Northern San Juan (Mesa Verde) Region
Bordered roughly by the Colorado River on the west and the San Juan River on the south, this area occupies the southwestern corner of Colorado and the southeastern corner of Utah. The region is alternately referred to as Northern San Juan or Mesa Verde. Big-game-hunting ancestors of the Anasazi had roamed the region for maybe 12,000 years before the time of Jesus. Nomadic hunter-gatherers periodically occupied caves and campsites in the area before the time of Jesus. (See the Northern San Juan Region Map).
The Anasazi settled on mesas and in the flatlands in the Hovenweep area, west of Mesa Verde, around A.D. 500 and planted corn, beans, squash and watermelon in the rich soil. They also gathered wild plants and herbs like beeweed, ground cherry, milkweed, cattail, wolf berry and sedge grass. Permanent Anasazi pithouse settlements sprang up at Mesa Verde about 600. Anasazi population in southeastern Utah tripled by 750 as clusters of pithouse villages formed.
Between 800 and 900 there was another population boom as settlements were established around Mesa Verde and in the area east of Blanding, Utah. New buildings of mud and sticks were built above ground. In the 900s jacal construction began to give way to the stone masonry that has survived to this modern era. [See Architecture for more detail.]
At the beginning of the 10th century, Three Kiva, Edge of the Cedars and Lowry pueblos, near Hovenweep, were built. At Mesa Verde, by the middle of the 10th century 80 percent of the population was living on the mesa tops. The remainder lived in the canyons.
The Montezuma Valley, west of Mesa Verde, was the center of a population of about 30,000 people by the year 1100. Over the next hundred years they established an elaborate system of trade routes and roads. In 1200 the Mesa Verde residents began building their stunning cliff dwellings, only to abandon them a hundred years later.
Centuries of silence
For almost 600 years after the Anasazi abandoned Mesa Verde at the end of the 13th century, the cliff dwellings lay silent, remembered mostly in the oral histories of the Pueblo descendants of the Anasazi, who had moved far away. Other Indian tribes skirted around the ancient canyons out of fear of “bad medicine.” Spanish and Mexican explorers passed by Mesa Verde between 1765 and 1848 on the Old Spanish Trail, never knowing what wonders lay just out of sight. In 1859 an American geologist climbed to the top of a mesa to catch the view. The cliff dwellings, invisible in the shady canyons below, remained “undiscovered.” Then, in 1874, William Henry Jackson, exploring for the Hayden Survey, happened into Mancos Canyon and provided white man’s first written and photographic evidence of a cliff dwelling. He named the nine-room ruin Two Story House.
By the 1880s, American pioneers had taken land in southwestern Colorado near Mancos and established ranches, often encroaching on or occupying lands the Ute Indians had occupied. There was friction. The Utes terrorized intruders, often swooping down on a ranch and burning it to the ground or attacking passing travelers. Most men were armed wherever they went. That was the norm. However, one family stood out.
Practicing Quakers, the Wetherills often went into the wilds unarmed, even though they were expert shots. Almost alone among the local ranchers, they rode far south into the Ute Mountain tribe’s Mesa Verde canyonlands. In time the Utes came to trust the Wetherills and even showed up at the ranch when sick or hungry. The Indians permitted them alone to graze their cattle in the deep canyons.
One day in 1886, one of the five Wetherill brothers was in the canyons twenty miles south of the ranch with the Ute chief, Acowitz. For some unexplained reason, Acowitz told Richard Wetherill what he’d told no other white man: up near the head of the canyon were the houses of the Ancient Ones.
White Man’s discovery!
Two years later, in December 1888, Richard and brother-in-law Charlie Mason were looking for strays in the deep canyons. Walking to the rim of one of the canyons they were stunned to look across at an ancient city of nearly 400 rooms. Richard gave it the name it bears today, Cliff Palace. Forgetting the lost cattle, they dropped down into Cliff Canyon and up the other side. Inside the 90-foot-deep, 400-foot-wide cavern they found pottery and tools lying there as if the occupants were just out on an errand and would be right back. That night and the following day they found and named Spruce Tree House and Square Tower House.
Later, Richard learned that his brother Al had viewed, but not entered Cliff Palace two years earlier. In any event, the 1888 find initiated decades of archaeological discovery and digging by Richard and his brothers. Despite the fact that he had no formal education, he became a pretty good archaeologist, though the trained archaeologists of that day and many in the 20th century ridiculed him. Today he still has detractors who decry some of his techniques. Yet, supporters say he was at least as good as most 19th century archaeologists and better than many. At a time when archaeologists had no idea how old the rediscovered cliff dwellings were and identified the entire culture as “Cliff Dwellers,” he is credited with discovering the Basketmaker Anasazi who preceded the Pueblo Anasazi, the builders of the cliff dwellings. His amateur identification of distinct Basketmaker characteristics let ultimately to the renaming of the Cliff Dweller culture to Anasazi. The fact remains that Richard Wetherill found more sites and more important sites than anyone else in history.
Today, two of Wetherill’s “discoveries,” Cliff Palace, the largest Anasazi cliff dwelling, and Spruce Tree House, are the only cliff dwellings open to visitors year-round at Mesa Verde. During the 1920s and 30s, Cliff Palace, like most publicly accessible cliff dwellings, was extensively rebuilt by archaeologists (some say over-reconstructed). With more than 500,000 visitors annually, Mesa Verde is America’s favorite Anasazi site.