Richard Wetherill—who explored countless cliff dwellings across the Southwest, including Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace—may have been the most influential American archaeologist of the late 19th century. So why haven’t you ever heard of him?
On the morning of December 18, 1888, Richard Wetherill awoke at his camp on Mesa Verde and prepared for a morning chasing stray cattle across the desert that surrounded him. White powder draped itself over a patchwork of piñon and juniper trees across the mesa as Wetherill mounted his horse. He moved slowly from one canyon to the next. Red sandstone walls disappeared into dark shadows hundreds of feet below his horse’s hooves.
Ute country surrounded him. For the past three years, the tribe had allowed Wetherill, his four brothers, and their father to winter cattle on this land, which was a four-hour horseback ride from the family’s ranch in Mancos, near the Four Corners region where the borders of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. The agreement was a rare détente between the natives and the white settlers who’d recently begun to move into southwest Colorado. The Wetherills repaid their debt with food, occasional shelter, and respect. To show reverence for his hosts, Richard Wetherill used a winter camp that was composed of a group of tepee-like, brush-and-tree “wickiups” set on the mesa.
After traveling a few miles, Wetherill stopped his horse on land above what today is known as Cliff Canyon. He dismounted and surveyed the land. As Wetherill scanned the distance, his future brother-in-law—a ranch worker named Charles Mason—pulled up to his side and got off his horse. The surroundings were unfamiliar to both men. They were shoulder to shoulder, standing among a cluster of trees that had burned in a wildfire. Wetherill looked across the canyon. Suddenly, he grabbed Mason’s arm.
Roughly 1,000 yards in front of them stood what appeared to be a deserted village that was tucked into a cave below a wave of sandstone. In the sunlight, the buildings, framed by the blackened cliff’s lip and dozens of pine trees, looked otherworldly. At least a dozen windows faced the men, like coal-black eyes staring across the canyon. Wetherill could see massive rectangular buildings, two towers, and an archway. Piles of fallen rock hid untold other ruins. “It looks just like a palace,” Mason whispered finally.
Wetherill and Mason scrambled their horses to the other side of the canyon and found themselves above the overhang that protected the ruins. Using prehistoric paths and a hastily constructed, improvised ladder, the pair worked themselves down to a ledge that led them to the most surreal scene either had witnessed: a mi niature lost city.
The ruins appeared to be at least 400 feet long, 90 feet tall, and 90 feet deep. At the far ends, structures stretched skyward toward the cliff’s overhang. Wetherill and Mason climbed over fallen rocks and rubble-covered stairways, and entered several still-standing buildings. In each one, items lay on dirt floors, as if their owners planned to return any moment. Amid half-fallen walls and some fully intact structures, bowls and jugs rested undisturbed atop ledges. Children’s toys were scattered among the rooms. A stone ax with leather lacing lay on the ground. One room was painted red. Fireplace altars were burned black. Whole human skeletons rested on the floors.
After several hours walking among the ruins, the men gathered the ax, pottery, bone awls, and a few other items they could carry safely. As they hiked up the cliff, they began to process what they’d seen. Without knowing it, the men had stumbled upon one of the country’s greatest archaeological sites. Wetherill would name it Cliff Palace.