December 18, 2012
On Dec. 18, 1888, as cowboys Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason were gathering strays in Colorado, they discovered the abandoned cliff dwellings that came to be know as the Cliff Palace.
The Wetherills were ranchers in the southwest corner of Colorado, and their cattle grazed in many of the canyons in the region. Wetherill and Mason were looking for cattle from the top of a mesa when they saw the dwellings built in a large cut in a cliff. Wetherill named the find the Cliff Palace.
His discovery inspired him to become an explorer, looking for sites when the Ancient Pueblo People lived. He went on to discover the Kiet Seel ruin and the Betatakin ruin. Wetherill collected a large number of artifacts from the ruins, some of which they sold to the Historical Society of Colorado, but the bulk of them remained in the family’s possession. And the family operated their ranch as guest quarters and guided parties to explore and excavate the Cliff Palace.
Among the guests were Frederick Chapin, who wrote about the dwellings and speculated on the builders in an 1892 book, “The Land of the Cliff-Dwellers,” and Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a 23-year-old Finn from a famous family of explorers and scientists. His trip to see the dwellings resulted in the first archeological excavations of the site; he also taught the Wetherills to keep records of the artifacts they found. But the excavations he supervised were devastating by modern archeological standards, and Nordenskiöld was harassed by local Coloradans when he took a large number of artifacts from the site. He was arrested, though there were no laws at the time to prevent the removal of artifacts from a site, and no Americans were ever arrested for the pillaging they conducted; he eventually took the finds and they are now in a Finnish museum.
Nordenskiöld’s 1893 book, “The Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde, Southwestern Colorado: Their Pottery and Implements,” detailed his findings.
The Cliff Palace was probably built around 1190, and occupied until 1260, by Ancient Pueblo Peoples. Archeologists speculate that the dwellings were built during a period when climate changes forced them to compete for increasingly scarce food with other tribes in the area; beginning in 1150 the southwest began experiencing a drought that lasted about 300 years. The Pueblo withdrew into more secluded areas and adapted farming and irrigation techniques to the changes in seasonal temperatures and rainfall.
Archeologists have many theories about why the Pueblo moved, and about how the climate changed their social environment and structure. There were apparently changes in the religious practices during the era that saw the Pueblo move from their established large villages into the canyon, as well as evidence that the Pueblo were forced to leave in the face of new tribes moving into their territory.
The villages that Wetherill discovered are now parts of several national parks; the Cliff Palace is in Mesa Verde National Park, the villages he explored in Chaco Canyon are now the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico, and the Kiet Seel ruin and the Betatakin ruin are in the Navajo National Monument in northeastern Arizona.
Never know what you’ll find when you go looking for strays.