On November 20, 1934, Everett Ruess set out alone into the Utah desert, taking two donkeys as pack animals. He was never seen again.
Earlier in 1934, Ruess had told his parents he would be unreachable for nearly two months, but about three months after his last correspondence, they started receiving their son’s uncalled-for mail. They wrote a letter to the post office of Escalante, Utah, on February 7, 1935. A commissioner of Garfield County, H. Jennings Allen (the husband of Escalante’s postmistress), saw the letter and decided to form a search party with other men in the area. Ruess’ donkeys were found near the north side of Davis Gulch, a canyon of the Escalante River. The only sign of Ruess himself was a corral he had made at his campsite in Davis Gulch, as well as an inscription the search party found nearby, with the words “NEMO Nov 1934”. Allen reported the discovery of the donkeys and the inscription to Ruess’ parents in a letter dated March 8, 1935. On March 15, after completing a last attempt to find Ruess in the Kaiparowits Plateau, Allen wrote a final note to the family calling an end to the search efforts.
Later searches in late May and June 1935 included an aerial survey of the land from an altitude of 12,000 feet (3,700 m), covering the ground from Lee’s Ferry to Escalante. On the ground, a party of nine horseback riders joined the search, but discontinued their effort a week later.
Some believe Ruess may have fallen off a cliff or drowned in a flash flood; others suspected he had been murdered.
The discovery of a grave site on Comb Ridge, near the town of Bluff, Utah, added to the mystery. An elderly Navajo claimed that Ruess was murdered by two Ute Native Americans who wanted his donkeys. Bones and teeth found in the grave allegedly matched Ruess’ race, age, size, and facial features. In April 2009, comparison of DNA from the remains and that of Ruess’ nieces and nephew, and comparison of the skull to photographs, seemed to confirm that the remains were those of Ruess. Two months later, however, Kevin Jones, state archaeologist of Utah, advised the remains probably were not Ruess’, since dental records from the 1930s did not match those in published photographs of the body.
On October 21, 2009, the Associated Press reported that DNA tests conducted by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology showed the remains were not those of Ruess. They identified them as of likely Native American origin. A later article in National Geographic Adventure Magazine identified problems in the DNA matching software as the source of the error.
In March 2010, the family of missing Native American Joe Santistevan was contacted by the ArmedForces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) and was informed that the Y-DNA of the remains initially identified as Ruess matched exactly to Santistevan. AFDIL found a 13-marker exact match between the man buried at the Comb Ridge site and Santistevan. AFDIL then ran another Y-DNA test and reconfirmed the 13 markers and confirmed four more exact matches. Santistevan’s remains were returned to the Navajo Nation.
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