Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto were first occupied by the Kayenta Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblan) people sometime around 1000 BC. Both narrow canyons are 1,000 feet deep, and amazingly beautiful. Over thousands of years the Rio Chelly and other streams have eroded sandstone leaving the canyon walls streaked in a crust of manganese and iron oxide. As a result, the rock is rich in red and yellow colors. There are three major archaeological sites here. They are Antelope House, White House, and Mummy Cave. In addition, there are the smaller cliff dwellings, and amazing petroglyphs. These canyons became a national monument in 1931.
The Kayenta Anasazi and their predecessors have farmed the canyons and the mesas above for 3,000 years. They grew the standard crops of corn, squash, and beans, all of which were imported from Central Mexico. They also ate wild foods, prickly pear cactus, and deer which were plentiful. Archaeologists have found cotton seed and fibers at Antelope House. Cotton was woven with other fibers and traded as a commodity with surrounding cultures. It is believed that there are over 700 archaeological ruins in this immediate area. Almost all were constructed between the years 350 AD to 1300 AD. Amazingly, this group did not construct any great kivas. They did however construct a three kiva ceremonial center at Standing Rock.
Significant increases in rainfall allowed the canyon to prosper between the years 1050 AD to 1150AD. During this time period the population increased to 800 in the canyons. Then, sometime around 1200 AD a group of people from Mesa Verde came to live with them, and both architectural designs and pottery designs changed. At this time, they constructed Mummy Cave. The eastern end of the cave was occupied more than 2,000 years ago during the Basket Maker III era. Here the Kayenta Anasazi constructed 10 houses. When it was abandoned in 1300 AD there were seventy five rooms and kivas in use.
Archaeologists also tells us that the White House Ruins were built in Chacoan style and that the construction began in 1060 AD. It contained eighty rooms and kivas, and held a population of just under one hundred. Antelope House was believed to have been finished by 1100 AD in Kayenta style masonry. Archaeologist have found ruins under Antelope House that date to before 700 AD. Antelope House was a multistory pueblo that contained 91 rooms. This cliff dwelling gets its name from the nearby petroglyphs of antelope. Persistent drought forced the Anasazi to migrate northward in 1300. The first cliff dwelling to be abandoned was Antelope House in 1270. Subsequently, in later years the Hopi began occupying the canyon. Then, by 1700 the Navajo took control of the canyon and named it “Tseyi”, which means rock canyon.
After the Pueblo revolt of 1680 many tribes fled here. However, it was the Navajo that suffered at the hands of Kit Carson and his men in 1863. Carson was merciless and his men slaughtered the livestock and destroyed everything in the canyon. The Navajo were no match for the United States Army. They were forced on a “Long Walk” and were relocated in eastern New Mexico.