SW National Parks Trip: Mesa Verde History

We got to visit to Mesa Verde National Park! Mesa Verde means green table in Spanish, named for the flat topped mesa that is covered in piñon pine (also spelled pinyon, but I prefer the Spanish spelling) trees.  Mesa Verde National Park was created on June 29, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt.  The current boundaries of the park encompass 81.4 square miles, or around 52,000 acres.  Almost 600,000 people visit the park each year.

The entrance sign at Mesa Verde National Park – Yep, that’s snow…

The entrance sign at Mesa Verde National Park – Yep, that’s snow…

The land was once a giant ocean, and the canyons that exist today were created when the ocean and waterways receded, and erosion worked its magic on the sedimentary layers. Elevations in the park range from a low of 6,000 feet to a high of 8,572 feet.  Mesa Verde is the only National Park in the country that was created to protect a cultural site, and it is also a Unesco World Heritage Site – designated in 1978.  Mesa Verde protects over 4,700 archaeological sites created by the Puebloan culture, including dwelling sites, spiritual sites, ancient roads and other sites. Over 600 of the structures in Mesa Verde are cliff dwellings – these are the sites that the park is most famous for.

The first culture to live and farm at Mesa Verde were known as the Basketmakers.  Sources vary on the date, but it seems that they began living in Mesa Verde beginning about 400 A.D.  They made very detailed and beautifully woven baskets, which they used for many utilitarian purposes, including storage, cooking, and carrying water.  They lined some baskets with pitch in order to waterproof them for carrying water.

Around 550 A.D. the Puebloan people were living on the mesa tops, growing maize and hunting to supplement their diet. They also domesticated turkeys and dogs.  This culture discovered pottery methods, and they turned their attention to making pottery and fewer baskets. During this period on the mesa tops, they started out living in pit houses, which were houses dug into the ground of the mesa, with a roof made from timbers laid in rows and covered with reeds, brush and earth.

In about 750 A.D., they began to build villages on the mesa tops from adobe.  Initially, the walls were fashioned with a simple mud and pole construction, but over time their methods improved, and they began constructing buildings using stone masonry with adobe mortar. At this time, they were still living on the mesa tops.

What most people don’t know is that the Puebloan people only began to build the cliff dwellings that Mesa Verde is famous for in the 1190s. And the Puebloan people are thought to have left the area around 1300 due to a prolonged drought – that means they lived in the cliff dwellings for only slightly more than 100 years. Of course, that explains why only 600 of the 4,700 archaeological sites are cliff dwellings.

Between around 1300 and the 1800s, the Ute tribe came to the area. Spanish explorers traveled through the area in 1776, looking for a route from Santa Fe to California. They described the mesa and the canyons during their expedition, but apparently did not get close enough to see the cliff dwellings tucked into the alcoves.

In the 1870s, the area was home to the Ute tribe, and trappers and prospectors moved through the area. The Utes had long known about the cliff dwellings, but considered them to be sacred sites and did not live in them. One prospector, John Moss, found a cliff dwelling in 1873 and described it for the greater population. In 1876, a federally financed survey crew came through; that led to the first discussion of a systematic study of ruins in the American Southwest.

Meanwhile, the Wetherill family were living and ranching in the area, and had befriended the local Utes, who told them about the cliff dwellings tucked into the alcove. After gaining permission to winter their cattle in the canyons, Richard Wetherill spotted Cliff Palace and climbed up to it. He and his family and friends explored Cliff Palace and collected many of its artifacts. Some he sold to the Historical Society of Colorado, and many he kept for himself. The Mesa Verde dwellings were no longer a secret.

Cliff Palace – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

In 1891, the Wetherills hosted Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a Swedish explorer and mineralogist. He introduced scientific methods of collection and cataloguing of artifacts, and meticulously documented and photographed all of the artifacts he found. Unfortunately, he also packed up a large number of them and shipped them to Sweden. The collection then was acquired by the National Museum of Finland, where it still resides today. It’s really sad. This was a major catalyst in the dialogue for protecting the site in the future.

Fortunately, the movement to preserve Mesa Verde had a lot of interest, and was ultimately successful.  I’ll post about our visit to the park next!



3 thoughts on “SW National Parks Trip: Mesa Verde History

    • This was the first time we had been, but we loved it! I’m sure I could have spent a week there and not see it all. I hope you will come back and check out my other posts when I have them posted – more of Mesa Verde is coming soon! Camille

  1. Pingback: SW National Parks Trips: Great Houses at Chaco Culture | Wine and History Visited

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