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?
On the morning of December 18, 1888, Richard Wetherill awoke at his camp on Mesa Verde and prepared for a morning chasing stray cattle across the desert that surrounded him. White powder draped itself over a patchwork of piñon and juniper trees across the mesa as Wetherill mounted his horse. He moved slowly from one canyon to the next. Red sandstone walls disappeared into dark shadows hundreds of feet below his horse’s hooves.
Ute country surrounded him. For the past three years, the tribe had allowed Wetherill, his four brothers, and their father to winter cattle on this land, which was a four-hour horseback ride from the family’s ranch in Mancos, near the Four Corners region where the borders of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. The agreement was a rare détente between the natives and the white settlers who’d recently begun to move into southwest Colorado. The Wetherills repaid their debt with food, occasional shelter, and respect. To show reverence for his hosts, Richard Wetherill used a winter camp that was composed of a group of tepee-like, brush-and-tree “wickiups” set on the mesa.
After traveling a few miles, Wetherill stopped his horse on land above what today is known as Cliff Canyon. He dismounted and surveyed the land. As Wetherill scanned the distance, his future brother-in-law—a ranch worker named Charles Mason—pulled up to his side and got off his horse. The surroundings were unfamiliar to both men. They were shoulder to shoulder, standing among a cluster of trees that had burned in a wildfire. Wetherill looked across the canyon. Suddenly, he grabbed Mason’s arm.
Roughly 1,000 yards in front of them stood what appeared to be a deserted village that was tucked into a cave below a wave of sandstone. In the sunlight, the buildings, framed by the blackened cliff’s lip and dozens of pine trees, looked otherworldly. At least a dozen windows faced the men, like coal-black eyes staring across the canyon. Wetherill could see massive rectangular buildings, two towers, and an archway. Piles of fallen rock hid untold other ruins. “It looks just like a palace,” Mason whispered finally.
Wetherill and Mason scrambled their horses to the other side of the canyon and found themselves above the overhang that protected the ruins. Using prehistoric paths and a hastily constructed, improvised ladder, the pair worked themselves down to a ledge that led them to the most surreal scene either had witnessed: a mi niature lost city.
The ruins appeared to be at least 400 feet long, 90 feet tall, and 90 feet deep. At the far ends, structures stretched skyward toward the cliff’s overhang. Wetherill and Mason climbed over fallen rocks and rubble-covered stairways, and entered several still-standing buildings. In each one, items lay on dirt floors, as if their owners planned to return any moment. Amid half-fallen walls and some fully intact structures, bowls and jugs rested undisturbed atop ledges. Children’s toys were scattered among the rooms. A stone ax with leather lacing lay on the ground. One room was painted red. Fireplace altars were burned black. Whole human skeletons rested on the floors.
After several hours walking among the ruins, the men gathered the ax, pottery, bone awls, and a few other items they could carry safely. As they hiked up the cliff, they began to process what they’d seen. Without knowing it, the men had stumbled upon one of the country’s greatest archaeological sites. Wetherill would name it Cliff Palace.
Nearly 124 years after Wetherill first stepped into Cliff Palace, his legacy is still a matter of debate. To the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Mesa Verde National Park every year, Wetherill is an unknown, a man whose contributions to what eventually became the park have largely been erased from history. The son of a Missouri lead miner and former Indian agent, Wetherill followed his father, Benjamin Kite, or B.K., to settle land and seek fortune in the untamed West. Over time, Wetherill transformed himself into perhaps the American Southwest’s greatest explorer—a 19th-century Indiana Jones whose discoveries in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah remain among the most significant in North American archaeology.
Wetherill did much of his work in some of the country’s most forbidding areas, often on Native American land. Wetherill once helped negotiate the release of white explorers who’d been kidnapped by Paiutes; another time, on a trip through New Mexico, he rescued his future wife when a slab of rock fell on her. After searching for a lost mule on one adventure in Arizona in 1895, he discovered an ancient cliff dwelling later named Keet Seel. At more than 150 rooms, it was the second-largest structure of its kind—next to Wetherill’s most storied discovery: Cliff Palace.
He was fluent in both Ute and Navajo, and considered a Ute man named Acowitz a friend. According to the biography, Richard Wetherill: Anasazi, by Frank McNitt, one day Wetherill was staring at the mouth of a canyon when Acowitz told a secret about “the ancient ones” whose homes were hidden deep within the mesa. “One of those houses, high, high in the rocks, is bigger than all the others,” Acowitz said. “Utes never go there. It is a sacred place.” Wetherill wanted to know more, but Acowitz shook his head. “I could tell you, but I warn you not to go there,” he said. “When you disturb spirits of the dead, then you die too.”
In the last decade of the 19th century, few established archaeologists had seen a man like Wetherill—a cowboy explorer who ventured into uncharted territories and carried little more than a trowel, a long shovel, and a single-minded desire for discovery. Wetherill worked with small crews, which often included his brothers and Native Americans, and pulled out artifacts by the boxload. From the harshest of lands, he emerged with maps, notes, and records of undiscovered societies.
Wetherill, however, was hardly the first explorer to discover ruins near the Four Corners. Explorers marched across the mountainous desert and gave Mesa Verde its name sometime in the 18th century. Late in the summer of 1776—just one month after the English colonies declared independence from the crown—two Franciscan priests searching for a route from Santa Fe to Spanish missions in California found an ancient, abandoned settlement near the present-day town of Dolores, Colorado. Later explorers passing through Mesa Verde marveled at its forbidding canyons and scrub brush, which were divided by a bitter, alkali river. The whole region was “terra incognita,” as one geologist put it. Anglos may have first seen Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings around 1861, and the famed American photographer William H. Jackson became the first person to photograph one of the mesa’s cliff dwellings when he visited the now-named Two-Story Ruin in 1874. In fact, the first Anglo person to spot Cliff Palace likely was Wetherill’s brother, Al Wetherill, who reportedly saw it from a distance around 1885 but did not enter. Even Richard Wetherill’s exploration of the ruin is something of a mystery. His Ute friend Acowitz may have accompanied both Wetherill and Mason on their initial visit to the cliff dwelling in 1888, but the Ute’s name has been almost entirely removed from the historical record.
Regardless, it was Richard Wetherill’s desire to be “thoroughly acquainted” with the land that pressed him further than any other explorer of his time. The Southwest teemed with new discoveries that often left archaeologists competing over the same land, sometimes viciously. As a frontiersman and early Colorado rancher, he was seen as an untrained archaeologist by the well-heeled academic elites who summarily dismissed his work. He was nothing more than a rogue explorer, and, as he gained notoriety, Wetherill became known as a mercenary whose digs destroyed valuable artifacts. Haunted by criticism and later unable to survey one of his most promising digs, he was nearly broke with a wife and five young children when he died on a New Mexico Navajo reservation in 1910.
Though a federal government report from 1902 claimed Wetherill had called himself the “Vandal of the Southwest,” there has been a more recent reappraisal of his contributions to early American archaeology and exploration—a recontextualization of his work and the motives behind it. “Richard got to see things that no Anglo in the Southwest ever saw before, and no one will ever see like that again,” says Mark Varien, an archaeologist and the research and education chair of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, near the Four Corners city of Cortez, Colorado. “His curiosity about ancient people went well beyond the objects he discovered. I think we have seriously underimagined this man’s intellect.”
After exploring Cliff Palace for the first time in December 1888, Wetherill enlisted Mason, two brothers, and three friends who’d previously led a small dig in the Four Corners region. The group began making the first of four collections that Wetherill would take from Mesa Verde during the next three years, artifacts that today are housed in museums around the world.
Cliff Palace’s excavation was remarkable for its audacity. It was done entirely on Ute land with the tribe’s implied permission. No Native American ever threatened the dig site, which perhaps was a result of the superstitions of the Utes who didn’t dare enter dwellings of the dead. For Wetherill and the other men, the Cliff Palace work was both exciting and tedious. The men stumbled over heaps of rubble; thick clouds of dust kicked up with the first shovels full of dirt each morning. For four months, the crew moved slowly from room to room—working sunup to sundown. It was an eerie feeling. “It is as though unseen eyes watched [us], wondering what aliens were invading their sanctuaries and why,” Wetherill’s brother Al wrote.
Inside undamaged buildings—some of which extended four stories high—were skeletons, preserved pots, arrows, and hundreds of other artifacts. Overhead timbers had been torn from rooms, but there was no evidence of a battle. Toward the back of Cliff Palace was a trash heap that stretched the length of the cavern, and revealed more pottery and preserved human remains.
With tree-ring data and other modern, scientific procedures, archaeologists have dated Cliff Palace to between AD 1190 and AD 1260—about the same time that Genghis Khan was sacking much of Asia, and the Catholic Church was leading its Crusades across Europe and the Middle East. The Ancestral Puebloans who lived there have been estimated to have settled as early as AD 550—decades before Muhammad was born. They were mainly subsistence farmers who grew corn atop the nearby mesas; the men hunted and the women created some of the era’s most elaborate pottery. The Ancestral Puebloans stayed until roughly AD 1300, and to this day historians are not sure what forced them to move on. At the time, Wetherill had no idea how old the ruins were, but he was certain that he’d found the remains of a great people, whom he christened “Anasazi,” Navajo for “ancient enemies.”
Less than a mile from Cliff Palace, Wetherill discovered two more dwellings, both of which were almost entirely intact. He named one Spruce Tree House, for the tree that had broken through a wall. The crew removed artifacts from all three ruins, loaded up their packhorses and mules, and sent them across the snow and brush to the Wetherills’ ranch 20 miles away in Mancos. At the ranch, Wetherill’s father, B.K. Wetherill, helped sort, catalogue, and store the items.
One day in late 1889, after the first Mesa Verde dig, B.K. Wetherill drafted a letter to the United States National Museum, a division of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. His sons would be happy to dig for the Smithsonian, he wrote, and receive scientific help with their work. Fearful that future tourists would destroy the ruins, the elder Wetherill also suggested that Mesa Verde receive federal protection. Perhaps as an enticement, he included Richard’s field notes, likely the first taken at Cliff Palace.
Writing from the Smithsonian months later, archaeologist William H. Holmes—himself a veteran of Four Corners exploration—was dismissive. There were hundreds of ruins across the Southwest, which would make research a “Herculean” task. It was a “pity that they could not be reserved and preserved.” In other words, Mesa Verde’s ruins weren’t any more important than the others. Perhaps out of negligence—or indifference—Holmes did not return the Cliff Palace notes. They have not been seen since.
Richard Wetherill was always looking for something beyond his traditional frontier existence. As the oldest of five sons and one daughter born to a Midwestern Quaker family, Wetherill was raised to be both a leader and a devout laborer. In 1874, at the age of 16, he was earning money as a night-shift worker in a factory boiler room. His father left their Missouri home a few years later to prospect near the silver mines at Rico, Colorado, and soon Richard Wetherill moved West. By 1880, Wetherill and his father found a sliver of upland near the Mancos River in southwest Colorado and began planning a settlement. The next year—with his entire family now in Colorado—Wetherill and his brothers planted cottonwood trees on the arid land and built a two-room log house and a barn. They called their settlement the Alamo Ranch.
Some historians and modern archaeologists have found the family’s sensibilities to be more enlightened than that of many whites who settled southwestern Colorado. The Wetherills were outspoken proponents of the nearby Ute tribe at a time when Colorado was at the center of the anti-Native American sentiments that were sweeping across the newly settled American West. As Quakers, the family had a deep belief in “Inner Light,” the idea that every human being was an equal. The Wetherills clothed, fed, and nursed back to health numerous Utes who sought refuge at Alamo Ranch. In one photograph, Richard Wetherill stands at attention at a Ute wedding, his hat pushed up, a thick blanket wrapped around his waist.
The family background explained, at least in part, Wetherill’s fascination with history. As he walked the countryside, he was amazed by the shards of broken pottery and the large dirt mounds a few hundred yards from his family’s home. He read about the Spanish explorers’ discovery in Dolores and federal surveys that had uncovered traces of an ancient civilization in Mesa Verde. With his brothers, Wetherill began talking to other settlers who’d searched the land and had passed off the relics as “just some old Aztec stuff.” The disinterest soon worked to the Wetherills’ advantage. By 1890, Richard Wetherill had discovered or excavated more than 100 Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, an extensive system that today ranks among the world’s best-preserved. That spring, B.K. and Al Wetherill went to Durango and Pueblo to exhibit the artifacts. The trip was a disaster; Al wrote later that he’d been met with “indifference, verging on ridicule.” To locals, the ancient Native Americans were no better than the current ones who roamed Colorado and threatened white settlements. Disappointed and nearly broke from their travels, B.K. and Al brought the artifacts to Denver, where they displayed them in the Gettysburg Building on Champa Street. While B.K. and Al were in the city, another brother, Clayton, and Charles Mason, continued digging for artifacts and discovered a mummified child—the first of its kind found among the ruins. It was the macabre spark the family needed. The Wetherills shipped the remains to Denver and lines soon snaked around the block to see them. With a mummified child for passersby to ogle, interest soon extended to the mesa’s other artifacts.
After several months in Denver, the collection was sold to the art director of the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition, and news of the Wetherills’ work soon made its way across Colorado. Among those who heard about the family was Gustaf Nördenskiold, a Swedish scientist who was traveling through Denver in the spring of 1891. The son of the famed North Pole explorer Adolf Erik Nördenskiold, the 23-year-old took a detour through Mancos, and befriended Richard Wetherill and his brothers. On his visit to Mesa Verde sometime in early July that year, Richard led Nördenskiold on a tour of Cliff Palace. He was awestruck. “It was my intention to spend about one week in Mancos Cañon,” he wrote to his father. “That week has now gone by, and I have decided to extend my stay one or two months.” Nördenskiold reached a deal with Wetherill: He would pay the family to guide him through Mesa Verde and work among the ruins; in return, Nördenskiold would keep the artifacts—which he would eventually ship to the National Museum in Helsinki, Finland.
Wetherill jumped at the opportunity. Not only could he stay among the ruins, but he’d also receive the valuable scientific help he and his father had desperately wanted. Nördenskiold had the tree at Spruce Tree House cut down so he could count the rings. He showed Richard how to make proper notes—to take careful consideration of the artifacts and document where they were discovered. In one exchange, Nördenskiold saw that Wetherill continued digging with a long shovel even after he began unearthing delicate artifacts. Nördenskiold grabbed Wetherill’s shovel and handed him a trowel.
Wetherill and his brothers filled seven boxes and two wooden barrels with artifacts, and sent them to the train station in Durango. From there, Nördenskiold planned to take them to New York—and then across the Atlantic Ocean. But word of his Mesa Verde work had reached the city, and residents were indignant that a foreigner could leave the country with boxes loaded with Colorado’s history. Nördenskiold was placed under house arrest at the Strater Hotel in Durango. But without a state antiquities law to regulate the artifacts, he was eventually declared free to leave Colorado with his collection of roughly 600 relics and was soon aboard a train heading east.
The xenophobic attitude would be a recurring theme throughout Wetherill’s career, but it mattered little in the coming months. The artifacts that Al Wetherill had sold to the curator from Minneapolis were being displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Colorado Legislature now wanted its own Mesa Verde collection to exhibit at the fair. Wetherill would be a spokesman for both exhibits, a job that would endear him to a handful of scientists and two wealthy New York brothers, Fredrick and Talbot Hyde, who were developing an interest in archaeology. Mesa Verde had been cleared out, Wetherill told the Hydes. But he heard that more ruins were scattered across the Southwest. With a little help, Wetherill was certain that he could find them.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Sept. 28 1888
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.