Mesa Verde National Park History
On June 29, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt
established Mesa Verde National Park to "preserve the works of man," the
first national park of its kind. Today, the continued preservation of
both cultural and natural resources is the focus of the park's research
and resource management staff.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Visitors to Mesa Verde Park can get a sense of the strong
cultural traditions of the region reflected in the 'Modified Pueblo
Revival' architecture and the use of indigenous stone and timber as
primary building materials in Park structures. The Mesa Verde
Administrative District was built in Modified Pueblo Revival style that
was designed to enhance and compliment the surrounding landscape. The
landscape features of native vegetation, flagstone steps, and stone
curbs in turn compliment the buildings. Sandstone was the principal
material used and was layered to form walls approximately 18 inches
thick, held together with mud mortar and then finished smooth. The
ceiling and roof structures are supported by peeled pinon, fir, and
juniper beams (vigas) that extend out from the walls. The large woodwork
of beams, doors, and lintels bear adz marks for added texture and a
rustic character. Interior walls are plaster and some typical interior
features are southwestern fireplaces, flagstone or tongue in groove
flooring and bancos (built in benches).
Early Hopi architecture was the basis for Modified Pueblo Revival
developed by Jesse Nusbaum and his wife Aileen, during Jesse's initial
tenure as park superintendent from 1921 to 1931. This style of
architecture was derived from the Nusbaums study of the 1886 -1887,
Bureau of American Ethnology Report by Cosmos and Victor Mindeleff,
which analyzed early Hopi architecture before Anglo influences. It was
the Nusbaum's intent that Modified Pueblo Revival would not imitate or
detract from the existing cliff dwellings. The architecture was designed
to show a later style in Pueblo construction, a style of architecture of
the probable descendants of the people who once lived in the Cliff
Dwellings. Jesse believed that a compatible blending of new and old
would enhance interpretation of the ancient ruins. Jesse and Aileen
together developed the plans for the Modified Pueblo Revival structures
in the park; Aileen typically did the building design sketches and
plans. Modified Pueblo Revival style established an architectural theme
that became unique to Mesa Verde National Park. Nusbaum, an
archeologist, left his position working under Dr. Edgar L. Hewett at the
Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe to accept the Mesa Verde Superintendent
position. He served as Superintendent from 1921 - 1931, again in 1936 -
1939 and 1942 - 1946.
The Mesa Verde Administrative District was designated a National
Historic Landmark in May of 1987. A National Historic Landmark
demonstrates exceptional value or quality in interpreting and
illustrating the heritage of the United States. The Administrative
District is a unique historic area that resulted from the Nusbaum's
desire to develop an architectural style suited to the cultural
environment of the Park. The Modified Pueblo Revival buildings they were
the first structures built in a National Park that emphasized a cultural
theme. The contributions of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the
Historic Landmark were also significant, as the CCC built and remodeled
many of the buildings in the Administrative District during the CCC era
of 1933 to 1942. During the Nusbaums separation from Mesa Verde between
1931 - 1936 Jesse remained involved in planning the construction of
additions to the park buildings which he and Aileen had designed. The
CCC alterations replicate the workmanship and materials of the original
properties. The stone used in the building construction and remodeling
was quarried by the CCC enrollees.
Recorded Architectural Details
The architectural documentation phase
of ASCP records architectural details and features. An example of a
detail is the way that an individual stone is shaped and fitted into
place during construction. Features include openings such as doorways or
shelves built into the wall surface. A second objective of this module
is to form the organizational backbone for attaching the other data
modules such as rock art, wood inventory, or inscriptions. This is done
by proveniencing architectural features throughout the site, a process
of applying precise and consistent terminology for each wall and room.
Features and details, along with all the other data in the various
linked modules, can then be connected and cross tabulated with each wall
Taken altogether, features and details tell us about
individual room uses, and help to determine the size and composition of
Ancient Puebloan households. It is possible then to more accurately
determine the numbers of households at an given site, and more
accurately estimate populations. For example, at Cliff Palace, evidence
indicates that only 20-25 households occupied the site on a full-time
basis. The evidence is partially in the form of hearths or fireplaces (a
feature) or sooting on the walls (a detail). The hearth is currently
When linked with tree ring dating methods, the
approximate dates for certain technological innovations and inventions
at Mesa Verde can be determined. For example, the earliest dated
T-shaped doorway in a cliff dwelling is at Oak Tree House, which was
probably built in A.D. 1205. Other sites where this kind of information
has been studied include Spruce Tree House, Lancaster House, and Spring
Inscriptions The study of Euroamerican historic inscriptions
on walls or the bedrock in archeological sites is very specific and
requires an unusual mixture of field observations, library research on
old newspapers, and archival study of old photographs or personal
letters. For this reason, ASCP contracted with an experienced expert,
Fred Blackburn, to undertake the work.The objective of historical
inscription research is to determine the discovery of the sites by early
pioneers, explorers, or expeditions. Occasionally, they left their
names, initials, or the dates of their visits on wall surfaces. Many of
these records are visually quite subtle, but when discovered, they help
to verify written records and understand the activities or access routes
by early Euroamericans.
Some of these visitors may be among the first archeologists in the
Mesa Verde area. For example, early excavators may have marked room
numbers on the walls. The records research may identify which room the
artifacts came from even though the original maps have become lost
through the years. If so, room numbering marks at the site may be the
only way to match the artifacts with the rooms they were found in.
ancient inhabitants of cliff dwellings left images hammered, incised, or
painted on the alcove bedrock, boulders, or sometimes on individual
building stones. Painted images are termed pictographs, and those that
are hammered or incised are considered petroglyphs. More than just art,
these images have social or ritual importance to ancient and modern
Native peoples. For example, the images may supply evidence that clan
groups passed by during group movements of long ago, and serve as group
identity markers. They also may help to record social or ritual
responsibilities of a group within a cliff dwelling, or depict an
ancient event that has been passed down verbally for many generations.
For these reasons, not only is it important to observe and carefully
record the images at sites, but also to invite participation from modern
tribal or pueblo officials and elders to help explain or interpret them.
The architectural documentation database link
helps create a physical context for discussions of social and individual
meaning. Because studying these images is quite specialized, ASCP set up
a contract with specialist Sally Cole, who has many years of experience
in recording images and working with Native people to share their views.
Ms. Cole worked throughout the park at sites such as Square Tower House,
Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, Spring House, Painted Kiva House, and
many others. The images at Mesa Verde take many forms. In some cases,
they are included as decorations to plastered wall surfaces. One of the
best known designs is a group of three painted triangles extending
upwards from a plastered band, resembling mountains. Often, a row of
dots was placed above the triangles and the associated plastered band.
Since this motif is most commonly found at Mesa Verde National Park, Ms.
Cole believes that it can be used to help identify the association of
sites found at a distance from here with Mesa Verde, and thus help
define a broader sphere of Mesa Verde cultural influence. Petroglyphs
include animals such as bighorn sheep, lizards, birds, geometric designs
such as spirals or zigzags, and representations of humans, sometimes
with what seem to be head gear or weapons.
Wood Inventory and Tree
Wood can be used to study ancient timber
harvesting practices, the ways that wood was shaped with stone tools,
and choices about how to build roofs, balconies, or doorways. Since the
cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde sometimes have well preserved roofs
remaining after 700 years, it is a great laboratory that help to shape
the foundations of dendrochronology, or tree ring dating. Using this
process, we know that almost all of the park's more than 600 cliff
dwellings were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Furthermore, studying
sites in more detail indicates that most of the larger ones were built
over a period that spanned 20-40 years.
Studying site rooms or kivas in even greater detail
identifies the degree of remodeling or helps to determine whether there
was an earlier building that either collapsed or was torn out during
major village modifications. In such cases, timbers were recycled and
re-used, as indicated by sooting on individual beams. These recycled
beams may be sooted because they were in a room with a hearth. If there
is no hearth or sooting in the rest of the room, ancient recycling is
probably the behavior shown. Architectural context created by other
database modules is invaluable for making such interpretations.
The Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University
of Arizona is among the nation's leading institutions in studying tree
rings. They have professional teams that travel to collect samples
throughout the country. Tree-ring samples are collected by coring beams
or sawing out sections of wood. Reductions in the size of drill bits has
allowed collecting much smaller samples, which lessens the impact to the
old wood. The samples brought back to the laboratory for comparisons
with a master chronology. This may help identify the year and sometimes
even the season that the tree was cut down for use, and can also help
determine the climate from long ago.
There is evidence at Mesa verde of manipulating living
trees in order to harvest wood. Living trees at the park began to grow
when the cliff dwellings were being built. One area of trees, called the
Shulman Grove, has been suggested as a location where trees were
purposely bent over, and the limbs harvested as they grew upward from a
horizontal stem. This would have allowed beams to have been cut without
killing the tree. More work is continuing in the Shulman grove; if this
research is successful, Mesa Verde may prove to have the earliest
tangible example of ancient timber husbandry in the nation.