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 relocated his family to the middle of the Navajo reservation at Chaco Canyon. To make money on the side, he opened a trading post in a three-room, adobe-and-wood house that he built atop the vacant Native American land. Among his building supplies, Wetherill used several ancient wooden beams that had fallen inside a ruin near Pueblo Bonito—much to the consternation of archaeologists who visited the site decades later. Upon the home’s completion, Wetherill continued fieldwork under the Hyde Exploration Expedition banner.

As he had during the previous year, Wetherill fared well among the gamma grass and yucca. The Navajos nicknamed him “Anasazi,” and Wetherill called his 19-year-old wife, Marietta, “Asthanne,” Navajo for “little woman.” In addition to his excavation work at the pueblo, Wetherill began raising sheep and several horses on a 160-acre plot of desert he eventually named the Triangle Bar Triangle Ranch. By the turn of the 20th century, he and his wife had two children, several full-time ranch workers, and their trading-post business had modest success. He traded wool to local Navajo women who hand-made rugs that Wetherill purchased. Soon, with the Hydes’ help, there was a steady supply of rugs heading for the train depot and to collectors on the East Coast. Wetherill kept dozens of the rugs for himself.

After more than a decade traveling through the Southwest’s loneliest places, he’d finally found a permanent home in New Mexico. On May 14, 1900, Wetherill wrote a letter to the United States General Land Office and declared his intention to homestead the land. The request was bold: Not only had Wetherill asked for a permanent settlement in the middle of a Navajo reservation on which he relied for trading-post business, he’d also included Pueblo Bonito—and two other nearby ruins—as part of the claim. The Hydes backed Wetherill: A homestead at the dig site would protect the ruins from relic hunters and would simultaneously discourage future archaeological teams from searching the area.

What Wetherill saw as a move to shield the ruins, the federal government saw as rank opportunism. In the winter of 1900, the Santa Fe Archaeological Society asked the General Land Office to investigate the Chaco ruins “with a view to their preservation and the prevention of the system of spoliation [sic] and destruction that now prevails.” Within weeks, the society’s letter reached the territorial governor, and a land office agent was sent to investigate Wetherill and to report on the potential homestead. Two reports were later made public: Using secondhand information and rumors, the land agent claimed Wetherill called himself the “Vandal of the Southwest,” who’d bragged about mistreating Navajos and stripping New Mexico of its artifacts. In another charge, the agent reported that a Navajo debtor was locked in a ruin—alone with an ancient skull—to coerce him to pay his trading-post debts.

By the time Wetherill saw the reports, it was too late to defend himself. On March 28, 1902, the New York Times front page carried news that Wetherill’s New Mexico homestead claim had been rejected. Wetherill hardly carried the cachet to be mentioned in the Times, much less to have his name on the front page. Clearly, someone was trying to embarrass him.

The federal reports had another devastating consequence: regardless of the truthfulness of the claims against him, Wetherill was now seen as an unethical businessman and a brazen archaeologist who had destroyed the land. The General Land Office immediately shut down the Chaco Canyon dig, and the Hydes’ expedition soon ended. After only 14 years exploring, Wetherill set down his shovel and trowel forever. He continued raising stock and running the trading post, and by 1906, Wetherill indicated that he would revise his original homestead claim—this time without the ruins. He added that his family was “pleased to do this as we think no individual should have” the ruins. The next spring, he got his wish. Chaco Canyon National Monument was born.

Without his archaeological work, Wetherill found himself at the whim of Bureau of Indian Affairs officials who had been working up a dossier of Wetherill accusations: Wetherill asked Navajos to cut reservation timber for telephone poles, an act of theft; one Navajo claimed Wetherill had stolen his prize horse; Wetherill started his own police force and had his trading-post debtors arrested; and two of Wetherill’s ranch workers were caught selling liquor on the reservation. Richard T. Shelton, a Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent in New Mexico, was furious. His correspondence extended to the bureau’s office in Washington, D.C. “Richard Wetherill has done more in the past few years to retard the progress of the Indians in this section than all other causes combined,” Shelton wrote to the office in 1908. “This nest should be cleaned out.”