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

Richard Wetherill was always looking for something beyond his traditional frontier existence. As the oldest of five sons and one daughter born to a Midwestern Quaker family, Wetherill was raised to be both a leader and a devout laborer. In 1874, at the age of 16, he was earning money as a night-shift worker in a factory boiler room. His father left their Missouri home a few years later to prospect near the silver mines at Rico, Colorado, and soon Richard Wetherill moved West. By 1880, Wetherill and his father found a sliver of upland near the Mancos River in southwest Colorado and began planning a settlement. The next year—with his entire family now in Colorado—Wetherill and his brothers planted cottonwood trees on the arid land and built a two-room log house and a barn. They called their settlement the Alamo Ranch.

Some historians and modern archaeologists have found the family’s sensibilities to be more enlightened than that of many whites who settled southwestern Colorado. The Wetherills were outspoken proponents of the nearby Ute tribe at a time when Colorado was at the center of the anti-Native American sentiments that were sweeping across the newly settled American West. As Quakers, the family had a deep belief in “Inner Light,” the idea that every human being was an equal. The Wetherills clothed, fed, and nursed back to health numerous Utes who sought refuge at Alamo Ranch. In one photograph, Richard Wetherill stands at attention at a Ute wedding, his hat pushed up, a thick blanket wrapped around his waist.

The family background explained, at least in part, Wetherill’s fascination with history. As he walked the countryside, he was amazed by the shards of broken pottery and the large dirt mounds a few hundred yards from his family’s home. He read about the Spanish explorers’ discovery in Dolores and federal surveys that had uncovered traces of an ancient civilization in Mesa Verde. With his brothers, Wetherill began talking to other settlers who’d searched the land and had passed off the relics as “just some old Aztec stuff.” The disinterest soon worked to the Wetherills’ advantage. By 1890, Richard Wetherill had discovered or excavated more than 100 Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, an extensive system that today ranks among the world’s best-preserved. That spring, B.K. and Al Wetherill went to Durango and Pueblo to exhibit the artifacts. The trip was a disaster; Al wrote later that he’d been met with “indifference, verging on ridicule.” To locals, the ancient Native Americans were no better than the current ones who roamed Colorado and threatened white settlements. Disappointed and nearly broke from their travels, B.K. and Al brought the artifacts to Denver, where they displayed them in the Gettysburg Building on Champa Street. While B.K. and Al were in the city, another brother, Clayton, and Charles Mason, continued digging for artifacts and discovered a mummified child—the first of its kind found among the ruins. It was the macabre spark the family needed. The Wetherills shipped the remains to Denver and lines soon snaked around the block to see them. With a mummified child for passersby to ogle, interest soon extended to the mesa’s other artifacts.

After several months in Denver, the collection was sold to the art director of the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition, and news of the Wetherills’ work soon made its way across Colorado. Among those who heard about the family was Gustaf Nördenskiold, a Swedish scientist who was traveling through Denver in the spring of 1891. The son of the famed North Pole explorer Adolf Erik Nördenskiold, the 23-year-old took a detour through Mancos, and befriended Richard Wetherill and his brothers. On his visit to Mesa Verde sometime in early July that year, Richard led Nördenskiold on a tour of Cliff Palace. He was awestruck. “It was my intention to spend about one week in Mancos Cañon,” he wrote to his father. “That week has now gone by, and I have decided to extend my stay one or two months.” Nördenskiold reached a deal with Wetherill: He would pay the family to guide him through Mesa Verde and work among the ruins; in return, Nördenskiold would keep the artifacts—which he would eventually ship to the National Museum in Helsinki, Finland.

Wetherill jumped at the opportunity. Not only could he stay among the ruins, but he’d also receive the valuable scientific help he and his father had desperately wanted. Nördenskiold had the tree at Spruce Tree House cut down so he could count the rings. He showed Richard how to make proper notes—to take careful consideration of the artifacts and document where they were discovered. In one exchange, Nördenskiold saw that Wetherill continued digging with a long shovel even after he began unearthing delicate artifacts. Nördenskiold grabbed Wetherill’s shovel and handed him a trowel.

Wetherill and his brothers filled seven boxes and two wooden barrels with artifacts, and sent them to the train station in Durango. From there, Nördenskiold planned to take them to New York—and then across the Atlantic Ocean. But word of his Mesa Verde work had reached the city, and residents were indignant that a foreigner could leave the country with boxes loaded with Colorado’s history. Nördenskiold was placed under house arrest at the Strater Hotel in Durango. But without a state antiquities law to regulate the artifacts, he was eventually declared free to leave Colorado with his collection of roughly 600 relics and was soon aboard a train heading east.

The xenophobic attitude would be a recurring theme throughout Wetherill’s career, but it mattered little in the coming months. The artifacts that Al Wetherill had sold to the curator from Minneapolis were being displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Colorado Legislature now wanted its own Mesa Verde collection to exhibit at the fair. Wetherill would be a spokesman for both exhibits, a job that would endear him to a handful of scientists and two wealthy New York brothers, Fredrick and Talbot Hyde, who were developing an interest in archaeology. Mesa Verde had been cleared out, Wetherill told the Hydes. But he heard that more ruins were scattered across the Southwest. With a little help, Wetherill was certain that he could find them.