Archeological evidence shows that people have lived in these canyons for nearly 5000 years - longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted
anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. The first residents built no permanent homes, but remains of their campsites and images etched or painted on the canyon walls tells us
their stories. Later, people we call Basketmaker built household compounds, storage facilities, and social and ceremonial complexes high on ledges in the walls of the canyons.
They lived in Small groups, hunted game, grew corn and beans, and created paintings on the walls that surrounded them.
The ancient Puebloan people followed. Predecessors of today's Pueblo and Hopi Indians, they are often called Anasazi: a Navajo word meaning ancient enemy. These Puebloan people built the multi-storied villages, Small household compounds, and kivas with decorated walls that dot the canyon alcoves and talus slopes. About 700 years ago most of these people moved away, but a few of them remained in the canyons. Later, migrating Hopi Indians and other tribes spent the summers hunting and farming here. Finally, at the end of a long journey, the Navajo arrived. They built homes in the canyon, learned new crafts and new ways of farming, and added their own designs to the walls of this ancient gallery.
Text and Graphics from U.S National Park Service Canyon de Chelly Monument Guide - GPO: 1998-432-903/60316 unless otherwise noted.
2500 - 200 BC
200 BC - 750 AD
750 - 1300 AD
1300 - 1600 AD
1700 - 1863 AD
|The Long Walk
1863 - 1868 AD
1868 - 1925 AD
|The earliest inhabitants of these canyons lived in seasonal campsites located in rock shelters in
hidden recesses. These Small mobile groups used the landscape in a variety of ways. Embarking on daily hunting and gathering expeditions, they covered familiar territories
on the canyon floor and upland plateau, which were connected by steep trails. Incised images on shelter walls or boulders may have marked the boundaries of these
Canyon de Chelly provided an abundance of food for these first settlers. Fragmentary archeological evidence reveals a diet rich in large animals such as antelope and more than 40 types of plants. Through countless foraging trips these people gained a knowledge of the canyons that eventually would be used to cultivate a new plant from the south - corn.
|About 2500 years ago a fundamental change occurred in how people lived here. Instead of
relying on hunting and gathering, a group now known as Basketmaker began the arduous process of learning how to farm. Early fields tucked into protected corners of the
canyon floor or on the mesas, were Small and subject to failure. Over time, the agricultural skills of the Basketmaker improved and led to a consistent food supply. With
agriculture as a foundation, these people became more sedentary. They built communities of dispersed households, large granaries, and rudimentary structures.
The rock paintings of the Basketmaker illustrate a revealing glimpse of families, conflict, death, ceremony, and religion. Collectively, the evidence suggests a society of extended families working together to grow and store surplus food, engage in communal activities, and explore the vast mysteries of life.
|The dispersed hamlets of the Basketmaker gave way about 1250 years ago to a new kind of
settlement - the village. Why this change occurred is unclear. Perhaps the rock shelter households became too crowded. Perhaps conflict, ever present, forced the people
to band together for defense. Another possibility is that they wanted to live closer to their agricultural fields. Finally, it may have been simply a desire to organize
themselves in new ways and follow ideas introduced from other areas of the southwest.
There were advantages and disadvantages to this new way of life. Villages offered opportunities for social interaction, trade, and ceremony. But villages also provided a breeding ground for disease, internal conflict, and the overuse of intensely farmed fields. For the next five centuries these Puebloan people experimented with village life and created a landscape that was useful and spiritual.
|The end of Puebloan life in the canyons came abruptly about 700 years ago. Prolonged drought, disease, conflict, and possibly the allure of religious ideas from the south led people to abandon Canyon de Chelly and the surrounding areas. Searching for a constant water supply, they moved south and west, helping establish villages along the Little Colorado River and at the southern tip of Black Mesa. In time, people of these villages and the groups from the Rio Grande became the Hopi. Despite the trauma of dislocation, the Hopi describe these events as part of migratory cycle rather than abandonment. Hopi traditional histories, supported by archeological remains, chronicle seasonal farming, ritual pilgrimmages, and occasional lengthy stays in the canyons. This pattern continued until the Hopi encountered the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly in the late 1600s or early 1700s.||The Navajo, an Athabaskan-speaking people, entered Canyon de Chelly about 300 years ago.
Pushed south and west by adversaries. they brought domesticated animals acquired from the Spanish and a vigorous culture tempered by centuries of migration and
adaptation. Like those before them, the Navajo used both the canyons and the upland plateau to support a diversified way of life.
Canyon de Chelly was known throughout the region for its fine fields of corn planted in the shimmerings sands of the canyon floor and for its orchards full of delectable peaches. Small settlements of three to as many as ten hogans set in open clearings gave the landscape a tranquil, perhaps idyllic, quality.
This tranquility was shattered in the late 1700s when lengthy warfare erupted between the Navajo, other American Indians, and the Spanish colonists of the Rio Grande valley. Characterized by quick raids and certain reprisal, they fought over kand and the animals grazing upon it.
As a result, the Navajo used Canyon de Chelly as a refuge, a fortress hidden in the mysterious serpentine canyons. The Navajo fortified trails with stone walls, found hiding places in the high rock shelters, and stockpiled food and water at critical points throughout the canyons. Despite all of these precautions, Spanish, Ute, and U.S. military parties penetrated the defenses leaving death and uncertainty in their wake. The testimony of these times can be found in the traditional histories of the Navajo people, in the archeological remant's of the canyon's fortified places, and in rock paintings that graphically narrate the endurance of the Navajo.
|The years of Spanish and later Mexican control of what is now Arizona and New Mexico came to
an end in 1846. During a remarkably short campaign, a U.S. military force under Stephen Watts Kearney subdued Mexican forces and claimed the territory for the United
States. Soon, Kearney offered the Navajo qualified peace and friendship in order to end decades of mutual raiding. For the next 17 years this agreement was tested by
continued conflict, broken promises, and numerous expeditions into the Navajo territory.
In 1863, Colonel Kit Carson, under orders from the territorial commander, began a brutal campaign against the Navajo. In the winter of 1864, using information gained during earlier reconnaissance expeditions, Carson's force entered Canyon de Chelly at the far eastern end and pushed the Navajo toward the canyon mouth. All resistance proved futile and most of the Navajo were killed or captured. Later that spring Carson's troops returned to Canyon de Chelly and completed its campaign of devastation. They destroyed the remaining hogans, orchards, and sheep.
A bitter and humiliating trial awaited the Navajo who survived the ordeal. Forced to march more than 300 miles - called the Long Walk - to Fort Sumner in New Mexico territory, scores perished from thirst, hunger, and fatigue. Their tears of internment at Fort Sumner were no kinder. Poor food, inadequate shelter, disease, and the unending sense of being lost in a foreign place brutalized the survivors. Finally, after four years in senseless incarceration, the Navajoj were allowed to return home in 1868 to begin the process of rebuilding their lives and their spirit.
|The Navajo faces starvation after they returned from Fort Sumner. Food distribution centers,
such as the one established at Fort Defiance, helped solve this problem. These centers and practicestaken from Spanish and Mexican traders provided a model for the
trading posts in Navajo country.
Trading posts became a focal point for Navajo communities - a place where Navajo men and women exchanged news, discussed problems, and traded rugs, jewelry and crafts for food and other staples. Traders established four posts near Canyon de Chelly. Two built by Lorenzo Hubbell in 1886 and 1900 did not last long. Fragments of Camille Garcia's early-1900s post survived into the 1960s and are incorporated into the Holiday Inn. Sam Day's trading post, built in 1902 at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, was a log structure more than 60 feet long. It has survivd more or less intact and is now part of the Thunderbird Lodge's cafeteria.