In 1881 the Wetherill family began ranching cattle in the southwest lands of Colorado, in present day Montezuma County, near the four-corner area. The ranchers got along well with the neighboring Ute Indians and one, Acowitz, told Richard Wetherill of a particular canyon, “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.”
It was not until December 18, 1888 Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charles Mason investigated the canyon while looking for stray cattle and discovered the structure that became known as the Cliff Palace, three stories high and nestled under a cliff overhang.
In the following years Wetherill collected thousands of artifacts from the Cliff Palace and other adobe ruins built against cliffs, ledges, and caves. Most of Wetherill’s collection eventually went to museums and a good many artifacts in the area also went to looters and were stolen by visitors.
It was not until 1906 that President Theodore Roosevelt approved the creation of Mesa Verde National Park. The park’s area is over 52,000 acres and protects over 4,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings, or pueblos, some dating back to 400 AD.
Adjoining the national park is the Ute Mountain Tribal Park of about 125,000 acres, protecting cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, wall paintings, and hundreds of surface sites.
Mesa Verde was occupied by Anasazi (meaning “ancient ones”) Indians between 600 to 1300, though there is evidence they did not leave entirely until the late 1400′s. They subsisted as farmers and hunters; their basket weaving and pottery is famous for its artistic elegance and highly prized artifacts. It is accepted that they abandoned their settlements because of an extended drought.
Mesa Verde (named for the forests of pinyon pine and juniper) is located on US Route 160, 9 miles east of Cortez and 7 miles west of Mancos, Colorado.