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

Interested as Wetherill might have been in these explorations, his work at the ranch occupied much of his days. He ran cattle, farmed oats and potatoes, and helped cut ice from the family’s reservoir during the winter. In the years after Wetherill’s Cliff Palace exploration, his family owned at least 1,000 acres, which led the local newspaper to boast that the property was “one of the most beautiful and fertile mountain farms in the West.” To get there, though, the ranch was heavily mortgaged. With compounding interest, paying off the simplest of debts became a chore.

It was the 1893 Exposition in Chicago that gave Wetherill a modicum of respectability in the scientific community. Adventure-seekers were now thick as brush around the ranch; Wetherill traveled the San Juan River into New Mexico and returned with Navajo blankets he thought he could sell to the tourists from the East Coast. To satisfy the rolling groups of travelers, Wetherill and his brothers transformed a small tack room next to their home into a museum that displayed hundreds of cliff-dweller artifacts.

Among the visitors to the Alamo Ranch were the Hyde brothers. The men wanted to begin their own collection, and they needed someone to find the artifacts. As heirs to a soap fortune, they had money to spend. By the end of 1893, Wetherill was working for them, exploring canyons nearly 100 miles away, near Bluff City, Utah.

With benefactors to underwrite his work, he made several trips to southeastern Utah from 1893 to 1897. There, Wetherill proved his knack for discovery hadn’t been a fluke. Inside cliff dwellings, he carefully removed inches of dirt at a time until he eventually found himself six feet below the cave floor, where he found human remains buried among yucca baskets and spears. Without the pottery, bows, or axes that would indicate a more advanced society, Wetherill correctly hypothesized that the civilization predated the cliff dwellers. He hurried off a letter to the Hydes and mentioned the woven baskets. This society would be known as the Basket Makers.

Wetherill made other discoveries. During one dig, he found an ancient mummy with deep cuts that were sewn together with a cord of human hair, work that indicated some sort of early medical treatment. In other parts of the canyons, he found more than 2,000 pounds of artifacts, which he sent to Colorado and then shipped to the Hydes. The brothers then gave the items to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The finds filled Wetherill with excitement, and for once he allowed himself to look beyond the present. “I want to make myself thoroughly acquainted with the whole Southwest,” he wrote to his friend, Columbia University professor T. Mitchell Prudden. “Some time in the future, I hope to do something in the way of putting my work in book form. But first I must be educated.”