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Chapter I:


The record of archeological discovery on the Gila headwaters is the product of two movements in American exploration, one scientific and the other vernacular. Shortly after the Civil War, the government renewed its support for scientific expeditions to inventory the unknown resources of the American West and to map the country. By the 1870s four of these field surveys were underway, led by professional men who collaborated with the great natural scientists of the age to make important discoveries in geography, geology, biology, paleontology, and archeology. Private scientific organizations supplemented these activities. At the same time, the western frontier continued to lure men and women with visions of free land, adventure, and gold, a demographic movement so important in the nineteenth century that Frederick Jackson Turner--in a famous and still influential essay presented in 1893--attributed to it the creation of America's national character and even of American democracy. In southwestern New Mexico, during the 1870s, the relocation of wandering and marauding Apache bands to reservations opened "new" country to both kinds of discovery, although a recurring threat of renegades made the explorers cautious.

Wheeler Survey

The first scientific description of a prehistoric pueblo ruin on the upper Gila River was written by Henry Wetherbee Henshaw, a self-taught ornithologist, who served from 1872 to 1879 as a naturalist and field collector with Lt. George Montague Wheeler's Geographical Surveys of the Territories of the United States West of the 100th Meridian. [33] In the summer of 1874, Henshaw traversed the Gila country just as the reservation on the Tularosa River was closing down and the Apaches were being transferred back to Ojo Caliente on the east side of the Black Range. Because Apaches had killed a member of the survey several years earlier in a famous incident west of Wickenburg, Arizona, [34] Wheeler required each of his staff to each carry a revolver, a cumbersome precaution that Henshaw found worse than useless since these guns accidentally killed one member of the survey and disabled another. Although a lot of disgruntled Apaches, still "somewhat in their primitive state," were about, the ornithologist apparently did not see any on the Gila headwaters.

Eight miles from the mouth of Diamond Creek, an early name for the West Fork of the Gila River, Henshaw and a companion recorded only as Howell saw and explored the two-room cliff dwelling that is known today as Three-Mile Ruin. The floor was covered two feet deep in rat droppings. More interesting was a large pile of broken bows and more than 1,000 reed arrows, at least one with an obsidian point still affixed. Heavy stones had been placed on the artifacts, Henshaw observed. A search for skeletons in the floor was quickly given up for want of something better than hands and sticks with which to dig, and after taking some measurements, the two men left, rarely being able to spend more than a day or two at any single locality because of the survey's enormous scope.

The discovery was incidental to most of Henshaw's work this field season, which he spent primarily in southern Arizona shooting birds with a breech-loading shotgun and dissecting them on his saddle. In his field report, published in 1875, Henshaw did include a description of his archeological find, however, and the description was included in the last volume of Lieutenant Wheeler's definitive geographical report, which was published in seven volumes in 1889. [35]

Also during the 1874 field season, another party of scientists attached to the Wheeler survey, one that included the famous paleontologist Edward D. Cope, was exploring Anasazi ruins along the San Juan River. The same year, under the auspices of the Hayden Survey--which was sponsored by the Department of the Interior--William H. Jackson and his photographic crew were hauling large-format cameras up the cliffs of Mancos Canyon in Colorado to capture the first views of the numerous cliff dwellings along the still undiscovered edge of Mesa Verde. Altogether it was an auspicious year for American archeology, foreshadowing a scientific--and popular--interest that grew very quickly over the next few years.

Jackson's large black-and-white photographs of cliff dwellings and models that he made elicited broad popular interest when they were displayed at the Centennial Exhibition that opened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1876. [36] Not long afterwards, scientific interest in archeology was invigorated by the appearance of the American Antiquarian magazine and the founding of several important societies, including the anthropology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the Anthropological Society of Washington. In 1879, John Wesley Powell, leader of a third major scientific survey of the West--also sponsored by the Department of the Interior--established the Bureau of Ethnology, incorporating it as an arm of the Smithsonian Institution. When the four western surveys were combined the same year into the United States Geological Survey, Powell retained his position as chief of the Bureau of Ethnology and laid in the coming years "the empirical foundations of archaeology in the United States." [37]

Henry Wetherbee Henshaw joined the Bureau in 1879, working as an ethnologist and later as editor of the American Anthropologist, which was founded in 1888.


The first known visitor to Gila Cliff Dwellings was Henry B. Ailman, an early emigrant to southwestern New Mexico whose "only hope for success lay in finding something rich sticking out of the ground." In the summer of 1878, already prosperous and the co-owner of the Naiad Queen silver mine in Georgetown, [38] Ailman found his name along with those of several friends on a jury list. To avoid serving they hastily organized a prospecting trip to the headwaters of the Gila River. At this time the bands of Loco and Victorio, which had fled the San Carlos Reservation the previous September, were on their best behavior, waiting anxiously in Ojo Caliente for a decision about their fate. The prospectors saw no Apaches.

Below is Ailman's account of the trip thirty miles from any settlement:

Following the west or larger [creek] up two or three miles, we came upon a specimen of an old Cliff Dweller's village situated, as was their custom, in a crevice where there was good protection afforded by a wide, overhead ledge of projecting rock. In this case, from floor to roof was about eight or nine feet. The walls were of small, flat stones laid in common mud, with no door or window frames. The walls lacked twenty inches connecting with the roof, to give the smoke a chance to escape. They had fireplaces in the center of the apartments.

In searching for relics, the only thing we could find was corncobs, very small, four to five inches long, and only in thickness like your largest finger. A fair sample of these I took with me. This dwelling was about two hundred feet up a steep hill from the creek. We concluded that they selected such sites for protection. Needless to say, Miss Virginia [soon to be his wife] got the corncobs.... [39]

The next season, Ailman wrote, another party from Georgetown visited the same ruins and, beneath a loose stone, found the desiccated body of an infant, which the explorers believed to be prehistoric. A friend of Ailman's eventually photographed the body, and years later--long after he had sold his mine, lost his fortune, and moved to California--he still had the picture. Apparently he also had some familiarity with the construction of cliff dwellings, a knowledge implied by his words "as was their custom." It is impossible to say whether this knowledge was contemporary with his trip or retrospective erudition.

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001