National Parks & American Indians: Mesa Verde

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Nearly a thousand years ago, Ancestral Puebloans (sometimes called Anasazi) began to construct pueblos in caves and under the rock hangings of the canyon cliffs in southern Colorado. Three hundred years later, these pueblos were abandoned because of a prolonged drought. Then in 1888, rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason came across the ruins of an enormous village in the cliffs of Cliff Canyon. They named the village Cliff Palace. In exploring the area, they discovered two more large ruins which they named Spruce Tree House and Square Tower House.

Cliff Palace

Spruce Tree House

Wetherill and Mason returned to the ruins and dug up a large number of artifacts which they later displayed at the Fair Building in Durango, Colorado.

While Wetherhill and Mason are commonly credited with “discovering” the Mesa Verde ruins, it is important to note that the Utes already knew about the Mesa Verde ruins. Most of ruins lay on Ute lands. The Utes avoided the ruins, which were considered to harbor spirits of the dead that would harm living people.

Cliff Palace 2

In addition, several non-Indians had also explored the area prior to Wetherhill and Mason. In 1765 Don Juan María de Rivera led an expedition into the area and reported seeing ancient ruins. These may have been the ruins of Mesa Verde, but the report provided no identifiable features.

In 1874, pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson was guided into Two Story House by a local miner. He took the first photographs of a cliff dwelling in the Mesa Verde region. In 1884, another prospector, S. E. Osborn, spent the winter in the area and explored Balcony House.

In 1890, Benjamin Wetherhill wrote to the Smithsonian Institution suggesting that the ruins be made into a national park so that the tourists would not destroy them.

In 1899, a group of women determined to halt the vandalism at the Mesa Verde ruins and to attract tourists to the area held a meeting on the Southern Ute reservation with Ute leaders Ignacio and Acowitz. They suggested that the Ute police the park and proposed a lease of $300 per year. Chief Ignacio demanded $9,000 at one time and the negotiations failed.

President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill which created Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. This was the first national park created to preserve ancient ruins. Today the park includes 4,000 known archaeological sites which include 600 cliff dwellings.

The initial Act passed by Congress included 42,000 acres of Ute land. However, because of a faulty survey almost none of the ruins were actually located in the new national park. To correct this, the bill was amended to place all unpatented prehistoric ruins on Indian or federal land within five miles of the park boundary under the custodianship of the park.

In 1911, the Indian Service sent its top negotiator, James McLaughlin, to talk with the Ute about the expansion of Mesa Verde National Park. Meeting with 48 members of the Wiminuche Band, McLaughlin explained that a number of cliff dwellings were left out of the park. The park needed just a five mile parcel and the government would give the Ute a larger piece in exchange for it.

One of the interpreters, Nathan King, pointed out to government negotiators that the Ute already owned the land that the government was trying to give them. In addition, the lands which they would be giving up contained valuable springs. The negotiators then told the Ute that the government was strong enough to take the land away from them for the park. Having no choice, the Ute agreed to the transfer. As a result, the Ute gave up an additional 10,800 acres of their land for Mesa Verde National Park and they received 20,160 acres of their own land in exchange.

In 1913, a survey found that the boundary for Mesa Verde National Park excluded Balcony House. Without bothering to notify the Ute, Congress amended legislation to transfer an additional 1,320 acres from the reservation to the park.

Balcony House

In 1978, Mesa Verde National Park was designated as a World Heritage Site.

In 1986, the Ute took advantage of a surveying error which put part of a well-traveled road in Mesa Verde National Park on tribal lands. They established a facility that offers souvenir and refreshment sales as well as helicopter tours. The National Park Service was not happy with this unregulated facility.

In 2006, 100 years after the National Park was created, 1,500 human remains and nearly 5,000 associated funerary items-pottery, beads, basketry, and other artifacts-that had been excavated from Mesa Verde National Park during the past 100 years were repatriated and reburied at an undisclosed location within the park. The 24 tribes culturally affiliated with the park appointed the Hopi to perform the reburial ceremonies. The repatriation was carried out under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). According to the Mesa Verde National Park website:

http://www.nps.gov/meve/histor…

The reburial ceremony was a result of 12 years of consultation with the park’s 24 associated tribes, and was performed by both park staff and the Hopi tribe. Due to the sensitive nature of the event, and out of respect for the tribes, the reburial was closed to the general public and took place in an undisclosed park location.

Balcony House 2

Ancient America: Mesa Verde

Our American and Canadian heritage begins long before Columbus supposedly “discovered” the Americas. For thousands of years people have lived in North America and they built cities and towns which were, and still are, architectural wonders. One of these is Mesa Verde in Colorado which is today a National Park. In this diary, I would like to look at what we know about the history of the people who built this place.  

Mesa Verde, located in southern Colorado, is undoubtedly the best-known Native American archaeological site in the United States. Today it is a national park and here the tourists can see the magnificent cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi people. These cliff dwellings were built in shallow caves and under rock overhangs along the canyon walls. The houses, storage buildings, and other structures were built from blocks of hard sandstone held together with adobe mortar. The walls, once constructed, were then plastered with adobe mortar. In the popular press, the Mesa Verde Anasazi were a mysterious people who lived in the area for a short time (about two centuries) and then vanished. Who were these people?

Among the early inhabitants of Mesa Verde are some people called Basketmaker by archaeologists. They arrived in the Mesa Verde area about 600 CE and settled on top of the mesas. The Basketmaker pit house villages had populations of 40 to 150 people. They probably settled in this area because the mesa offered good soils, timber for house construction and plenty of wood for fuel. In addition, the region at this time received more precipitation compared to lower elevations. The mesa is high enough so that passing storms drop rain and snow, while at the same time, the mesa slopes to the southwest, which allows the sun to warm the deep, fertile soils. Other advantages included springs, game, nutritious and medicinal native plants, and quarries for obtaining the materials needed to make tools and utensils.

More than a century later-around 750 CE-Anasazi groups in the Mesa Verde area began building substantial above-group pueblos on the mesa tops and in canyon valleys. They also began construction of domestic water systems. In Morefield Canyon, the farmers began digging a reservoir. A shallow depression was constructed in the canyon bottom that breached the water table and collected runoff from the canyon slopes. In order to prevent the reservoir from filling up with sediment from the periodic runoff, it had to be routinely dredged. This was a labor intensive task that required organized crews.

In order to divert the runoff into the reservoir, the Anasazi created a rock-reinforced inlet channel. This channel, which was 1,400 feet long, had to be regularly cleaned, relocated, and elevated to maintain the proper gradient for filling the reservoir.

About fifty years later, the Anasazi farmers constructed another reservoir at Box Elder. In order to capture runoff, the Anasazi constructed an intake channel that extended up the canyon slope. At this same time, they established a village in the area.

In 950, the Anasazi farmers in Morefield Canyon in the Mesa Verde area were dredging their reservoir less frequently. Consequently, the reservoir began to fill with sediment and eventually formed a mound which was 21 feet high and 220 feet across.

At this same time, the Anasazi in the Mesa Verde area began construction of two mesa-top reservoirs: Far View and Sagebrush. Far View had a storage capacity of 80,000 gallons and Sagebrush 90,000 gallons. Both of the reservoirs were encircled by two parallel sandstone walls which stood about 10 feet apart. These walls were built to contain the sediments which were regularly dredged from the reservoirs.

In the eleventh century, the Anasazi began to construct pueblos in the caves and under the rock overhangs of the canyon cliffs. Construction of Cliff Palace began in 1073. Cliff Palace-this is the name given to the pueblo by modern archaeologists, not by the Indian people themselves-is the largest and best-known of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. The pueblo had at least 150 rooms and 23 kivas. It is estimated that Cliff Palace was once the home to about 150 people. The walls of the pueblo were built from large, well-fitted stone blocks. These blocks had to be laboriously shaped with stone hammers to present a uniform façade.

At Cliff Palace (and most of the other Mesa Verde cliff dwellings), both exterior and interior walls were finished by plastering them. The exterior walls which faced a public space were often colored red.

Construction of other cliff dwellings then followed: Oak Tree House in 1112; Spring House in 1115. Balcony House in 1190. While there were many similarities in the architectural design of each of these pueblos, each was also unique because of the individual topography of the different alcoves along the canyon walls. Pueblo architectural forms-kivas, towers, pit houses-had to conform to the allowable space in the canyon alcoves. This meant, in part, that there was a far denser concentration of the Anasazi populations.

Architecturally, there are many motifs and similarities with the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon. This includes features such as the T-shaped doors-these are doors which lead to public areas and are not closed off. There are some archaeologists who feel that these features indicate a direct connection between Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, including the migration of people. There are others, however, who interpret these similarities as simply part of a generalized Puebloan style which might have spiritual significance without implying a socioeconomic allegiance.

In 1180, the Mesa Verde Anasazi abandoned the Far View Reservoir as they moved their community from the top of the mesa to the cliff dwellings below. Here they used groundwater springs, seeps, and hand-dug wells for their water supply.

During the thirteenth century, the region began to suffer from frequent droughts as well as an increase in warfare. Many of the people who had been living on the rim of the mesa moved to the more defensible cliff dwellings.

Construction of Square Tower House began in 1204. The tower for which this site is named is the tallest structure in Mesa Verde. It originally had 80 rooms and at least seven kivas constructed in a south facing alcove. In places, the pueblo was four stories tall. It was only occupied until about 1300.

Construction of Spruce Tree House began in 1216. This pueblo was located on Chapin Mesa and was occupied for less than a century. Today, Spruce Tree House is easily accessible to tourists. In addition to the well preserved ruins, there is also a kiva with a restored roof.

While most of the construction of Mug House (named when early explorers found a cluster of mugs at the site) took place between 1250 and 1266, the first dwelling at this site on Wetherill Mesa-a small house unit with a storage room and a kiva-was actually constructed in the mid-eleventh century. By the time the pueblo was abandoned, sometime between 1276 and 1300, it had grown to 94 rooms on four levels. Included in the structure are towers, storage rooms, meal areas, and terraces. The rooms are clustered around a kiva. The kiva has a keyhole shape with a recess behind the fireplace and a deflector (so that air brought in through the tunnel to the outside does not directly impact the fire).

The entire structure for Mug House is built in a west-facing alcove that is 67 meters (221 feet) long and 15 meters (50 feet) deep. There is no spring or source of water at the site. In the canyon below the site, the Mug House occupants constructed a small reservoir that collected water runoff from the mesa top. This small reservoir is 7 meters (23 feet) long, 3 meters (10 feet) wide, and about 1 meter (3 feet) deep.

Like other Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, Mug House has a wall which divides the pueblo into two units. This suggests to archaeologists, that Mesa Verde society, like that of many contemporary Pueblo groups, was divided into moieties. That is, two groups with different social and religious functions. Each of these two units has its own tower and meal area.

The artifacts uncovered at Mug House show almost no evidence of trade with other areas. Like the residents of the other Mesa Verde pueblos, the people of Mug House made pottery: mugs, jars, ollas, bowls, and ladles. With regard to clothing, they wove cotton cloth, made yucca sandals, and made turkey feather blankets. They also made a wide variety of stone tools, including stone axes for cutting wood, stone arrowheads, and stone mauls for pounding. The milling of corn into flour was done through manos and metates.

Most of the Anasazi communities in Mesa Verde were abandoned by 1300. This abandonment was probably caused by a prolonged drought which lasted from 1276 until 1299. This drought meant that the Anasazi communities could not grow sufficient crops to maintain their population.

While there are still a few people who insist that the Mesa Verde Anasazi mysteriously vanished, it is clear that these communities were carefully evacuated and useful goods were taken with them. Today’s Pueblo people are descendents of those who once lived in Mesa Verde.

According to Pueblo oral tradition, the last Mesa Verde chief was Salavi (whose name means “Spruce.”) This respected elder sent his people away in search of better land even though he was too old to travel with them. As the people left, he told them to return in four years. If he was to blame for the lack of rain and the withering fields, then they would find no trace of him. However, if his heart is pure, they will find a sign. According to Badger Clan history, when the people returned they found a four-year-old spruce tree next to a spring which was gushing water. A clan historian then wrote this story on the rocks at Pictograph Point.