Mesa Verde, Part 5: Rediscovery

This is Part 5 of a 7-part series about Mesa Verde National Park. To read the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!


The Ancestral Puebloans never returned to Mesa Verde after their hasty exodus in the late 1200’s. For centuries, their cliff dwellings stood unoccupied. The Ute Indian tribe moved into the area and discovered the dwellings, but they regarded them as haunted, and stayed away from them.

For hundreds of years, ruins like this, at Long House, remained mostly undisturbed by humans.

In 1776, two Spanish explorers named Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, traveled through this green table top area, and appropriately dubbed it “Mesa Verde.” But the cliff dwellings were so well hidden, they were not spotted by these men.

The first European to have discovered the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde was likely a trapper named John Moss who, in 1873, described a cliff dwelling in his journal.

Several mesas at Mesa Verde. The furthest is known as Point Lookout, and is easy to spot from Highway 160, below. My brother and I hiked to the top, and enjoyed a commanding view.

Soon after, word began to spread. A curious journalist named Virginia McClurg, who wrote for the New York Daily Graphic, decided to visit the area in 1882 and 1885. During these journeys, she discovered three cliff dwellings that we now know as Echo Cliff House, Three Tier House, and Balcony House.

Around this same time, a family of cattle ranchers named the Wetherills obtained permission from the Ute Indians to winter their cattle on the Ute reservation. The Utes told them about a special cliff dwelling, and this led to the discovery of the spectacular Cliff Palace. Cliff Palace is considered to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America.

Cliff Palace. This cliff dwelling contains 23 kivas, 150 rooms, and had a population of about 100 people. The layout of the structure suggests it may have been an important political center that governed surrounding communities.

The Wetherill’s explored Cliff Palace and a few other cliff dwellings, and collected some of the many artifacts that were left behind by the Ancestral Puebloans. Then they hosted a Swedish archaeologist on their ranch, named Gustaf Nordenskiold. He introduced scientific methods to artifact collection. But he also shipped many of the artifacts he collected, to Sweden. Today, they are a long way from home, lost to America, and are currently housed at the National Museum of Finland.

Cliff Palace has a much lower-than-average number of rooms to kivas, at about 6.5-to-1. The average ratio for communities was 12-to-1. This suggests it was frequently used as a meeting place for various clan leaders in the local area.

This loss of such national treasures got Americans a little concerned. A hue and cry was raised after Nordenskiold’s misappropriation, to protect Mesa Verde and its resources. Politicians responded and in 1889, Goodman Point Pueblo became the first pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Mesa Verde region to gain federal protection.

A mural, painted by the Puebloans in the 13th century, found in a tower at Cliff Palace.

But all the other sites at Mesa Verde remained unprotected. During the 1890s, hordes of souvenir hunters descended upon the area. They ravaged Cliff Palace, and other cliff dwellings. They broke open walls to allow light into dimly lit rooms. They removed roof beams, to burn as firewood, which destroyed the roofs of the ancient buildings. And they carted off tons of artifacts, which they sold to museums and private collections throughout the world.

This left preservationists howling. Virginia McClurg, the journalist from the New York Daily Graphic, began lobbying Denver to preserve the area as a state park. She was soon joined by another woman named Lucy Peabody, except that Lucy lobbied Washington, DC, to create a National Park out of Mesa Verde.

A kiva at Coyote Village, in Far View Sites, Mesa Verde. This is the only kiva I saw that had wooden rails. I have no idea what purpose they served.

Peabody prevailed in 1906, when Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park. But because of the efforts of both of these women, Mesa Verde has sometimes been dubbed the “Women’s Park.”

Their efforts also led to the passage of the Federal Antiquities Act of 1906. This law gives the president the authority to create national monuments from federal lands, by presidential proclamation, in order to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features. Since its passage, the Antiquities Act has been used more than a hundred times, by most presidents, to create national monuments throughout the United States. So perhaps all of our national monuments should be called, “Women’s Monuments.”

Today, Mesa Verde National Park covers 82 square miles of ancient antiquity, including about 5,000 archaeological sites, and more than 600 cliff dwellings. It receives about 500,000 visitors per year, which pales in comparison to the millions of visitors received by some of our other, better known parks, such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Admittedly, it is not one of our most popular national parks. But in my opinion it is one of our most interesting.

In our next post, we’ll be leaving Mesa Verde to visit one of its neighbors. It’s a national monument, where other Ancestral Puebloans lived and thrived.

My brother surveying the view from the top of Point Lookout at Mesa Verde.


Categories: Travel

23 replies »

  1. Joseph Campbell advised that,“If you want to understand what’s most important to a society, don’t examine its art or literature, simply look at its biggest buildings.” He was talking about the concentrations of power. I agree with your idea about the dwellings and who lived in them. And since religion tends to be used to justify leadership in most pre-industrial societies, I’d guess they also doubled as religious centers.

    I’m wondering if they were able to collect water runoff from the mesa?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I like that advise from Campbell. It does seem that those with the most power live and work in the biggest buildings.

      There were seeps in the caves of the cliff dwellings that provided an ample supply of water. Even today, they still produce water. And according to one park ranger, the amount of water they produce is about the same as the amount they produced 800 years ago, when the cliff dwellings were built.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Cheers to the women who pushed for the Mesa Verde to become a National Park. This is on my list now of a place that I would love to visit and see up close, thanks to your posts and photos.
    Sad about those who stole artifacts and destroyed other parts of the cliff dwellings. Why do people have to be like that??

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The most important is that tourist still visit. I want to visit after reading this. In fact I was hunting your site to find this chapter. It was hard. WordPress didn’t want to show me and hid it good. 😤

    Liked by 1 person

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