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Monument Valley, with its striking spires, breathtaking buttes and mesmerizing mesas, has enchanted Navajos for ages. Thanks to filmmaker John Ford and a vast cast of photographers, the valley exemplifies the American West for those who have seen it, either in person or in pictures.

Ancient Origins

Before director John Ford had a better idea and filmed Western movies there, and before early tourists found it with their motorcars, Monument Valley was largely the domain of the Navajos. And long before the Navajos, the Anasazi (“Ancient Ones”) inhabited this magical place that straddles today’s Arizona-Utah border. The cliff-dwelling Anasazi mysteriously vanished from the region around the 13th century. The Navajos moved in sometime later, setting up house in hexagonal or octagonal domed hogans— many still do. Today less than 1,000 Navajos reside year-round in the valley, many without running water or electricity.

Traditionally, Navajos in the valley raised livestock (sheep, goats and horses) and crops (corn, beans and squash), despite the arid conditions. They traveled in clans with their livestock between summer and winter hogans. Their relationship with Spaniards and Mexicans was uneasy at best (at worst, back-and-forth raiding was common, and slave traders targeted Navajo children). The United States was owner of record in the wake of the Mexican War, but the Navajos resisted. In the 1860s, the tribe had to deal with Kit Carson and Union soldiers, who rounded up many of them for a forced exodus (the “Long Walk”) to a reservation in New Mexico Territory. American silver miners were the next to arrive. But the Navajos never really gave up the valley, and in 1884 President Chester A. Arthur made it part of the vast Navajo Indian Reservation.

In 1958 about one-third of the 92,000-acre valley was designated Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Visitors are welcome today, and the views are spectacular from the main road, U.S. Highway 163. But those wishing to see the full extent of the sandstone formations (which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet) must go on a bumpy but picturesque 17-mile dirt circuit by car or better yet by Navajo tour jeep. West Mitten, East Mitten, North Window, Spearhead Mesa, Totem Pole, Rain God Mesa, Three Sisters and John Ford’s Point—as riveting as these sites are in the movies, they’re even better in person. Guided tours are also available through Mystery Valley, a restricted stretch of the larger valley. Still other sections are sacred to the natives and off limits to most outsiders. That’s understandable—to visitors Monument Valley shouts, “American West!”; to the Navajos it whispers, “Home.”

Goulding and Ford Find the Valley

It was love at first sight when 24-year-old Colorado stockman Harry Goulding set foot in Monument Valley in the summer of 1921. By 1923 he was homesteading there in a tent with his other love—his 18-year-old wife, Leone, whom Harry and his Navajo neighbors nicknamed “Mike.” The couple built a two-story trading post/house on the Utah side of the border and soon won the respect of most resident Navajos. Harry and Mike helped the Navajos as much as they could during the Great Depression. In 1938, when Harry learned a Hollywood film company was scouting locations in Flagstaff, Ariz., he went to Los Angeles with an armload of Monument Valley photos taken by German photographer Josef Muench. John Ford saw the photos, also fell in love with the location and went there to film Stagecoach, starring John Wayne and co-starring dozens of hungry Navajos portraying hostile Apaches. Ford slept in the trading post, while most others bunked in tents.

Harry and the Navajos would see a lot more of Ford and company. In 1946 Tombstone came to Monument Valley in the form of a $250,000, 40-building town set built by 20th Century Fox for Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Ford went on to shoot five more Westerns near Harry and Mike’s place—Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). John Ford died in 1973, Harry Goulding in 1981, and Mike Goulding in 1992. Ford’s seven magnificent Monument Valley movies continue to entertain audiences at home and at Goulding’s Lodge (started around 1945), which lies about six miles from the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park visitor center. Not far from the lodge is Goulding’s original trading post, now a museum.

My Fort Apache Summer, 1947

I had just completed my first year of college on the GI Bill and was looking for summer work. Given all the returning World War II veterans in Southern California, jobs were scarce, so I tuned up my ’34 Ford V-8 coupe and headed to the Grand Canyon to seek employment. I wanted to pack mules, but the only openings were for tour bus drivers, and that wasn’t for me. When I heard John Ford was making a film on the Utah-Arizona border at a place called Monument Valley, I said goodbye to the Grand Canyon and followed rutted dirt roads to the location camp, then going up near Harry Goulding’s trading post. The camp manager looked me over and said: “You are now an assistant camp manager. The pay is $1 an hour plus room and board. The room is that large circus tent with the dirt floor where you can throw your bedroll.”

The circus tent was for peons like me. Secondary actors and crew got tents with wooden floors, while Ford, John Wayne and other notables stayed at the trading post. An airstrip was built to fly film and rushes—and perhaps girlfriends and wives—in and out of the valley. Once the camp was complete, the work was easy. Laundry services were overseen by a Navajo who had served in World War II with the Marines (perhaps a code talker, though the program remained a secret then). Scheduled trucks kept a 5,000-plus-gallon tank topped off with water— a luxury for the Navajo families who had moved in around our camp.

Each night we would go down and socialize with the Navajos, sometimes dancing with the women. According to convention, a gringo would give his dancing partner a present (two bits or a sack of Bull Durham or a pack of Lucky Strikes). The reservation banned alcohol, of course, but the rough and rowdy film crew was able to smuggle some in. The nearest place to buy it was at Mexican Hat, Utah, across the San Juan River. I’m not confessing, but it could be I ran in a bit at night using my hot ’34 Ford coupe.

Harry and Mike Goulding were around that summer, and at the end of each day, we could see them hobnobbing with Ford and the Fort Apache cast at a table outside the trading post. The young Richard Farnsworth (1920–2000) was serving as a stunt double for Henry Fonda, who played Lt. Col. Owen Thursday. Richard and I met years later in Roswell, N.M., and rehashed our memories of those days. Ben Johnson was head wrangler in charge of the Fort Apache horses. The story goes that after Johnson stopped a runaway wagon, Ford gave him a chance as an actor. I don’t recall seeing Shirley Temple (who played Fonda’s daughter, Philadelphia Thursday), but I took a photo of the stagecoach she and Fonda rode into Fort Apache in the opening scenes. I also photographed crews setting up for the big ambush scene in a draw not far north of Goulding’s. (When I saw the Navajos in their ambush positions with .44 Winchesters, I was glad it was 1947 and they were friendly.) The draw was also where Wayne (Captain Kirby York) and Pedro Armendáriz (Sergeant Beaufort) met Mexican actor Miguel Inclán, who did an excellent job as Apache Chief Cochise.

Since ’47, I have been fortunate to return to Monument Valley a number of times with Martha, my wife of 60 years. One trip was particularly magical, as we visited the monumental valley under a full moon.


Born in the mountains of Arkansas and raised in Arkansas, Texas, California and Arizona, Bert Murphy joined the U.S. Army at age 17 in 1944 and served during World War II, Korea and the Cold War. The owner of a mineral company, he lives in Roswell, N.M. Bert has written, among other things, four nonfiction “Trailing Louis L’Amour” books, a novel and a children’s educational book.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.