American graffiti - Lake Powell’s sandstone walls speak after 232 years
Across the Southwest, Native Americans, explorers, miners, settlers and Mormon pioneers have left dozens of inscriptions on rock walls. Now, a rare historical marking has been authenticated on one of the canyon cliffs that surround Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The inscription was carved when the United States was only six months old.
It was left in November 1776 by Friars Dominguez and Escalante when their exploring party became trapped in a fierce storm along the Colorado River. In a hidden canyon up from the main river channel in what is now Padre Bay, someone carved in elegant script “paso por aqui, 1776.” The words are Spanish for “we passed by here.”
The custom of carving or painting on stone in the Southwest is as ancient as the oldest Native American image of the human hand and as modern as the latest graffiti of an initialed heart. What makes one picture rock art, and the other graffiti? The answer lies in historical context.
For Native Americans, petroglyphs, or carvings on stone, and pictographs, or painted markings, are thought to reveal the ideas and migrations of their ancestors. The same is true for the descendants of 17th century Spanish explorers and colonists who left their marks at what is now El Morro National Monument, south of Gallup, N.M. El Morro protects 2,000 inscriptions and petroglyphs of travelers between the pueblo village of Zuni and the Rio Grande River along an ancient trail. Many carvings begin with the phrase “paso por aqui.”
Historian and guide Fred Blackburn, who has done extensive research on Southwestern inscriptions, calls them a primary historical record. He loves to put carved information together with an event, “especially if the written history is wrong or not recorded at all.”
Western explorers and pioneers used knives, pencils, charcoal, the tips of lead bullets and even axle grease applied with sticks when they traveled by wagon across southern Utah. Blackburn has found that within any site, including 1,000-year-old cliff dwellings, “when one person signs, especially on beautifully plastered walls, other people then record their names.” At some point, the piling-on becomes graffiti.
At El Morro, all signatures after the establishment of the monument on Dec. 8, 1906, have been removed, though the impulse to mark the rock continues. Leslie DeLong, the monument’s chief of visitor services, has developed a novel way to deflect the graffiti impulse: “We have boulders outside of the visitor center that we encourage visitors to carve on.” She hands out dull nails as writing instruments and always cautions folks not to use their car keys. After several tedious minutes of trying to scratch even a line with a nail, she says, visitors leave awed by the flowing Spanish writing etched so deeply into El Morro’s sandstone.
Along the 1,900 miles of shoreline surrounding Lake Powell, vandalism has become a common sight. Ironically, it was graffiti that led to the discovery of the 1776 Dominguez and Escalante expedition’s carving. Inscribed just under a modern graffiti, the 232-year-old inscription was discovered over a year ago by GRIT, acronym for Graffiti Removal Intervention Team. All are volunteers who spend a week on houseboats and daily scour graffiti off the sandstone walls with wire brushes. Kevin Schneider, a staffer at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, says the GRIT teams, who work for free and are supported by donations, are trained to scout for historic inscriptions. This time they hit the jackpot.
The Dominguez-Escalante inscription is the only known physical marking left from the friars’ unsuccessful attempt to find a route between Monterey, Calif., and Santa Fe, N.M. Their journal describes the perils they faced that November of 1776: “We were stopped for a long time by a strong blizzard and tempest consisting of rain and thick hailstones amid horrendous thunder claps and lightning flashes.” The storm was so fierce, “We recited the Virgin’s litany, for her to implore some relief for us, and God willed for the tempest to end.”
Now that the inscription has been authenticated, the National Park Service is keeping its exact location secret until conservation has been done at the site along with archaeological investigation near the cove. Then, says Kevin Schneider, “We want to launch a major educational campaign that it’s not appropriate for our 2 million annual visitors to scrawl names on canyon walls.”
Meanwhile, the GRIT program will soon be accepting this year’s volunteers. Who knows what historical inscriptions remain to be discovered on those arching sandstone walls?
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is professor of southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.