Apr 102014
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

When the Ancestral Puebloan People, popularly known as the Anasazi, Left their magnificent pueblos in Chaco Canyon and throughout New Mexico and Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado these incredible palace-like structures lay dormant for over seven-hundred years.  The descendants of these people kept the ancient places sacred in their hearts, memories and stories but never returned.

So, when ranchers, explorers, and archaeologists “discovered” the ruins of these grand houses they were a great mystery to be investigated and in some cases plundered.  The earliest reference to ancient “ruins” was made by Don Juan Maria de Rivera on an expedition ordered by New Mexico Governor Tomas Velez Cachupin in 1765.  But the reference was vague and no detail provided.

Chaco Canyon was first noted in documentation by an 1823 expedition led by New Mexican Governor José Antonio Vizcarra.   In 1832, the

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park

trader Josiah Gregg wrote about the ruins referring to Pueblo Bonito as “built of fine-grit sandstone”. In 1849, a U.S. Army detachment surveyed the ruins, but the canyon was so remote that it was scarcely visited over the next 50 years.

The miner, John Moss, found several  ruins near Mesa Verde and led his friend and photographer William Henry Jackson to some of them in 1874.  Jackson’s pictures helped call attention to the area.  William H. Holmes , leader of a geologic government survey, discovered and named a site they found on Mancos canyon, “Sixteen Window House”.  And an old prospector S. E. Osborn spent time in the Mesa Verde canyons and described many of the sites.  His name and the date March 20, 1884 are carved in a dwelling in lower Soda Canyon.

That brings us up to “a snowy December day in 1888, when Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason, while herding cattle, emerged from the dense pinon and jenniper forest at the edge of a massive canyon, probably standing right above a small, long forgotten cliff dwelling.  Through the veil of blowing snow, they spied in the cliffs across the canyon, what they said looked like a magnificent city.  They named it Cliff Palace.” [from video narrated by Courtney Miller on Youtube]

Wetherills at Spruce Tree House, 1891

Wetherills at Spruce Tree House, 1891

Richard Wetherill was part of a large ranching family out of Mancos who is generally credited with the discovery of Cliff Palace and spent much of the rest of his life exploring and collecting artifacts from the Mesa Verde region and later Chaco Canyon area.  He was also credited for naming the people that lived in the dwellings “Anasazi” after the Navajo word for “ancient enemies”.  The word came to mean “ancient ancestors”.

Depending upon whom you talk to, he was an avid amateur archaeologist that brought attention to and protected the sites or an exploitive treasure hunter that ravaged the ruins for profit.  Although, his methods were probably in line with the times, they were destructive and crude compared to the techniques developed later.  And he did appear to have a genuine interest in the ruins and the culture.  For instance, he brought in Frederick Chapin, mountaineer, author and photographer, to document theBalcony House 1890-1900 sites.  Chapin described the ruins in his 1892 book, “The Land of the Cliff Dwellers”.  The Wetherills also hosted Gustaf Nordenskiold, from Sweden, to do excavations.  He published an account of his investigation in his book “The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde”.  Unfortunately, he did considerable damage to the dwelling while gathering artifacts.  And Richard Wetherill cooperated with the Hyde excavation at Chaco Canyon.

Richard Wetherill’s father, on several occasions, petitioned to have the Mesa Verde area made into a National Park.  But it wasn’t until 1906, that Congress passed a bill creating Mesa Verde National Park.  In 1908, Jesse Walter Fewkes, an archaeologist from the Smithsonian Institution, excavated and repaired the major sites to enable visitors to see and enjoy the park.

On May 20, 1901, S. J. Holsinger obtained this sworn deposition from Richard Wetherill:
“Deponent is desirous of preserving said ruins and has exercised proprietorship and by so doing has protected said ruins from vandalism.

Wetherill Trading Post

Wetherill Trading Post

Some excavations have been made in Pueblo Bonita in a scientific & methodical manner by the American Museum of Natural History of N. Y. under the auspices & patronage of the Hyde Exploration Expedition of which deponent is manager.
Deponent has only a desire to see these ruins used for the advancement of science and believes that they should be owned and protected by the Government, of no limited status under some appropriate reservation or park. To further this and accomplish the ends desired by the Government, deponent will cooperate with the Government & deponent stands ready & will when requested by the proper authority turn over to the Government the [—?] ruins making or returning title to the Government to such ruins with such blocks of land as are necessary …”

Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed “Chaco Canyon National Monument” in 1907 and Wetherill relinquished his claim on the several parcels of land he held in Chaco Canyon containing the ruins.  Wetherill’s collection was divided into four collections.  One was sold to the Historical Society of Colorado; the second was purchased by the H. Jay Smith Exploring Company and donated finally to the University of Pennsylvania Museum; the third was taken to Sweden and found its way to the National Museum in Helsinki, Finland; and the fourth was added to the first collection and eventually both placed in the Colorado State Museum in Denver.

Wetherill Grave


In the meantime, the cattle had continued on up the canyon, so Wetherill told Begay he would discuss it with him later and he and FinnChis-Chilling-Begay raced ahead to catch up with the Sheriff’s cattle.  Quoting from a letter sent by a friend, Mrs. Quick, “Those Navajos ran ahead of the cattle and when Mr. Wetherill and Mr. Finn reached the first big arroyo crossing about a half a mile west of (unreadable text)…….armed Navajos sprang out of the arroyo and without a word began firing at them with Winchesters that they had concealed in the arroyo.  The first shot was fired at Finn but missed him; the second killed Wetherill.”

Chis-Chilling-Begay served several years for the murder before being released in 1914 due to poor health.

The legacy of the Wetherills lives on today in the Mesa Verde National Park, The Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and the Navajo National Monument.

— Courtney Miller



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