Just after dawn, an army of nearly four hundred troops left Fort Marcy and marched through the slumbering capital of Santa Fe. They were aiming for the blue swell in the western distance, a ragged volcanic massif known as the Jemez Mountains. On this crisp morning in the late summer of 1849, the men moved through high desert air that was radiantly clear and cool, the night monsoons having swept away the atmospheric dust. The Jemez were twenty crow-miles away, rising steeply from the parched mesas beyond the green declivity of the Rio Grande, but in the morning freshness, the mountains seemed close enough to touch. They were splashed with piñon and juniper, and, in the upper reaches, cloaked in distinct bands of ponderosa and quaking aspen. Long fingers of hardened lava reached out from the mountain’s eroded flanks, a series of narrow escarpments canted in the runoff patterns of an ancient eruption. For the soldiers now leaving Santa Fe, the Jemez loomed as a magnificent but vaguely unsettling landscape. Summer’s lightning storms nearly always came from that direction; in the afternoons the clouds would build and blacken on the Jemez, and then tails of virga would drop from the mounting thunderheads as they snarled east toward Santa Fe, igniting the evenings with jags of electricity.
Beyond the Jemez volcano was a kind of American Canaan, a wilderness, pure and mythic, stretching out for hundreds of miles. It was the country of the Navajo. On this morning—August 16, 1849—the U.S. Army was striking for the first time into the very heart of the Diné world, in what would be the first true reconnaissance of the Navajo lands. Three years had passed since Kearny’s conquest and Doniphan’s initial foray into the Navajo country, and little had changed in the new territory with respect to the wild tribes. The state of terror that Kearny vowed to “correct” still persisted, even though the United States was spending $3 million a year to maintain an army of Indian-fighters in New Mexico. The raiders continued to come in the night, and they stole with impunity, sometimes right under the noses of American soldiers—Jicarilla Apache, Mescalero Apache, Ute, Comanche, Kiowa, all the wild tribes, either singly or in various shifting alliances.
But the Navajos remained the most cunning and brazen of all. That spring, thefts and murders had reached a new frenzy: Scores of raids were reported up and down the Rio Grande, and many thousands of head of sheep had vanished. (In truth, many of these raids were carried out by Apaches, Utes, and other tribes, but the Navajos usually got the blame.) The new Indian agent to the New Mexico Territory, a Georgian named James Calhoun, attempted to describe the deepening fears to the commissioner of Indian affairs in Washington. “The Navajos commit their wrongs from a pure love of rapine and plunder,” Agent Calhoun wrote. “Not a day passes without hearing of some fresh outrage, and the utmost vigilance of the military force in this country is not sufficient to prevent murders and depredations. There are but few so bold as to travel alone ten miles from Santa Fe.”
The younger Navajo warriors had apparently decided that Narbona was wrong, that these “New Men” were no different from the Spanish and Mexicans before them, or at least that their differences were of no consequence to the patterns of Navajo life. The conquerors had bigger guns, to be sure, and better organization. But the Americans with their cumbersome equipment and comical uniforms were powerless to stop the fleet raiders. The soldiers couldn’t successfully pursue the Navajo horsemen into their mountain hideouts; in most cases the Americans couldn’t even find Navajo warriors, let alone punish them.
The Navajos had completely ignored the treaty Alexander Doniphan had concluded at Bear Springs in 1846. Agent Calhoun believed that the Navajos and other “wild Indians of this country have been so much more successful in their robberies since General Kearny took possession of the country that they do not believe we have the power to chastise them.” Then Calhoun slyly posed the question: “Is it not time to enlighten them on this subject?”
Apparently it was. Leading this ambitious expedition into Navajo country was the new military governor of New Mexico, a career soldier with the impeccably American name of John Washington. Colonel Washington had arrived in Santa Fe in October, fresh from Monterey, California, where he had been briefly posted. Fifty-three years old, he was a severe Virginian with a taut mouth and wispy eyebrows that sketched across the prominent forehead of his tall, thin face. In the one oil portrait that remains of him, Washington’s complexion appears exceedingly fair, and his pale eyes have a quality of hard and frosty perceptiveness. A West Pointer with advanced training as an artilleryman, Washington had fought the Seminoles in Florida, participated in the forced removal of the Cherokee to Oklahoma, and recently won commendations for valor in the Mexican War at the decisive Battle of Buena Vista. He had briefly served as military governor of Saltillo. Little is known about Washington’s personality, but he was a seasoned soldier with a sober disposition. In his military correspondence he was given to making stern pronouncements in an incongruously stately English penned in his delicate hand.
The primary purpose of Washington’s Navajo expedition was military in nature: to impress the Diné people with the reach and might of the American army, to punish them for their continuing raids, to recover stolen livestock and Mexican slaves, and, if possible, to compel the Navajos to sign a lasting treaty. As he starkly put it in one letter, Washington believed that ultimately the Navajo must learn to “cultivate the earth for an honest livelihood, or be destroyed.” He insisted that this tribe of nomadic herders and horsemen would have to settle down in permanent villages and become sedentary farmers, much like the Pueblo Indians. But before that goal could be accomplished, Washington wrote, the Navajos must “become acquainted with our national strength.”
Colonel Washington was appalled and frustrated by the spring rampages of the Navajos, and in his army correspondence one can detect his steadily rising ire. “Within the last three weeks,” he reported in July, “inhabitants have been murdered, and a considerable quantity of their stock run off. From their numbers and formidable character, greatly increased exertions have become necessary to suppress them.” Agent James Calhoun, in a letter to Indian Affairs superiors, wrote that Colonel Washington was determined not to “conciliate the tribes who have caused the recent troubles in this territory. The Indians, presuming upon their knowledge of safe retreats in the mountains, and our entire ignorance of all avenues, are not to be subjected to just restraints until they are properly chastised.”
And so the chastisement would begin in earnest. Most of Washington’s troops were Missourians, some of the same young volunteers who had left Fort Leavenworth three summers earlier with General Kearny. The Missourians were toughened soldiers now, having marched several thousand miles without respite, and having tasted battle in the thorny chaparrals of Mexico, where they were sent after the conquest of Santa Fe. Schooled by experience rather than any formal training, and still wearing the threadbare gray trousers and blue crush caps they had started out with, this tatterdemalion army of volunteers was, despite all appearances, hardened, disciplined, and skilled. Plowboys had become men—wiser, more cautious, less impressionable. They were proud of their wanderings, and liked to compare their foot slog through hostile country to the march of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand Greeks following the Peloponnesian War. Five hundred of the Missourians had returned to Santa Fe in October, marching from Mexico back up the Camino Real, and then into California, and finally, with Colonel Washington, marching for seventy-seven days across the country back to New Mexico—yet another journey of a thousand miles to add to their raft of adventures. Several months later, when Col. Washington proposed this march into Navajo country, the expedition must have sounded to them like a mere stroll.
Now on this vivid August morning, as breakfast fires began to issue a low carbon haze over the compounds of Santa Fe, Washington’s men headed west toward the Jemez with four companies of regular infantry, most of whom carried Model 1841 muzzle-loading percussion-lock rifles. Hundreds of horses and pack mules were burdened with wooden ammunition chests and all manner of military supplies, which included linen tents, scores of oil lanterns, medical equipment, and enough rations to feed five hundred men for a month. Astride his horse, Colonel Washington wore a long blue jacket and a white cloth belt set with a gleaming brass buckle, his crisp uniform trimmed in gold braid. Traveling with Washington and his Missourians were several high-ranking civilian officials, including Indian Agent James Calhoun, who would soon become governor of New Mexico Territory. The expedition was further reinforced with several companies of Mexican volunteers and mounted militia, and fifty-five Pueblo Indians who had been selected to serve as guides, picket guards, and scouts. In his considerable arsenal, Colonel Washington had three mountain howitzers and one six-pound field gun, the formidable, bronze-barreled pieces of rolling artillery widely known by Indians as “thunderwagons.”
As the August sun eased over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to warm their backs, Washington’s men followed the westering course of the Santa Fe River past the barrio of Agua Fria. The thunderwagons creaked behind them, pulled by straining teams of mules.
Although it was chiefly a military campaign, Washington’s expedition had a secondary and ultimately far more significant purpose: to survey and explore the Navajo terrain and to piece together its first reliable map. In 1849, Navajo country was terra incognita. Only small swaths around its edges were known—and they were “known” only in the heads of a few old traders and trappers who had passed through in their desultory wanderings, but had rarely written anything down. The Spanish had led punitive raids into Navajo lands, but had not bothered with making detailed or accurate maps. The Navajo country was a trackless world as big as New England, with its own snowy mountain ranges and great drainages, its own nomenclature and quirks of geology. Because it was so vast and so unknown, many legends had welled up around it over the centuries, of hideous monsters, of beautiful temples and impregnable citadels. Like the people who populated it, Navajo country remained a tantalizing mystery to the United States government, a question mark in a void on a map that did not yet exist.
And so a young West Pointer named James Hervey Simpson, a member of the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers, was assigned to Washington’s party. Simpson’s task was considerable: to map and measure every slow inch of a monthlong reconnaissance. Leaving Santa Fe with his barometers and sextants and viameters, Simpson was to puncture a world that had for centuries been shrouded in mist—to affix miles and temperatures, take soil samples and animal specimens, and generally fill in the vast blanks in the nation’s understanding of the strange kingdom it had (on paper, at least) conquered. Simpson was also expected to keep a thorough daily log of the journey; the extraordinary document he would write longhand in pen and ink, Navaho Expedition: Journal of a Military Reconnaissance, would become one of the classics of Western exploration literature.
First Lt. James Simpson was a hirsute gnome of a fellow—“dismayingly mousy-looking” in the words of one historian. A devout Episcopalian, Simpson could be, for a young man of thirty-six years, an annoying fuddy-duddy. He had been a child prodigy, entering West Point from his native New Jersey at the age of fifteen. From early on he showed an engineering sensibility and spent much of his young army career undertaking drainage projects in the Florida Everglades and then working on lighthouses and harbor improvements in remote corners of the Great Lakes. Before coming to Santa Fe, he had never been west of the Missouri, and the East was where he preferred to stay. He absolutely hated the Southwest—hated the “nauseating” food, the “nakedness” of the long brown vistas, the untidiness of the Mexican villages, and the fine grit that seemed to work its way into everything. He wrote that the “sickening-colored aspect” of the New Mexico terrain gave him “a sensation of loathing.” Perhaps it was because he’d had to leave his new bride back in Buffalo, but throughout Simpson’s observations, a distinct whine of petulance is heard.
And yet behind all this fussiness, one is struck by the deepening intensity of Lieutenant Simpson’s interest, his slow-blooming fascination over an utterly foreign landscape and its equally foreign inhabitants. In spite of himself, Simpson is amazed by everything he claims to detest—the hard-baked geology, the desert flora and fauna, the odd customs of the people. The more bizarre the country becomes, the more Simpson seems to long for his familiar lighthouses back on the Great Lakes—and yet, at the same time, the more animated his prose becomes. Simpson would later enjoy an eminent career as an army engineer, eventually becoming a brevet general, but the rest of his life story, according to a sympathetic biographer, “frankly makes dull reading.” The New Mexico Territory was what Simpson hated most, and yet New Mexico, in the late summer of 1849, was the place where he made his lasting mark.
Simpson’s daunting task was made much easier by the presence of two first-rate explorers who happened to be in Santa Fe when the expedition was getting under way and happily signed on for the ride. The multitalented Richard and Edward Kern were two brothers from a large, prominent family back in Philadelphia. Edward—or “Ned,” as he was known—was an expedition artist and topographer whose life had already intersected with the history of westward expansion. Ned had accompanied John Fremont and Kit Carson on Fremont’s third exploratory. Later, as a temporary commander of a fort near Sacramento, Kern had played a role in rescuing survivors of the Donner Party after their disastrous sojourn in the Sierra Nevada snowdrifts during the winter of 1846–47.
Ned Kern was a tall, lanky man of twenty-five, with curly red hair and a mercurial temperament to match. In photographs, his face appears drawn and melancholy, but he had a sly sense of humor that expressed itself in endless puns and practical jokes. Ned was an epileptic, and perhaps because of his medical predicament he seemed to find solace in the quiet of his western travels, “away from civilization and brandy,” as he put it. Ned Kern seemed happiest when he was in the wilderness, with his lead pencils and his watercolor tins, his transits and chronometers, closely documenting his experiences. At a time when field photography was in its infancy, expedition artists still held great importance; Kern’s illustrations, printed in Fremont’s reports and in popular journals, provided the reading public with some of the very first images of the American West.
Richard Kern, the older of the two bachelor brothers, was also an artist of note from Philadelphia. Influenced by the Hudson River School of painting, Richard (“Dick,” as he was nearly always called) had taught drawing at the prestigious Franklin Institute, and he’d had a number of important exhibitions of his work. Dick Kern also had a scientific cast of mind. An amateur botanist and ornithologist, he had done numerous illustrations for technical and scientific journals, a meticulous skill that had won him membership in the exclusive Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. He was heavier-set than Ned, with long, swept-back hair, a thick beard, and a rogue’s smile that was infectious. Dick Kern wasn’t much for hygiene or personal tidiness—a friend from Philadelphia sent him a comb by mail to New Mexico, acknowledging Kern’s “antipathy to its use” but trusting that “it may gain you favor in the eyes of the senoritas.” On his travels, Kern always brought along his flute and liked to drink whiskey. He once described his chief preoccupations as “the library, the festive board, the music room, the rambling study, the love of nature, and the gallery.”
One of the weirder projects that Dick Kern wanted to pursue while he was out west was to collect Indian skulls. Back in Philadelphia he was good friends with Dr. Samuel George Morton, an anatomy professor and an eminent physical anthropologist who was among the nation’s leading scientists. In his 1839 book Crania Americana, Dr. Morton had argued that American Indians constituted a distinct race and that their “aptitude for civilization” was “of a decidedly inferior cast when compared with those of the Caucasian and Mongolian races.”
To prove his point, he had been collecting and comparing the crania of Native Americans for many years, often obtaining his specimens by grave-robbing. Although Dr. Morton had amassed more than four hundred skulls from tribes all over the country, his collection had conspicuous gaps: He did not own any examples from the newly conquered Southwest. Dr. Morton had been a generous supporter of Kern at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and he had often invited the young artist to the salon he held every Sunday afternoon at his house. Perhaps it was at one of these convivial sessions that Kern promised his patron that he would bring back a few choice skulls to add to his growing boneyard.
Unlike Lt. James Simpson, Richard Kern loved New Mexico. He delighted in painting its diaphanous horizons, its unexpectedly intense colors, and, in his words, its “mountains high and bold.” But as someone who came from a well-to-do family back east, he was dismayed by the prevailing poverty. Often in his picturesque landscapes, whether rendered in oil or washes or pencil, he turned his gaze away from the decrepitude of the villages. “In all New Mexican towns,” he wrote, “the distant view is the best, as it swallows all the dirt and misery.”
The Kern brothers had been holed up in Taos for the summer of 1849, living in a stable and recovering from an ordeal in the mountains that had nearly killed them. Fremont’s “fourth expedition,” as the ill-fated mission was known, was a wintertime probe into the San Juan Mountains, the craggy range in what is now southern Colorado. The Fremont expedition was a debacle of the first order—“one of the most harebrained exploring expeditions ever undertaken in this country,” in the words of one prominent Southwest historian.
The mission was conceived in part as a way to rehabilitate Fremont’s tarnished career. In California two years earlier, Stephen Watts Kearny’s quarrel with Fremont had escalated into a full-blown standoff. Refusing to recognize Kearny’s higher authority and turn the California governorship over to him as ordered, Fremont flagrantly disobeyed the chain of army command—he even challenged one of Kearny’s officers to a duel. Finally losing all patience with his subordinate’s intransigence, Kearny arrested Fremont and dragged him in irons to Washington, D.C., to stand trial for “mutiny, disobedience, and conduct prejudicial to military discipline.” The trial was a feeding frenzy for the media and a political melodrama of the first order. Senator Benton roared his displeasure at the whole affair, arguing that his son-in-law had been unfairly caught in the crossfire of an interservice rivalry between a jealous army and a jealous navy. In the end, Fremont was convicted on all three counts. Heeding the court’s recommendation for a lenient sentence, however, President Polk ordered Fremont to return to army service. Fremont refused. Humiliated, depressed, bitter, and in poor health, he resigned in a huff and went on a damage-control offensive to restore his good name.
General Kearny, meanwhile, returned to the front, serving in Veracruz and then ably holding the post of military governor of Mexico City, which the United States occupied in the last lurching months of the war. But Kearny contracted yellow fever—or the vomito, as it was more graphically known in Mexico—and soon returned to Missouri to convalesce at home with his pregnant wife Mary and their growing family. There is evidence that Fremont, still stewing over his court-martial, visited Kearny in St. Louis with the intention of dueling him, only to find the general on his deathbed. It is not known whether Kearny was dying of the fever itself or complications arising from it, but if it was the former, then Kearny suffered an excruciating death. The whites of his eyes would have turned yellow, his skin a strange luminous gold, and in his last hours he would have bled from his eyes and gums and thrown up a black vomit caused by massive internal hemorrhaging.
Kearny, only fifty-four years old and having recently been promoted to major general, passed away on October 31, 1848, at the Missouri country home of his close friend Meriwether Clark. Only a few weeks earlier, Mary had given birth to their last child, a son named Stephen Watts Kearny.
With his nemesis freshly in the ground, Fremont then hatched his plan for a Fourth Expedition. Goaded as always by Benton, Fremont was determined to find a route across the Rocky Mountains for a transcontinental railway that would connect St. Louis to the Pacific. The only way to demonstrate that such a route was feasible, Fremont insisted, was to traverse it in the dead of winter. He confidently proclaimed that he would find a suitable pass and thus prove to skeptics that the Rocky Mountain snows did not pose an insurmountable obstacle for a railroad.
Fremont’s project was fueled by pure hubris; he intended to follow the 39th parallel up and over the serrated San Juan Mountains, which rose more than fourteen thousand feet and were frequently lashed by brutal winter storms. He ignored the large chunks of ice floating in the Arkansas River as he assembled his expedition at Bent’s Fort that fall. In November, with thirty-three men in his party, Fremont pressed on toward the San Luis Valley and the snowy San Juan Mountains. By all signs—including the solemn prognostications of friendly tribes they encountered—the winter of 1848 was shaping up to be unusually bitter. Fremont scarcely noticed.
For his guide he had wanted Carson, but instead hired a veteran trapper named Bill Williams, a sixty-two-year-old mountain man who was recovering from a recent Indian fight that had left him with a gunshot wound in the arm. Williams was a likeable crank with vast experience in the Rockies. A former itinerant Methodist preacher legendary for his gambling and drinking binges and his strange and sometimes gruesome eating habits (he especially liked to dine on the raw leg of a fetal calf), Williams claimed to know “every inch” of the San Juans, “better than Fremont knows his own garden.” He was a friend of Carson; the two had ridden thousands of miles together during their trapping days. According to one contemporary, Williams had an “old coon’s face that was sharp and thin,” and he spoke in a “whining voice that left the hearer in doubt whether he was laughing or crying.” His rifle, it was said, “cracked away merrily, and never spoke in vain.” Williams was skinny as a rail and his red beard glistened with grease. He had an odd habit of mumbling to himself as he bounced along the trail.
Although Williams’s intimate knowledge of the mountains could not be gainsayed—indeed, a number of peaks and streams in the Rockies bore his name—some contemporaries suggested that this outrageous man at times lacked the keen judgment and instinctual caution of Kit Carson. Carson seemed to have an uncanny sixth sense for how to avoid calamity. On this ill-fated mission, he would be sorely missed.
Ned and Dick Kern, caught up in Fremont’s peculiar charisma, had happily signed on as expeditionary cartographer and artist, respectively. They had even cajoled their brother Ben, a respected Philadelphia physician, to join them as the expedition’s medical doctor. Trusting Fremont, the three Kern brothers failed to see the folly of the expedition for several weeks as they marched headlong into the formidable drifts of the Rockies. But then the Kerns began to entertain doubts. Of Fremont’s reckless drive, Dick Kern would later write: “With willfully blind eyes of rashness and self-conceit and confidence, he pushed on.” As November slid into December, the snows kept coming. For weeks the party could not budge. “We all looked like Old Winter,” Dick wrote. “Icicles an inch long were pendant from our moustache and beard.” One night Ned’s socks froze so completely that they had to be shaved off his legs.
By late December their predicament turned truly desperate. Fremont’s starving mules took to eating each other’s manes and leather bridles and then collapsed in the impenetrable drifts. The men ate nothing but their dying pack animals and waited in vain for the weather to break. Ben Kern wrote in his diary that on the morning of December 18, he awoke beneath eight inches of fresh snow piled on his bedroll. “I told Dick the expedition was destroyed,” Ben noted, “and if we all got to some settlement with our lives we would be doing well.” Finally even Fremont saw that the expedition was hopeless, but by then it was nearly too late. His men had begun to freeze to death, and, with the mules all eaten, they listlessly foraged for odd scraps of protein. Dick Kern jotted in his diary, “Too weak to move. We looked for muscles [sic] & snails & earth worms—found none.” Ned Kern later recalled “gradually sinking into a sleep…I felt happy and contented sitting nearly all day by the fire in a kind of stupor…careless of when my time would come—for I was expecting it and in anticipation of it had written and closed all my business.” By the time they were found by a rescue party hastily organized by Kit Carson and other citizens from Taos, eleven of Fremont’s thirty-three expeditioners had died, either of starvation or exposure. As in the Donner tragedy, several of the deceased were almost certainly eaten.
The twenty-two frostbitten survivors straggled back to Taos, where some of them stayed at Kit Carson’s home. Fremont himself was so exhausted that he had to be carried inside his former guide’s house. Carson and Josefa nursed Fremont back to health, plying him with hot chocolate and listening to the shocking story of his disaster in the mountains. The ever-loyal Carson seemed constitutionally incapable of judging his former commander, nor was he disposed to second-guess the decisions of his old friend Bill Williams. But Carson did later suggest, with characteristic wryness, that Williams, with his fiercely strange eating habits, was not a man likely to shy from cannibalism. “In starving times,” Carson said, “no man ever walked in front of Bill Williams.”
Fremont, however, refused to accept any responsibility for the fiasco, or for the deaths of the eleven men he had led into the mountains—indeed, his letters show not a trace of remorse. Instead, he placed the blame entirely on Williams, while calling many of the subordinate members of the expedition cowards and incompetents. Gathering his energies and his narcissistic pride, Fremont decided to strike out for California using the tried-and-true southern route, along the Gila River to the Colorado—the same route General Kearny and Kit Carson had used in 1846. There would be no railroad through the San Juans; the eventual route would have to pass much farther south.
The three Kern brothers begged off. They’d had enough of John Charles Fremont and his vainglory. They waited in Taos for the Rocky Mountain snowpack to melt. Then, in March, Ben Kern and Bill Williams returned to the San Juan Mountains to recover a cache of valuable paraphernalia they had left behind not far from the frozen headwaters of the Rio Grande—medical equipment, topographical instruments, art supplies, and the like. The two men succeeded in finding their cache, but then were set upon by bandits. The mystery was not entirely solved, but evidence suggests that they were murdered by Ute Indians, among whom some articles of the expedition’s equipment were later discovered. According to one account, Williams was “found sitting bolt upright against a tree, frozen stiff and half covered” in snow with a “Ute bullet through his body.” Ben Kern’s corpse was never recovered.
Still shocked by their brother’s probable murder—and despising John Fremont more than ever—Ned and Dick Kern recuperated in Taos, taking lodging for a time in “a suite of rooms that you would say would make capital stabling,” Ned wrote in a letter to his sister back in Philadelphia. “But,” he reasoned, “’tis among the best in town, and sociable too for we sometimes receive visits from the Donkeys.” In early summer the two destitute brothers walked the seventy miles down to Santa Fe to look for work. Ned described Santa Fe as “a tawny adobe town with a few green trees, set in a half-circle of carnelian-colored hills, that and no more,” but he and Dick set to work sketching the strange capital and its six Catholic churches. As luck would have it, the Kerns immediately fell in with Lieutenant Simpson, who employed them as draftsmen and scientific illustrators. Soon they found themselves hired on for another expedition into the wilderness—one on which they hoped the stars this time would smile.
Colonel Washington and his men continued marching west along the Santa Fe River, then turned south, dropping steadily into the broad valley of the Rio Grande. The pack animals were skittish and ornery, as they often were when they first hit the trail. “Many of the mules being wild, much trouble ensued,” Dick Kern jotted in his journal. The expeditioners crossed the dry, sandy bed of the Rio Galisteo and established camp at Santo Domingo Pueblo, an old settlement of about eight hundred Indians.
Dick Kern was struck by how “beautiful and fertile” the Rio Grande Valley was around Santo Domingo. “It is harvest time,” he noted, “and the Indians are carrying their wheat in bundles on their heads to the thrashing place and singing their wild songs.” The Indians at Santo Domingo were friendly to the soldiers and eagerly took them in. Lieutenant Simpson watched a pueblo woman making a kind of tortilla, and she offered him one to eat. Put off by the “perspiration rolling from her face in streams,” the fastidious eater reluctantly tasted the freshly baked flat bread. “Although I was exceedingly hungry,” he wrote, “it did not fail to leave at the stomach a sensation of nausea.”
Washington’s men left Santo Domingo the next day and forded the muddy Rio Grande, in which two of their supply wagons became deeply mired. They continued on for twenty-six miles, bearing northwest, through dry country “utterly worthless for cultivation” in Simpson’s estimation, until they came to another Indian settlement known as Jemez Pueblo. Lieutenant Simpson was not much impressed with the place. He noted the “unsightly appearance” of the settlement, with its “ragged-looking goat enclosures.” The Roman Catholic church was a sagging adobe affair that “was evidently wasting away under the combined influence of neglect and moisture.” Inside the musty church flitting and diving from the rafters were innumerable swallows that “seemed to be perfectly at home.” Cryptically, a human skull and a pile of bones were placed beside the pulpit. Simpson was impressed, however, by a large painting hanging on the back wall of the chancel, a beatific image depicting San Diego bearing the cross. “At present it is considerably defaced, but the touches of a genuine artist are yet visible upon it,” Simpson wrote. “None but a true son of the muse could have thrown into the countenance the expression of beautiful sadness with which it is radiant.”
All around Jemez Pueblo, the grounds were covered in orchards of apricot and peach, and along the Jemez River were “patches of good corn and wheat.” A few miles from camp Simpson spotted a gray wolf “shying off very reluctantly from us.” Curiously, not far from the pueblo, strung along the river, were dozens of empty houses and compounds, even an abandoned copper smelting furnace. According to Simpson’s guide, these ruined adobe buildings were “once inhabited by Mexicans who had deserted them from fear of the Navahos.” Less than a month earlier a Catholic pastor, Vicente Garcia, had been murdered by Navajo raiders.
The precariousness of life here was all too apparent. Jemez was situated on the front lines of the Navajo wars; over the centuries the vulnerable pueblo had suffered a disproportionate share of devastation at the hands of the Navajo raiders. During the latter part of the sixteenth century, the Navajo had nearly wiped out the Jemez population, and sometime in the seventeenth century a large number of Jemez fled the region altogether, resettling in a safer location many miles away. Other Jemez Indians joined forces with or were absorbed by the Navajo and eventually intermarried with them, their offspring forming the nucleus of a distinct Navajo clan, the ma-ii deeshgiizhnii.
Colonel Washington made camp just north of the pueblo. It being the beginning of harvest season, the Jemez people were celebrating the Green Corn Dance, and many of Washington’s men wandered over from camp to watch the ceremony from the rooftop of one of the dwellings. In his journal, Simpson described the movements of the dancers in minute detail—their feathered headdresses, their gourd rattles, their costumes of turtle shell, antelope feet, and fox skin. But, for all its energy and sense of spectacle, the lieutenant was not much impressed by the Jemez dance, either. “The movements in the dance,” he sniffed, “differed but slightly from those of Indians generally.”
The governor of Jemez, whose name was Hosta, gave Simpson a tour of the pueblo and led him down into one of its ceremonial kivas, a dark, round chamber without windows entered from the smokehole in the roof. The kiva’s walls were painted with representations of turkeys, deer, foxes, and wolves. The two men fell into a conversation about the Jemez religion. Hosta made it clear that his people had held on to their ancient beliefs even while adopting the tenets of Roman Catholicism—“which,” Simpson noted, “he says has been forced upon them, and which they do not understand.”
Hosta said that both the Jemez and Pecos people believed they were the direct descendants of Montezuma and the Aztecs, and that one day they would be delivered from their enemies, the Spanish and the Navajos, and restored to their former glory “by a people who would come from the East.” The Jemez Indians, Hosta added, were “beginning to believe that that people had come”—in the form of General Kearny and the Americans. Perhaps it was in part because of flatteries such as these, but Hosta had made quite an impression on Simpson and others in Washington’s party. The pueblo chief was invited to accompany Washington’s expedition, and he was only too glad to participate in an incursion into the heart of his people’s enemy, the Navajo. Before they left Jemez, Dick Kern persuaded Hosta to stand in full warrior regalia for a watercolor portrait. “Hosta,” Simpson concluded, “is one of the finest-looking and most intelligent Pueblo Indians I have seen, and on account of his vivacity and offhand graciousness, is quite a favorite among us.”
As they left the pueblo behind on the cool morning of August 22, the four hundred men of Washington’s expedition pushed into the harsh and beautiful world that sprawled weirdly before them on the back side of the Jemez volcano. The supply wagons could go no farther, the road having petered out in a broiled maze of buttes and gulchy badlands and intervening alkali flats studded with monoliths of rock that suggested the shapes of animals and mythic creatures. It was a fantastical country whose patterns the Americans found more and more difficult to grasp as they worked their way slowly westward.
In his journal, Simpson struggled to find a vocabulary to describe this strange enveloping landscape. Several times he called it “a broken country.” Often he resorted to the geological argot of his day, seeming to take comfort in identifying “scoriaceous deposits,” “friable sandstones,” and “argillaceous rocks burnt to different degrees of calcination.” Other times he lapsed into biblical allusions, citing verses from Isaiah and Psalms about the salty desiccation of the Holy Land and suggesting at one point that “the curse of barrenness may be chargeable to the wickedness of the people who inhabit it.” Much of this land, he proclaimed, was “a barren waste.”
Yet even Simpson was not always entirely immune to the country’s charms. He loved its weather, which was favorable to marching—hot and dry in the days, crisp and cool in the star-filled nights, with occasional “fine showers of rain” to clarify the dusty afternoons. Simpson had his first puzzling encounter with petrified wood—“Do not these petrifactions show that this country was once better timbered than it is now?” One morning he was delighted to be entertained by a hummingbird that buzzed into his tent “where it lit for a moment within a foot or two of my person and then disappeared, not to be seen again.” Simpson even allowed himself a moment of uncharacteristic poetry. On the morning of August 25, shortly after breaking camp, he looked back with his horizon glass and caught a majestic glimpse of Cabezon Peak, a stand-alone plug of volcanic rock towering two thousand feet over the rolling floor of the Puerco Valley. He wrote, “As the morning sun threw its golden light upon its eastern slope, leaving all the other portions in a softened twilight shadow, I thought I had never seen anything more beautiful and grand.”
Inspired by the same vista, Dick Kern did a wash drawing of Cabezon Peak, with the dawn waxing over its fluted shaft. The Navajos, who had been living around Cabezon Peak for centuries, called it Black Rock Coming Down and believed it was the ossified head of an enormous evil giant, Yeitso, chief of the Enemy Gods, whom the great warrior Monster Slayer decapitated in a battle described in Navajo creation stories.
The expedition struck the Rio Puerco, Simpson finding that “rio” was too charitable a term, there being almost no water in it other than a few pools “here and there—the fluid a greenish, sickening color and brackish to the taste.” The Puerco’s bottom was choked with gumbo mud, and at one point during the crossing a mule bearing a heavy mountain howitzer lost its footing and tumbled into the streambed. The groaning animal fell on its back with its legs trundling helplessly in the air like a capsized beetle, “a scene,” Simpson wrote, “that partook both of the painful and ludicrous.”
After two more days of slow, steady marching, Washington’s men crossed the Continental Divide. On August 26 they came to the Chaco Wash and soon found themselves in the presence of what Simpson called a “conspicuous ruin.” The Pueblo Indians serving as guides had different words for it. The Pueblo of Montezuma, one of them called it. Another called it the Pueblo of the Rats. In the end, Simpson would call it the Pueblo Pintado, or “Painted Village.”
Pintado was the easternmost of the nine “great houses” of Chaco Canyon, the most magnificent prehistoric ruins in the American West. It was apparently not Colonel Washington’s conscious intention to route his expedition through this extraordinary place, but since he did, Simpson and the Kern brothers were afforded a great opportunity. They would be the first Americans to describe and survey the sprawling stone remains of the vanished Anasazi civilization that thrived here around A.D. 1000.
With “high expectations,” Simpson, Dick Kern, and a small party of Mexican escorts took off to examine the ruins. This was a once-in-a-lifetime treat for trained surveyors, and a welcome change from the drearier requirements of a military expedition. But they knew they didn’t have much time. Washington’s troops were moving on, and they would not wait for Simpson and his party to catch up with them. They could not forget that they were in dangerous Navajo country now, and did not want to become separated by too many miles from the protection of the army. And yet they couldn’t help themselves; a ruined civilization was too enticing to pass up.
So Simpson and his team worked in a fast fury—taking measurements, drawing sketches, collecting artifacts, examining rock art, making excavations, taking compass and astronomical readings. They kept themselves occupied for three long days, moving from one great ruin to another, each structure seemingly larger and more splendid than the last. The vast stone and timber great houses were semicircular, multistoried pueblos, with hundreds of rooms, some of which were “in an almost perfect state of preservation.” Most of these pueblos were built on the north side of the wash, back up against the high sandstone wall of the canyon. The largest of all the structures, Pueblo Bonito, had more than seven hundred rooms, stood four stories high, and was oriented almost perfectly along a north-south axis, within fifteen minutes of true north. Simpson marveled at these structures, noting “the grandeur of their design and superiority of their workmanship.” They represented, he thought, “a condition of architectural excellence beyond the power of the Indians or New Mexicans of the present day to exhibit.”
Dick Kern was having the time of his life, frantically painting watercolors and dashing off wash drawings until the last lumen of light had faded in the sky. He loved being away from the hubbub of the army and having this desolate place to himself, camping among the sagging ramparts. He did a watercolor rendering that offered his best guess of what one of these apartment complexes must have looked like in its day. “The wolfe and lizard and hare are the only inhabitants,” Kern wrote in his diary, “and the bright wild flowers fill the open court and halls. Who built them no one knows…. But there can be no doubt of their having been built by a race living here in long past ages—Its style is so different from any thing Spanish.” He and Lieutenant Simpson could not have been happier—they were boys romping through an enchanted world. They mapped the floor plans of nearly every major structure in the canyon and chiseled their names into the plaster wall of one of the chambers at Pueblo Bonito.
But Simpson realized that they could not do justice to this maze of monuments. Fearing a Navajo ambush, Simpson finally gave the order to pack up the instruments and field books and hastily return to the army. “Had time permitted,” he wrote, “we would gladly have remained longer to dig among the rubbish of the past; but the troops having already got some miles in advance of us, we were reluctantly obliged to quit.” Circumstances, he concluded, would “not permit us to satisfy our minds.”
Next to nothing was known about the Anasazi at the time of the Washington expedition, and Lieutenant Simpson had almost no information to draw on as he puzzled over these fabulous ruins. Hosta, the Jemez chief, said that the Chaco cities had been built by his ancestor, the Aztec emperor Montezuma, repeating a widely held myth that Simpson seems to have found credible. But in fact, the Chacoans were not directly related to the Aztec civilization, although they almost certainly traded with their predecessors in MesoAmerica. The Chacoans began their rise to prominence around A.D. 950, well before the Aztec ascendancy in central Mexico. Much of their power and affluence was apparently based upon their proficiency with working fine turquoise, a stone highly prized throughout the region for ceremonial purposes. Their superlative skill in milling, shaping, and finishing this fragile stone, mined from the Cerrillos Hills near Santa Fe, seems to have generated a great trade that led, in turn, to a massive concentration of wealth.
For a brief period—little more than a century—the people of Chaco Canyon underwent a sudden explosion in the sophistication of their civilization, a cultural boom that has no parallel in North American prehistory. Archaeologists have come to call it the Chaco Phenomenon. Rapidly, the Chaco Anasazi began to centralize their government, intensify their agriculture, and concentrate their population in these so-called “great houses” strung along the canyon. They fashioned elaborate irrigation systems and dams. They built razor-straight highways radiating outward from their capital. On the tops of far-flung mesas they erected “lighthouses” in which they burned signal fires that broadcast messages over hundreds of miles to outlying Anasazi settlements. Their artifacts and rituals grew in beauty and complexity. They cut down thousands of ponderosa pine trees from mountain stands forty miles distant and dragged them here to build their enormous structures. Soon a powerful priesthood developed, and observatories were designed that allowed these Native American druids, with astonishing precision, to follow the movements of the stars and planets.
North America had never seen such a florescence of culture. But then around A.D. 1150, just as quickly as they had burst upon the scene, the Chacoan culture ebbed. The agent of their demise seems to have been an environmental collapse brought on, in part, by two devastating droughts in 1085 and 1095, and in part by the impact of a dense population living on a marginal desert landscape. Their expansion had been predicated on a kind of meteorological accident; they had been living in a hundred-year cycle of aberrant wetness, and during that brief window the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon had overfarmed, overhunted, and overlogged. In only a few generations their deforested land became eroded, the topsoil depleted, the drainages choked with salt and silt. The river on which they depended for corn and beans dried up. A third major drought, beginning around 1129, delivered the final blow.
This environmental upheaval led, predictably enough, to a social upheaval. In its death agonies, Chaco Canyon was not a pleasant place. People began to starve. They turned their great houses into fortresses, erecting walls, barricading the first-floor windows, retreating to higher stories at night, pulling up their ladders at the slightest hint of danger. Archaeologists have found evidence of widespread civil unrest, witchcraft, and even ritual cannibalism. Finally, the Chaco Anasazi began to leave in large numbers. In many cases they simply walked away from their great apartment complexes, leaving behind beautiful ornamental pottery, sandals and clothing, and large quantities of dried food neatly stored in granaries.
But the Chacoans did not really “vanish.” They wandered all over the Southwest, resettling wherever they could find water and safety. The Pueblo Indians were their direct descendants. Hosta and his Jemez people had Chaco blood, not Aztec blood, coursing in their veins, and so did the dozens of other Pueblo tribes whose settlements formed a loose constellation across the New Mexico Territory—the Zuni, the Hopi, the Acoma, the Taos Indians. The architecture of the modern Pueblos, though not as technically sophisticated, was strikingly similar to that of the Chaco great houses, with their multistoried apartments, retreating terraces, and underground kivas. From Puebloan rock art to their religious ceremonies to the styles of their pottery, the cultural echoes were clear. The Chaco Anasazi remained alive and well; they had simply undergone a diaspora of sorts. In spreading out and regerminating in smaller hunkered settlements, the descendants of the Anasazi learned the final cautionary lesson of Chaco Canyon: the peril of density in the face of the desert. In a meager landscape, civilization must scatter.
Interestingly, about the same time that the Chaco Phenomenon was imploding, the Navajo began to move into the region. For centuries they had been slowly pushing southward from Alaska and northwestern Canada, working their way down the spine of the Rockies. These nomadic warriors were the epitome of a scattered civilization. Supple, adaptive, refusing to tie themselves down to any one place or way of life, they moved freely with the seasons, following the game or their own whimsy.
When the first Navajo saw the ruins at Chaco Canyon, they must have been stunned. Everything about Chaco represented the antithesis of their own life. The Navajo must have instantly recognized that Chaco culture had been advanced beyond anything they had ever seen. But they also intuitively understood that something terrible had happened here, that this ghost city contained the seeds of destruction. They refused to go into the great houses, believing they were places of evil and death. They would never live this way—in cities, clustered in permanent buildings, trapped in a close environment. They would always leave themselves an out.
The timeline is murky, but it is possible that there was some overlap in the two cultures—that is, that the Navajos flooded in just as the Anasazi were leaving, and that for a brief time they had direct dealings with one another. It’s also possible that the Navajo’s arrival hastened the unraveling of Chaco culture—either through direct warfare or competition for resources. The word anasazi, in fact, is a Navajo word, meaning “ancestors of our enemies,” and it’s a term modern-day Pueblo Indians understandably detest (they prefer the designation “ancestral Puebloans”). Whatever the nature of their relationship, the Navajo clearly filled the void left by the Anasazi departure. They would remain masters of this region, living their roving kind of life in the midst of these crumbling rock cities, incorporating stories about the ruins into their own mythology, but always leaving them alone.
By the time Simpson and Dick Kern wandered through, the Navajo had been the de facto custodians of Chaco Canyon for at least five hundred years. Much of our early understanding of Chaco would be refracted through a Navajo point of view. The word chaco is a Spanish approximation of the Navajo tsekho—meaning “canyon,” or literally, “an opening in the rock.” And even as Simpson had been examining the ruins with his men, Navajo scouts had been watching him from afar, puzzling over his intentions, and possibly wondering whether this bewhiskered little man was a witch.