Keet Seel-The Best Preserved cliff Dwellings in North America… it is said. Part I

In late May I was fortunate to be invited on an outing to the Keet Seel Ruins in Navajo National Monument.  I considered myself doubly lucky because the expedition would be led by Harvey Leake, the great grandson of John Wetherill.  Wetherill was the Custodian of Navajo National Monument from its inception in 1908 until 1938.

Harvey is also the great, great nephew of Richard Wetherill, the first Anglo to “discover” the ruins in the 1880s –or, to quote a frequently used phrase from Diné Bahaneʼ, the Navajo Creation Story,  “it is said.” (Then again, maybe Richard Wetherill wasn’t the first. More on that subject later.)

2Ready to go

All ready to roll! (Hopefully not off the side of the cliff.)

I admit to being apprehensive when we started. I had planned on making a trip to Keet Seel not long after my Betatakin Ruins hike in 2009. But shortly thereafter life got in the way in no small measure.  What followed was sixteen months of intensive treatments at the Mayo Clinic -to be specific, six chemo sessions, thirty-three radiation treatments, continual hormone injections, and three surgeries. Fortunately the result was total remission, but it took another two years for me to regain the physical condition required to haul a 40 pound backpack eight miles one way. I will narrate the trip in the captions of the photos below.

I won’t say much though as the photos pretty much speak for the incredible beauty of the area. What I’ll be covering in the text are some of the stories and history about one the most remote but spectacular canyons in North America.

From here on you’ll read the phrase “it is said” quite often. Why?  Well it’s used frequently in Diné Bahaneʼ (The Story of the People) which details the prehistoric origins of the Navajo. Until recently the Navajo creation story was based on oral renderings repeated from generation to generation for at least six hundred years.  “It is said” is an acknowledgement the narrator was basing his story solely on what he was told by others. In other words, there is no written record.

1Where we're going IIKeet Seel Canyon viewed from the western rim of Tsegi Canyon

Why do I feel this phrase is fitting for the stories I’m about to tell? Because one of the aspects that fascinates me about the region is until recently much of the history is very sketchy.  Until the 1930s the Four Corners area was still wild and remote. The major ruins (Betatakin, Keet Seel, Inscription House) as well as Rainbow Bridge were not “discovered” until the early 20th century.

Military maps from the 1860s describe the area north of Black Mesa and Canyon de Chelly with one word: “Unexplored.” In other words, much of the region’s history (recent as well as ancient) is based on little more than speculation, theory, and conjecture. Which bring us to my first story. As I asked in a previous entry Where Were They Then? Only “Then” I was referring to artists, not military men.

Chapter 1-Walker’s Reconnaissance in 1859

In a February 2010 article about Monument Valley, a article claimed: Throughout the 19th century, white settlers considered the Monument Valley region …to be hostile and ugly. The first U.S. soldiers to explore the area called it “as desolate and repulsive looking a country as can be imagined,” as Capt. John G. Walker put it in 1849, the year after the area was annexed from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. “As far as the eye can reach…is a mass of sand stone hills without any covering or vegetation except a scanty growth of cedar.”

Desolate and repulsive!? Oh well. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is said.  Tastes also change, it is said. It’s hard to imagine anyone describing the landscape north of Black Mesa as “desolate and repulsive” today. The thousands of tourists who travel to the area annually (a large percentage of them from overseas) would most likely offer different descriptions. One correction to’s otherwise well written article: Walker’s expedition was in 1859, not 1849.

“OK, thank you for the accurate but useless information,” those of you who hate history because of the preoccupation with dates might be saying. More on “why” the “when” matters later. For now, we’ll acknowledge Walker’s quote as written is accurate. However one question I’ve always had since first reading the Captain’s observation in Frank McNitt’s Navajo Wars is where exactly was he standing, and what exactly was he looking at? Was he referring to Monument Valley or the Shonto Plateau and Tsegi Canyon.  Where was Captain Walker then, in September of 1859?

Captain Walkers Expedition by Gary Fillmore
Black Mesa, Klethla Valley, and Marsh Pass. View is looking east. Kayenta is on the other side of Marsh Pass.


We do know he was standing on the northern rim of Black Mesa (Shown in the photo above.) As anyone familiar with the area could tell you, that covers a lot of ground –over seventy miles.  If he was standing on the northernmost point he would have been able to see the south side of Monument Valley. However let’s add some more context. In the sentence following his analysis of the surrounding scenic beauty, Walker added, “In the Northwest and apparently about fifty miles distant Sierra Panoche (Navajo Mountain) looms up, and beyond this…the junction of Colorado Chiquito and Rio San Juan (The Colorado and San Juan Rivers)”

Their guide then led Walker and his troops down a treacherous, winding path to the eastern end of the Klethla Valley. They spent that night in ancient ruins known as the Long House ruins (not to be confused with the Long House Ruins at Mesa Verde) on the slope of the northeastern side of the valley, where they tore down some of the beams for firewood.  Like tastes, respect for archeological treasure has also changed over the years –thankfully.

In a conclusion based on Walker’s  more detailed description along with his itinerary after “enjoying” the view, I would speculate he was standing on the western side of Black Mesa’s northern slope, somewhere midway between the “Black Mesa” lettering in the photo and the far right side. This would offer something similar to the view shown in the photo below. Note Navajo Mountain can clearly be seen in the Northwest (far left of the photo.)

Tsegi Canyon Looking North by Gary FillmoreTsegi Canyon looking north

I consider Walker’s reports of their subsequent travels and recorded sights to be further confirmation of my theory.  The following day they marched east through Marsh Pass and skirted the northernmost tip of Black Mesa. There they first laid eyes on “the Lana Negra…resembling a vast Gothic Cathedral”.   Had Walker been standing on or anywhere near the northern most point of Black Mesa the day before, the Lana Negra (known today as Agathla Needle) would have been clearly visible.

The troops then headed south returning to Fort Defiance a few days later without incident. It was Walker’s second successful reconnaissance that summer- both of which resulted in zero casualties and zero “enemies” killed.  During an earlier expedition in August his men were the first to travel the entire distance of Canyon de Chelly from east to west.  In his final report Walker concluded “…Navajoes everywhere evinced the most earnest desire for peace. I am not prepared to say what would be the better line of policy towards them, but there is no doubt that a war made upon them now by us would fall the heaviest upon the least guilty.” “..fall heaviest upon the least guilty”….unfortunately, as it is in most wars and violent escalations, that’s exactly what happened.

By 1859, just thirteen years since Kearney’s army conquered Santa Fe without a shot, there had already been three treaty signings between representatives the U.S. Government and a number of  Navajo headmen. Yet the centuries old pattern of raiding and counter-raiding between the Navajo and the Nakais (the natives of Spanish/Mexican descent), clustered primarily in settlements along the Rio Grande, continued. Many of the Pueblo tribes, including the Zuni, Hopi and Jemes, were also feeling the sting of the Canyon de Chelly ladrones wrath. Every treaty failed to bring a lasting peace.

Entrance to Keet Seel canyon by Gary FillmoreOn the way! Southern entrance to Keet Seel Canyon. We were told by one of the rangers during orientation about the importance of knowing which way to go at this junction. Many parties turn right (south) instead of left (north) and find themselves back at Highway 160.


Chapter 2-The Hammer and the Anvil

The following year, in the late summer of 1860, Colonel Edward Richard Sprigg Canby launched a campaign code named The Hammer and the Anvil.  Canby’s strategy was based in part on Walker’s reports of the area from the year before, which included more than the Captain’s opinion on the region’s scenic beauty.

Canby had also received information which indicated the majority of the Navajo, driven from their summer haunts in the Chuska, Carrizo and Lukachukai Mountains by troop movements a few weeks earlier, were headed west towards Black Mesa. Canby intended to corral and drive the fleeing Navajo into Marsh Pass. There he believed the Dineh would be trapped in a nearly impenetrable country (the anvil) where they would be hammered by the troops under his command. They would “…inflict punishment…signal in its results and lasting in effects.”

Those few who might possibly escape through the anvil would be massacred by the Paiutes, who Canby believed were at war with the Navajo. Nearly every key piece of information which formed the backbone of the Hammer and Anvil’s strategy was erroneous. But realize this all predated spy satellites, drones, U2s, and SR71s –if you didn’t already know that.

4Alcove on Keet Seel canyon wall by Gary Fillmore
Alcove on the east wall of Keet Seel Canyon. It might make for a halfway decent “anvil”.


In early October, 1860 Canby’s force of nearly 300 men (aka “the Hammer”) consisting of infantry, dragoons, and mounted riflemen departed from Fort Defiance amply supplied with weapons, horses, mules, rations and seriously bad military intelligence. Canby split his force in three. With a column of infantry he led the march north to Canyon de Chelly and swept the north rim from east to west.

His second in command, Major Henry Sibley, headed west with the dragoons and mounted riflemen to the Rio Colorado Wash, then marched north to the western entrance of Canyon de Chelly.  Captain Lafayette McLaws was given a small battalion and ordered to patrol the southern Chuskas to prevent any stragglers from escaping to the south. (One account claims McLaws became so bored he returned his command to Fort Defiance several days early.)

Canby and Sibley (who were brother-in-laws, it is said…and written many times as well, although never actually proven) rejoined forces at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly. Both were dismayed to learn neither had encountered more than a few Dineh.  Indeed, the largest force Sibley had come across was the 2nd New Mexican Mounted Volunteers, under the command of the legendary El Leoncito, Manuel Antonio Chaves.  While Canby was conducting his three pronged operation, Chaves was leading yet another citizen’s reprisal party -which were often nothing more thinly disguised slave and livestock raiding expeditions. Sibley had run into Chaves “much to my disappointment” as he later wrote, near present day Ganado.

Edward Canby-Henry Sibley-Manuel Chaves
Left to right: Edward R.S. Canby, Henry Hopkins Sibley, Manuel Antonio Chaves


Modifying his plans, Canby gave all of the cavalry to Sibley and instructed him to proceed southwesterly to Black Mesa, ascend to the top, then sweep the mesa and descend on the northern side at the same point where Captain Walker had done so the year before. Canby meanwhile would take the infantry and march around the northern rim of Black Mesa, then meet Sibley at the Long House ruins. Canby’s march was uneventful; Sibley’s a little more lively.

While trying to find a suitable route to the top of Black Mesa Sibley’s dragoons spotted a large horse herd to the north.  With little in the way of casualties incurred or inflicted, they were able to capture the livestock and destroy the rancheria of Delgadito, one of the most important Navajo Headmen.

After once again rejoining forces with Major Sibley, the army spent four days exploring from their encampment at Marsh Pass.  Canby concluded his Anvil was not a steep, impenetrable canyon wall, but instead a maze of numerous canyons, three main arteries and dozens of box canyons,  that make up the Tsegi Canyon complex.

Viewing some of the photos here it’s easy imagine how many different escape routes the canyon provided. Canby had found the all the reports he had relied on for his strategy “…were erroneous.  The Pah Utes (sic) were not at war with the Navajoes (sic)”  and the area around Marsh Pass “was no barrier to their further flight.”

5 Keet Seel tributary waterfall
Tributary to Keet Seel Canyon and the mouth of one of dozens of box canyons in the Tsegi Canyon complex.


Looking at these photos one could easily accuse Canby of understatement. In addition to the dozens of pathways to the Shonto Plateau offered by Tsegi Canyon, the meadow to the west of Marsh Pass led to a wide, easily traveled trail all the way to the Hopi Mesas and the Little Colorado River. Unlike Walker, Sibley found the route from Canyon de Chelly to Black Mesa, “a most picturesque region.”  He also astutely noted the Navajos “…power of evading pursuit arises from the nature of the country.”

In other words, in 1860 this was damned hard country to be chasing after someone, especially when you weren’t sure where the water holes were.

Although tactically a failure, the Hammer and the Anvil was a strategic success. Canby could claim next to nothing in the way of military victories, noting the campaign’s objectives were “limited…by physical causes…and the failure to effect a decisive result”, due primarily to a lack of adequate forage and water “throughout this whole section of country.”  That 1860 was one of the worst drought years on record did not help matters.

8 Tsegi Canyon by Gary Fillmore
Still six miles or so to go to ruins. Although water was abundant in the canyon during our hike it has been a wet year. One can only speculate how dry the canyon was in 1860, two years into one of the worst droughts in the region on record.

The total casualties inflicted were 28 Navajos killed, 360 horses and 2000 sheep captured -most resulting from Sibley’s attack on Delgaditio’s rancheria.   It was hardly the stuff of military legend. But Canby’s operations combined with the 2nd New Mexican Volunteer’s raids had disrupted most of the Navajo’s population’s daily routines, their herding and harvesting, to the point many were starving by winter.

It also marked the beginning of a period known in Navajo tribal lore as Nahonzod, or “the fearing time.” Nahonzod commenced with Canby’s Hammer and Anvil campaign and ended when the tribe was allowed to return to a small portion of their homeland in 1868 after their relocation to Bosque Redondo.

In February of 1861 over forty Navajo headmen signed Canby’s treaty at a council at  Fort Fauntleroy. Recently constructed, the post was ironically situated near Ojo Del Oso (Bear Springs).  This was where the first treaty had been signed in 1846 declaring “”a firm and lasting peace and amity … between the American people and the Navajo tribe of Indians.”

Unfortunately for the fourth treaty between the two nations, the Civil War changed everything.  Canby assumed command over all U.S. forces in New Mexico. His former superior, Colonel Fauntleroy, had resigned to take a General’s commission in the newly formed Army of Virginia. Canby was forced to abandon Forts Defiance and Fauntleroy for posts further east to guard against the impending invasion by the Tejanos, led by none other than his old friend, Henry Hopkins Sibley, now a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. Fort Fauntleroy’s name was changed to Fort Lyon.

To help keep the Navajo in check on the western front the fort was manned by the 2nd New Mexican Volunteers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Antonio Chaves.  The result was predictable. Chaos reigned. The bullets and arrows flew -all good material for future blog posts.

6Wild horse Keet Seel Canyon by Gary FillmoreWild horse. According to the on site Rangers at the ruins there is a small herd that calls the canyon home.

Chapter 3- Hoskininni’s flight and escape.

“I was born in this country. My ancestors are buried here. I will not be trapped like a rabbit nor herded like a sheep. I will be a free man, even though the Utes (may) kill me.” Hoskininni-1863

Later that evening at the campground I had a brief conversation with Harvey Leake regarding the legendary escape of Navajo Headman Hoskininni and his followers to Navajo Mountain. I wrote about Hoskininni in my entry When Life Gives You Lemons. Sometime in the late summer or early fall of 1863, when Kit Carson’s troops were forcibly rounding up most members of the Navajo tribe, Hoskininni was able to elude the U.S. Forces by taking refuge near Naatsisʼáán, the Head of the Earth Mother, aka Navajo Mountain.

While most of the tribe suffered through four long years of exile at Bosque Redondo, Hoskininni and his band spent four lean years at the southeastern base of Navajo Mountain, isolated and separated from their fellow tribal members but still free.

Harvey and I agreed little is known about the actual event, so any premises the two of us have are largely based on speculation and conjecture…in other words, “it is said.” Yet the scarcity of factual data has not prevented numerous accounts from being published over the years.

7 Keet Seel Canyon six miles to go to ruins by Gary FillmoreStill going…when will be there?


In 1952, noted archaeologist Byron Cummings wrote a sensationalized account in his book “Indians I Have Known”.

According to Cummings, Hoskininni led his followers across the San Juan River to the Clay Hills area in southeastern Utah where they believed they would be safe (an interesting assertion, given they would have been on the edge of Ute country.) However “Carson and his men were experienced Indian fighters, determined to complete the task assigned to them.” Upon learning Carson’s forces had also crossed the river and were in hot pursuit, Hoskininni then fled south across the San Juan at a place known today as Hoskininni Crossing. They finally eluded their would-be captors by pushing on to the “rugged and dangerous country”around Navajo Mountain.

Cummings then claims many of Carson’s troops and horses were either swept away by the treacherous current of the river or “bogged in the quicksand” before admitting their utter defeat. While it might make for a good movie nearly every claim in this version is demonstrably false. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, this version has been rehashed numerous times over the years in other publications and internet articles.  Some versions even mention a tunnel underneath the San Juan River.

So which of Cummings’s claims are “demonstrably false”?

9Small waterfallSmall waterfall…bigger one ahead.


For starters, it is well documented Carson himself never went any further north than the western mouth of Canyon de Chelly.  The northernmost point any of his expeditionary forces reached were two small scouting reconnoiters of Black Mesa under Sergeants Jose Maria Romero and John W. Dorsett in December, 1863. By this time Hoskininni and his followers were securely hidden near Navajo Mountain.

The only other recorded military operation in the “Unexplored” area shown on the map below during this time was a group of citizen volunteers under Captain Quirino Maes. In early January 1864, Maes led 67 men from Abiqui to the San Juan River. They proceeded on the south bank to a place known as Puerta de las Lunitas, then left the river and headed to Black Mesa. Although there were some small skirmishes and raids, no mention is made of any pursuits across the river.  And since today no one has any idea where Puerta de las Lunitas is located there is no way of knowing where they left the river and headed southwest towards Black Mesa. Again, by the time Maes and his citizen’s brigade launched their expedition Hoskininni’s band was safely encamped by Naatsisʼáán.

As shown on the map the canyons we were traveling were

Military Map of New Mexico 1864
As shown on the map the canyons we were traveling were “unexplored’ as recently as 1864.

So what is known about what really happened?  In July 1941 The Desert Magazine published an article written by Charles Kelly.  Kelly interviewed Hoskininni’s son, Hoskaninni Begay. Hoskininni Begay was five years old in 1863 and past eighty years old when he was recalling the episode. But he gives a very detailed account, including the route they traveled to escape their “four enemies…the Utes, the white soldiers, bands of raiding Mexicans –and hunger.”

He recounts how he was camped with sixteen others near Agathla Needle, preparing to follow his father on the path of “freedom or death.”  When word came via scouts that soldiers were on their way to Kayenta they fled under the cover of darkness, poorly prepared for their epic journey.  After traveling two nights north of Agathla Needle they turned west to the “head of Oljeto” (the original Oljeto was several miles northeast of present day Oljeto –just west of Gouldings Lodge).

They continued “west and southwest toward Navajo Mountain. We could have followed several different canyons down to the Big River (Colorado), but father wanted to get behind the mountain, so we took the hardest road, climbing down into many deep canyons where there was no trail, and up again to the flat mesas above.”

He gave no mention of going anywhere near the San Juan River or of being pursued by troops of any kind, although he did note on the first night they could see the U.S. Army’s campfires to the east and the fires of the Utes, their most feared enemy, scattered to the west.

Keet Seel Canyon by Gary FillmoreApproaching the big waterfall

Hoskininni-Begay’s account also smashed the romanticized version I had imagined for years, which held the group headed north up Tsegi Canyon, then Keet Seel Canyon (perhaps even taking the exact same route we had traversed earlier in the day) eventually climbing out of one of the box canyons onto the Shonto Plateau, then onto Navajo Mountain.

Well, I was way off on that one.

But I do know the answers to these two trivia questions.

Who was the only illiterate General in the history of the U.S. Army?

Who was the only General to be killed in action during the Indian Wars of the 1800s?

Answers: Kit Carson and Edward R.S. Canby.  (I’m going to assume some of you are saying to yourselves, “Hey, what about Custer?” While Custer was promoted to Brigadier General during the Civil War it was a Brevet promotion.  He was a Colonel at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.)

For a limited time, take the correct answers along with $4 and get the beverage of your choice at any participating Starbucks location.

For another interesting first hand account on Carson’s campaign and its effect on (some) of the Navajo people, I highly recommend the book Wolfkiller.  It often fascinates me how the first-hand accounts of those who lived through an event or period vary greatly with the narrative history that is sometimes taught generations later.  Wolfkiller is both an inspiring and informative book. Now, since I make it a practice to limit my entries to 1000 words and I’m already almost past 4000 words it’s time for intermission before proceeding to Part II.


Byron Cummings, Indians I Have Known, Arizona Shilhouettes. Tucson, Arizona. 1952

Max L. Heyman Jr. Prudent Soldier-A Biography of Major General E.R.S. Canby 1817-1873. The Arthur H. Clarke Company. Glendale, California. 1959

Charles Kelly, “Hoskaninni.” The Desert Magazine,  July 1941

Lawrence Kelly, Navajo Roundup, The Pruett Publishing Company. Boulder, Colorado. 1970

Frank McNitt, Navajo Wars, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1972 National Archives, Washington D.C.


4 thoughts on “Keet Seel-The Best Preserved cliff Dwellings in North America… it is said. Part I

    1. Virginia,
      Thank you. I am indeed feeling much better.
      The 1864 Quirino Maes expedition is briefly described in a letter dated March 13, 1864 from Captain A.B. Carey to Captain B.C. Cutler, who was the A.A. General to General Carleton.
      The contents of the letter can be found on page 131 of Navajo Roundup-Selected Correspondence of Kit Carson’s Expedition Against the Navajo, 1862-1865 by Lawrence C. Kelly.
      If you don’t mind me asking, I’m genuinely curious. What is your interest in the Maes expedition?

      1. Thank you for responding. I am a historian researching southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Quirino Crescencio Maes lived in Conejos, Taos County, NM in 1860. That area became Colorado Territory in 1861. He was a famous person that needs to be recognized.

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