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

Wetherill was aware of his image as a cowboy archaeologist whose finds perhaps stoked bitterness among the sea of better-educated, wealthier academics on the East Coast. Perhaps knowing that he’d been shut out of better-funded scientific work, Wetherill worked hard to keep the Hydes’ interest.

He found that the ruins in Chaco Canyon, in northwest New Mexico, were enough to grab their attention. He’d been there once, in the winter of 1895, when he’d acted as a field guide for a group of Kansans that included his future wife, Marietta Palmer. Archaeologists who’d been to the site previously had dug out parts of a trash heap, but Wetherill had found 11 ruins and had excavated parts of nearly all of them. Among those he inspected was a 72-foot-diameter, subterranean kiva—a room used for religious rituals—that had been built almost entirely with stone mauls and hammers. “The ruins there are enormous,” he wrote to the Hydes. “I stayed there until I had gotten 40 pieces of pottery.”

With the backing of the newly named Hyde Exploration Expedition, Wetherill began the dig season in the early summer of 1896 under the direction of Frederic Ward Putnam, the curator at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology. Wetherill set up a camp on the Navajo reservation in the shadow of Pueblo Bonito, a four-acre ruin first discovered by whites in 1849 during a military expedition. Putting in 13-hour days, Wetherill and nearly two dozen men—many of whom were Navajos—climbed through ruins and cleared debris. Through 1901, the excavation recorded more than 50,000 pieces of turquoise, 10,000 pieces of pottery, 5,000 stone implements, 1,000 bone and wood implements, more than a dozen skeletons, and a couple of copper bells.

For his labors, Wetherill was paid $660 for a half-year of work in 1896, but that was hardly enough to keep Alamo Ranch solvent. Now married with his first child, Wetherill found that creditors were pestering him about his family’s debts. “I have lived in uncertainty all winter and it drives me wild almost,” Wetherill wrote to Talbot Hyde. “You see, I have turned off everything I had to pay up all obligations I had [in Colorado] leaving not a thing except teams and what is in your hands—making me so horribly dependent on you.”

By the summer of 1898, Wetherill was 40 years old. His father’s health was deteriorating. Having explored widely in southwest Colorado already, Richard Wetherill, his wife, and their newborn son moved to New Mexico. He was ready to dig. Wetherill again wrote to the Hydes: He had left Colorado “for good.”