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

On June 22, 1910, one of Wetherill’s ranch workers pistol-whipped a Navajo man outside a home a few miles from Pueblo Bonito. The cowboy, a tough Texan named Bill Finn, had accused the Navajo of stealing and abusing a colt that had belonged to Wetherill’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth.

While a small group of Navajo men tried to sort out the incident, Finn returned to the Triangle Bar Triangle Ranch and explained the situation to Wetherill. They would handle the issue later: First, the pair needed to round up a small group of stray cattle that belonged to a nearby sheriff. Wetherill and Finn saddled up their horses. About a mile away, near another Ancestral Puebloan ruin called Pueblo del Arroyo, the men found the missing cattle.

As Wetherill and Finn began herding the strays, several Navajo men on horseback sidled up to the pair. Finn could see that an old man was carrying a rifle across his saddle. Another Navajo moved toward Wetherill. His name was Chis-Chilling Begay. A short, thick man, Begay was a frequent debtor at Wetherill’s store. He had an oval face, sharp cheekbones, and a plume of unkempt black hair that spiked atop his high forehead. He had a scar under his left eye.

Begay had visited the unconscious Navajo man whom Finn had beaten. He mistakenly thought the man was dead. As a boy, Begay had watched his own father get murdered at the hands of white cowboys; perhaps this would be his time to get even. Begay spoke directly to Wetherill: “Are you on the warpath?” he asked.

“If you want trouble,” Wetherill said, “it will start here and right now.”

The old man with the rifle moved forward. Wetherill snatched the weapon by its barrel and tore it from the man’s hands. Wetherill shook the ammunition out of the rifle, and whipped it against a fence post, smashing the butt. Then he and Finn rounded up the rest of the stray cattle and left.

Less than a half-mile away, among the small outcroppings at Rincon del Camino, the sun set in the distance. Wetherill and Finn drove the small cluster of cattle west across a trail that passed below a jumble of tall rocks and opened into a clearing of dirt and green-capped greasewood. Wetherill held the broken rifle in his left hand. The sun dropped lower on the horizon and cast long shadows. The light was blinding. It was 6 p.m.

Ahead in the shadows, the group of Navajos was waiting. Neither Wetherill nor Finn saw them in the distance. Begay raised a rifle and fired. A bullet whizzed by Finn. The second shot came quickly. The bullet hit Wetherill’s right hand and struck him in the chest. The force of the bullet knocked Wetherill off his horse, and he fell to the dirt. Finn was sure his boss was dead. He raised his weapon and exchanged gunfire with the Navajos; he then retreated from the ambush and left Wetherill on the ground.

Carrying a .33 Winchester rifle, Begay walked to Wetherill’s body. Begay stood over Wetherill like a victorious prizefighter. According to Frank McNitt’s Richard Wetherill: Anasazi, Begay taunted the dead man: “Are you sick, Anasazi?” Begay muttered, calling Wetherill by his nickname. The Navajo raised the Winchester, took aim at Wetherill’s face, and shot again.

The murder made headlines throughout New Mexico and Colorado, and Begay was charged with first-degree murder. Those who backed Wetherill—mostly business associates and scientists who had worked with him at digs—thought that reservation administrators had poisoned the well against him with years of unfounded accusations. Wetherill’s widow accused the reservation’s leadership of preventing Navajo debts from being paid up at the trading post—a claim that later was dismissed in court. Shelton, the Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent, worked to keep Begay free. He told a newspaper reporter that the murder was “premeditated, to a certain extent,” but that “there were some extenuating circumstances.” The shooting represented retaliation for years of Navajo mistreatment by white settlers—chief among them Richard Wetherill. Shelton later wrote that Wetherill was now “out of the way.”

With $174 in savings at the time of her husband’s murder and no prospects for a future at the trading post, Marietta Wetherill and her five children, including an infant daughter, fled to New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. She returned briefly for Begay’s trial, which Shelton successfully put off until 1912—perhaps to allow time to soften sentiment for the Navajo man.

Begay was eventually found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison. Soon after, a rumor cropped up that he’d contracted tuberculosis. Begay had only a few years to live. On June 11, 1915—with Shelton’s help and without evidence of an illness—the Navajo was released from prison after serving fewer than three years. He returned to Chaco Canyon and lived 35 more years until he died of natural causes at the age of 80.