Ghosts on the Mesa

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?

March 2012

Nearly 124 years after Wetherill first stepped into Cliff Palace, his legacy is still a matter of debate. To the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Mesa Verde National Park every year, Wetherill is an unknown, a man whose contributions to what eventually became the park have largely been erased from history. The son of a Missouri lead miner and former Indian agent, Wetherill followed his father, Benjamin Kite, or B.K., to settle land and seek fortune in the untamed West. Over time, Wetherill transformed himself into perhaps the American Southwest’s greatest explorer—a 19th-century Indiana Jones whose discoveries in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah remain among the most significant in North American archaeology.

Wetherill did much of his work in some of the country’s most forbidding areas, often on Native American land. Wetherill once helped negotiate the release of white explorers who’d been kidnapped by Paiutes; another time, on a trip through New Mexico, he rescued his future wife when a slab of rock fell on her. After searching for a lost mule on one adventure in Arizona in 1895, he discovered an ancient cliff dwelling later named Keet Seel. At more than 150 rooms, it was the second-largest structure of its kind—next to Wetherill’s most storied discovery: Cliff Palace.

He was fluent in both Ute and Navajo, and considered a Ute man named Acowitz a friend. According to the biography, Richard Wetherill: Anasazi, by Frank McNitt, one day Wetherill was staring at the mouth of a canyon when Acowitz told a secret about “the ancient ones” whose homes were hidden deep within the mesa. “One of those houses, high, high in the rocks, is bigger than all the others,” Acowitz said. “Utes never go there. It is a sacred place.” Wetherill wanted to know more, but Acowitz shook his head. “I could tell you, but I warn you not to go there,” he said. “When you disturb spirits of the dead, then you die too.”

In the last decade of the 19th century, few established archaeologists had seen a man like Wetherill—a cowboy explorer who ventured into uncharted territories and carried little more than a trowel, a long shovel, and a single-minded desire for discovery. Wetherill worked with small crews, which often included his brothers and Native Americans, and pulled out artifacts by the boxload. From the harshest of lands, he emerged with maps, notes, and records of undiscovered societies.

Wetherill, however, was hardly the first explorer to discover ruins near the Four Corners. Explorers marched across the mountainous desert and gave Mesa Verde its name sometime in the 18th century. Late in the summer of 1776—just one month after the English colonies declared independence from the crown—two Franciscan priests searching for a route from Santa Fe to Spanish missions in California found an ancient, abandoned settlement near the present-day town of Dolores, Colorado. Later explorers passing through Mesa Verde marveled at its forbidding canyons and scrub brush, which were divided by a bitter, alkali river. The whole region was “terra incognita,” as one geologist put it. Anglos may have first seen Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings around 1861, and the famed American photographer William H. Jackson became the first person to photograph one of the mesa’s cliff dwellings when he visited the now-named Two-Story Ruin in 1874. In fact, the first Anglo person to spot Cliff Palace likely was Wetherill’s brother, Al Wetherill, who reportedly saw it from a distance around 1885 but did not enter. Even Richard Wetherill’s exploration of the ruin is something of a mystery. His Ute friend Acowitz may have accompanied both Wetherill and Mason on their initial visit to the cliff dwelling in 1888, but the Ute’s name has been almost entirely removed from the historical record.

Regardless, it was Richard Wetherill’s desire to be “thoroughly acquainted” with the land that pressed him further than any other explorer of his time. The Southwest teemed with new discoveries that often left archaeologists competing over the same land, sometimes viciously. As a frontiersman and early Colorado rancher, he was seen as an untrained archaeologist by the well-heeled academic elites who summarily dismissed his work. He was nothing more than a rogue explorer, and, as he gained notoriety, Wetherill became known as a mercenary whose digs destroyed valuable artifacts. Haunted by criticism and later unable to survey one of his most promising digs, he was nearly broke with a wife and five young children when he died on a New Mexico Navajo reservation in 1910.

Though a federal government report from 1902 claimed Wetherill had called himself the “Vandal of the Southwest,” there has been a more recent reappraisal of his contributions to early American archaeology and exploration—a recontextualization of his work and the motives behind it. “Richard got to see things that no Anglo in the Southwest ever saw before, and no one will ever see like that again,” says Mark Varien, an archaeologist and the research and education chair of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, near the Four Corners city of Cortez, Colorado. “His curiosity about ancient people went well beyond the objects he discovered. I think we have seriously underimagined this man’s intellect.”