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Mesa Verde National Park Park History

Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve sites built by "Pre-Columbian Indians" on mesa tops and in canyon alcoves. The park, containing 52,073 acres of Federal land, is a unit of the National Park System, and the NPS, a division of the Department of Interior, administers this site.

Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, rises high above the surrounding country. For 750 years, the Ancestral Puebloans occupied the area within the park. From the hundreds of dwellings that remain, archeologists have compiled one of the most significant chapters in the story of prehistoric America. If you are able to leave your modern self behind and think only in the past, you may be able to understand and enjoy a fascinating story of life in earlier times.

There are over 4,000 known archeological sites in Mesa Verde National Park, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. Only a few of these sites have been excavated. Unoccupied for many centuries, they have been weakened by natural forces. Some were badly damaged by looters before the area was made a national park. Maximum protection must be given to the dwellings in order to preserve them. One regulation is strictly enforced: visitors may enter cliff dwellings ONLY when accompanied by a Park Ranger. However, there are over 20 mesa top sites and view points which may be visited on your own. Some sites are closed during winter.

Archeological sites of many different types are accessible to visitors. They range from pithouses built during the 500s to the cliff dwellings of the 1200s. The cliff dwellings are the most spectacular, but the mesa top pithouses and pueblos are equally important. Seen in their chronological order, these sites show the architectural development of Mesa Verde.

The Mesa Verde area was inhabited for about 800 years by agricultural people who began to drift into the area shortly after the beginning of the Christian Era. We call the first farming people in the Mesa Verde area the Basketmakers (A.D.1-400), because weaving excellent baskets was their outstanding craft. At this early date, the people did not make pottery, build houses, or use the bow and arrow. No sites dating from the early Basketmakers have been found within the boundaries of Mesa Verde National Park.

Around the year A.D. 400, the people began to make pottery and build roofed dwellings. Around the year A.D. 750, they began to use the bow and arrow. Although the people were still the same, the culture was changing. Archeologists call these people the Modified Basket-makers (A.D. 400-750). The pithouses were built in alcoves and on the mesa tops. Scores of pithouse villages have been found on the mesas, and two pithouses have been reconstructed at Mesa Verde.

Starting about A.D. 750, the people grouped their houses together to form compact villages. These have been given the name of pueblo, a Spanish term meaning village. The name, Developmental Pueblo (A.D. 750-1000), simply indicated that during this period there was a great deal of experimentation and development. Many types of house walls were used; adobe and poles, stone slabs topped with adobe, adobe and stones, and finally layered masonry. The houses were joined together to form compact clusters around open courts. In these courts were pithouses which grew deeper and finally developed into ceremonial rooms we now refer to as kivas.

During their last century, some Pueblo Indians of Mesa Verde left the mesa tops and built their homes in the alcoves that abound in the many canyon walls. This last period marks the climax of the Pueblo culture in Mesa Verde and is known as the Classic Pueblo Period (A.D. 1100-1300). The exact number of dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park is unknown, but over 600 cliff dwellings have been documented.

Beginning in A.D. 1276, drought struck the region. For 23 years precipitation was scarce. One by one the springs dried up and the people were in serious trouble. Their only escape was to seek regions which had a more dependable water supply. People left village after village. Before the drought ended, these people had left Mesa Verde area. 1765: Don Juan Maria de Rivera, under orders from Tomas Velez Cachupin, then governor of New Mexico, led what was possibly the first expedition of white men northwest from New Mexico. Rivera set out from Santa Fe to the San Juan River, crossed the southern spur of the La Plata Mountains, then traveled down the Dolores River, crossed eastward over the Uncompahgre Plateau and then down the Uncompahgre River to the Gunnison River.

1859: Professor J. S. Newberry, in his geological report of an expedition under the leadership of Captain J. N. Macomb to explore certain territory in what is now the State of Utah, makes the first known mention of Mesa Verde. It seems quite evident from his description that Newberry must have climbed to one of the highest points of Mesa Verde, possibly Park Point, and the manner in which he uses the name Mesa Verde suggests that the name was in common usage. Newberry must not have explored much of Mesa Verde because he makes no mention of cliff dwellings.

1874: The first cliff dwelling in the Mesa Verde area known to have been entered by white men, was Two-Story Cliff House in Ute Mountain Tribal Park, discovered by W. H. Jackson in September. Jackson was a photographer for the U. S. Geological and Geographical Survey. He had heard of ruins in Mesa Verde from miners and prospectors. One of these prospectors, John Moss, led Jackson into Mancos Canyon where the cliff dwelling was discovered. Jackson found other small cliff dwellings in the canyon, but Two-Story Cliff House was the only one he named.

1875: The second cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde area to be named was Sixteen Window House. It was discovered by W. H. Holmes, leader of another government survey party that passed through Mancos Canyon.

1884: Balcony House was entered by a prospector, S. E. Osborn. His name and the date March 20, 1884, were found in a dwelling in lower Soda Canyon.

1886: The first known suggestion that the area be set aside as a National Park appeared in an editorial in the Denver Tribune Republican, December 12, 1886.

1888: On December 18, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charles Mason, rode out on what is now Sun Point in search of lost cattle and first saw Cliff Palace. That afternoon, Richard found Spruce Tree House, and the next day, the two men discovered Square Tower House. Al Wetherill, Richard's brother, saw Cliff Palace sometime the year before, but he did not enter the dwelling, so the credit for "discovering" the dwelling has been given to Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason.

1889: Four of the Wetherill brothers returned to Mesa Verde to explore and dig in the ruins. In a 15 month period, they claimed to have entered 182 cliff dwellings, 106 in Navajo Canyon alone.

1890: In the January 1, 1890 issue of the Durango Herald, there is an article on Montezuma County, expressing the idea of setting aside the Mancos Canyon cliff dwellings as a National Park.

Between 1887 and 1892 the Wetherills made several trips into Mesa Verde primarily for collecting archeological material. There were at least eight individual collections assembled by the Wetherills during this period, several of which were later combined and sold as four collections.

1891: Baron Gustaf E. A. Nordenskiold, of the Academy of Sciences, Sweden, visited Mesa Verde in 1891. He is credited as being the first scientist to visit the cliff dwellings. He made a collection of about 600 items which were sent to Sweden and are now in the National Museum in Helsinki, Finland.

1901: The first bill introduced before Congress to create a National Park in the Mesa Verde was introduced February 22. The bill provided for the creation of the "Colorado Cliff Dwellings National Park". It never returned from the Public Lands Committee.

1901 to 1903: Two bills were introduced during the 57th Congress in the House of Representatives for the creation of the park. Both bills died in committee. Congressional authority was secured, however, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate for the relinquishment of the Mesa Verde tract from the Utes and an appropriation for the survey of the area.

1903 to 1905: Two more bills were introduced in the 58th Congress for the creation of the "Colorado Cliff Dwellings National Park". One of the bills (the Hogg bill) was reported back from committee with several amendments but did not receive any further action.

1906: The first bill for the creation of "Mesa Verde National Park" was introduced in the 59th Congress in 1905. This bill was subsequently passed on and Mesa Verde National Park was created June 29, 1906. It was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. Another bill passed by the 59th Congress was an "Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities", commonly referred to as the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906. This Act made it a Federal crime to collect or destroy any historic or prehistoric object or building on federally owned land.

1908: Two years after the establishment of the park, excavation and repair of the major sites was begun so that visitors could see and enjoy the park. Most of the early work was done by Jesse Walter Fewkes, archeologist, Smithsonian Institution.

1959 to 1972: The Wetherill Mesa Archeological Project is underway. Excavation of three cliff dwellings (Long House, Mug House, and Step House), a survey of Wetherill Mesa, and excavation of selected mesa-top sites are completed.

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