“On this day in 1888, while searching for stray cattle, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason, two cowboys from southwest Colorado, stumbled upon the magnificent ancient Native American ruins known as Mesa Verde.
A member of a prominent ranching family and an amateur explorer, Wetherill and his family began ranching the rugged lands of southwest Colorado in 1881. They developed good relations with local tribes, including the Utes, who allowed the Wetherills to explore the region’s canyons and mesas. According to legend, during one such exploration, when Wetherill was in Cliff Canyon, an Ute Indian named Acowitz told Wetherill “”Deep in that canyon and near its head are many houses of the old people, the Ancient Ones. One of those houses, high, high in the rocks, is bigger than all the others. Utes never go there, it is a sacred place.””
The day dawned cold and blustery. Wetherill and his brother-in-law Mason spent most of the wintry afternoon rounding up stray cattle on the high mesas and steep canyons over their Mancos River winter camp. The heavy snow and blowing wind made tough work of their search, so Wetherill and Mason dismounted, rested, and led their horses on foot through the blinding snow. Suddenly, at an overlook point, they sighted what appeared to be a wintry mirage through the blowing snow. Across the canyon was a magnificent stone city three stories high and perched high up a cliff wall. Tucked under a large rock outcropping, they spied an entire village of houses, towers, and buildings strung together like an ancient apartment building. Awe-struck by the sight, the ranchers abandoned their search for stray cattle, made their way through the blinding snow, and explored the ruins for the remainder of the day. Years later, Charlie Mason described their discovery, “”From the rim of the canyon we had our first view of Cliff Palace… To me this is the grandest view of all among the ancient ruins of the Southwest.””
This was one of the “”houses, high, high in the rocks”” the Ute Indian had told them about. Wetherill and his companion named the ruin Cliff Palace. It was one of the many magnificent adobe structures in Mesa Verde, or Green Table, one of the best-preserved ancient cliff dwellings in the world. The Anasazi, or “”Ancient Ones”” built the village between 600 and 1300, after they moved from the top of the mesas into the canyon’s caves and ledges, to better protect themselves against invaders. Historians believe a prolonged drought that began around 1275 forced the Anasazi to abandon their impressive cliff dwellings.
After its rediscovery by Wetherill and Mason, artefacts from Mesa Verde were looted and exploited, as well as donated to museums. The National Park Service dedicated the Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. Today, Mesa Verde comprises more than 4,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings.”
Credit: © Arco Images GmbH / Alamy
Caption: Spanish for green table, the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde were home to the Anasazi between 600 and 1300.