“This is a country of magnificent distances. I stood high up on one of the many teeth of Comb Ridge, and looked – looked again and then round a wonderland unveiling itself before me.” So wrote Burl Armstrong in 1907, introducing readers to landscapes most would never see first hand.
Armstrong, a newspaperman, accompanied Professor Byron Cummings of the University of Utah on the first expedition to map the pueblos and rock art of the ancient civilization commonly known today as Anasazi, in the twisted, broken canyons of San Juan County. The expedition included University of Utah students John C. Brown and Fred Scranton (surveyors), Joseph Driggs and Neil Judd (draftsmen), and Frank Fay Eddy, a Unitarian minister with a scientific bent.
The party traveled to Moab by stage, then outfitted themselves with horses and traveled on to Monticello. They were joined by archaeologist Edgar L. Hewett and several Harvard students who had crossed into Utah from Durango, Colorado. The enlarged party, with local cowboy Dan Perkins as guide, moved on to Bluff, then out into the uncharted canyons of Montezuma Creek.
None of the scientists had much outdoor experience. Their faces burned and peeled in the scorching sun. They suffered the needle-sharp sting of blowing sand. They couldn’t find good water. “The Montezuma creek is the muddiest stream west of the Missouri. The water is about 90 per cent sand and clay, and even more than that when one is thirsty and has to drink it,” wrote Armstrong. Their pack animal, Maud the Mule, was too unerring with her kicks to make loading her a pleasure. When two of the boys made a waterless camp up a side canyon, their horses escaped during the night, leaving the pair to walk 20 miles the next day, too thirsty to eat the salty dried beef they carried.
Yet their work was so absorbing and the company so agreeable that the men enjoyed their time in the wilderness. The younger men dared each other to climb dangerously weathered hand and toe holds chipped into cliffs. Brown was the first to succeed, with the aid of a rope lowered from the cliff above; in an act of vandalism that shocks modern sensibilities, Brown celebrated by carving his initials and his college class year into a wall of the ancient dwelling he discovered there.
Other actions that make us wince today but which were standard archaeological practice in 1907 indicate the explorers’ success. Hewett was an avid collector of Indian relics, in his own way as destructive as the amateur “pot hunting cowboys” he despised. Armstrong described Hewett’s excavation technique as “kicking about” to uncover artifacts, hundreds of which were ripped from their context and taken back to Salt Lake to form the University’s first archaeological collection.
The expedition visited White Canyon to survey the natural bridges there. With great difficulty, the student surveyors scaled cliffs and scrambled over mesas, placing monuments and taking careful measurements with their transit. For the first time, the heights and thicknesses of the bridges were calculated within two feet of modern measurements; the evident care of their report was instrumental in the designation of Natural Bridges National Monument the following year.
Near the bridges, the explorers “found a village as complete in every detail as it could possibly be.” Even an ancient ladder of long poles tied with yucca fiber was still in place, still strong enough that three of the men posed for their picture climbing to a dwelling high on the sheer cliff face.
The explorers’ report overstates their achievements: with only six weeks in the field, their surveys were cursory, their excavations crude, their interpretations shallow. Yet by carefully mapping the terrain of those canyons they entered, and marking the location of ruins for future exploration, the Utah team opened the way, one hundred and one summers ago, for more detailed scientific study.