Administrative History
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Chapter VII:

Interpretation of the cultural resources at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument has focused primarily on the cliff site. Until 1963, interpretation was largely incidental to the task of monitoring those ruins—initially by a nominal custodian and later by local men hired for the summer. For a long time, interpretation relied on discoveries made incidental to stabilization activities at the cliff site and on general observations about the Mogollon culture that were gleaned from the literature of excavations made at other—sometimes distant—sites. Despite a major excavation of the cliff dwellings in 1963, more specific interpretation of the site was constrained by the untimely death of Gordon Vivian, the excavator, before a formal report could be produced. Most of the items recovered by Vivian were not reported scientifically until 1986.

A brief review of interpretative activities divides easily into four periods: 1907 to 1933, when the Gila National Forest staff initially administered the monument; 1933 to 1962, when the Park Service administered the monument prior to expansion; 1962 to 1975, when the Park Service administered the monument after expansion; and 1975 to the present, when administrative responsibility was returned to the Gila National Forest. During this last period, formal plans to manage cultural resources were developed, as well.

Interpretation I
1907 to 1933

No formal interpretive program for Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was developed by Gila National Forest staff. In 1915, however, in response to a request from the Department of the Interior, a forest ranger did write a four-page description of the cliff dwellings, which included general directions for reaching the remote site. [1] Details of this description, after some editing, were included on the official 1915 map of the forest. [2] One of the memorable liberties taken by the editor was to attribute the cliff dwellings to an ancient race of dwarfs, an imaginative idea first reported in a 1913 issue of the popular Sunset magazine. [3]

The idea of ancient dwarfs was subsequently dropped for the more reasonable but vague attribution "ancient cliff dwellers," but the gist and most details of the original 1915 description continued for many years to appear in Gila National Forest publications and later in leaflets printed by the Park Service. As late as 1955, Dale King, a naturalist with Southwestern National Monuments, took exception to the numerous—and in his opinion belittling—inaccuracies of the description, [4] but a substantially better version was not written until 1963.

Interpretation II
1933 to 1962

After the Park Service became responsible for Gila Cliff Dwellings, the site appeared in an official brochure promoting visits to all the southwestern monuments except Yucca House, which was reserved for future scientific research. Included in the 1940 brochure were rough hand-drawn maps to the various monuments, and conspicuously isolated in the midst of white paper was Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. [5] During the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration supported a few unofficial descriptions and histories that relied on such various sources as Bandelier's report, the Silver City Chamber of Commerce, and plain imagination. [6]

In 1941, after his visit on horseback to the remote site, the new director of Region III recommended that visits to Gila Cliff Dwellings be discouraged and that the monument be managed as a reserve unit without interpretation. [7] Small numbers of visitors continued to tour the ruins, however, usually as part of their stay at one of the two nearby guest ranches—Lyons Lodge and the Gila Hot Springs Ranch—much as guests had done since the 1890s. "Doc" Campbell, the nominal custodian, owned the latter guest ranch and occasionally brought people to the monument himself. In 1947, casting about for more than the cursory information contained in the official leaflet, Campbell wrote to the Smithsonian Institution and subsequently to Erik Reed and Charlie Steen. [8] Ultimately, the responses were two brief overviews of the Mogollon culture that included contradictory attributions for the prehistoric cliff site: Reed guessed the dominant influence was Tularosa, Steen intuited a major Mimbres component, which was followed after a hiatus by an Anasazi presence.

This difference of opinion could have arisen for two reasons. For one, very little archeological research had taken place along the headwaters of the Gila. In 1949, Bandelier's description [9] from 60 years before of the cliff dwellings still stood as the most detailed scientific report. The only other formal report [10] about the vicinity was not published until 1947. It briefly described a season of salvage excavations that had occurred in the 1920s and that had skipped Gila Cliff Dwellings. Furthermore, no general overview had yet been written to integrate the still limited research that had taken place in the Mogollon area, a culture not identified until 1936 and still poorly understood and not universally accepted in 1949. Without a clear taxonomy of Mogollon cultural branches or sub-cultures, the distinction between Tularosa and Mimbres remained arguable. [11] In short, interpretation at the unexcavated Gila Cliff Dwellings was informal, unofficial, and—given the exceedingly small amount of research—vague.

In 1955, a year after Marjorie Lambert had expressed her dismay about vandalism at Gila Cliff Dwellings, "Doc" Campbell was hired for the summer as a uniformed seasonal employee. [12] At the mouth of Cliff Dweller Canyon, he set up a small desk that was shaded with a tent fly, but he spent most of his time monitoring visitors to the prehistoric dwellings. There were 711 in that year. Also in 1955, the quantity and value of archeological resources in the vicinity was reassessed when a proposal to abandon the monument triggered a closer look at its assets by Campbell, Richert, and his superior at the Mobile Stabilization Unit, Gordon Vivian. Together these men discovered material evidence for an unbroken 2,000-year sequence of prehistoric occupation along the headwaters of the Gila. [13] A formal interpretive program, however, was still not developed at the monument until eight years later. [14] Information about the cliff dwellings continued to rely largely on the very general cultural overviews written in the previous decade at Campbell's request and on what the nominal custodian gleaned from his own explorations and from his friendships with visiting archeologists. Each summer until 1963, Campbell—or when he was unavailable another seasonal—greeted visitors at the field desk or in the ruins.

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001