The Sacred Canyon: A History of Canyon de Chelly and Its People

Long before any European ever set foot in the southwest, the sheer red sandstone cliffs of Canyon de Chelly were home to the Anasazi people. Around 750 AD, these early Pueblo Indians began building remarkable cliff dwellings along the canyon walls, seeking shelter and defense among the soaring towers and alcoves.

They planted corn and beans in the canyon’s bottom, hunted game on the mesas above, and left behind stunning rock art painted and chiseled into the canyon walls.

By 1300 AD, the Anasazi had abandoned Canyon de Chelly, for reasons still debated today. But their magnificent stone architecture remained, silent sentinels keeping vigil over the empty canyon for centuries.

Coronado Enters the Southwest: The Isolated Grandeur of Canyon de Chelly

spider rock of canyon de chelly
Legend of the Spider Rock: This 800-foot sandstone spire jutting up from the canyon floor figures prominently in Navajo myth. According to legend, Spider Rock was once home to a giant spider that trapped Navajo warriors on the spire until they were rescued by clever spider-killing warrior gods

In 1540, an ambitious Spanish conquistador named Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an expedition of soldier-explorers into the uncharted southwest, seeking tales of golden cities. Their path took them through what is now New Mexico, to the very edge of the majestic canyon called Canyon de Chelly by its Native inhabitants.

Located in the heart of what we now call the Navajo nation, within the high Colorado plateau of northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly was largely an unmapped domain. This land, with its seven hundred foot sandstone walls was a wonder to behold

And the cliffside dwellings that pocked the soaring alcoves of the canyon were a mystery to the Europeans. Mesas of scrub oak and juniper stood above the canyon, buffeted by winds.

Rococo spires and temples of red rock lined the canyon base. It was a wilderness as beautiful as it was isolated, its secrets guarded by geography.

And so Coronado’s expedition skirted the edges of Canyon de Chelly, leaving behind the deserted Anasazi villages within. After all, these conquistadors sought the mythic cities of gold that would ultimately elude them, missing the historic significance so near at hand.

The canyon’s isolation would not last. But then, it remained a lost world.

The Navajo Arrive: People of the Canyon

It was not until the late 1600s that Canyon de Chelly was permanently inhabited again, this time by Navajo people fleeing Spanish oppression. Led by chief Goyaałé, known to history as Geronimo, the Navajo found refuge in the hidden canyon wilderness.

Sheltered by soaring cliffs, they could evade Spanish soldiers and create a new home. The Navajo were nomadic hunter-gatherers, moving seasonally between canyon camps and the high mountain plains.

But Canyon de Chelly became their base of operations, spiritual center, and defensive stronghold. Its sandstone cathedrals and echoing chambers were sacred ground.

Its forests of cottonwoods and willows sustained them. And its sheer walls protected generations of Navajo families.

War and Suffering: Kit Carson Invades the Canyon

In 1863, the peace of Canyon de Chelly was shattered when Kit Carson led U.S. Army troops into the canyon on a mission to round up the Navajo and drive them from their ancestral lands.

white house ruins
White House Ruin: This 180-room Anasazi cliff dwelling, dating to 1060 AD, contains remnants of hand-plastered walls and stone towers that rise three stories from a sheltered alcove

Carson’s men laid waste to Navajo fields, orchards, and hogans, destroying food supplies and shelter. They shot down Native families attempting to flee up the canyon.

By winter’s end, Carson had killed many Navajo and forced thousands more to surrender for relocation to a barren reservation at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico.

The Long Walk of the Navajo became a death march for hundreds. Those who survived faced harsh years of confinement, their beloved Canyon de Chelly left empty once more. Not until 1868 were the surviving Navajo finally allowed to return and rebuild their lives in the sacred canyon.

Preservation and Heritage: The Canyon Today

Today, Canyon de Chelly National Monument preserves the canyon and cliff dwellings for future generations. Navajo families still farm the canyon lands, herd sheep on the rims, and regard Canyon del Chelly as hallowed ground.

Tourists from around the world now gaze up at the towering rock walls that sheltered Anasazi and Navajo builders. The story of Canyon de Chelly is ultimately one of perseverance – it remains a living homeland for the Navajo Nation.