Located on the border of southeastern Utah and northern Arizona, Monument Valley contains some of the most dramatic rock formations on the Colorado Plateau. These large blocks of sandstone were compacted during the Paleozoic era, while the effects of differential erosion through exfoliation, wind, and water started during the Cenozoic era. The reddish hues in the sand and rock of this twenty-five-mile valley come from iron oxide, while the black streaks, or desert varnish, that course down the cliffs are manganese oxide. In addition to sandstone formations, there are also remains of volcanic activity, El Capitan being the most famous.
The valley’s earliest inhabitants include the Ice Age Paleo-Indian hunters (12,000-6,000 B.C.), Archaic hunter-gatherers (6,000 B.C.-A.D. 1), and Anasazi farmers (A.D. 1-1300). The latter group’s pottery styles reflect a regional variation known as Kayenta Anasazi. As early as the 1300s, San Juan Band Paiutes frequented the area as temporary hunters and gatherers. They named it “Valley or Treeless Area Amid the Rocks” and vested the landscape with supernatural qualities and mythological stories. For example, Totem Pole Rock is said to be a god held up by lightning, El Capitan a sky-supporter, and all of Monument Valley near Goulding’s Trading Post a hogan that faces east.
Spanish and Mexican incursion into the area was either exploratory or punitive (in their attempts to control Navajo raiders). In the early 1860s Kit Carson followed suit by sending Utes into the region to capture Navajos, who fled to peripheral areas such as Navajo Mountain. The majority of the Navajos returned from captivity in 1868 and soon confronted miners seeking silver. Ernest Mitchell and James Merrick, two of the most notable, were killed by Utes or Paiutes near monoliths that still bear the miners’ names.
In 1884 President Chester Arthur added this region by executive order to the Navajo Reservation, but white men’s interest in the area did not wane. Prospectors continued to search for silver, and in 1906 John Wetherill and Clyde Colville established a trading post at Oljeto that remained in operation for four years until Wetherill moved to Kayenta. In 1924 Harry Goulding established a post which is still in operation today, although under different management. During the 1950s Goulding encouraged the employment of Navajos in the uranium industry as well as in holding parts in the movie industry. Monument Valley became known throughout the world when it was featured in such western film classics as John Ford’s Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Cheyenne Autumn. Outside influences brought further development in the form of a Seventh-day Adventist mission and hospital, and an Episcopalian mission–both in the Oljeto area. The Navajo tribe has also established a tribal park that includes some of the most dramatic monoliths, making the area accessible to thousands of tourists who visit the region each year.
Robert S. McPherson