Earth Notes: The Wetherill Photo Collection

Dec 4, 2019

By the turn of the 20th century, few Anglos had laid eyes on many of the Southwest’s natural wonders. Knowledge of Rainbow Bridge, Monument Valley and what would eventually become Zion National Park remained mostly with area tribes. Archaeological sites like Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado were also largely unexcavated.

But one ranching and trading family, the Wetherills, were captivated with the landscape and the people of the Four Corners region. John Wetherill, in particular, led many expeditions beginning in the early 1900s to explore the seemingly endless mysteries of the Southwest.

Fortunately, the Wetherill family left behind a rich photographic legacy of their travels—a collection of thousands of negatives and prints the Arizona State Museum archived and put online earlier this year. They feature often grainy black-and-white and sepia-tone images of the Wetherill’s trips. There are even shots of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback in 1913 when the former president joined the Wetherills on an expedition to Rainbow Bridge. Many people now credit these explorations with laying the foundation for the areas eventually receiving federal protections, and sparing many archaeological sites from destruction and development.

The Wetherills formed close bonds with many Native people, most notably the Navajo, who gave John Wetherill the honorary title “Hosteen John.” Many photos in the archive show tribal members on horseback, sheepherding or going about their daily lives. Others feature prominent Navajo leaders like Wolfkiller and Hosteen Luca.

The Wetherill archive is a rare glimpse into a formative period for the Southwest, and an invaluable visual record of its Indigenous people.