A History of Discovery  

The Discovery Rainbow Natural Bridge

Department of Geography
University of California, Davis
Davis, CA 95616
©Dr. Stephen C. Jett, 1992. Used by permission of the author.
This originally appeared in KIVA Magazine, Volume 58, Number 1, 1992.


Orthodox history has it that Rainbow Bridge, the world's largest natural stone span, was first seen by literate whites on August 14, 1909, on an expedition consisting of the rival but combined parties of University of Utah archaeologists Byron Cummings and U. S. government surveyor William Boone Douglass. After a difficult journey to discover the bridge, the Cummings group and Douglass each claimed the credit, and the controversy as to "who was first" has continued to the present. There areJohn Wetherill contradictions and inconsistencies in eyewitness reports, and this paper reconstructs, to the extent possible, how John and Louisa Wetherill heard of Rainbow Bridge from Indians; how Cummings and Douglass learned of it; the actual events of the 1909 journeys to and from the bridge; and the attitudes and behaviors of the disputants before, during, and after the expedition. The article also presents evidence that neither Cummings nor Douglass was "first," that in fact the Wetherills had visited Rainbow Bridge months previous but had kept the trip a secret in order to let Cummings think he was the first white ever to see this natural wonder. There also is reason to believe that Rainbow Bridge had been seen (but not formally reported) decades earlier by prospectors, cowboys, and perhaps others.

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Rainbow Bridge

Rainbow Bridge