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


This past fall, I visited one of Wetherill’s grandsons—a 65-year-old retired facilities director named Jim Shaffner—at his alfalfa farm south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Shaffner is a little taller than Richard Wetherill was, but the resemblance between the two was uncanny: the prominent forehead, the narrow eyes, the strong, protruding jaw. Looking at Shaffner was like finding a mirror in time.

Though Wetherill died nearly 40 years before his birth, Shaffner has made a mission out of clearing his family name. Shaffner runs a Wetherill family website and has dedicated hundreds of hours to helping historians understand his grandfather. He’s visited every major archaeological site that Wetherill explored and has spent days hiking into the wilderness in search of clues from his family’s past. On June 22, 2010, he stood in the same place where his grandfather was murdered exactly 100 years earlier. As the setting sun blinded him, Shaffner was filled with sadness and regret. “Richard Wetherill was a great man,” Shaffner told me. “But few people know who the hell he is.”

After spending a day at Shaffner’s farm, I drove northwest toward Mesa Verde. There, I met Fred Blackburn—a historian, naturalist, and former Bureau of Land Management ranger who has written two books about the Wetherill family. Blackburn lives in Cortez and has done fieldwork in the region for 25 years. His enthusiasm for researching the Wetherills was contagious. “You can’t help but get excited about this,” Blackburn said. “The family just gets more interesting as you peel back the layers.” Blackburn has done much to further knowledge about the Wetherills, especially Richard Wetherill’s contributions to American archaeology. Blackburn’s wife also helps run the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, which houses more than 10,000 Wetherill items, including letters, financial records, and the 1891 Kodak camera that Gustaf Nördenskiold used to photograph ruins. The center has been an important repository in defense of Wetherill’s work—which was instrumental in the creation of three national parks and two national monuments.

One year after Wetherill’s murder, the Smithsonian released its Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 51. The bulletin was used as background material for literature at Mesa Verde National Park, which had received its federal designation in 1906. In it, the bulletin uses the words “early explorers” and “pothunters” almost synonymously to describe both the archaeological work and the vandalism that occurred at the mesa between 1889 and 1906. To the professional archaeologists who visited the ancient Four Corners sites, Richard Wetherill and his family were one and the same. Decades later, the narrative would shift slightly, this time criticizing Wetherill for being too thorough with his excavations. After Wetherill’s death, his family engaged in an unsuccessful project to acquit themselves and their work. Of Mesa Verde, a downtrodden, nearly 90-year-old Al Wetherill wrote in 1948: “[W]e made the trails, named the cañons, located the water holes and springs…. We uncovered the field and showed the possibilities…and now all our work is called vandalism.”

Much like the Wetherills more than a century earlier, Blackburn had become well-regarded among the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in the nearby town of Towaoc, Colorado, where he spent considerable time serving as both an unofficial historian and as a counselor for youth dealing with drug and alcohol problems. The trust Blackburn earned got him access to the approximately 80-square-mile Ute Tribal Park, a block of land adjacent to the national park. The tribal land, Blackburn assured me, was the closest anyone could come to seeing ruins as the Wetherills had viewed them at the turn of the 19th century. “You feel like Richard could come right down the canyon,” he told me. I suggested that we visit. I called Shaffner.

The guide assigned to us was Marshall Deer, a 25-year-old tribe member with sleepy eyes and a round face who’d worked at the tribal park since his teens. We met on a mild morning in late October inside a former gas station off Highway 160 outside Towaoc, 15 miles west of the national park. Except for the stunning view of Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance, the reservation appeared barren. Ribbons of white clouds gathered in the otherwise blue sky. A day earlier, a heavy rainstorm washed boulders onto the Ute park’s dirt trail and left behind a muddy sludge that made it nearly impassible in some areas. A bulldozer was sent in to clear much of the path, but we were warned that it’d be slow going. Only after Blackburn assured them that we could make it through with his diesel truck—and I later paid the $240 fee for our group—did the Utes acquiesce. Deer sat between Blackburn and me, and we headed into Mancos Canyon. Shaffner and his wife, Marie Garcia Shaffner, followed in their own truck. Our destination was Sandal House—a ruin that Richard Wetherill and his brothers visited in 1885.

The drive in was spectacular; an expanse of red desert and brush pushed up to the canyon walls on our right and left. Out one window sprung Chimney Rock, a majestic 7,900-foot formation that William H. Jackson first photographed in 1874. The canyon walls towered above us. Two miles in, the trail grew narrow and soon we found ourselves crawling along a path of rock and mud that ran parallel to the Mancos River. Cottonwood trees exploded in a kaleidoscope of reds and golds and greens; mountain jays chirped as they flitted among the branches.

Blackburn said the Wetherills’ ability to penetrate this deeply into Ute territory in the late 1800s was a “testament to the core values of their Quaker beliefs.” While most whites at the time would have viewed Native Americans as potentially hostile, the Wetherills had an altruistic view of society. “In their worldview, being white was no more special than being a Ute,” Blackburn said. Because of that, he went on, the Wetherills had something most academics couldn’t have dreamed of getting at the time: access. “The finds here weren’t something the Wetherills lucked into. They were the result of a cultivated relationship that spanned years, and that’s where the jealousy really sprung up.”

At around 12:30 p.m., we reached a tree-covered landing at the trailhead that led up to Sandal House. It had taken us more than two hours to travel fewer than five miles. We grabbed our backpacks and hiked less than a quarter of a mile up the switchback trail before reaching an opening on the canyon wall. There, pushed into a rocky overhang, was the cliff dwelling. At least 100 feet long and standing between 10 and 15 feet tall at the front, the ruin was pieced together with rectangular stone blocks the size of basketballs that were filled in between with smaller rectangular slivers and pieces of round rock. The walls in the back had almost completely crumbled, as had overhead sheets of sandstone that were smashed to pieces only a few feet from the ruin’s edge. A massive sheet of rock appeared precipitously close to falling on top of some of the walls. Centuries-old dried corn cobs and yucca root stumps were scattered on the ground, along with hundreds of pieces of broken pottery.

“Here’s your first test,” Blackburn said to me when we walked to the cliff wall at the back. “Can you find any Wetherill signatures?”

I immediately pointed to the wall. “J. Wetherill, right there,” I said—noting the name of John Wetherill. Shaffner and his wife walked toward the signature, which was foamy white from the carbonate powder released from the earlier rain. “I’ll be damned,” Blackburn said. “I haven’t seen that in 20 years.”

Dozens of signatures were written on the wall, some dating as far back as 1873. To our right was a square rock with the initials “C.W.”—brother Clayton Wetherill, whose child-mummy discovery in 1890 had whipped up interest in the family’s artifacts—carved into it. Nearby, Al Wetherill had signed his name. Blackburn led me around the ruin and to a stone ledge. He pointed to a faded note written on one of the stones.


R. Wetherill

Sept. 28 1888

3½ pm

1-3 gal. jug

Will return for

it about Oct. 2.


Did he come back for the jug? “We don’t know,” Blackburn said. “But that gives you a hint of the trust that the Wetherills had in people. They felt that they could leave something behind and they could retrieve it later.”

Blackburn led us to the far end of Sandal House, and the afternoon sun had positioned itself beautifully within the ruin. Dozens of washed-out signatures appeared like holograms on the rocks. Move six inches to the left or to the right, and the writing disappeared. A red handprint on one of the stones appeared so clearly that it looked as if the person had left it a few days earlier. I moved in closer to the wall and made out three faded letters, which were about one inch tall and four inches across: “W-I-N.”

“Here’s Win Wetherill’s signature,” I said. After months researching the family, I quickly recognized the name of Richard Wetherill’s youngest brother.

Blackburn stepped to my side. “Where?” he asked. He pulled out a notebook with a cover that reflected the sunlight. He stared, wide-eyed, as I pointed at the letters. Blackburn could see another jumble of letters below the “W-I-N.” He began to spell them out: “W-E-T-H-E-R-I-L-L.”

“I’ll be a son of a bitch!” Blackburn shouted. “Do you know what this means? This is the first ruin we’ve found with all five brothers’ names in it.” Without realizing it, I’d made a discovery. Blackburn flashed a smile. For a moment, I felt the joy that perhaps Richard Wetherill felt when he’d made his own discoveries. Blackburn asked me to sketch Win’s name on a page in his notebook, but I could only finish “W-I” before the sun began to vanish behind the canyon wall and my discovery went with it.

We soon gathered our backpacks and walked beside a broken wall to the overlook that opened up to our trail. I turned back. For a moment, I could see the ancient tribe of men and women working among the rooms—producing, creating, living, dreaming. I then envisioned Richard Wetherill, side by side with his brothers, excavating those creations and dreaming about the civilization that had once lived there.

Blackburn and the Shaffners began their descent. I looked to see if Deer, our guide, was following. I saw him crouched where two stone walls met. He was holding one of the hand-size yucca root stumps like a rosary. He dug a small hole, placed the stump inside it, covered it with dirt, and bowed his head as if in prayer. Was he simply burying it for another relic-hunting group to discover? Was he making an offering because he had brought us here? Or was he doing something more? Perhaps this was his way of protecting the last surviving links to that ancient society that aren’t behind glass or stored in a museum warehouse in some far-off place. This was a tangible connection to the past. By burying the stump, maybe he was saving a piece of himself—that piece of his ancestors who protected those ruins for centuries. I saw part of a yucca, but maybe he saw something more.

Deer turned and looked at me. He smiled. He patted the dirt, nodded his head, and then we were off.