s approaches and social/political undercurrents present in the book.
I’d originally purchased the book, The Utah UFO Display: A Biologist’s Report (1974) by Frank B Salisbury because Jacques Vallee mentioned it somewhere as being one of his favorite studies of a UFO outbreak.
If the Vallee recommends it, then it must be good. Additionally, the preface was written by Dr Hynek himself. So, I hunted down a copy of the long out of print volume (a library was dumping it) and then it sat on my shelves neglected.
Over Christmas, I finally read it. Let me describe the book first and then begin to unpack the implications and subtexts within it and the synchronicity that attended my reading of it.
First, who is Frank? Frank, or more properly Professor/Dr Salisbury, was a plant biologist (as they were called back in the 1960’s—now more commonly referred to as botanists) who taught plant physiology at Utah State University until his retirement. He co-authored one of the most highly regarded and frequently utilized textbooks of plant physiology and was recognized widely in his field.
Dr Salisbury was also a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and this fact provides some valuable ballast to the personal context that he is able to bring to bear when interviewing the subjects for his UFO study, which is the only substantial text, other than a couple of articles, that he ever published about UFOs or any other paranormal topic.
Later in life, Dr Salisbury became concerned about the spiritual implications of the nuanced theories of Evolution that began to appear in scientific literature in the 1980’s/1990’s (e.g. punctuated equilibria and new implications of DNA inheritance as those technologies advanced).
To this end he sought to find ways in which certain forms of Creationism could explain some of the problems in new evolutionary theories, and this concerned him through his retirement. He died in 2015.
Part of what makes The Utah UFO Display so interesting is that you have this biologist stepping way out of his comfort zone, while maintaining a sensible, yet playful, scientific stance toward the witnesses and their stories.
Dr Salisbury’s writing is engaged, simple to understand, and yet he asks the best and most obvious questions of the material and the witnesses. He also provisionally identifies some of the reports as misidentified planets or other celestial events, given his astronomical knowledge, which is obviously, another interest of his.
For me, the book became even more interesting when I realized that he’s talking about the larger area which contains the acreage now referred to as Skinwalker Ranch, and that this book includes reports occurring in the same area BEFORE it became known as the mother of all paranormal zones. Could there possibly be a context here? Let us see.
The UFO reports in the casefiles were collected by Joseph Junior Hicks (no name calling please), an Uintah Basin settler native (as distinguished from an Indigenous native), who worked as an independent construction contractor and electrician.
As he was also a Stake Secretary of Welfare in the Mormon Church for the Uintah Basin (I’ll let you look that up to see what that means in terms of ecclesiastical structure), he traveled around the area quite a lot and so was able to talk to many people who were reporting strange experiences.
By the time of the study’s writing, Hicks had collected well over 100 paranormal reports, mostly of UFOs, of which 80 were selected for the book. There is a table of them in an appendix at the end of the study for easy reference.
In many cases, as could be arranged, Dr Salisbury followed up on the reports by interviewing the witnesses directly, sometimes in the same locations where the sightings/events took place. That way he could compare topography with weather and astronomical conditions.
The first 100 or so pages (over half the book) comprise simply a recap of some of the best of the 80 reports, for the most part, those interviews which yielded the best information and for which Salisbury could find no obvious explanations—with the exception of a couple cases which he uses to demonstrate how easy it is for individuals who are not familiar with how Venus might appear under certain conditions to mistake it for something remarkable.
Many of the cases are pretty standard odd nocturnal lights fare although there are several unusual cases: e.g. the daytime whirling tube which descended from an oblong object that was NOT a tornado or dust devil (both of which the witnesses were familiar), the children who predicted a subsequent UFO sighting using a Ouija board, which the adults didn’t believe, until it happened and was seen by many, as well as the numerous nocturnal lights that clearly chased cars, changed colors and then darted off into the night.
After the review of cases, Dr Salisbury looks at various aspects and patterns of the witnesses and what they saw/encountered. He explains the demographics of the witnesses (and this is interesting and may be of pertinence later), notes what is most commonly seen (orbs, oblong lights and then the ‘saturn’ configuration) where and when and the most common misidentifications.
One important thing he notes, and this is still relevant today, is that most of the sightings were seen in the countryside, not in the small towns/cities of the Uintah Basin. This he attributes to the simple fact that rural people, ranchers, farmers, oil men, spend more time outside than folks in more urban areas. Basically, the more you look into the sky—the more you’re going to notice, whether you identify it correctly or not.
Dr Salisbury also notes a number of details that are often present in other UFO flaps (the bulk of the material he examines occurred between 1966-1968, a time of increased UFO activity in other parts of the U.S.) but which are absent in the Uintah Basin sightings: e.g. there are no/or indeterminant accounts of UFO occupants, despite several witnesses having clearly seen windows and/or used binoculars to get better views. No contact or abduction cases were reported, no reputable reports of electromagnetic effects on vehicles or other machinery were reported and no photos were taken.
Then Dr Salisbury reviews the case files and compares them with the dominant theories of what UFOs might be—such as existed in the literature, chapter at a time: that UFOs are misinterpreted natural/conventional phenomena, that UFOs are lies or hoaxes, that UFOs are secret technologies being tested by our military (yes, that was a popular theory even then), that UFOs represent some kind of psychological aberration (in this chapter, he does go into the psychological effects/affects of UFO encounter, which he did observe in some witnesses), and the ETH (extraterrestrial hypothesis).
Dr Salisbury goes on to review what light current (at the time) UFO literature, including some abduction accounts, might be shed on the Uintah Basin case files and engages in some pretty fun and intelligent ‘brainstorming.’ I encourage all readers to join him if you avail yourself of the book because much of it is still relevant today
Along the way, Dr Salisbury shares some of his own experiences, not with UFOs, as he never actually saw one, at least by the time he wrote this book, but his own desires to believe and thereby initially misidentify common celestial objects, including Venus (he did this himself, earlier in his life).
In fact, part of what drove him to write the book was to understand how humans not only misidentify common objects, but seemingly WANT to—even when actual rational explanations make better sense of the data. He gives several examples from the case files as well, and produces a thoughtful short essay on human memory and the creation of meaning—a useful reminder for all of us who muck about in the weird.
His conclusion: while some aspects of the Uintah Basin casebook might be explained by context and certainly some reports are probably misidentifications, there is simply no theory that we currently have (or had then) which could adequately account for all the data. Some of the stories are/were simply too unusual and/or involve too many witnesses to tuck them into a comfortable theoretical or explanatory place.
There does seem to be an intelligence behind the best reports; an intelligence that chooses its place, time and witnesses for reasons known only to it. As to what that means—he leaves to future studies and investigators. And that’s how it should be. It’s frankly how science is actually done.
Now to unpack the subtexts and synchronicities.
As indicated in the beginning, the acreage that is now referred to as Skinwalker Ranch is located pretty much in the middle of Uintah Basin, roughly between the present town of Ballard and the further town of Roosevelt (Joseph Junior Hicks often worked outside of Roosevelt). Toward the beginning of the book, Salisbury included a map, current in the mid 1970’s and if you use that map and the Google maps for Ballard and for Skinwalker Ranch, it’s pretty easy to narrow down the Ranch location.
Salisbury’s map includes a numbered key that links all of the UFO reports which he and Hicks examined to his summary table in the book’s appendix, so you can use the map to look up what reports were coming in from where.
If one does that, it’s easy to see that a number of reports hail from the approximate location of the present-day ranch, which at the time, was owned and operated by the Myers family, none of whom are represented in the reports that Hicks collected—although it’s possible that they had relatives in the area who may well have been so represented.
I also found, when looking through the reports, that several, not all, in the Hicks’ case files that come from this area were collected from Indigenous informants, which constituted a minority of the reports overall.
At this point in the vlog I actually go through a couple of these reports using Salisbury’s table as reference, and readers can pick up that action starting at 20:25 in the vlog.
And here’s some context to consider:
The Uintah Basin was first ‘pioneered’ by settler-members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and to this day is largely politically and religiously dominated by the Church. After the Utah territory was finally incorporated into the United States, it was subject to the same Federal regulations to create reserves for the Indigenous populations which lived in the state.
To this end, two main reservations were created in the Basin for members of the Ouray and Ute peoples (there are other reservations in other parts of the state). They were always very small, and in fact, much of the original Ouray reservation has been largely absorbed by the Ouray State Forest which is also in the Basin.
The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) permitted the Church to largely manage the reservations as they saw fit, which meant that, over time, settlers were permitted to whittle away at the tribal holdings (some tribal holdings remain in the Basin but they are quite reduced from the original reserves) and the Church steadfastly maintained, in defiance of Federal Law, that they could enforce state regulations on the Indigenous populations (which included various religious proscriptions on marriage and religious observance as well as criminal law enforcement).
One has to remember what the Book of Mormon says about the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, that they are descended from a lost tribe of Israelites and that their skins have ‘become darkened’ as a result of their having turned away from the true God. Even though the LDS church has tried to mitigate this interpretation in the last few decades, the verses are there in the Book of Mormon for all to see and certainly influenced settler attitudes toward Indigenous peoples.
To this end, the Mormons set up their own Mission schools in the Uintah basin to “educate and civilize” the Indigenous populations. (BTW-I will use the terms Mormon and Latter Day Saints interchangeably here—despite what the LDS Church prefers—as Salisbury, who was a LDS member uses the term Mormon throughout).
It was a very mixed blessing: on one hand, the Mormon mission schools were somewhat more humane than those in other places insofar as they didn’t kidnap the children away from their parents, attendance was more (sort of) voluntary, and there were no enforced prohibitions about speaking one’s native language or engaging in traditional cultural/spiritual practices on one’s home turf.
On the other hand, the Mormon missions strongly encouraged Indigenous children to accept the Mormon interpretations of “Indian” history and convert, particularly if they wanted access to the best educational opportunities offered by the Church.
These educational opportunities were real, Salisbury talks about them and how they shaped the demographics of the people who reported UFO sightings to Joseph Hicks. As Salisbury describes them, and he’s talking about fellow Mormons/members of his church, as rural people, the reporters were often better educated than most might expect of because all of them had been required to go on mission work as young adults.
This meant that many of them knew multiple languages, or had some sophistication in certain areas of knowledge, like history, literature or art, although even he admitted that most of them were not as well versed in science and critical thinking (as obviously, the Church didn’t want too much of that).
That they were a bit more immediately tolerant of their Indigenous neighbors is probably a result of that training. They didn’t want to kill them outright, either literally or culturally, but they were certainly going to try to “bring them along” into civilization assuming they’d capitulate eventually.
The LDS Church has often tried to portray their relationship to Indigenous peoples as being more accepting and generous (as they tried to do in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics 2002, for example).
In the book there are several instances where the tensions in Mormon/Indigenous interactions are hinted at. At the time of writing, it is clear that members of the Ute nation still engaged in traditional ceremonies despite periodic attendance at the mission schools as various Mormon witnesses describe hearing the sounds of those rituals across the desert/fields.
In a number of cases, a UFO report will be traced back to an Indigenous source and when Salisbury shows up to interview the witness, the informant refuses to talk—Salisbury is told that “the Indians are often just that way,” when it comes to sharing this kind of information.
What Salisbury doesn’t say (and perhaps he doesn’t know, but it’s hard to believe he couldn’t have) is that during this same time period (late sixties), a number of lawsuits against the state of Utah for the practice of permitting state and largely Mormon police to enforce the law on tribal territories and which were filed on behalf of the Ute nation, were pending in the courts.
There were also disputes about mineral rights held by full and mixed blood members of the Ute/Ouray nations, one case of which went all the way to the Supreme Court. This probably accounts for the reticence of Indigenous informants—not wanting to talk to a big city intellectual about strange things, like UFOs, that might further exoticize the Ute/Ouray in the eyes of the white gaze, or cause friction with Mormon neighbors.
The results of the court cases were mixed. The Feds slapped Utah’s hand and the Natives were forced to give up more territory. It’s kind of how the situation remains today. This is part of the context of the area around Skinwalker Ranch. The settler population has always been willing to use Indigenous stories to bolster their own sense of the power of the land now under their control.
Even more recently (2021), Federal Courts ruled that the Ute/Ouray nations cannot sue the state of Utah regarding the protection of their water rights. Just keep all these things in mind.
In addition to the above, there are two further realities to consider when thinking about the Sherman (now called Skinwalker) Ranch. First, and this has been noted by critics already, while the area around this acreage had seen some paranormal reports, it wasn’t until the Sherman’s purchased the ranch in 1994 that the scale and types of events reached the fever pitch that made the location an alleged “window area.”
In fact, the previous owners, the Myers, did not report anything even vaguely resembling that of the Shermans and had lived on the land for at least three generations.
The Myers were probably aware that some strange things had been reported in their area. One interesting thing about the Salisbury-Hicks study is that almost everyone they talked to in the Basin had either seen or experienced something odd, or knew someone who had, and many of these cases involved multiple witnesses.
So, it is likely that the Myers had heard at least some of these stories, especially considering that several of the sightings in the Salisbury-Hicks casefiles hail from the same area where they lived, so the fact that they reported virtually nothing, has to be considered potentially significant.
The other interesting, and synchronistic, piece of information came across my desk on the very day that I finished The Utah UFO Display. I listen to a semi-weekly podcast called Bedtime Stories, which is kind of a UK version of Unsolved Mysteries.
In their final offering for 2022, the Bedtime Stories team featured a report about a ranch in Elbert Co, Colorado that seems to have many of the same (almost identical in fact) problems as Skinwalker, except that the reports about “Clearview” (not the actual name) ranch predate that of Skinwalker by almost 25 years.
The podcast does a great job of summarizing the “Clearview” account and includes the official APRO (Aerial Phenomena Research Organization) summary report in their YouTube description which anyone can download and read for themselves. In fact, I encourage the reader to do so.
Read the APRO report and listen to their podcast and then think about the claims which are made for the Skinwalker Ranch, keeping in mind that this official account was published in 1978, which means that the reported events had to have been going on for quite some time in the 1960s/1970s.
Also keep in mind that the Clearview report contains some of the earliest accounts of cattle mutilations outside of Montana (before Linda Moulton Howe had discovered her paranormal vocation) and you’ll get a sense of how weird these stories really are—how strange they would have been at the time; UFOs, loud humming and underground mechanical noises, strange entities showing up in buildings, animal disappearances, cryptids, seeming portals, poltergeist activity, electromagnetic disturbances and more.
Now we’re kind of used to these sorts of stories, but the APRO report was apparently a bit much for even seasoned investigators at the time.
Now, none of this “disproves” Skinwalker, although it does give it a different context. At one point in the Salisbury-Hicks study, a witness, while relaying his relatively close sighting of an unnerving nocturnal light, expressed his fear that he would end up like “Snippy,” the horse that had been found strangely mutilated in Alamosa, San Luis Valley, CO on Sept 9, 1967 (incidentally, during the exact time period as the bulk of the UFO reports in the Salisbury-Hicks study).
The “Snippy” mutilation is often seen as the “first” official animal mutilation account, in much the same way as Kenneth Arnold’s UFO report is seen as the opening gambit in modern UFO sightings. This Uintah Basin witness had clearly heard about “Snippy” in the papers. There were also many UFO reports in the local Colorado papers at the time. Obviously, these accounts were being reported in regional papers as well and reached readers in Utah.
The San Luis Valley is quite a distance from Elbert Co, CO where the acreage of the “Clearview” Ranch is located, so the reports that started to come in from the latter location in the late sixties and early-mid seventies are not necessarily connected or causal.
It’s just interesting that one has all the elements of what will be found in the Skinwalker narrative happening in Colorado along with concomitant, but relatively uncomplicated sightings happening in the Uintah Basin first.
And then, 25 years later, the Sherman Ranch, in the Uintah Basin, is the focus of very similar bizarre reported happenings.
So really strange stuff probably happened somewhere, but it seems, at least, that Skinwalker is not quite the unique place it’s claimed to be—if something almost the same happened at another place 25 years earlier. Like what are the odds that there are two such locations? Unless something found the Sherman Ranch to be more amenable to haunting and moved on west.
In any case, The Utah UFO Display is an excellent book for readers who want to drop all they thought they knew about UFOs, witnesses, collecting reports and conducting investigations and start over again. After all, collecting the cases, interviewing witnesses and doing other research took almost 7 years for Joseph Hicks and Frank Salisbury to complete.
This is largely thankless work and most people who are making a living at it are doing a hustle with the information somewhere, at some level. Even John Keel and Jacques Vallee had/have day jobs.
Notes: History of region was culled from various sources including my own internal knowledge of the LDS Church as I have written about their history in other places. Information about court cases and the Ute/Ouray nations can easily be found online through state and Federal case law websites.