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

After exploring Cliff Palace for the first time in December 1888, Wetherill enlisted Mason, two brothers, and three friends who’d previously led a small dig in the Four Corners region. The group began making the first of four collections that Wetherill would take from Mesa Verde during the next three years, artifacts that today are housed in museums around the world.

Cliff Palace’s excavation was remarkable for its audacity. It was done entirely on Ute land with the tribe’s implied permission. No Native American ever threatened the dig site, which perhaps was a result of the superstitions of the Utes who didn’t dare enter dwellings of the dead. For Wetherill and the other men, the Cliff Palace work was both exciting and tedious. The men stumbled over heaps of rubble; thick clouds of dust kicked up with the first shovels full of dirt each morning. For four months, the crew moved slowly from room to room—working sunup to sundown. It was an eerie feeling. “It is as though unseen eyes watched [us], wondering what aliens were invading their sanctuaries and why,” Wetherill’s brother Al wrote.

Inside undamaged buildings—some of which extended four stories high—were skeletons, preserved pots, arrows, and hundreds of other artifacts. Overhead timbers had been torn from rooms, but there was no evidence of a battle. Toward the back of Cliff Palace was a trash heap that stretched the length of the cavern, and revealed more pottery and preserved human remains.

With tree-ring data and other modern, scientific procedures, archaeologists have dated Cliff Palace to between AD 1190 and AD 1260—about the same time that Genghis Khan was sacking much of Asia, and the Catholic Church was leading its Crusades across Europe and the Middle East. The Ancestral Puebloans who lived there have been estimated to have settled as early as AD 550—decades before Muhammad was born. They were mainly subsistence farmers who grew corn atop the nearby mesas; the men hunted and the women created some of the era’s most elaborate pottery. The Ancestral Puebloans stayed until roughly AD 1300, and to this day historians are not sure what forced them to move on. At the time, Wetherill had no idea how old the ruins were, but he was certain that he’d found the remains of a great people, whom he christened “Anasazi,” Navajo for “ancient enemies.”

Less than a mile from Cliff Palace, Wetherill discovered two more dwellings, both of which were almost entirely intact. He named one Spruce Tree House, for the tree that had broken through a wall. The crew removed artifacts from all three ruins, loaded up their packhorses and mules, and sent them across the snow and brush to the Wetherills’ ranch 20 miles away in Mancos. At the ranch, Wetherill’s father, B.K. Wetherill, helped sort, catalogue, and store the items.

One day in late 1889, after the first Mesa Verde dig, B.K. Wetherill drafted a letter to the United States National Museum, a division of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. His sons would be happy to dig for the Smithsonian, he wrote, and receive scientific help with their work. Fearful that future tourists would destroy the ruins, the elder Wetherill also suggested that Mesa Verde receive federal protection. Perhaps as an enticement, he included Richard’s field notes, likely the first taken at Cliff Palace.

Writing from the Smithsonian months later, archaeologist William H. Holmes—himself a veteran of Four Corners exploration—was dismissive. There were hundreds of ruins across the Southwest, which would make research a “Herculean” task. It was a “pity that they could not be reserved and preserved.” In other words, Mesa Verde’s ruins weren’t any more important than the others. Perhaps out of negligence—or indifference—Holmes did not return the Cliff Palace notes. They have not been seen since.