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Published: April/May 2009The Mystery of Everett Ruess
Everett Ruess

Finding Everett Ruess

For 75 years the disappearance of Everett Ruess has posed one of the greatest mysteries in the annals of adventure. Now, a skeleton in the desert, a navajo tale of murder, and a battery of genetic and forensic analyses may finally put the legend to rest.

Text by David Roberts
Photographs: Everett Ruess, in a previously unpublished 1933 portait by Dorothea Lange. Utah's Comb Ridge; Denny Bellson and Daisy Johnson; archaeologist Ron Maldonado by Dawn Kish (3).

Editor's Note: On October 21 the AP reported that a new round of DNA tests has called into question if the skeleton found in the Utah wilderness was actually that of Everett Ruess. Here is an update by David Roberts.

It was a chilly day in November 1934. The country had been mired in the Great Depression for more than five years, and no town felt the pinch of poverty more acutely than Escalante. Founded by Mormon pioneers 59 years earlier, the small settlement in southern Utah—then one of the most remote towns in the United States—had been stricken in successive summers by a plague of grasshoppers that ruined the crops and by the worst drought in nearly eight decades. In late autumn, the arrival of any visitor in Escalante was a rare occurrence. It was all the more surprising, then, when the thin, sandy-haired stranger rode into town from the west, saddled on one undersized burro, leading another that was packed with camping gear. His name, he told the locals, was Everett Ruess. He was from California. And although he was only 20, he had been wandering all over the Southwest for the better part of the previous four years.

Photographs, clockwise from left: The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California City, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor; Dawn Kish (3)
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  • It sure is taking National Geographic Adventure a long time to follow up on this story since the con…
  • I've read this several times. Kudos to the author who condensed a long and convoluted experience in…
  • I do not understand why dental records were not compared!?
  • Oops...looks like the horse left the barn a little early...remains were not Ruess after all. After …
  • Oops...looks like the horse left the barn a little early...remains were not Ruess after all. After …
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