Arizona: Canyon de Chelly Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This National Monument, currently inhabited by Navajo farmers, includes well-preserved ruins of Anasazi cliff dwellings in sandstone canyons.

Site Office

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

P.O. Box 588

Chinle, AZ 86503

ph.: (520) 674-5500

Canyon de Chelly National Monument has the distinction of being the only federal park not owned by the U.S. government; under a 1931 agreement, it is administered by the National Park Service in cooperation with the Navajo Nation, which retains title and property rights to the land. The monument includes 131 square miles consisting of three major canyons: Canyon de Chelly and its two branches, Canyon del Muerto and Monument Canyon. In these canyons, some eight hundred archaeological sites and one thousand rock art sites offer compelling evidence of prehistoric and historic human habitation during the past eighteen hundred years.

The name “de Chelly” is a corruption of the Navajo word tsegi, meaning “rock canyon.” Through modification first by the Spanish, who pronounced it “day SHAY-yee,” and then by Americans, it has come to be pronounced “d’shay.”

Geological History

The history of Canyon de Chelly began 230 million years ago, when vast inland seas covered much of the North American continent. By the end of this era, the Permian period, the seas had begun to dry up; as they receded they left layers of mud and sand in their wake. At the same time mountains were forming as land was pushed from beneath the surface. The new mountains blocked the prevailing winds, cutting off moisture from the eastern slopes and generating deserts and vast sand dunes. The rock layer known as the de Chelly sandstone is a product of one of these immense layers of sand; it is easily visible in the canyon walls, where it appears as a red band. On top of this, at the canyon rim, is the Shinarump conglomerate, a layer of gravel most probably compacted to rock by yet another layer now eroded away. The Shinarump was formed 170 million years ago and is the youngest part of the canyon.

At the end of the Cretaceous period, some 50 million years ago, a violent uplifting of land occurred along what is now the border between Arizona and New Mexico. As the uplift developed, streams of water poured down from the Chuska Mountains and cut into the uplift, slicing through the layers of rock and sandstone and carving the canyons. Continuous action by water, ice, wind-blown sand, and tree roots has further sculpted the cliffs.

Resulting from these millennia of erosion is a spectacular series of red canyons with sheer vertical sides, dramatic formations, and many caves and overhangs washed out of the rock. Among the more striking features of the cliff faces at Canyon de Chelly is the “desert varnish,” striking dark vertical streaks that look as though they were painted on the canyon walls. In fact they were caused by chemical deposits from oxidation of the minerals in the rock; the blue-black streaks resulted from manganese, the red ones from iron.

The First People in the Canyon

The first people to live permanently in the canyons were those known as the Anasazi, a Navajo name meaning “the ancient ones.” The Anasazi were an agricultural people who occupied much of the vast plateau area of the Southwest, including the watersheds of the San Juan, Little Colorado, and Rio Grande Rivers, much of Utah, and part of eastern Nevada, from the first century of this era to around 1300 c.e. At the height of their civilization, they had major population centers in the Chaco Canyon area of modern New Mexico, at Mesa Verde in Colorado, and in the Kayenta region of Arizona, including Canyon de Chelly.

The Anasazi were the first in this region to live by agriculture, growing corn and squash to supplement the plentiful game and wild plants around them. They stored the surplus of their corn harvest for winter use, raised domesticated turkeys for food and feathers, and kept dogs, probably as hunting companions and camp scavengers, although possibly for supplemental food as well.

The Anasazi culture has been divided into four stages based on their cultural development as evidenced by their artifacts: early Basketmaker (until 450 c.e.); modified Basketmaker (450-700); developmental Pueblo (700-1000); and great, or classical Pueblo (1100-1300). Some archaeologists break down these stages further, with minor variations in the time frames.


The Basketmakers moved into the canyon region to farm the rich canyon bottoms, where the land was fertile and well watered by streams and springs. During the summer months they lived in simple brush huts near their fields. During the cold winter months, they moved into the shelter of the many caves higher up the canyon walls. Around 450 c.e. they began to construct more permanent homes, called pithouses. These were circular pits, some five feet deep and twenty feet in diameter, covered with a thatched framework. It is believed that this was the forerunner of the modern kiva, or ceremonial chamber, still used by the Pueblos.

The artifacts left by the Basketmakers earned them their name, for they produced many beautifully woven products including baskets, cordage, sandals, cradles, and clothing. Their baskets served as storage vessels, cooking pots, and even caskets. They made warm winter robes by weaving strips of rabbit fur around yucca cordage. Eventually they began to learn to make pottery. While their early attempts produced crude air-dried vessels, the Basketmakers eventually learned to fire and decorate their pots. This new craft gradually replaced their basketry.

Burial Sites

The ruins in Big Cave in Canyon del Muerto are among the earliest in the park, dating to 331-835 c.e. Among the evidences of Basketmaker life in this location are evidences of Basketmaker death: several burials were found in Big Cave, including that of an old man who had two broken legs. The fractures had been expertly set and the bones had healed cleanly. Archaeologists also found the remains of fourteen infants buried in an old storage bin, a common burial practice, and four other children buried in a large basket. Since there was no indication of violence, the burials probably indicate some epidemic that ravaged the community.

In another part of the cave is the site of the most famous and mysterious burial in the canyons, the “Burial of the Hands.” A pair of arms and their hands were found lying on a bed of grass, in a position that makes it unlikely any body was ever attached. The wrists had been wrapped with shell necklaces, and a pair of finely-woven sandals and a small basket of shell beads had been placed next to the hands. A basket two feet in diameter covered the remains. No satisfactory explanation of the burial has been found.

Cliff Dwellers

Around 700 c.e. the Anasazi began to experiment with a new type of dwelling: the pueblo (Spanish for village). The first pueblos were long rows of flat-roofed rooms made of mud over a framework of poles, still built over a pit. The pithouse itself now took on a ceremonial function. Over the next four hundred years the pueblo evolved from its crude beginnings into a multistoried multifamily complex built of stone masonry.

Along with the change in building technique came a dramatic change in location. The Anasazi moved their dwellings from the canyon floors to the caves and recesses in its walls. There were several advantages to living in these seemingly inaccessible sites: the walls were above the flood plain, and so the Anasazi, their dwellings, and their stored food remained dry; the available bottom land could be reserved for food production; the caves and overhangs offered protection from the elements; and their food was safer from rodents and insects. Furthermore, the dwellings were not so inaccessible as they seem today. Canyon del Muerto alone contains more than forty hand-and-toe-hold trails permitting a healthy climber to traverse from the canyon floor to the rim in twenty minutes.

Trade was an important activity for the Pueblo Anasazi. Many changes in Anasazi culture were undoubtedly the result of contact with other peoples; parrots were obtained from Mexico for their feathers, ornamental shells from the Gulf of California. Pottery making and cotton were probably both imported from Mexico; the Anasazi of Canyon de Chelly became master weavers of cotton cloth and may well have traded it to other communities. Evidence points to the Anasazi community at Mesa Verde as a frequent trade partner.

The great pueblo period of the Anasazi began about 1100 c.e., and it was during this time that the most impressive of the cliff dwellings were built. One of the most accessible sites today is the White House, six miles up the main canyon from the current park headquarters. It was built in two sections, one against the base of the cliff on the canyon floor, and a second in the small cavern above it. At one time it may have contained as many as eighty rooms, but much of the lower structure has been washed away by the stream; about sixty rooms and four kivas remain in some form. Most of this lower part was built after 1070 c.e.

The cave containing the upper section is thirty-five feet above the canyon floor, but one of the buildings on the lower level came to within four feet of the cave floor. The upper site contains ten rooms, with one very large room in the center. The outer wall of this room, some twelve feet high, was coated with white gypsum clay plaster decorated with a yellow band.

The largest of the sites is located at Mummy Cave, in Canyon del Muerto, about twenty-one miles northeast of park headquarters. Here the structures were built in two adjacent caves three hundred feet above the streambed. The largest section is in the eastern cave, which accommodated fifty-five rooms and four kivas. Twenty more rooms in the western cave are now accessible only by a ledge from the eastern cave, but originally a hand-and-toe-hold trail, long eroded, led there from the talus below. No space was wasted here: There are fifteen more rooms along the ledge between the caves, including a square tower house, similar to the ones at Mesa Verde. Much of the original colored plaster work in the structures remains, including some decorated with an elaborate fretwork design in the large kiva.

The Anasazi Disappear

For about two hundred years the Anasazi were a successful, spiritual, artistic, and seemingly prosperous people, but then the Anasazi suddenly left Canyon de Chelly and indeed all of the plateau region.

The reason for the mass exodus of these people is not completely clear, but it was probably the result of severe drought. Between 1276 and 1299 c.e., drought gripped the plateau region, drying up water supplies, killing vegetation and the animals who fed on it, and making farming difficult if not impossible. The Anasazi left other sites like Mesa Verde first; it is possible that some of those refugees settled in Canyon de Chelly before the pueblos there were abandoned. It has been suggested that the square tower house in Mummy Cave points to the presence of Mesa Verde craftsmen. In any case, by 1300, all the cliff dwellings throughout the plateau had been abandoned.

Yet the Anasazi did not become extinct. They moved south to the Black Mesa region and southeast to the Rio Grande, and their descendents survive today: the people known today as the Pueblos.

In the centuries after the Anasazi had abandoned their homes in Canyon de Chelly, another people migrated southward from the northern plains, down the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, and into the mountains of northern New Mexico. The Dineh, as they called themselves, were constantly being joined by groups from other cultures, and the Dineh excelled at learning and assimilating the best of these cultures. They soon combined these various elements into a distinctive culture of their own, the culture known today as Navajo.

Europeans Arrive

As the Spanish began to settle in the lower Southwest, friction between the native and the European cultures grew. In 1690 the Pueblos in the south revolted against Spanish domination; their revolt was short lived and many sought refuge with the Navajo. The Pueblo brought to their new home centuries of agricultural expertise, their sheep, and their skill at weaving. The Navajo clan system and certain aspects of their religion also reflect the influence of the Pueblo refugees. As the refugees added to the population, the Navajo, now mobile thanks to the Spanish-introduced horses, began to move across the region searching for arable lands and pastures for their sheep. By the mid-1700’s a small group had settled in Canyon de Chelly.

The Dineh were traditionally a warrior people, and their new agricultural skills did not cause them to abandon raids against the Spanish settlers, as well as their Hopi and Zuni neighbors. The Spanish retaliated frequently, enslaving prisoners whom they did not kill. During the winter of 1804-1805, a terrible battle took place in the canyon when Spanish cavalry found a group of Navajo hiding on a high ledge of the canyon wall; though secure from an enemy armed with bows and arrows, the position was all too vulnerable to rifles. The Spaniards took a position on the canyon rim where they could fire directly down onto the ledge. During the ensuing carnage, 115 Navajo were killed, of whom 90 were warriors and the rest old men, women, and children; 33 more were taken prisoners. The site is popularly called Massacre Cave; the ricochet marks from the Spaniards’ bullets are still visible.

Raiding and retaliation on both sides continued as the territory came first under Mexican rule and then was ceded to the U.S. at the end of the Mexican War. The arrival of American settlers offered new raiding targets to the Navajo. U.S. Army expeditions were undertaken and treaties signed, but since the Navajo society had no single chief, the treaties were largely useless.

During these sorties Canyon de Chelly became known as a shelter and hiding place for the Navajo. Army expeditions often approached it, but it contained too many twists and turns, too many ledges and caves from which troops on the canyon floor could be harassed.

Finally, in 1863, General James H. Carleton, military commander of New Mexico, appointed Kit Carson to deal with the “Navajo problem.” Unlike Carson, Carleton had no sympathies for the Navajo; nor did the volunteers serving under Carson, many of whom had suffered from the Navajo raids. The campaign was merciless; after chasing the Navajo from their homes, the troops burned their dwellings, slaughtered their sheep, and destroyed their fields. A last few were flushed from the canyon. With nowhere else to turn, the Navajo surrendered and took refuge at Fort Defiance, where they had been offered food and protection. The Navajo Nation seemed broken; the army exiled them to southern New Mexico.

The Long Walk

The Navajo remember the exile as the Long Walk. In the spring of 1864, 8,500 of the Dineh were marched to Fort Summer in New Mexico and then resettled at a place called Bosque Redondo. The land could not be farmed, however, and there was no pasture for their sheep. There was no source of fuel or clean water. After four years, the army conceded that the plan had failed. A new treaty was negotiated, and at the Navajos’ insistence, they were allowed to return to Canyon de Chelly. They have remained there ever since.

Relations between the Dineh and the American settlers were still difficult. It was the advent of the trading post that was to prove the necessary intermediary in the complex task of cultural interchange. Successful traders served as translators, mediators, and merchants. Lorenzo Hubbell was such a trader. He opened the first trading post at the canyon in 1886. The post is now a National Historic Site.

The first published descriptions of the ruins in the canyon appeared in 1850, based on the journal entries of Lieutenant J. H. Simpson, who had accompanied a U.S. Army expedition the previous year. The first archaeological expedition was made in 1882, led by James Stevenson for the Smithsonian Institution. Stevenson’s group sketched, photographed and drew plans of forty-six ruins in the two main canyons. One of his staff, Cosmos Mindeleff, returned later that year for the first of three visits to map the canyons and some of the larger ruins. Mindeleff published a major architectural survey of the ruins in 1896.

In the 1920’s many of the cave sites were excavated by Earl H. Morris of the American Museum of Natural History. Morris was one of the first genuine archaeologists to explore the ruins and collect artifacts. Scientific interest and publications led to growing tourism, and in 1931 the area was organized as a National Monument. Archaeological work has continued under the supervision of National Park Service authorities.

For Further Information
  • Bradley, Zorro A. Canyon de Chelly: The Story of Its Ruins and People. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1973. One of several good introductions to the history of the canyon. It complements the titles by Noble and Supplee et al. listed below.
  • Houk, Rose. Navajo of Canyon de Chelly: In Home Hod’s Fields. Tucson, Ariz.: Southwest Parks and Monuments Assocation, 1995. Examines the history and social life of the Navajo of Canyon de Chelly. Includes illustrations and maps of the area.
  • Hunter, Wilson. In Pictures, Canyon de Chelly: The Continuing Story. Las Vegas: KC, 1999. Mostly photographs of the canyon and the surrounding area, the ruins, and the current Navajo inhabitants.
  • Noble, David Grant, ed. Houses Beneath the Rock: The Anasazi of Canyon de Chelly and Navajo National Monument. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Ancient City Press, 1986. Provides a greater focus on the ancient people of the region.
  • Supplee, Charles, Douglas Anderson, and Barbara Anderson. Canyon de Chelly: The Story Behind the Scenery. Edited by Gweneth Reed DenDooven. Rev. ed. Las Vegas: KC, 1981. Offers a thorough account of the monument’s prehistory and history. Illustrated with color photographs.
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