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Scott Thybony's Grand Canyon Commentary: Curse Of The Navajo Blanket

Sorting out fact from fiction can be difficult sometimes, depending on the nature of the story. For commentator Scott Thybony, that was certainly the case with an old manuscript from the late 1800's. In his latest Grand Canyon Commentary, Thybony tells us about a story involving a trader on the Colorado River, a doomed romance and a cursed blanket...he's still not sure what to make of it.

An old manuscript sits in front of me. Never published, it relates the story of John D. Lee and a cursed Navajo Blanket.

In the spring of 1879, a trader crossed the Colorado River at Lees Ferry on his return to Utah. Don Maguire had once worked as a packer for John Wesley Powell, and was about to wrap up a trading expedition through northern Arizona. At the time, Emma Lee was running the ferry after her husband's execution for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. She needed some of the trader's goods, and in exchange, offered him a beautiful Navajo blanket, a masterpiece of weaving. "No one could see it," Maguire wrote in his journal, "and not desire it."

Only after completing the deal did the window tell him about the blanket's dark history. As soon as it came into her husband's possession, she said, his luck changed, causing all of his misfortune. The blanket ended up covering Lee's coffin when his body was carried away for burial. Claiming not to be superstitious, Maguire figured the story would only enhance its value.

He departed the next day, relieved to be leaving Arizona behind. "I curse your red-eyed rattlesnakes," he wrote, "your hated tarantulas, your villainous blow flies, your forty-seven kinds of lizards, your repulsive, death-dealing Gila monster." And then, like John D. Lee, his own luck began to turn. The trader suffered "a hundred calamities" which only ended when he lost the blanket two years later. "Never," he wrote, "will I get over the woes brought upon me by that piece of most beautiful work of human skill."

Opening the manuscript written by Maguire, I find he spent 2 years investigating the tragic story. He traced the blanket to a Navajo weaver and her beautiful daughter, who became snared in a web of love, betrayal, and revenge when a handsome stranger first appeared in the Navajo county. The weaver, Mariana, had outlived many husbands and now set her sights on the stranger, who had also caught the eye of her 17 year old daughter. Unknown to each other, they had fallen in love with the same man.

Rumors attributed Mariana's success with men to the spells she wove into her blankets. When the daughter asked her to weave one for the stranger, the mother assumed she was endorsing her desire to remarry. The daughter mistook Mariana's agreement as approval for her to wed the stranger. Stringing both of them along, he had no intention of marrying either one. Mariana spent the next 3 months weaving a perfect blanket. It would be her last.

After she presented it to the stranger, events spiraled downward. When the daughter died of a broken heart, the mother sought vengeance and had a ceremony performed to reverse the blessings she had woven into the blanket. Three months later, the stranger's horse returned home with an empty saddle and the blood-stained blanket was found hanging on a juniper branch. Maguire then recounted the violent fate of everyone connected to the blanket as it passed from one hand to the next. He called it a "curse to all who possess it."

Finishing the manuscript, I find myself left with the wild tale, probably too wild. It reads like a piece of fiction with a thread of truth running through it. The difficulty is untangling the facts from the romance the trader has woven around them. So it must remain a winter tale, an intriguing possibility, another canyon legend.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.