The Southwestern desert states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada stretch from Texas to California, across an elemental landscape ranging from towering monoliths of red sandstone to snowcapped mountains, on a high desert plateau that repeatedly splits open to reveal yawning canyons. This overwhelming scenery is complemented by the emphatic presence of Native American cultures and the palpable legacy of America’s Wild West frontier.
Among the region’s earliest inhabitants were the Ancestral Puebloans. While their settlements and cliff palaces, abandoned seven centuries ago, are now evocative ruins, their descendants, the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and the Hopi in Arizona, still lead similar lifestyles. Arriving from the fourteenth century onwards and adopting local agricultural and craft techniques, the Navajo and the Apache appropriated vast tracts of territory, which they in turn were soon defending against European immigrants. The first such, in 1540, were Coronado’s Spanish explorers who spent two years fruitlessly searching for cities of gold. Sixty years later, Hispanic colonists founded New Mexico, an ill-defined province that extended into much of modern California and Colorado. Not until 1848 was the region forcibly taken over by the United States. Almost immediately, large numbers of outsiders began to pass through on their way to Gold Rush California.
Thereafter, violent confrontations increased between the US government and the Native Americans. The entire Navajo population was rounded up and forcibly removed to barren eastern New Mexico in 1864 (though they were soon allowed to return to northeastern Arizona), while the Apache, under warrior chiefs Cochise and Geronimo, fought extended battles with the US cavalry. Though the nominal intention was to open up lands to newly American settlers, few ever succeeded in extracting a living from this harsh terrain.
One exception were the Mormons, whose flight from persecution brought them by the late 1840s to the alkaline basin of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Through sheer hard work, they established what amounted to an independent country, with outlying communities all over the Southwest. They still constitute over sixty percent of Utah’s population and control the state’s government.
Each of the four Southwestern states remains distinct. New Mexico bears the most obvious traces of long-term settlement, the Native American pueblos of the north coexisting alongside former Spanish colonial towns like Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos. In Arizona, the history of the Wild West is more conspicuous, in towns such as Tombstone, site of the OK Corral. Over a third of the state belongs to Native American tribes, including the Apache, Hopi and Navajo; most live in the red-rock lands of the northeast, notably amid the splendour typified by the Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley.
The canyon country of northern Arizona – even the immense Grand Canyon – won’t prepare you for the uninhabited but compelling landscape of southern Utah, where Zion and Bryce canyons are the best known of a string of national parks and monuments. Moab, between majestic Canyonlands and surreal Arches in the east, is the top destination for outdoors enthusiasts. Nevada, on the other hand, is nothing short of desolate; gamblers are lured by the bright lights of Las Vegas, but away from the casinos there’s little to see or do.
The Ancestral Puebloans
The Ancestral Puebloans
Few visitors to the Southwest are prepared for the awesome scale and beauty of the desert cities and cliff palaces left by the Ancestral Puebloans, as seen all over the high plateaus of the “Four Corners” district, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah now meet.
Although the earliest humans reached the Southwest around 10,000 BC, the Ancestral Puebloans first appeared as the Basketmakers, near the San Juan River, two thousand years ago. Named for their woven sandals and bowls, they lived in pits in the earth, roofed with logs and mud. Over time, the Ancestral Puebloans adopted an increasingly settled lifestyle, becoming expert farmers and potters. Their first freestanding houses on the plains were followed by multistoreyed pueblos, in which hundreds of families lived in complexes of contiguous “apartments”. The astonishing cliff dwellings, perched on precarious ledges high above remote canyons, which they began to build around 1100 AD, were the first Ancestral Puebloan settlements to show signs of defensive fortifications. Competition for scarce resources became even fiercer toward the end of the thirteenth century and it’s thought that warfare and even cannibalism played a role in their ultimate dispersal. Moving eastward, they joined forces with other displaced groups in a coming-together that eventually produced the modern Pueblo Indians. Hence the recent change of name, away from “Anasazi”, a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemies”, in favour of “Ancestral Puebloan”.
Among the most significant Ancestral Puebloan sites are:
Magnificent cliff palaces, high in the canyons of Colorado.
Bandelier National Monument
Large riverside pueblos and cave-like homes hollowed from volcanic rock.
The largest and most sophisticated freestanding pueblos, far out in the desert.
Several small pueblo communities, built by assorted tribal groups.
Numerous canyon-wall houses above lush Walnut Creek.
Canyon-side community set in a vast rocky alcove in Navajo National Monument.
Canyon de Chelly
Superbly dramatic cliff dwellings in a glowing sandstone canyon now owned and farmed by the Navajo.
Enigmatic towers poised above a canyon.