Rainbow Bridge
Administrative History
NPS Logo

Life Before the Monument: Human Habitation at Rainbow Bridge and Its Environs

Long before Euro-American populations occupied the Southwest, enormous numbers of Native American peoples inhabited the region. The most populous group is known today as the Navajo Nation. Theories vary as to how Native Americans, including the Navajo, came to live in the American Southwest. While some archeologists and linguists have suggested that Native Americans migrated into the region from elsewhere, the Navajo Nation contends that Navajos emerged in the Southwest. [18] To be sure, the structure of development and the patterns along which culture evolved in the Southwest is still a subject of intense debate. To better understand the controversies and conflicts that colored Rainbow Bridge NM during the 20th century, it is important to examine the patterns of population development in the area. This chapter details how various Native American and Euro-American groups came to the region surrounding Rainbow Bridge and the conflicts and compromises that marked that influx. This information is critical to understanding the dynamics of the region's contemporary cultural disputes and the National Park Service's attempts to solve some of those disputes and to generate solutions.

There are two sets of data that detail human history at Rainbow Bridge. The first is commonly referred to as "written records" or scientific data. It is based on the many 20th century archeological expeditions that explored the region. The second, known as "oral tradition," or ethnographic data, is based on the ethnohistorical data collected by contemporary cultural historians and ethnographers. Unfortunately for contemporary readers, historians have barely tapped the vast reserve of oral history available in region. The ethnohistorical set of facts makes tacit use of archeological data but never at the expense of undermining a culture's history of itself. In other words, the ethnohistorical record never takes a backseat to the archeological record. At various points the archeological data coincides with the ethnohistorical data; at other times they do not. This administrative history makes no attempt to validate or discredit the stories told by either set of records. The focus is on the relative validity of those facts to their informants. The Navajo Tribe, while conducting contemporary archeological research, is not swayed from the ontological truth of its own oral tradition and history. Nor is any non-Navajo archeologist working under the penumbra of contemporary science dissuaded from the facts as they are presented through radio carbon dating and comparative site analysis.

Numerous archeologists, amateur and professional, conducted explorations of Rainbow Bridge NM during the 20th century. However, the data acquired prior to the 1950s was incomplete at best. Early Euro-American visitors to Rainbow Bridge noted certain site remains that have not been verified by contemporary archeologists. Most of the members of the first Euro-American expedition to the bridge, led by Byron Cummings, William B. Douglass, and John Wetherill, observed what appeared to be a shrine or altar of indigenous origin at the foot of the bridge. There was no accurate analysis of what human group was represented by this structure or what its possible use may have been (see Chapter 3). Theodore Roosevelt, who trekked to the bridge in 1913, noted the presence of this altar-like structure as well as "the crumbling remains of some cliff dwellings." [19] Charles Bernheimer's 1920 and 1921 expeditions yielded only limited data regarding past inhabitants of the area. Bernheimer made no qualitative effort to categorize the sites he and his team located nor to accurately characterize the contents of those sites. Bernheimer should not be faulted for his failings; the region's limited archeological data base diminished the accuracy of archeological findings prior to the 1950s. The quality of reliable referential material available to men like Bernheimer was extremely limited. In 1932, Julian Steward, working under the guidance of the Bureau of American Ethnology, located five sites in the immediate Rainbow Bridge area. Four of those sites were eventually verified by archeologists from the Museum of Northern Arizona. The fifth site was never found, perhaps due to the inaccuracy of Steward's description. It is possible that the site lay in part of a canyon inundated by Lake Powell. [20]

The first comprehensive surveys of Rainbow Bridge NM took place in the 1950s. After Congress authorized the Colorado River Storage Project and Glen Canyon Dam in 1956, the Bureau of Reclamation contracted the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) and the University of Utah to conduct archeological surveys of all areas that would be inundated by waters impounded behind the dam. Among the many sites catalogued between 1956 and 1958, University of Utah and MNA teams located eleven sites in lower Forbidding Canyon. According to archeologist Phil R. Geib, these sites variously contained granaries, small habitations, petroglyphs, chipped hand-and-toe-hold trails, and terraced garden plots. Two sites were excavated in 1958. One contained pottery, lithic tools, and some remains of foodstuffs. Neither site revealed any concrete information about the region's prior inhabitants. [21]

In 1984, the Park Service contracted a group of archeologists from Northern Arizona University, led by Phil Geib, to conduct detailed site discovery and analysis of Rainbow Bridge NM and various surrounding areas. Within the boundaries of the monument, the team recorded eight sites and three isolated finds in a total surveyed area of seventy acres. Two of the sites were nothing more than the chiseled inscription of John Wetherill's name on rock surfaces. On the east side of Bridge Canyon lay site 42SA17328, which contained chert flakes, corn cob fragments, and flecks of charcoal. The team assigned this to a Preformative period. The chert flakes were evidence of "bifacial thinning activities," commonly understood as the production of some tool (arrowheads or axe blades) by chipping away at soft stone with a harder chipping stone. Site 42SA17331, located on the southwest side of bridge canyon, consisted of two remnant masonry walls situated in an alcove. The walls appeared to be constructed from dry-laid, unshaped Navajo Sandstone blocks. This site was assigned variously to either Kayenta Anasazi or Pueblo II-III (1050-1250 A.D.). [22] Most of the other sites were either indeterminate in their origin or assigned to 20th century Navajos, Paiutes, or Euro-Americans. But the research did add to the general body of knowledge of the monument's prior inhabitants.

The 1984 survey gathered enough data to make some basic conclusions about human habitation in the Rainbow Bridge area. Thousands of years before the 1909 Cummings/Douglass expedition, Archaic hunters-and-gatherers migrated throughout the region in search of mountain sheep and other wild foods. They certainly inhabited the Bridge Canyon region for a brief time. In the Puebloan period (700-1300 A.D.) ancestral Puebloan peoples, also referred to as Anasazi, migrated through the monument's drainage in search of food as well as suitable agricultural locations. They planted small fields of corn, beans, squash, and even cotton. These activities necessitated the construction of granaries, rooms, and small living structures. While the occupation of Bridge Canyon by ancestral Puebloan peoples probably lasted no more than 150 years, evidence of their presence is unmistakable. [23] But the evidence of habitation is older than the Puebloan period.

Some of the most conclusive proof of prehistoric occupation in the Rainbow Bridge region came in the early 1990s when Geib and others published extensive results of numerous analyses from sites in greater Glen Canyon. Those findings made use of certain terms, which are also employed in this administrative history, to assign temporal/cultural periods to human habitation. Those periods are: Paleoindian, Archaic, Early Agricultural, Formative, and Late Prehistoric/Protohistoric. These temporal/cultural periods were cross-referenced to existing archeological assignments known as Pecos development stages (e.g., Basketmaker II or Pueblo I). These published findings also used various dating systems, including references to B.P. (Before Present), C.E. (Contemporary Era), B.C.E. (Before Contemporary Era), as well as date references in terms of A.D. or B.C. All dates have been converted to A.D. or B.C. to provide readers a higher degree of consistency in interpreting the data.

The earliest evidence of human occupation in the Glen Canyon region suggests that Paleoindians occupied the area between 11,500 B.C. and 8000 B.C. These Paleoindians subsisted presumably on big game and were known for their distinctive point types. The Archaic period, 8000 B.C. to 600 B.C., was the time when corn and squash were introduced to Glen Canyon. The Early Agricultural period, 600 B.C. to 500 A.D., started after the extinction of large mammals, known as megafauna, and was characterized by the transition from hunting and gathering to the cultivation of corn and squash. The Formative period, 500 A.D. to 1300 A.D., was marked by increasing reliance on agriculture by those people designated archeologically as Puebloan and Fremont. The Formative period is further categorized by Pecos Development Stages: Basketmaker III (600-800 A.D.); Pueblo I (800-1000 A.D.); Pueblo II (1000-1150 A.D.); and, Pueblo III (1150-1300 A.D.). There is evidence to support the claim that human habitation occurred in close proximity to Rainbow Bridge well before Basketmaker 111. [24]

Excavations at sites such as Dust Devil Cave, Sand Dune Cave, and Captain's Alcove, all of which lay less than twenty kilometers from Rainbow Bridge, yielded strong evidence of habitation between 7000 B.C. and 750 A.D. Archeologists located a sandal fragment of an open-twined style at Sand Dune cave and radiocarbon dated it at 5750 ± 120 B.C. In 1970, archeologists excavated Dust Devil Cave, approximately 20 kilometers west of Rainbow Bridge. They recovered another sandal fragment nearly identical to that found at Sand Dune Cave. The radiocarbon date of the artifacts at Dust Devil Cave ranged from 6880 ± 160 B.C. (a yucca-lined pit) to 4835 ± 60 B.C. (a plain-weave sandal). At Captain's Alcove, also just west of Rainbow Bridge, archeologists radiocarbon dated charcoal from two separate hearths at between 1810 ± 75 B.C. to 495 ± 85 B.C. At Benchmark Cave, slightly closer to Rainbow Bridge than Captain's Alcove, Phil Geib and other archeologists recovered multiple open weave sandal fragments. Those artifacts were radiocarbon dated from 3860 ± 70 B.C. to 1260 ± 55 B.C. The consistency of dates for artifacts found at multiple locations near Rainbow Bridge suggests that no single site was a fluke. The dates at these sites were also consistent with similar artifactual evidence taken from more remote Glen Canyon sites such as Cowboy Cave, Bechan Cave, and Old Man Cave. [25]

The archeological data base, as it expanded throughout the 1980s and 1990s, suggested some obvious facts about Rainbow Bridge and its environs. It seems likely that numerous Paleoindians from nearby locations traveled in the Rainbow Bridge region, given that they were less than fourteen miles from the bridge. Habitation in the region surrounding Rainbow Bridge continued consistently from approximately 7000 B.C. up to 1300 A.D. Dust Devil Cave itself contained nine strata that housed artifacts spanning 9000 years of intermittent occupation. Coupled with the data collected by Geib in 1984, there was a clear record of human habitation in and around Rainbow Bridge NM that was much older than early explorers ever suspected. [26] Not surprisingly, evidence of early occupation grew ever closer to Rainbow Bridge.

In early 1993, a group of archeologists, including Geib, went to work on a project sponsored by the Navajo Nation Archeology Department. The project, which was not finished by the time this administrative history was published, was called the N16 Road Project. It involved a stretch of dirt road on the Navajo reservation between Inscription House and Navajo Mountain. Numerous Archaic Period sites were excavated along N16. Findings from only five sites have been published in Geib's Glen Canyon Revisited. As sites were found closer to Rainbow Bridge and Navajo Mountain, their artifactual evidence remained consistent with sites like Sand Dune Cave and Dust Devil Cave. The sites referred to as Windy Mesa (AZ-J-14-28) and Polly's Place (AZ-J-14-31) both contained multiple hearths that yielded charcoal samples dating to approximately 6000 B.C. The Pits (AZ-J-14-17) included multiple storage pits that contained maize fragments dating to 240 ± 60 B.C. The existence of storage pits also indicated seasonal and/or long term human occupation during the late Archaic Period. Even more definite evidence of early occupation of the Rainbow Bridge area came in late 1994.

excavated hearth
Figure 7 Excavated hearth at Rainbow Bridge, 1994 (Courtesy of Glen Canyon NRA)

Until 1994, the only site recorded that stood in close proximity to the bridge was site 42SA17329. The site, as it was originally documented, consisted of several historic petroglyphs, including a horse petroglyph of Paiute or Navajo origin (date uncertain). The remainder of the inscriptions were Euro-American in affiliation and consisted mostly of names, dates, and other drawings carved by visitors to the bridge. The name of western author and adventurer Zane Grey, who first visited the bridge in 1913, was among those inscriptions. Located on and around the east leg of the bridge, site 42SA17329 was significant in and of itself. But the site also stood directly above the purported location of the famous altar that so many early visitors noted in their descriptions of the bridge. The altar's existence was never verified by contemporary archeologists because it disappeared sometime after the 1930s. During the extremely heavy rains of early 1994, water erosion at the foot of the bridge revealed a hearth structure that was definitely not of 20th century origin. Inspection of the hearth in September 1994 revealed that it was being damaged by vandalism. The Park Service decided an emergency excavation was in order. In November 1994, Park Service archeologists Chris Goetze and Tim W. Burchett commenced excavation and radiocarbon dating procedures on the hearth's contents. After consultation with the Navajo Tribe, Goetze and Burchett added the hearth to the described parameters of site 42SA17329 (based on proximity) and received approval for an emergency data recovery program. [27]

excavated hearth
Figure 8 Excavated hearth at Rainbow Bridge, 1994 (Courtesy of Glen Canyon NRA)

The results of radiocarbon dates on the hearth were intriguing. The charcoal samples were dated at 540 ± 60 A.D., which placed the use of the hearth near the Basketmaker III period. However, Goetze and Burchett worried that this date was the result of "old wood" being used in the hearth. While this is possible, the data collected thus far from other nearby sites, including the N16 project, suggests that the Basketmaker III assignment was not too far off the mark. More importantly, even if the cultural assignment were adjusted to Pueblo II or Pueblo III, the hearth was indicative of early knowledge of the bridge and possibly reverence for it as spiritual icon. The report filed by Goetze and Burchett surmised that even if the Basketmaker III assignment was erroneous because of the "old wood" problem, "the hearth is still representative of activities including probable food processing, preparation, ceremonial, and social use of Rainbow Bridge." [28] This site, added to the dozens of others just beyond the monument's boundaries, evidences a thousand-year-old pattern of travel and occupation around Rainbow Bridge.

The archeological record tells a compelling story about Rainbow Bridge and its environs. There was definitely some human occupation of lower Bridge Canyon as late as 650 A.D. In the surrounding canyons and mesas, occupation by Paleoindians and Archaic Period humans took place as early as 8000 B.C. and continued through 1300 A.D. There is also the possibility that Paiute occupation began as early as the 12th century, though strong archeological data remains to be collected which would support such a claim definitively. However, based on the well established subsistence patterns observed by Dominguez and Escalante in 1776 (described later in this chapter), it seems probable that Southern Paiutes moved into the Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge region at least as early as the 15th century. But there is another set of facts that describe the history of human occupation near Rainbow Bridge. Those facts are based on ethnohistory and cultural sources that do not necessarily rely on hard archeological data and should not be weighed in terms of criteria established in other cultures. Local Navajo and San Juan Southern Paiutes, as well as the Hopi to the south, view their interpretation of their history with the same veracity that Euro-American historians view the archeological record. [29] In this sense, modernism and traditionalism coexist at Rainbow Bridge.

In the contemporary Rainbow Bridge/Glen Canyon region there are numerous Native American peoples of various tribal affiliation. The largest tribe in the region is the Navajo Nation. The Navajo refer to themselves as Diné, which means "the People." Linguists trace the Diné language to the Lake Athapasca region of northwestern Canada. According to linguists, Athapascan-speaking peoples, which include the Diné, began migrating south from Canada between approximately 1000 A.D. and 1200 A.D. There is still debate today as to the path their journey followed. Two major schools have developed regarding Navajo entrance into the Southwest. One group of researchers contends that the Navajo moved south across the High Plains of the Southwest just prior to Coronado's presence on the Rio Grande in 1541, crossing the Continental Divide sometime after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The other school argues that the Navajo arrived in the Southwest before 1500 A.D., having traveled south along the east side of the Rocky Mountains. The former school suggests a southern terminus point further east than that claimed by the latter school. Both groups of scholars suggest that whatever the southernly terminus of Navajo migration, the Navajos migrated west into northern Arizona and southern Utah after reaching eastern New Mexico. [30] Both schools point to Tapacito Ruin (dated 1690 A.D.) near Gobernador Knob as the earliest evidence of the southern terminus. Tapacito is marked by Navajo pottery and forked-stick hogans. [31]

The exact time of Diné arrival in the Navajo Mountain/Rainbow Bridge area is difficult to ascertain. Many archaeologists and anthropologists suggest that when Coronado's Entrada campaign arrived at the Rio Grande in 1541, the Diné were still in the process of migrating into the Southwest. [32] Mary Shepardson and Blowden Hammond advanced a similar theory in their study of the contemporary Navajo community at Navajo Mountain.[33] Consolidating broad data from various scholars, Shepardson and Hammond contend that the Navajo Mountain area contains hundreds of sites of historic importance. The earliest period represented is Basketmaker II, dating from 1 A.D. to 600 A.D. Basketmaker III and Pueblo 1, II, and III are also represented sporadically all over the Rainbow Plateau and Paiute Mesa just south of the Arizona state line. These records suggest the early presence of pre-Puebloan peoples. The ancestral Puebloan cultures, commonly referred to by archeologists as Anasazi, are represented in various sites near Rainbow Bridge. Between 1200 A.D. and 1300 A.D., the ancestral Puebloan cultures withdrew from the sites known today as Keet Seel, Inscription House, and Betat' akin. Ancestral Puebloan culture did not reappear after 1350 A.D. [34]

Archeologist Alan Downer, a member of the Navajo Nation's Historic Preservation Office, has argued that this data represents more than the southern exodus of ancestral Puebloans. Downer asserts that using a more ethnographically sensitive reading of the archeological record reveals more about Navajo origins than any interpretation filtered through the Pecos model of development. He argues against the idea that Navajos were late arrivals to the Southwest in the early 1500s. Downer suggests that the fact that Athapascan speakers were spread throughout the Southwest mitigates that linguistic element as a determinant of Navajo origin. He contends that there are now enough sites of distinct Navajo origin dating to the early 14th century to rethink the late arrival theory:

As more and more early dates continue to be added to the data, they become more and more persuasive as a suite of evidence. There are now enough dates to the early 14th century to suggest that this represents a real occupation dating to the early 1300s. These dates come from sites that are plainly Navajo—that is, looking at the material culture evidence from the sites, there is no question that these sites are Navajo—the artifacts, the architecture, and the spatial organization are distinctively Navajo. Such sites are not found anywhere along any of the posited migration routes. It is reasonable to conclude that this distinctively Navajo site structure evolved in the Southwest. Based on any reasonable reading of the archeological record, these sites can not be seen as evidence of a new ethnic group suddenly moving into the area. [35]

Downer contends that these sites are so distinctive that it must have taken several centuries for this pattern to evolve, placing Navajos in the region in the early 12th century. This evolutionary model of development reflects the Navajo Nation's firm commitment to an ethnographic reading of the archeological record. The site data Downer referred to, including carbon dating results and site excavation reports, is housed at the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Office in Window Rock, Arizona.

Contemporary archeology and ethnohistory suggests that these ancestral Puebloan peoples, who inhabited the canyons near Rainbow Bridge and Navajo Mountain, moved further south between 1200-1300 A.D. to the mesas of Arizona. They formed the Native American group known today as the Hopi. Christopher G. Johnson, in his master's thesis about the significance of Rainbow Bridge to various cultures, consolidated much of the Hopi tradition and archeological evidence as it pertains to Rainbow Bridge. Clan histories tell of a distinct link between the ancestral Puebloan peoples near Navajo Mountain and the contemporary Hopi. Hopi tradition claims that the first people to come to the southern Hopi mesas were the Snake People from Navajo Mountain (Toko' nabi). During this southern migration, certain numbers of the Snake People took up residence at places such as Moencopi and Wupatki (near Flagstaff). [36] Johnson cites Hopi oral traditions that mention Navajo Mountain as the starting point for Hopi southern migration. Beginning with the Snake People in 1150-1200 A.D., a large number of the remaining ancestral Hopi moved south to various mesas between 1250 A.D. and 1400 A.D.

Based on clan histories and certain pottery sherd analysis, the Hopi could have very likely begun their southern trek from Navajo Mountain. Hopi history tells that Coyote Peoples also came from Navajo Mountain. Rainbow Bridge also figures into the origin story of Hopi people. Johnson relates the oral history taken by A.M. Stephen in 1873 from an elder in the Snake Clan. The elder claimed that his people lived in snake skins that were suspended from the end of a rainbow. The opposite end of the rainbow touched Navajo Mountain. At some point, after the Snake people had acquired enough knowledge of Hopi lifeways from the gods, the skins were dropped from the rainbow onto the mountain, where the people emerged as men and women. [37]

In the 1930s, similar stories were told to Mormon missionaries who came into contact with the Hopi. Various Hopis told Mormon missionary Christian Christiansen that during the 17th century the Hopi used Rainbow Bridge as a refuge from invaders. The identity of the invaders is unclear, but the tradition of seeking security in Rainbow Bridge canyons is more certain. [38] During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Hopis claim that certain of their numbers fled north to the environs of Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge. Historian Richard O. Clemmer suggests that Hopi tradition locates the older forest stands on Navajo Mountain, also referred to as Tokonavi, as the home for most Hopi Katchina spirits. Clemmer also contends that Navajo Mountain, Black Mesa, and Betatakin have always been revered as part of the Hopi aboriginal homeland. [39] The probability that some Hopis came to the Arizona mesas from Navajo Mountain is very high. There is enough archeological evidence to support the claim that they were near Navajo Mountain for a time; moreover, the incidence of Hopi contact reported by both Navajos and San Juan Paiutes supports the reality of a multi-cultural community around Navajo Mountain between the 16th and 18th centuries. Even archeologist Phil Geib admits that there are dozens of sites around Navajo Mountain that may possess early Paiute or Hopi affiliation. To date, Geib says, there simply has not been sufficient testing or excavation to verify those claims absolutely. Essentially, the evidence is there waiting to be utilized. [40]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 07-Feb-2003