Rainbow Bridge
Administrative History
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Searching for Rainbows: The Cummings/Douglass Expedition

The push to make Rainbow Bridge and its immediate environs a national monument began immediately after it was sighted by two men: William B. Douglass, Examiner of Surveys for the General Land Office (GLO), and Professor Byron Cummings, a part-time archeologist and professor of ancient languages from the University of Utah. This chapter details the story of how these two men came together and put Rainbow Bridge on the evolving map of Utah's canyon country. The story of Rainbow Bridge's first official sighting is a controversial tale. Supporters of Douglass and Cummings have leveled numerous accusations at each other over the years. Debates over who led whom to the bridge, which Native American guide had the most immediate knowledge of the trails, and who actually sighted the bridge first are all part of the dispute. More important than the truth of individual claims to glory is the fact that having located the bridge for both science and government, the first official expedition made preserving the bridge a national concern. In addition, the controversy over who discovered the bridge in 1909, while academic at best, was only the first of many disputes that focused on Rainbow Bridge.

In his camp at Grayson, Utah, William Boone Douglass contemplated the fate of a little known stone edifice. On October 7, 1908, Douglass wrote to the Commissioner of the GLO regarding new information about an enormous, white sandstone bridge that was "like a rainbow," and which had a span greater than the Augusta Bridge in the recently created Natural Bridges NM. [76] Douglass admitted in his letter that this information came to him in early September from a Paiute Indian named Mike's Boy, also known as Jim Mike. Mike's Boy had been in Douglass's employ as an axeman. At nearly the same time, a hundred miles away in Oljeto, Utah, the same information was being passed between two other people. Byron Cummings, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Utah and an amateur archeologist, was near Oljeto excavating sites at Tsegi Canyon in August 1908. Cummings learned of the possible existence of a massive arch from John and Louisa Wetherill, who owned and operated the trading post at Oljeto. [77] Wetherill and Cummings made plans for an expedition to the bridge for the summer of 1909. Eventually, Cummings and Douglass joined forces in August 1909 and completed the first successful expedition to Rainbow Bridge.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the American Southwest was a hotbed of archeological exploration and excavation. Richard Wetherill, John's brother, discovered Cliff Palace Ruin in 1888. The Wetherill family owned a cattle ranch near Mancos. Colorado. Richard Wetherill happened upon the immense ancestral Puebloan structures at Mesa Verde while chasing stray cattle with his brother-in-law, Charlie Mason. Of all the sites at Mesa Verde, Cliff Palace was the most spectacular. All the Wetherill brothers had cursory knowledge of abandoned dwellings in the Mancos area. In 1887, Al Wetherill stumbled upon the first of the Mesa Verde dwellings, Sandal House. After 1888, the Wetherills, especially Richard, developed more than a passing interest in prehistoric cultures. Richard Wetherill believed he had discovered a "lost civilization" and was consumed with the pursuit of discovering more sites. [78]

There were very few uniform standards for American archeologists in the late 19th century. In the Southwest, archeologists without any institutional affiliations were considered buffs at best and "pot hunters" at worst. Even the idea of valuing the past for its scientific or historical merit was not well established in the American Southwest. Preservation as a guiding principle was new to the federal bureaucracy that was just starting to manage America's public lands. But the ethos was forming. The federal government began to recognize the value of preserving scenic natural resources, translating that recognition into legislation with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, as well as three more national parks in California in 1890 (Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite). In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order that reserved the Casa Grande Ruin and 480 acres around it for permanent protection because of its archeological value. More and more federal agencies, as well as professional organizations like Edgar L. Hewett's Archeological Institute of America (AIA), realized that the vast federal estate needed management and rules. The evolving disciplines of anthropology and archeology were struggling to achieve legitimate scientific status in America during the late 1880s. Protection and preservation of America's past slowly became one of the goals of post-1890s society.

In this historical context, Richard Wetherill's practice of excavating for profit, even shipping artifacts overseas with men like Gustav Nordenskiold of Sweden, was much less controversial. The debate in the scientific community over how to preserve America's scientific and cultural past was still evolving. [79] It would be unfair to disparage Richard Wetherill from the vantage point of the early 21st century. Scientific preservation was in its infancy in the 1890s, and there was no reason for Richard Wetherill to feel an innate compulsion to save his discoveries for future generations of Americans. He was not alone in his desire to profit from past. But his practices were at odds with the evolving ethos of preservation. Wetherill represented the kind of "pot hunting" that American academics and scientists were trying to move away from. That Wetherill was so successful at finding abandoned dwellings and so undaunted by the criticisms of "professionals" made him an anathema to many. The fact is that many "archeologists" of the period engaged in the same practices as Wetherill. It would be hard to describe any of them as more than collectors of artifacts. Scientific processes such as dating sites, cataloging artifacts, preserving finds for future generations, or even publishing the results of excavations were not part of the regimen for most archeologists in the late 19th century Southwest. Ironically, these same "professional" organizations were trying to distance themselves from the amateurs they thought of as detrimental to their professional prestige. Regardless of the competing ethical interests, it was the professionals and academics who had the ear of Congress.

John Wetherill
Figure 9 John Wetherill (Stuart M. Young Collection, NAU.PH.643.4.13, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University)

The push to legislate scientific preservation began in earnest at the beginning of the 20th century. Various organizations, such as the American Anthropological Association and the AIA, sought protective legislation that would prevent further export of Southwest Indian artifacts. Edgar Hewett and the AIA found an able supporter in Representative, John F. Lacey of Iowa. Lacey was known for his belief in the preservationist ethic and more importantly for his ability to translate that ethic into legislation. In 1900, Lacey introduced legislation to create a federal administrative entity responsible for managing America's national parks. Though this bill was defeated, Lacey continued to fight for the protection of valuable scientific and natural resources. In 1901, he secured passage of the first comprehensive federal legislation designed to protect wildlife, the Lacey Act, which criminalized the interstate shipment of any wild animals or birds killed in violation of state laws.

After hearing about the high rate of artifact exportation in the Southwest, Lacey met with Edgar L. Hewett to discuss preservation of American archeological sites. At their meeting, Hewett presented a draft of legislation designed to prevent further unauthorized excavation of scientifically significant sites. The legislation also included language to authorize the President to protect such sites through executive order. With some modifications, Lacey introduced the bill to Congress. Other bills similar to Hewett's had been presented to Congress before. Western senators and congressmen had always killed these bills based on their dislike of any enlarged federal presence in the West. But Lacey managed to allay these fears with Hewett's bill. He assured western legislators that the bill's intent was to preserve significant but specific sites, such as Native American cliff dwellings, and would be applied selectively based on scientific rationales. In June 1906, Congress passed "An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities." [80]

Known as the Antiquities Act, this legislation provided mechanisms to the President "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected." [81] The act required permits to be approved before archeological investigations could be undertaken inside the boundaries of a national monument. The criteria for designation as a national monument varied from location to location, but was based primarily on a site's scientific or historic uniqueness. The authorizing mechanism was also different from national park legislation, putting the power to preserve in the hands of the President rather than Congress. Federal agencies, private groups, or individuals could lobby the chief executive on a cause and effectively bypass the legislative system that encumbered the process of national park designation.

The first national monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming, was proclaimed by Theodore Roosevelt on September 24, 1906. By the end of 1908, Roosevelt had declared another sixteen monuments, including Gila Cliff Dwellings, Grand Canyon, and Natural Bridges. National monuments customarily remained under the management and supervision of the land management agency that controlled the land at the time of a monument's designation (e.g., the Forest Service, the War Department, etc.). One of those sixteen, Chaco Canyon National Monument, was designated in direct response to Richard Wetherill's homestead claim at Pueblo Bonito. [82] This did not stop Wetherill and others from expanding the search for archeological sites in the region. The non-professionals were not easily stayed.

It was not archeology alone that brought whites to the Rainbow Bridge area. Trade and goodwill played their parts in addition to exploration. By 1908, the American Southwest was still largely unexplored by whites. The area surrounding present day Rainbow Bridge was all part of the Navajo Reservation. During this period of archeological exploration in the Southwest, the Navajo were beginning to prosper economically. Utilizing "seed stock" obtained from the United States military, Navajo herdsmen raised sheep in earnest between 1870 and 1907. Despite difficult winters in 1894 and 1899, reliable estimates placed the Navajo sheep population in 1907 at 640,000 animals. [83] But the Navajo were trapped in the cyclic dependency of sheep herding. As available grazing lands reached maximum capacity, expansion in the region was limited. More and more sheep were being eaten, and less raw wool was being traded despite enormous herd populations all over the reservation. The Navajo were compelled to find another way to convert wool into revenue.

The trading posts that popped up during this period were not popular at first with Navajo elders, nor with herdsmen that found them on the edges of their grazing lands. The Navajo were not tolerant of encroachment by whites so soon after confinement at Bosque Redondo. But trading posts offered a vector of economic exchange that was unavailable before. Navajo blankets and silver work, increasingly popular among Anglos, were sold at regional trading posts and made it possible for non-herding Navajos to improve economically. [84] Trading posts helped the Navajo economy to expand beyond agriculture and livestock. During this 20th century atmosphere of survival and expansion, John and Louisa Wetherill moved to Oljeto and set up a trading post on the Navajo reservation.

John and Louisa Wetherill were experienced traders. At their first outpost, known as Ojo Alamo and located near Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico, Louisa Wetherill befriended local Navajos and began learning the Navajo language. By 1906, Louisa was fairly fluent in Navajo and well acquainted with the culture and custom of local Navajos. [85]

Byron Cummings
Figure 10 Byron Cummings (Stuart M. Young Collection, NAU.PH.643.45, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University)

In addition to running the trading post, the Wetherills tried their hand at wheat farming. Neither endeavor proved immensely profitable. Trading in the area was limited by numerous factors, and the years between 1904 and 1906 gave the Wetherills three successive wheat crop failures. During this period their family responsibilities grew with the birth of two children, Benjamin Wade and Georgia Ida. Opportunities at Ojo Alamo had run out. What brought the Wetherills to Oljeto was a combination of adventure, frustration with farming, and the desire to run a profitable trading post. The trading post business at Oljeto was built on good will. In March 1906, the Wetherills and their partner Clyde Colville, who had been with them since Ojo Alamo, feasted with two of the most respected leaders of the Navajo Tribe, Old Hashkéniinii and his son Hashkéniinii-Begay. The combination of respect shown to Navajo custom and Louisa's linguistic fluency combined to endear the Wetherills to the local Navajo tribal members. In an area quickly attracting the attention of explorers and government officials, the Wetherills established a firm presence with the "keepers of the rainbow." [86]

Like his brother Richard, John Wetherill had a deep passion for archeology and the history of prehistoric cultures. Ever since the discovery of Mesa Verde, John Wetherill was fascinated by the past hidden in the sandstone of the Southwest. Over the years he collected an enormous amount of knowledge concerning regional ancestral Puebloan sites and developed an intimate relationship with local Indians regarding the whereabouts of unexplored sites. To support his financial needs as well as to satisfy his innate curiosity, John Wetherill hired himself out as guide and outfitter to individuals and institutions seeking artifacts of the southwestern past. It was in this capacity that Wetherill came into contact with both Byron Cummings and William B. Douglass.

Byron Cummings was a typical archeologist of the early 20th century. He came to the West from New York, accepting a position as professor of Ancient Languages at the University of Utah in 1893. By 1905 he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a regular client of the Wetherills. Numerous trips in Utah's south-central desert intensified his love for archeology. He put together teams of students and semi-professionals every summer for romantic journeys into the canyons of Dinétah. Cummings was self-trained and extremely motivated toward exploring and excavating the various sites to which John Wetherill led him. These included Keet Seel, Inscription House, and Betat' akin, all on the Navajo Reservation. [87] In 1907, Cummings and his party generated a topographic map of White Canyon, Utah. The dominant features of the geography were three sandstone bridges, all larger than any previously mapped in the continental United States. After Cummings sent his map to the GLO in Washington, D.C., President William H. Taft declared Natural Bridges NM on April 16, 1908. [88] Cummings embodied the spirit of discovery still budding in American archeology. His concerns were with knowledge and the preservation of scientific data. He was little concerned with regulation or the government's place in the scope of "discovery."

William B. Douglass came to the Southwest as a representative of order and regulation, the twin themes of the Progressive Era. [89] Having worked his way up through the ranks of government service, Douglass was the epitome of the Progressive ideology. He was less concerned with the esoteric value of Native American sites or artifacts than with maintaining the integrity of the federal estate and enforcing the provisions of the Antiquities Act. Douglass believed that structures or artifacts located on federal land were federal property and were therefore subject to federal regulation. The Antiquities Act was a touchstone for Douglass: his reports to his superiors regarding the creation of national monuments at Natural Bridges, Navajo, and Rainbow Bridge were critical to their designations as protected space. Like many bureaucrats at the time working to preserve newly discovered Native American sites or unique geologic structures, Douglass still had a bad taste in his mouth regarding Richard Wetherill. The days of amateur excavation and collection were over and in the mind of a man like Douglass, any hint of their return demanded swift action. [90] Douglass knew that Cummings and Wetherill were in the Tsegi Canyon region and feared that without immediate protection, artifacts from the area would end up in various private museums or collections and the dwellings at places like Keet Seel would be permanently disturbed. In the spring of 1908, after the GLO received Cummings map of White Canyon, they sent Douglass to resurvey the area and define its boundaries more carefully. [91]

William Douglass learned of the possible existence of the great Rainbow Bridge from Mike's Boy, his Paiute axeman. If the bridge existed, Douglass's immediate concern was that site avoid despoliation by amateur explorers. Writing to his superiors, he said:

Mike's Boy [Jim Mike] says no white man has ever seen this bridge, and that only he and another Indian know of its whereabouts. This bridge is in, or near, the oil region; it will undoubtedly be discovered, and as surely located by some kind of claim. I have secured a promise that nothing be said of it until I have had time to learn the wishes of yourself on this subject. [92]

As a prudent government employee of the Progressive Era, Douglass's first concerns were focused on protection and regulation. Whatever his motivations after finding Rainbow Bridge, whatever his actions in the ensuing controversy, his initial consideration was to secure a place for the bridge within the federal estate where it could be managed and protected from all parties that could do it harm.

How Byron Cummings learned of the bridge is a more detailed story. In 1907, Louisa Wade Wetherill was on good terms with the local Navajo population at Oljeto. She had a reputation with her customers for fairness in trade and was considered a healer by many. Her fluency in the Diné language also improved her standing and her ability to gather information. Her maternal nature and stalwart demeanor endeared her to most of her acquaintances. In early 1907, a Navajo named One-Eyed Salt Clansman (Áshiihí bin áá' ádiní) had just returned to Oljeto from guiding a party of whites into the White Canyon natural bridges. [93] One-Eyed Salt Clansman knew of the Wetherills' passion for ancient places and people and inquired about this with Louisa. Author Frances Gillmor, in consultation with Louisa Wetherill, related the story of Louisa's knowledge of the bridge:

The One-Eyed Man of the Salt Clan came to Ashton Sosi [Louisa Wetherill, "Slim Woman"] with a question.

"Why do they want to go?" he demanded. "Why do they want to ride all that way over the clay hills to see—just rocks?"

"That is why they go," Ashton Sosi explained. "Just rocks in those strange forms, making bridges. There is nothing like them anywhere else in the world."

The One-Eyed Man of the Salt Clan considered the matter.

"They aren't the only bridges in the world," he objected. "We have a better one in this country."

"Where is there a bridge in this country?" asked Ashton Sosi.

"It is in the back of Navajo Mountain. It is called the Rock Rainbow that Spans the Canyon. Only a few go there. They do not know the prayers. They used to go for ceremonies, but the old men who knew the prayers are gone. I have horses in that country and I have seen the bridge." [94]

One-Eyed Salt Clansman died in the fall of 1907, before he could guide John Wetherill to the bridge. There are no sources that suggest why an expedition to the bridge was not mounted in the summer of 1907. Gillmor and Louisa Wetherill contend that in the early spring of 1908, Clyde Colville, partner to the Wetherills, employed Luka, Man of the Reed Clan, to guide Colville into the canyons north of Navajo Mountain. After crossing difficult creeks and canyons, Luka admitted he could not find the trail. Even after climbing the northwest slope of Navajo Mountain, Colville never managed to sight the bridge. [95] Rainbow Bridge remained hidden for a few more months.

In August 1908, the Wetherills informed Byron Cummings of One-Eyed Salt Clansman's story of the rock rainbow. Again, there is no explanation why the Wetherills waited until the end of Cummings' latest expedition to pass on this vital information. Nevertheless, Cummings and John Wetherill made definite plans for a summer 1909 expedition to find the bridge. But in the early winter of 1908, William Douglass appeared at Oljeto. That October, Douglass had received approval from the GLO to search for the bridge. He had arranged to meet Mike's Boy at Oljeto soon after breaking camp in Bluff, Utah. Douglass arrived at Oljeto on December 4, 1908. He intended to hire John Wetherill as an outfitter and use Mike's Boy as a guide. But poor supplies, bad weather, and the failure of Mike's Boy to arrive on time combined to cancel the trip. Wetherill also engaged in some slight subterfuge, trying to convince Douglass that Mike's Boy was either wrong about the existence of the bridge or misinformed about its location. [96] In the controversy which erupted after 1909 over who should receive credit for finding the bridge, Wetherill's ploy worked against him. Denying the bridge's existence to Douglass made it seem that any knowledge of the bridge flowed from Mike's Boy to Douglass to Wetherill. Wetherill vehemently denied this assertion in later years. Regardless, Douglass was undeterred by Wetherill's criticism of Mike's Boy and announced he would return the following year for another attempt. By extension, Wetherill knew in December 1908 that Douglass possessed knowledge of the bridge and would try to reach it as soon as the weather permitted. [97]

Louisa Wetherill
Figure 11 Louisa Wetherill (Stuart M. Young Collection, NAU.PH.643.4.14, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University)

In the winter of 1909, Louisa Wetherill made numerous inquiries of her trading post customers about the location of the bridge and about Indians who might serve as guides. She received an unexpected response in the early spring of 1909. Nasja Begay and his father, both Paiutes, came to do business at Oljeto. They claimed to have seen the bridge only months earlier while searching for stray horses. They agreed to guide the Wetherills to the bridge in the coming summer. [98] It was to be a busy summer for Cummings, Wetherill, and Douglass.

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Last Updated: 07-Feb-2003