Most explorations into southern Utah and the Southwest became famous. Here’s one expedition that didn’t. The explorers visited 100 archaeological sites between Durango, Colorado and Comb Ridge, Utah—80 of them never before described or recorded, but they had a miserable time of it, constantly underfunded, underfed, dehydrated, with sand in their hair, their clothing and their food. Mainly from Ohio, the seven man team should have had the time of their lives. Instead the group complained about the very isolation and landscapes that Utah tourists have come to love.
Fearful of local Navajos and suspicious of Mormon families, these elite Easterners bungled across the Four Corners with mules, burros, horses, wagons, and even an ill-conceived wooden boat, which almost got them drowned. Yet this was an important scientific expedition headed by Warren K. Moorehead who had worked as an archaeologist with the Smithsonian Institution. Archaeology itself was in its infancy.
A new magazine, The Illustrated American, planned an expedition into the Southwest to learn the truth about rumors of ancient people and to publicize scientific findings in a 14-article series titled “In Search of a Lost Race.” A second goal was to assemble a sizable collection of artifacts for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair or Columbian Exposition. From the beginning, nothing worked as planned. “The Illustrated American had been allotted space at the Columbian Exposition to display both a collection of prehistoric relics from the American Southwest and scale models of the ancient aboriginal buildings located there,” writes historian James Knipmeyer in his book In Search of a Lost Race.
The group’s physician never showed up and neither did promised funding for expenses and local salaries for guides, food, and horse and burro purchases. Permits to cross the Navajo and Ute reservations never arrived. As the group made their way towards Bluff, Utah, thieves stole their burros. Of course, there were tarantulas, coyotes and rattlesnakes, and the intrepid explorers recommended when “you see a great flat-headed rattler just in the act of striking . . . put a bullet through his head.”
A permanent camp at Bluff and the Mormon community there provided social contact and comforts including daily baths in the muddy San Juan. Moorehead wrote, “The country is wild, the scenery full of grand, strange beauty…” but he found the canyons tiresome and admitted, “The main desire on the part of every one is to get through as rapidly as possible and return to the delights of the East.” This statement, written from Bluff, contrasts sharply with the expedition’s original intent to archaeologically explore all the drainages of the San Juan until its confluence with the Colorado River.
The explorers visited Seventeen Room Ruin on the Navajo side of the San Juan River and hiked both banks. Using ropes they dangled on a precipice above the San Juan inspecting pottery and small stone dwellings. Eventually, they headed up Butler Wash and explored and named important sites on the east side of Comb Ridge including Monarch’s Cave and Cold Spring Cave. At both locations I’ve found their inscriptions carved into stone with the letters and date “IAEE 1892” and the site’s name.
Perhaps the most audacious effort of the explorers was to enter and name the remote Eagle’s Nest ruin. From across the drainage with binoculars the site looks almost perfect; it has a few small rooms in a high shallow alcove appearing like a hand-carved silhouette within a fragile Christmas ornament. Expedition members noted faint traces of carved steps and tied off on small bushes using ropes to descend into the site, which has a very steep pitch.
Author and canyoneer Steve Allen comments, “To think of these men, far from help in a remote land, risking it all by swinging out over the abyss to gain access to the Eagle’s Nest is astounding even by today’s standards in adventure sports. There were no bolts, no ‘camming devices’ stuck in a crack, no sheath covered perlon ropes, no mechanical ascending devices, no belays.” Allen explains, “They had an old hemp or cotton rope tied to some scraggly bushes. Off the sheer cliff face they went, hanging onto the rope for dear life, looking hundreds of feet down into the void, praying the bushes would stay attached to the rock.”
Once inside the ruin the explorers realized that this cliff dwelling had no portholes or loopholes for defense. None were needed. No enemy could easily approach because of the cliff’s steepness. Today, under the Bureau of Land Management’s management plan for San Juan County, Utah, accessing cliff dwellings by rope is not permissible without authorized research permits.
The IAEE also visited sites with local names like Long Fingers, Double-decker Cave, Fish Mouth Cave, Ballroom Cave, and Red Knobs. Returning to Bluff, the explorers ran out of financial support. Funds had not arrived from the New York headquarters of The Illustrated American. So by late May the expedition backtracked to Durango. They had acquired only 46 artifacts for the Chicago Exposition, and trip leader Moorehead was personally out $1,900 for trip expenses. He sued the magazine.
Later, all original notes, maps, negatives and photos burned when fire destroyed offices at The Illustrated American, causing Moorehead to believe, “Ill fortune seemed to pursue us even after the survey had disbanded.” Author Knipmeyer doesn’t consider the IAEE a failure. “It was the first scientific party to do any exploration and research of what came to be known as the Anasazi culture in the upper San Juan River Basin,” he concludes.
A century later, a San Juan study is still incomplete. Blanding, Utah archaeologist Winston Hurst explains, “After 110 years of subsequent archaeological effort, including almost 40 years of fairly intensive surveys in the oil fields, we’re still not even close to achieving their goal.” Hurst adds, “Now, after more than a century of relentless collecting pressure, many of the sites are so stripped of artifacts that reveal their age and cultural affiliation that we have to spend hours crawling around in weeds to find enough artifacts to establish a relatively accurate age for most sites. In many cases it’s no longer possible.” He continues, “That’s why artifact collection is illegal on public lands.”
As I hike Comb Ridge I think about pot-hunting and site desecration. I think about the old ones who came before whom we now call Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans and how The Illustrated American Exploring Expedition, for all its faults, had scientific goals that matched the ethos and ethics of their time. I also think of the hundreds of square miles of empty canyons, mesas and ravines in southeast Utah. Archaeology can teach us only a limited amount about the breadth and complexity of the Ancestral Puebloan world.
I believe this compelling landscape, part of the Cedar Mesa Wilderness Study Area, the Grand Gulch Primitive Area, and a larger proposed Red Rock Wilderness, is as important to Americans in the 21st century as it was to the Anasazi for 800 years. We need the silence, solitude, and darkness the canyons provide.
The IAEE went “in search of a lost race.” For us more than a century later, the search is different because personal discoveries can be as gratifying as scientific ones. As a hiker and a historian, I share the enthusiasm of anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn who wrote, “There is no zest like that of exploration, no longing like that for desert places, no call like that of the unknown.”
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of History at Fort Lewis College in Durango. He can be reached at Gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.