Rounding the Four Corners – May 2011

Names on the Rock

by Larry Larason

You see it all over Gallup.  Spray painted graffiti: illegible scrawls, usually in black paint, on walls and buildings, signifying nothing.  If it is painted over with miss-matched paint, the covering effort results in a nastier looking blotch than what was supposed to be remediated.

I’m not totally opposed to graffiti.  Graffiti has a venerable history going back to ancient Greece and Rome.  Some writers even consider graffiti to include the cave paintings found in southern Europe from the prehistoric period.  Some modern graffitists have a style and flair that makes their work worthy of being called art.  The Downtown Mural Project that decorated our town in 2004 is desirable and artistic graffiti.

But the usual spray and run is just vandalism.  A wall on my lot was tagged some years ago.  I immediately went to a paint store and got paint custom blended to match the wall and painted over the offending marks the same day I discovered them.  The graffitist got no satisfaction in seeing his work the next time he passed by.  I might have considered leaving it if it had been at all interesting.

Worse are those taggers who put their graffiti on top of ancient rock art.  A New Yorker cartoon that appeared years ago showed a couple standing in front of a cliff where they had just spray painted their names; he remarks to his wife, “Now we’re part of the grandeur of the West.”  I’m not sure that’s funny.

Rounding the Four CornersThe first time I saw one of the most famous of the Barrier Canyon Style pictograph panels at the Sego Site in Utah it had been mutilated by a couple painting their names over some of the figures.  I lived in Louisiana then and had driven out of my way to see that particular rock art.  You can imagine how disgusted I was.  It was like someone had put his name across Mona Lisa’s smile.  I had thoughts about tracking down the offenders and tagging their house with a whole can of spray paint.  The BLM eventually removed the vandalism and restored the panel at the cost of thousands of dollars.

In 2000 a 26-year-old Salt Lake City man scratched the date, his name, and “was here” across a panel of petroglyphs in Dinosaur National Monument.  He must have been feeling especially stupid that day because he had a friend take his picture in front of the panel he had just defaced.  He was arrested and pled guilty. His sentence was 7 months in prison and $3,912 restitution.

Morons like that must think, people used to put their names on rocks all the time.  Look at El Morro.  Why can’t I put my name there, too?

Well, let’s look at one name at El Morro: John Udell.  I didn’t choose his name at random; he kept a daily journal of the travels that led him there, so historians know quite a lot about him.

John Udell and his wife Emily had already traveled more than 800 miles from Missouri when John passed his 63rd birthday in Albuquerque in June of 1858.  They were members of a wagon train headed for California.  The party consisted of forty men, fifty to sixty women and children in twenty wagons and nearly 500 head of cattle.  I don’t think I could have made an arduous journey like his when I was 63, although my paternal grandfather might have been up to it, since he continued farming into his seventies.

While the wagon train was in Albuquerque they were told of a new route laid out only the year before by Lt. Edward Beale with his camel corps. The older, established, route went south down the Rio Grande before turning west.  Beale’s wagon road followed the 35th parallel and would shorten their journey by about 200 miles, or up to fifteen days of travel.  Albuquerque residents were excited about this new route because it would bring many more people through their town, so they were eagerly promoting it.  Members of the wagon train voted to try it.  What the wagon train people didn’t know was that Beale did not consider the road to be finished.  His expedition had made some improvements, but he intended to return and put in some bridges and build dams to provide water in the dry months.  Also, in his report, which had not yet been submitted to Congress, he strongly recommended that a military post be placed in the Mojave territory at the Colorado River.

The wagon train left Albuquerque on June 30, 1858.  On July 7th they camped at El Morro.  Although they were there for only one night, at least ten people of the wagon train carved their names on Inscription Rock, including three of the women.

Then it was on to Zuni, where they purchased some corn meal and produce.  Why go through Zuni?  Because that was the jumping off place.  Although Ft. Defiance existed at this time, there were no settlements or trading posts where provisions could be obtained for the next 500 miles.

Aside from difficulty in finding water on the route their journey went well until they passed the San Francisco Peaks.  In August, water was even scarcer and they were harassed by Hualapai Indians almost daily.  Some stock and oxen were lost to the Indians and one herder was badly wounded by arrows.

Finally they reached the Colorado River – Mojave tribal territory.  The Mojave apparently thought the emigrants intended to settle on tribal lands.  They would not permit that.  While the travelers cut timber to build a raft to ferry everything across the water, the Indians first harassed them and took cattle, then attacked.  All in all, 8 people were killed and a dozen wounded.  Nearly all of the livestock, especially the oxen, were run off.

The emigrants were low on ammunition so they made a tough decision and, salvaging what they could with only one wagon, began limping back to Albuquerque.  They intercepted two other wagon trains that had been convinced to try the new route, but after hearing about the Mojave’s attack, they also turned around.  Even combined, supplies quickly ran low, and they all nearly starved on the miserable two-and-a-half-month-long trek back to New Mexico.

Yes, we honor those who left their names on El Morro and at other places around the West.  They earned the right to commemorate their passage by the effort and hardships they endured to get there.  No one cares about some cretin who drove up with a six pack in the cooler and a can of spray paint.  He has done nothing to deserve a memorial.  We won’t admire him if he paints his name on a rock.  If he wants to be remembered without our contempt, he should accomplish something!

There is much more to the story of the first wagon train on Beale’s road.  For more details read Disaster at the Colorado, by Charles W. Baley [2002].  This book is available in the Octavia Fellin Library.

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