“A Country of Magnificent Distances” (Utah history)

“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.

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MLA: Parshall, Ardis E. ""A Country of Magnificent Distances" (Utah history)." Keepapitchin.org, 20 May 2008, https://keepapitchinin.org/2008/05/20/a-country-of-magnificent-distances-utah-history/.

APA: Parshall, A. (2008, May 20). "A Country of Magnificent Distances" (Utah history). Keepapitchinin.org. https://keepapitchinin.org/2008/05/20/a-country-of-magnificent-distances-utah-history/

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6 thoughts on ““A Country of Magnificent Distances” (Utah history)”

  1. My last comment seems to have vanished into the ether, so I’ll make another one.

    I remember vaguely a trip to Natural Bridges about 45 years ago–what I remember best is the disappointment I felt when Dad told us to quit climbing on the ladders (the same ones that the 1907 explorers saw?).

    I looked the place up on Google maps–it looks every bit the desolate wilderness that it was back then.

  2. Mark, if they survived the hundreds of years of weathering that brought them to 1907, why not another 50 years for you to scramble around on them? Amazing, isn’t it?

    On a previous post about David Roberts’s Smithsonian article, I suggested reading In Search of the Old Ones — that concerns some of his hikes around this part of the West, including his discovery of artifacts like pots and baskets, as perfect as when they were left behind hundreds of years earlier. A major theme of that book is the modern ethic of avoiding damage to such sites, as well as the dilemma between preserving artifacts in situ where they can tell us the most about the culture they came from, or bringing them to museums where they can be protected from vandals and private collectors.

  3. Funny thing about the carved initials–even though the modern scholar flinches, those initials in their own way become part of the historical/archaeological record, albeit a different record.

    This is a fantastic blog, I look forward to new entries.

  4. Thanks, Doug; that’s high praise, and I do intend to keep up the blog.

    Coincidentally, there is an editorial in today’s Deseret News that speaks about modern emendations of historic and prehistoric sites.

  5. Ardis, great post about an area that I love, and can’t visit as often as I would like.

    My wife, my son and his wife, and I traveled to Walnut Canyon, near Flagstaff, where there are easily accessible ruins similar to the ones your post mentions. Even there, the early archaeologists routinely dismantled the dwellings, dug through the dirt floors haphazardly, and generally vandalized the site in the name of science. We’ve learned a lot since those days, but I’m still impressed that these students, apparently with little outdoor experience, would tackle that region south of the Colorado/Lake Powell area. Water is always a huge issue, and I can imagine forage for their mule was not any easier to come by.

    I still owe you some stuff about the Galveston hurricane and Mormon missionaries, so it’s forthcoming. Great blog, Ardis, keep it going!

  6. I love that area. It truly is gorgeous and magnificent.

    I would LOVE to know more about the Anasazi; what I have read is beyond fascinating. I enjoy the scholarly studies, but among the “non-academic”, popular writings of that general area, Tony Hillerman’s stuff is wonderful.

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