Of course, Europeans and their ancestors in the American West rarely “discovered” anything. They simply rediscovered what indigenous tribes already knew. So was the case with the Wetherill brothers of southwest Colorado, now staples in the historical timeline of Mesa Verde National Park and its 600 Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings. Nevertheless, the brothers’ story bears retelling, their contributions to the historical record of the park paramount to its national—and ultimately international—recognition.
Picture waking to a world of big skies and fresh powder at your makeshift camp on Mesa Verde. Alongside your Ute guide and your future brother-in-law, you saddle your horse and continue hunting for stray cattle, in and out of one red sandstone canyon after the next. The Utes have agreed—given the gifts and respect your family has shown—to let you winter your herd on this land. Eventually, you peer out over present-day Cliff Canyon. Your eyes are tired from squinting all day, searching for moving dots in the snow. But you see something, way out there, carved into the stone.
Such was the experience of rancher and amateur archaeologist Richard Wetherill on Dec. 18, 1888. He and his companions descended into the canyon to enter Cliff Palace, named by Wetherill for its resemblance to a palace or miniature city. They found ancient artifacts littering the floor. Deserted, but in a rush, it seemed. Richard’s brother, Al, claimed to have seen Cliff Palace the year before. Busy with work, however, he hadn’t stopped to inspect it. The mistake cost him the credit.
Over the next 15 months, according to the National Park Service, Wetherill and his brothers continued exploring the “ruins” near Mesa Verde, claiming to have entered 182 cliff dwellings in total. Today, we know the dwellings to have been inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans nearly 1,400 years ago. Fearing their discoveries would be vandalized or pilfered, the Wetherills’ father wrote the Smithsonian Institute, proposing the entire area be preserved as a national park. Those requests landed on mostly deaf ears until June 29, 1906, when the 59th Congress passed a bill for the creation of Mesa Verde National Park, and President Teddy Roosevelt signed it into law.
Spurred by his findings at Mesa Verde, Richard Wetherill would continue searching for ancient dwellings and artifacts for years to come. Today, he is credited with “discovering” Keet Seel, too, a cliff dwelling now included in the Navajo National Monument. But it is Cliff Palace for which he is remembered, the largest cliff dwelling in North America.