December 18

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 18, 1888:

Wetherill and Mason discover Mesa Verde

While searching for stray cattle in the isolated canyons of southwest Colorado, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law stumble upon the magnificent ancient Indians ruins of Mesa Verde.

The Wetherill family started ranching in the rugged southwest lands of Colorado in 1881, and Richard and his brothers often explored the canyons and mesas for Indian ruins. Once, while looking up the mouth of Cliff Canyon, Wetherill was approached by a Ute Indian named Acowitz who reportedly told him, "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." Wetherill was intrigued, but his ranching duties kept him from exploring the canyon further.

On December 18, 1888, Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charles Mason, were searching for stray cattle on top of a broad mesa when a heavy snow began to fall. Fearing they might ride over a cliff in the blinding snow, they dismounted and were moving ahead on foot when they came to an overlook point. From across the canyon they saw a snow-blurred image of a magnificent stone city three stories high and perched high up a cliff wall under a massive rock overhang. Fascinated, Wetherill and Mason abandoned their search for the stray cattle and, after considerable effort, managed to climb up and explore the ruins for several hours.

Wetherill and Mason had stumbled across the "houses, high, high in the rocks" that Acowitz had told them about. The ruins were once the home of the Anasazi (the Indian term for "ancient ones") people. Subsequent archaeological studies showed that the Cliff Palace, as it became known, was built during the 13th century, when the Anasazi moved from the top of the mesas onto ledges and caves along the canyon walls, presumably to better defend themselves against invaders. Eventually a prolonged drought that started around 1275 forced the Anasazi to abandon their magnificent cliff dwellings.

In the years following the discovery, Wetherill collected thousands of artifacts from the Cliff Palace and other area ruins. Most of Wetherill's artifacts ended up in museums, where they could be studied by professional archaeologists and viewed by the public. The same cannot be said of the many other priceless artifacts that were stolen by visitors over the years. In order to protect the site from further looting and degradation, the Congress created Mesa Verde National Park in 1906.

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