Rainbow Bridge
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Searching for Rainbows: The Cummings/Douglass Expedition (continued)

One fact remains troubling in light of the controversy that began after the bridge was found. In July 1909, after Cummings was already in Tsegi Canyon exploring various ancestral Puebloan sites and planning an August expedition to find Rainbow Bridge, John Wetherill mentioned the bridge to an unlikely recipient. Herbert Gregory, a geologist for the U.S.G.S., was near Oljeto conducting a hydrographic reconnaissance of different areas. Gregory must have stopped at Oljeto for supplies and encountered Wetherill. Numerous sources confirm that John Wetherill informed Gregory of the certain existence of the great rock rainbow. [99]

Figure 12 Betat' akin in Navajo National Monument (Stuart M. Young Collection, NAU.PH.643.1.100, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University)

Gregory was forced to decline any excursion to the bridge in favor of his own work for the U.S.G.S. But one is left to wonder at Wetherill's motivations in tipping his hand to a government official six weeks prior to a planned expedition with Cummings. His antipathy toward Progressive Era bureaucrats was well documented by this time, but perhaps he was beginning to soften. Including a representative of the U.S.G.S. on the inevitable trip in August would have lent an air of official sanction to the endeavor. Wetherill knew the value of including the government and the costs of trying to exclude them. This conciliatory gesture to government authority goes a long way toward explaining Wetherill's later attempts to appease William Douglass and his eventual efforts to include Douglass in the expedition to the bridge.

Keet Seel
Figure 13 Keet Seel in Navajo National Monument (Stuart M. Young Collection, NAU.PH.643.1.76, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University)

William Douglass was facing many issues related to Byron Cummings in August 1909. While in Utah to resurvey the newly created Navajo National Monument (NM). Douglass learned through others that Cummings and his party were excavating and collecting inside the boundaries of the new monument. Being the regulatory hawk that he was, Douglass was more than a little perturbed. He knew that Cummings was operating under a permit issued to Edgar L. Hewett, director of research for the Archeological Institute of America. The fact that Hewett was not present on the dig left Cummings in technical violation of the Antiquities Act. [100] Douglass's disposition was evident in his correspondence. Writing to Dr. Walter Hough of the National Museum, he said:

The expected has happened! I learn here that Prof. Hewett and Prof. Cummings went into the reserved ruins about six weeks ago . . . I fear they are excavating. If any permit was issued to them I feel certain it was done under a misunderstanding as to where they intended to work. I have just wired and written the General Land Office for authority to stop the work and prevent the removal of any archaeological remains.

P.S. Since writing the foregoing I have just seen Mr. Wetherill. He says that the GLO issued the permit to Prof. Hewett . . . He is not in the field now and Prof. Cummings is doing the work. He has obtained a very remarkable collection and unless stopped it will land in the museum of the University of Utah. [101]

Inscription House
Figure 14 Inscription House in Navajo National Monument (Stuart M. Young Collection, NAU.PH.643.1.59, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University)

Douglass informed Wetherill of his intention to stop Cummings' work at Navajo NM and to annul Hewett's permit. For Douglass, there was no room for pot-hunting in protected space. He saw little difference between pot-hunting and the work Cummings was engaged in. Wetherill rode back to Oljeto and then to Tsegi Canyon to give Cummings the bad news. [102] Before ever meeting one another, Cummings and Douglass were at odds. Cummings began to perceive Douglass as unreasonable and ill informed. Douglass already viewed Cummings as no better than Richard Wetherill.

John Wetherill tried to play the part of peacemaker. He knew that no good could come from a rivalry between federal bureaucracy and paying clients. Wetherill had a vested interest in the happiness of both parties and had more to lose than anyone if a war erupted over regulations. [103] When Wetherill arrived in Tsegi Canyon, he brought with him some mail for Cummings. A letter from friends in Bluff told that Douglass was attempting to cancel Hewett's permit and intended to confiscate any artifacts collected by Cummings. Douglass was also on his way to Oljeto to mount an expedition to the bridge. Wetherill was now in a difficult position. He had not informed Cummings of his meeting with Douglass the previous December or of his passing on knowledge of the bridge to Herbert Gregory. Wetherill knew that if they left for Navajo Mountain immediately they could beat Douglass to the trail and the bridge by four or five days. Wetherill kept his misgivings to himself and advised Cummings that they should strike out for the rock rainbow. Cummings decided that the party should return to Oljeto and wait for Douglass's party and attempt to iron out any difficulties with the GLO. Cummings had no reservations about joining forces with Douglass in an attempt to find Rainbow Bridge. After all, Cummings' primary concern was his excavation in Tsegi Canyon. Rainbow Bridge had waited all summer and could wait a few more days.

Byron Cummings' Utah Archeological Expedition consisted of Stuart Young, Neil M. Judd (Cummings' nephew), Donald Beauregard, and Cummings' youngest son Malcolm. That summer the group located two very important sites: Keet Seel and Inscription House. Wetherill already knew of Keet Seel from his brother Richard but no academic excavation or cataloguing took place before Cummings arrived. In July, Wetherill led Cummings to another set of dwellings forty miles west of Keet Seel, near Nitsin Canyon. After feasting with a Navajo named Pinieten (Hosteen Jones), Cummings was guided to a small dwelling nearby. The site was a cave pueblo of about thirty rooms that sat in a shallow cave on the southwest side of the canyon. The Wetherill's children, Ben and Ida, were with the party during this trip, as was Malcolm Cummings. Youthful curiosity led the children to explore the various rooms of the site. They removed some debris from one of the walls in a small room and discovered writing on the wall. The words appeared to the group as 1661 Anno Domini. Interpreted as the markings of some early, unrecorded Spanish expedition, Cummings named the site Inscription House. The group made a cursory survey of the area and returned to Keet Seel. [104] It was after this side journey that Wetherill returned to Oljeto and discovered that Douglass was making plans to shut down the Utah Archeological Expedition. Failing to make peace with Douglass in Bluff, Wetherill returned to Tsegi and tried to convince Cummings to head directly to the bridge. As mentioned previously, Cummings would have none of it and looked forward to confronting Douglass.

Soon after departing for Oljeto on August 7 or 8, Cummings and his group made one unscheduled stop. John Wetherill had heard from Navajos in the area of another dwelling, perhaps larger than Keet Seel. They stopped at the hogan of Nedi Cloey, whose wife addressed Louisa Wetherill. Cloey's wife learned through conversation that the group was searching for dwellings of the Old Ones. She told Louisa about a large dwelling up a side canyon that her children had found while herding sheep. Cummings gave Cloey's son-in-law, Clatsozen Benully, five dollars to guide them into the canyon. Two miles away, in a cave-like overhang at the end of an unnamed box canyon, stood Betat' akin (Hillside House). Betat' akin consisted of more than 150 rooms, with artifacts and pottery sherds scattered throughout. Because of their pressing commitments in Oljeto, Cummings and the group only stayed a little over an hour. Before leaving, however, Stuart Young took a memorable series of photographs that captured Betat' akin in an undisturbed state. [105] In this renewed framework of discovery and excitement, John Wetherill, Byron Cummings, and the Utah Archeological Expedition (UAE) returned to Oljeto and their appointment with William B. Douglass.

The party arrived at Oljeto on or about the evening of August 8 or August 9. William Douglass was nowhere to be found. Cummings insisted on waiting for Douglass to try and secure the UAE's claim in Tsegi Canyon. The collections they had made needed to be protected from confiscation. Two days later, in the late afternoon of August 10, Douglass arrived at the trading post. [106] His party consisted of John R. English, F. Jean Rogerson, Daniel Perkins, John Keenan, and Mike's Boy. Wetherill and Cummings had already spent most of the morning getting the party ready for an after-dinner departure. Inquiring about the controversy over their permits, Cummings later wrote:

Mr. Douglass was very noncommittal about what he had been doing or trying to do. He was very condescending toward our party, said he was going to find the big arch he had heard about, that his Pahute [sic] guide, Mike's Boy knew the country, had been to the bridge, and that we might go along if we wanted to. [107]

Regardless of the friction, the two groups joined forces and an overt confrontation never materialized. The combined expedition left within the hour and camped the first night on Hoskininni Mesa. Wetherill had already sent word to Nasja Begay, his Paiute guide, to meet the party at the Begay family farm. [108]

The morning of August 11 came early to everyone. The twelve-member team began traveling by dawn, heading north along Copper Canyon and toward the San Juan River. At the San Juan they turned briefly west and crossed Nokai Creek, where they made camp on the second night. On August 12, Wetherill led the tiring men up and onto Paiute Mesa. The trail was "long and dangerous" according to Neil M. Judd. [109] After crossing Paiute Mesa in the blistering heat, the trail led down Paiute Canyon and into the green river valley of Old Nasja's farm. As mentioned earlier, Cummings and Wetherill had arranged to meet Nasja Begay at his family's farm. Arriving at the farm, Begay's father, Old Nasja, informed the group that his son had tired of waiting for Wetherill and had gone to check on the family's sheep some twenty-five miles away. [110] Old Nasja sent Nasja Begay's younger brother to the sheep camp and made arrangements with Wetherill for Nasja Begay to meet the group north of Navajo Mountain.

Douglass was less than convinced that Cummings' Paiute guide would reach them in time or that he would even find the expedition. Wetherill dismissed Douglass's complaints and continued on to Navajo Mountain. Tensions mounted as Cummings, Wetherill, and Judd all noted that Mike's Boy seemed hesitant about many issues as the party progressed. He worried that untrained horses would not survive the journey, about the supply of food, and even the lack of a discernable trail. Douglass never mentioned any of these trepidations in correspondence related to finding the bridge. In any event, fearful or not, the group traveled up to the Rainbow Plateau, crossing Paiute and Desha Creek. They camped that night on the shores of Beaver Creek. [111]

Breaking camp on the fourth day the expedition made its way across vast slick rock, riding or walking up and down numerous precipices. The horses were tired, as were each of the riders. There was no obvious trail to follow and the journey was marked by men leading horses much of the way. The most daunting task of that day was locating a way around Bald Rock Canyon. Wetherill led the group down-canyon, not finding a route across until nearly the San Juan River. Once across, they had to traverse back up the west side of the canyon and resume the trail as best they could. After Bald Rock, Wetherill still had to locate a ford through Nasja Creek. Known today as the Hoskininni Steps, the expedition crossed along a set of divots pecked into the rock by some earlier travelers. The trail was so steep that one horse tumbled to the bottom of the grade. Though there were no critical injuries to any of the party, the psychological toll on every member was evident. The group finally pulled into camp in what is now called Surprise Valley. The area was well suited to their immediate needs, offering water, feed, and rest to men and horses alike. [112]

expedition party
Figure 15 Expedition party and horses west of Navajo Mountain, en route to Rainbow Bridge, August 13, 1909 (Courtesy of the National Archives, NWDNS-NJ-NJ-302. Photo by Neil Judd)

On that last night, most of the members of the expedition were exhausted and frustrated. Mike's Boy seemed more and more anxious about his ability to find the great rock rainbow. Judd, Cummings, and Wetherill all wrote later that Mike's Boy confided in them that he had never been to the bridge but only heard of it from other Paiutes. [113] This observation was later denied by members of Douglass's team. Many of the expedition members were not completely sure of what might happen next. Then came the unexpected. At approximately 10:00 p.m.. Nasja Begay rode into camp. It was "one of those unlikely but fortuitous miracles" that sometimes occur at key moments in history. [114] There was no telling how he managed to find the camp in the dark, especially given the secluded location of Surprise Valley. The entire team was elated at Begay's presence. He agreed to lead the group to the bridge the following day and lead them back to Oljeto for the sum of three silver dollars per day. [115]

The last day of exploring was short and sweet. Expedition members, bolstered by the arrival of Nasja Begay, moved lively over the trail. Spirits were high as the riders ascended Hellgate, a ravine that exited Surprise Valley. As the day progressed, Cummings and Douglass were certain they would reach the bridge. They followed the trail through the southern end of Oak Creek (near the base of Navajo Mountain) and then north along Bridge Creek. Nasja Begay indicated that the bridge was very close. At this point in the historical record, participant recollections of the journey took on a less professional tone. No doubt the rigors of the trek took their toll on everyone, including professionals like Wetherill, Cummings, and Judd. The UAE members recalled the day with gritted teeth. Judd later wrote:

Throughout the last day's travel, with the big bridge reported not far ahead, Mr. Douglass exhibited the uncontrolled enthusiasm of the amateur explorer and he was so disregardful of possible danger to the other members of the party as to arouse the disgust of all. Seemingly impelled by the hopes of the old conquistadores; apparently without consideration for his companions, he repeatedly crowded the other riders from the narrow trail as he forced his tired horse to the front. Douglass was the only member of the expedition engaged in this wild race; time and again he turned back from ledges he had unwisely followed, only to rush forward again at the first opportunity. [116]

Even Cummings contended that Douglass was in the midst of jockeying for position so as to ensure his claim to being the first white man to see Rainbow Bridge. Cummings later remembered:

After we negotiated the difficult Red Bud Pass [on the eastern side of Bridge Creek], Mr. Douglass, Mr. Wetherill, Noscha Begay [sic] and I halted in the shade of a cliff to let the packs catch up with us. Mr. Douglass turned to me and said, "I should think you would go back and look after that boy of yours. I have a boy a little older than yours, but I think too much of him to bring him into a country like this. If you thought anything of your boy, you'd stay with him and look after him." It was soon evident why Mr. Douglass was anxious that I fall behind with the packs. [117]

William Douglass recalled the day with less vitriol than his contemporaries. He wrote in his report to the GLO:

On the morning of the last day's travel, when we were told by the Indian guides that the bridge would be reached by noon, the excitement became intense. A spirit of rivalry developed between Prof. Cummings and myself as to who should first reach the bridge. The first three places of the single file line were of necessity conceded to the three guides. For three hours we rode an uncertain race, taking risks of horsemanship neither would ordinarily think of taking, the lead varying as one or the other secured the advantage over the tortuous and difficult trail. [118]

A description of the moments before rounding the bend that revealed Rainbow Bridge is gleaned from a general consensus of participant reports. It was true that Douglass was in the lead. Whether or not he saw the bridge before the others cannot be determined. Wetherill, Judd, and Cummings all remembered that when they rounded the last bend and sighted Rainbow Bridge, they stopped to admire the span. They yelled to Douglass to get him to return to their position. Yelling was necessary because William Douglass was extremely hard of hearing. [119] This does not indicate conclusively that Douglass failed to sight the bridge as he rounded the same corner at which Cummings and Wetherill chose to stop. What is certain is that Cummings, based on this observation, claimed the honor for himself as the first white man to see Rainbow Bridge. The date was August 14, 1909.

After pausing at the bend, Wetherill and Cummings dismounted and began to lead their horses toward the bridge. Douglass, on the other hand, remained mounted and spurred his horse toward the rock rainbow. Various participants wrote differing versions of what words passed between Wetherill and Cummings. Cummings contended he was satisfied with having seen the bridge first. [120] Wetherill claimed that Cummings thought it would be rude to race Douglass to the bridge and that he (Wetherill) replied, "Then I'll be rude." [121] At the sight of Douglass galloping away Wetherill remounted, spurred his horse, and raced past Douglass. Wetherill stood alone under the expanse of Rainbow Bridge for a brief moment before the other members of the expedition arrived. [122] The only reports that contradicted this version all came from William Douglass. In 1919, Douglass wrote to NPS Director Stephen Mather:

Instructions to visit the bridge were received from the General Land Office, dated Oct. 20, 1908. in compliance with which, an effort was made to reach it that year. It was then that Mr. Wetherill learned of the bridge and its approximate location. In 1909, he was employed by Prof. Cummings . . . and told Cummings of the bridge. They planned to beat me to it, but failed, as I reached it before Cummings. I made no effort to get in front of Wetherill any more than I did to get in front of the Indians. [123]

This version of the story conflicted with Douglass's original report from 1909 and the description of the race that developed between he and Cummings. More important than the issue of who saw Rainbow Bridge first, the 1919 letter revealed Douglass's belief that Wetherill learned of Rainbow Bridge from him. When Douglass went to Oljeto in the fall of 1908, Wetherill tried to convince him that the bridge did not exist. Wetherill disclaimed any knowledge of any colossal rock rainbow. Douglass went to his grave believing that he himself was the source of Wetherill's knowledge about Rainbow Bridge. Wetherill's subterfuge was certainly the root of Douglass's later conviction that Mike's Boy deserved all the credit for bringing Rainbow Bridge out of myth and into reality.

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Last Updated: 07-Feb-2003