MANY years, possibly centuries, before Columbus discovered America, a community of cliff-dwellers inhabiting a group of canyons in what is now southwestern Colorado entirely disappeared.

Many generations before that, again possibly centuries, the founders of this community, abandoning the primitive pueblos of their people elsewhere, had sought new homes in the valleys tributary to the Mancos River. Perhaps they were enterprising young men and women dissatisfied with the poor and unprogressive life at home. Perhaps they were dissenters from ancient religious forms, outcasts and pilgrims, for there is abundant evidence that the prehistoric sun-worshippers of our southwest were deeply religious, and human nature is the same under skins of all colors in every land and age. More likely they were merely thrifty pioneers attracted to the green cedar-grown mesas by the hope of better conditions.

Whatever the reason for their pilgrimage, it is a fair inference that, like our own Pilgrim Fathers, they were sturdy of body and progressive of spirit, for they had a culture which their descendants carried beyond that of other tribes and communities of prehistoric people in America north of the land of the Aztecs.

Beginning with modest stone structures of the usual cliff-dwellers' type built in deep clefts in the mesa's perpendicular cliff, safe from enemies above and below, these enterprising people developed in time a complicated architecture of a high order; they advanced the arts beyond the practice of their forefathers and their neighbors; they herded cattle upon the mesas; they raised corn and melons in clearings in the forests, and watered their crops in the dry seasons by means of simple irrigation systems as soundly scientific, so far as they went, as those of to-day; outgrowing their cliff homes, they invaded the neighboring mesas, where they built pueblos and more ambitious structures.

Then, apparently suddenly, for they left behind them many of their household goods, and left unfinished an elaborate temple to their god, the sun, they vanished. There is no clew to the reason or the manner of their going.

Meantime European civilization was pushing in all directions. Columbus discovered America; De Soto explored the southeast and ascended the Mississippi; Cortez pushed into Mexico and conquered the Aztecs; Spanish priests carried the gospel north and west from the Antilles to the continent; Raleigh sent explorers to Virginia; the Pilgrim Fathers landed in Massachusetts; the white man pushed the Indian aside, and at last the European pioneer sought a precarious living on the sands of the southwest.

One December day in 1888 Richard and Alfred Wetherill hunted lost cattle on the top of one of the green mesas north and west of the Mancos River. They knew this mesa well. Many a time before had they rounded up their herds and stalked the deer among the thin cedar and pinyon forests. Often, doubtless, in their explorations of the broad Mancos Valley below, they had happened upon ruins of primitive isolated or grouped stone buildings hidden by sage brush, half buried in rock and sand. No doubt, around their ranch fire, they had often speculated concerning the manner of men that had inhabited these lowly structures so many years before that sometimes aged cedars grew upon the broken walls.

But this December day brought the Wetherills the surprise of their uneventful lives. Some of the cattle had wandered far, and the search led to the very brink of a deep and narrow canyon, across which, in a long deep cleft under the overhang of the opposite cliff, they saw what appeared to be a city. Those who have looked upon the stirring spectacle of Cliff Palace from this point can imagine the astonishment of these ranchmen.

Whether or not the lost cattle were ever found is not recorded, but we may assume that living on the mesa was not plentiful enough to make the Wetherills forget them in the pleasure of discovering a ruin. But they lost no time in investigating their find, and soon after crossed the canyon and climbed into this prehistoric city. They named it Cliff Palace, most inappropriately, by the way, for it was in fact that most democratic of structures, a community dwelling. Pushing their explorations farther, presently they discovered also a smaller ruin, which they named Spruce Tree House, because a prominent spruce grew in front of it. These are the largest two cliff-dwellings in the Mesa Verde National Park, and, until Doctor J. Walter Fewkes unearthed Sun Temple in 1915, among the most extraordinary prehistoric buildings north of Mexico.

There are thousands of prehistoric ruins in our southwest, and many besides those of the Mesa Verde are examples of an aboriginal civilization. Hundreds of canyons tell the story of the ancient cliff-dwellers; and still more numerous are the remains of communal houses built of stone or sun-dried brick under the open sky. These pueblos in the open are either isolated structures like the lesser cliff-dwellings, or are crowded together till they touch walls, as in our modern cities; often they were several stories high, the floors connected by ladders. Sometimes, for protection against the elements, whole villages were built in caves. Pueblos occasionally may be seen from the car-window in New Mexico. The least modified of the prehistoric type which are occupied to-day are the eight villages of the Hopi near the Grand Canyon in Arizona; a suggestive reproduction of a model pueblo, familiar to many thousands who have visited the canyon, stands near the El Tovar Hotel.

It was not therefore because of the rarity of prehistoric dwellings of either type that the cliff villages of the Mesa Verde were conserved as a national park, nor only because they are the best preserved of all North American ruins, but because they disclose a type of this culture in advance of all others.

The builders and inhabitants of these dwellings were Indians having physical features common to all American tribes. That their accomplishment differed in degree from that of the shiftless war-making tribes north and east of them, and from that of the cultured and artistic Mayas of Central America, was doubtless due to differences in conditions of living. The struggle for bare existence in the southwest, like that of the habitats of other North American Indians, was intense; but these were agriculturalists and protected by environment. The desert was a handicap, of course, but it offered opportunity in many places for dry farming; the Indian raised his corn. The winters, too, were short. It is only in the southwest that enterprise developed the architecture of stone houses which distinguish pueblo Indians from others in North America.

The dwellers in the Mesa Verde were more fortunate even than their fellow pueblo dwellers. The forested mesas, so different from the arid cliffs farther south and west, possessed constant moisture and fertile soil. The grasses lured the deer within capture. The Mancos River provided fish. Above all, the remoteness of these fastness canyons from the trails of raiders and traders and their ease of defense made for long generations of peace. The enterprise innate in the spirit of man did the rest.


The history of the Mesa Verde National Park began with the making of America. All who have travelled in the southwest have seen mesas from the car-window. New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Utah, the region of the pueblos, constitute an elevated plateau largely arid. Many millions of years ago all was submerged in the intercontinental sea; in fact the region was sea many times, for it rose and fell alternately, accumulating thousands of feet of sands and gravels much of which hardened into stone after the slow great uplifting which made it the lofty plateau of to-day. Erosion did its work. For a million years or more the floods of spring have washed down the sands and gravels, and the rivers have carried them into the sea. Thousands of vertical feet have disappeared in this way from the potential altitude of the region. The spring floods are still washing down the sands and gravels, and the canyons, cliffs, and mesas of the desert are disclosed to-day as stages in the eternal levelling.

Thus were created the canyons and mesas of the Mesa Verde. Mesa, by the way, is Spanish for table, and verde for green. These, then, are the green table-lands, forest-covered and during the summer grown scantily with grass and richly with flowers.

The Mesa Verde National Park was created by act of Congress in June, 1906, and enlarged seven years later. The Mancos River, on its way to the San Juan and thence to the Colorado and the passage of the Grand Canyon, forms its southern boundary. Scores of canyons, large and small, nearly all dry except at the spring floods, are tributary. All of these trend south; in a general way they are parallel. Each of the greater stems has its lesser tributaries and each of these its lesser forks. Between the canyons lie the mesas. Their tops, if continued without break, would form a more or less level surface; that is, all had been a plain before floods cut the separating canyons.

The region has a wonderful scenic charm. It is markedly different in quality from other national parks, but in its own way is quite as startling and beautiful. Comparison is impossible because of the lack of elements in common, but it may be said that the Mesa Verde represents our great southwest in one of its most fascinating phases, combining the fundamentals of the desert with the flavor of the near-by mountains. The canyons, which are seven or eight hundred feet deep and two or three times as wide where the cliff-dwellings gather, are prevailingly tawny yellow. Masses of sloping talus reach more than half-way up; above them the cliffs are perpendicular; it is in cavities in these perpendiculars that the cliff-dwellings hide. Above the cliffs are low growths of yellowish-green cedar with pinyons and other conifers of darker foliage. Beneath the trees and covering the many opens grows the familiar sage of the desert, a gray which hints at green and yellow both but realizes neither. But the sage-brush shelters desert grasses, and, around the occasional springs and their slender outlets, grass grows rank and plenteous; a little water counts for a great deal in the desert.

Showing the manner in which water erosion is reducing the plains to canyons and mesas. The Mesa Verde cliff-dwellers built their homes in caves in the perpendicular cliffs above the sloping talus

Summer, then, is delightful on the Mesa Verde. The plateau is high and the air invigorating, warm by day in midsummer, always cool at night. The atmosphere is marvellously clear, and the sunsets are famous. The winter snows, which reach three or four feet in depth, disappear in April. From May to Thanksgiving the region is in its prime. It is important to realize that this land has much for the visitor besides its ruins. It has vigor, distinction, personality, and remarkable charm. It is the highest example of one of America's most distinctive and important scenic phases, and this without reference to its prehistoric dwellings. No American traveller knows his America, even the great southwest, who does not know the border-land where desert and forest mingle.

The Southern Ute Indian Reservation bites a large rectangle from the southeast corner of the park, but its inhabitants are very different in quality of mind and spirit from the ancient and reverent builders of Sun Temple. Reservation Indians frequently enter the park, but they cannot be persuaded to approach the cliff-dwellings. The "little people," they tell you, live there, and neither teaching nor example will convince them that these invisible inhabitants will not injure intruders. Some of these Indians allege that it was their own ancestors who built the cliff-dwellings, but there is neither record nor tradition to support such a claim. The fact appears to be that the Utes were the ancient enemies of this people. There is a Ute tradition of a victory over the ancient pueblo-dwellers at Battle Rock in McElmo Canyon.

There are, on the other hand, many reasons for the opinion that the Hopi Indians of the present day, so far at least as culture goes, are descendants of this remarkable prehistoric people. Besides the many similarities between the architectural types of the Mesa Verde and the pueblos of the modern Hopi, careful investigators have found suggestive points of similarity in their utensils, their art forms, and their customs. Doctor Fewkes cites a Hopi tradition to that effect by mentioning the visit of a Hopi courier a few years ago to prehistoric ruins in the Navajo National Monument to obtain water from an ancestral spring for use in a Hopi religious ceremonial. If these traditions are founded in fact, the promising civilization of the Mesa Verde has sadly retrograded in its transplanting. Hopi architecture and masonry shows marked retrogression from the splendid types of the Mesa Verde.

When the telephone-line was under construction to connect the park with the outside world, the Indians from the adjoining Ute reservation became suspicious and restless. Upon hearing its purpose, they begged the superintendent not to go on with the work, which was certain to bring evil to the neighborhood.

"The little people," they solemnly declared, "will not like it."

They assured the superintendent that the wires would not talk.

"The little people will not let them talk," they told him.

But the line was completed and the wires talked.

The park is reached by motor and rail. From Denver, Salt Lake City, and Santa Fe railroad routes offer choice of some of the biggest country of the Rockies. From either direction a night is spent en route in a mountain mining-town, an experience which has its usefulness in preparation for the contrasted and unusual experience to come. Entrance is through Mancos, from which motor-stages thread the maze of canyons and mesas from the highlands of the northern border to the deep canyons of the south where cluster the ruins of distinction.

This entry is delightful. The road crosses the northern boundary at the base of a lofty butte known as Point Lookout, the park's highest elevation. Encircling its eastern side and crossing the Morefield Canyon the road perches for several miles upon the sinuous crest of a ridge more than eight thousand feet in altitude, whose north side plunges eighteen hundred feet into the broad Montezuma Valley, and whose gentle southern slope holds the small beginnings of the great canyons of the cliff-dwellers. Both north and south the panorama unfolds in impressive grandeur, eloquent of the beautiful scanty land and of the difficult conditions of living which confronted the sturdy builders whose ancient masterpieces we are on our way to see. At the northern end of Chapin Mesa we swing sharply south and follow its slope, presently entering the warm, glowing, scented forests, through which we speed to the hotel-camp perched upon a bluff overlooking the depths of Spruce Canyon.

Upon the top and under the eaves of this mesa are found very fine types of prehistoric civilization. At Mummy Lake, half-way down the mesa, we passed on the way a good example of pueblo architecture, and within an easy walk of our terminal camp we find some of the noblest examples of cliff-dwellings in existence. Here it was, near the head of this remote, nearly inaccessible, canyon, guarded by nature's ramparts, that aboriginal American genius before the coming of the Anglo-Saxon found its culminating expression.

In this spirit the thoughtful American of to-day enters the Mesa Verde National Park and examines its precious memorials.


Although the accident of the road brings the traveller first to the mesa-top pueblos of the Mummy Lake district, historical sequence suggests that examination begin with the cliff-dwellings.

Of the many examples of these remains in the park, Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, and Balcony House are the most important because they concisely and completely cover the range of life and the fulness of development. This is not the place for detailed descriptions of these ruins. The special publications of the National Park Service and particularly the writings of Doctor J. Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution, who has devoted many years of brilliant investigation to American prehistoric remains, are obtainable from government sources. Here we shall briefly consider several types.

It is impossible, without reference to photographs, to convey a concise adequate idea of Cliff Palace. Seen from across its canyon the splendid crescent shaped ruin offers to the unaccustomed eye little that is common to modern architecture. Prominently in the foreground, large circular wells at once challenge interest. These were the kivas, or ceremonial rooms of the community, centres of the religious activities which counted so importantly in pueblo life. Here it was that men gathered monthly to worship their gods. In the floors of some kivas are small holes representing symbolically the entrance to the underworld, and around these from time to time priests doubtless performed archaic ceremonies and communicated with the dead. Each family or clan in the community is supposed to have had its own kiva.

The kiva walls of Cliff Palace show some of the finest prehistoric masonry in America. All are subterranean, which in a few instances necessitated excavation in floors of solid rock. The roofs were supported by pedestals rising from mural banquettes, usually six pedestals to a kiva; the kiva supposed to have belonged to the chief's clan had eight pedestals, and one, perhaps belonging to a clan of lesser prominence, had only two. Several kivas which lack roof supports may have been of different type or used for lesser ceremonials. All except these have fireplaces and ventilators. Entrance was by ladder from the roof.

Other rooms identified are living-rooms, storage-rooms, milling-rooms, and round and square towers, besides which there are dark rooms of unknown use and several round rooms which are neither kivas nor towers. Several of the living-rooms have raised benches evidently used for beds, and in one of them pegs for holding clothing still remain in the walls. The rooms are smoothly plastered or painted.

Mills for grinding corn were found in one room in rows; in others, singly. The work was done by women, who rubbed the upper stone against the lower by hand. The rests for their feet while at work still remain in place; also the brushes for sweeping up the meal. The small storage-rooms had stone doors, carefully sealed with clay to keep out mice and prevent moisture from spoiling the corn and meal.

One of the most striking buildings in Cliff Palace is the Round Tower, two stories high, which not only was an observatory, as is indicated by its peep-holes, but also served purposes in religious festivals. Its masonry belongs to the finest north of Mexico. The stones are beautifully fitted and dressed. The Square Tower which stands at the southern end of the village is four stories high, reaching the roof of the cave. The inner walls of its third story are elaborately painted With red and white symbols, triangles, zigzags, and parallels, the significance of which is not known.

The ledge under which Cliff Palace is built forms a roof that overhangs the structure. An entrance, probably the principal one, came from below to a court at a lower level than the floor, from which access was by ladder.

Spruce Tree House, which may have been built after Cliff Palace, has a circular room with windows which were originally supposed to have been port holes for defense. Doctor Fewkes, however, suggests a more probable purpose, as the position of the room does not specially suggest a fortress. Through the openings in this room the sun-priest may have watched the setting sun to determine the time for ceremonies. The room was entered from above, like a kiva. Another room, differing from any in other cliff-dwellings, has been named the Warriors' Room because, unlike sleeping-rooms, its bench surrounds three sides, and because, unlike any other room, it is built above a kiva. Only the exigencies of defense, it is supposed, would warrant so marked a departure from the prescribed religious form of room.

Balcony House has special interest, apart from its commanding location, perfection of workmanship and unusual beauty, and because of the ingenuity of the defenses of its only possible entrance. At the top of a steep trail a cave-like passage between rocks is walled so as to leave a door capable of admitting only one at a time, behind which two or three men could strike down, one by one, an attacking army.

Out of these simple architectural elements, together with the utensils and weapons found in the ruins, the imagination readily constructs a picture of the austere, laborious, highly religious, and doubtless happy lives led by the earnest people who built these ancient dwellings in the caves.

When all the neighborhood caves were filled to overflowing with increasing population, and generations of peace had wrought a confidence which had not existed when the pioneers had sought safety in caves, these people ventured to move out of cliffs and to build upon the tops of the mesa. Whether all the cave-dwellers were descended from the original pilgrims or whether others had joined them afterward is not known, but it seems evident that the separate communities had found some common bond, probably tribal, and perhaps evolved some common government. No doubt they intermarried. No doubt the blood of many cliff-dwelling communities mingled in the new communities which built pueblos upon the mesa. In time there were many of these pueblos, and they were widely scattered; there are mounds at intervals all over the Mesa Verde. The largest group of pueblos, one infers from the number of visible mounds, was built upon the Chapin Mesa several miles north of the above-mentioned cliff-dwelling near a reservoir known to-day as Mummy Lake. It is there, then, that we shall now go in continuation of our story.

Coloring and design as well as form show high artistic sense and clean workmanship

Mummy Lake is not a lake and no mummies were ever found there. This old-time designation applies to an artificial depression surrounded by a low rude stone wail, much crumbled, which was evidently a storage reservoir for an irrigation system of some size. A number of conspicuous mounds in the neighborhood suggest the former existence of a village of pueblos dependent upon the farms for which the irrigation system had been built. One of these, from which a few stones protruded, was excavated in 1916 by Doctor Fewkes, and has added a new and important chapter to the history of this people. This pueblo has been named Far View House. Its extensive vista includes four other groups of similar mounds. Each cluster occurs in the fertile sage-brush clearings which bloom in summer with asters and Indian paint-brush; there is no doubt that good crops of Indian corn could still be raised from these sands to-day by dry-farming methods.

Far View House is a pueblo, a hundred and thirteen feet long by more than fifty feet wide, not including a full-length plaza about thirty-five feet wide in which religious dances are supposed to have taken place. The differences between this fine structure and the cliff-cities are considerable. The most significant evidence of progress, perhaps, is the modern regularity of the ground-plan. The partitions separating the secular rooms are continuous through the building, and the angles are generally accurately right angles.

The pueblo had three stories. It is oriented approximately to the cardinal points and was terraced southward to secure a sunny exposure. The study of the solar movements became an advanced science with these people in the latter stages of their development. It must be remembered that they had no compasses; knowing nothing of the north or any other fixed point, nevertheless there is evidence that they successfully worked out the solstices and planned their later buildings accurately according to cardinal points of their own calculation.

Another difference indicating development is the decrease in the number of kivas, and the construction of a single very large kiva in the middle of the building. Its size suggests at once that the individual clan organization of cliff-dwelling days had here given place to a single priestly fraternity, sociologically a marked advance. Drawing parallels with the better-known customs of other primitive people, we are at liberty, if we please, to infer similar progress in other directions. The original primitive communism was developing naturally, though doubtless very slowly, into something akin to organized society, probably involving more complicated economic relationships in all departments of living.

While their masonry did not apparently improve in proportion, Far View House shows increase in the number and variety of the decorative figures incised on hewn stones. The spiral, representing the coiled serpent, appears a number of times, as do many combinations of squares, curves, and angles arranged in fanciful design, which may or may not have had symbolic meanings.

A careful examination of the neighborhood discloses few details of the irrigation system, but it shows a cemetery near the southeast corner of the building in which the dead were systematically buried.

Large numbers of minor antiquities were found in this interesting structure. Besides the usual stone implements of the mason and the housekeeper, many instruments of bone, such as needles, dirks, and bodkins, were found. Figurines of several kinds were unearthed, carved from soft stone, including several intended to symbolize Indian corn; all these may have been idols. Fragments of pottery were abundant, in full variety of form, decoration, and color, but always the most ancient types. Among the bones of animals, the frequency of those of rabbits, deer, antelope, elk, and mountain-sheep indicate that meat formed no inconsiderable part of the diet. Fabrics and embroideries were not discovered, as in the cliff-dwellings, but they may have disappeared in the centuries through exposure to the elements.

Far View House may not show the highest development of the Mummy Lake cluster of pueblos, and further exhumations here and in neighboring groups may throw further light upon this interesting people in their gropings from darkness to light. Meantime, however, returning to the neighborhood of the cliff-dwellings, let us examine a structure so late in the history of these people that they left it unfinished.

Built by prehistoric people to their god, the sun, and unfinished when they suddenly disappeared
From a photograph by George L. Beam

Showing the overhanging rock roof and the forest which tops the Mesa Verde
From a photograph by George L. Beam

Sun Temple stands on a point of Chapin Mesa, somewhat back from the edge of Cliff Canyon, commanding an extraordinary range of country. It is within full view of Cliff Palace and other cliff-dwellings of importance and easy of access. From it, one can look southward to the Mancos River. On every side a wide range of mesa and canyon lies in full view. The site is unrivalled for a temple in which all could worship with devotion.

When Doctor Fewkes, in the early summer of 1915, attacked the mound which had been designated Community House under the supposition that it covered a ruined pueblo, he had no idea of the extraordinary nature of the find awaiting him, although he was prepared from its shape and other indications for something out of the usual. So wholly without parallel was the disclosure, however, that it was not till it was entirely uncovered that he ventured a public conjecture as to its significance. The ground-plan of Sun Temple is shaped like the letter D. It encloses another D shaped structure occupying nearly two-thirds of its total area, within which are two large kivas. Between the outer and the inner D are passages and rooms, and at one end a third kiva is surrounded by rooms, one of which is circular.

Sun Temple is also impressive in size. It is a hundred and twenty-one feet long and sixty-four feet wide. Its walls average four feet in thickness, and are double-faced, enclosing a central core of rubble; they are built of the neighborhood sandstone. The masonry is of fine quality. This, together with its symmetrical architectural design, its fine proportions, and its many decorated stones, mark it the highest type of Mesa Verde architecture.

It was plainly unfinished. Walls had risen in some places higher than in others. As yet there was no roofing. No rooms had been plastered. Of internal finishing little was completed, and of contents, of course, there was none. The stone hammers and other utensils of the builders were found lying about as if thrown down at day's close.

The kivas, although circular, are unlike those of Cliff Palace, inasmuch as they are above ground, not subterranean. The mortar used in pointing shows the impress of human hands; no trowels were used. The walls exhibit many stones incised with complicated designs, largely geometric; some may be mason's marks; others are decorative or symbolic. These designs indicate a marked advance over those in Far View House; in fact they are far more complicated and artistic than any in the southwest.

Bare and ineloquent though its unfinished condition left it, the religious purposes of the entire building are clear to the archaeologist in its form. And, as if to make conjecture certainty, a shrine was uncovered on the corner-stone of the outer wall which frames in solid stone walls a large fossil palm-leaf whose rays strongly suggest the sun!

It requires no imagination to picture the effect which the original discovery of this image of their god must have had upon a primitive community of sun-worshippers. It must have seemed to them a divine gift, a promise, like the Ark of the Covenant, of the favor of the Almighty. It may even have first suggested the idea of building this temple to their deity.

This is all the story. Go there and study it in detail. Enlightened, profoundly impressed, nevertheless you will finish at this point. The tale has no climax. It just stops.

What happened to the people of the Mesa Verde?

Some archaeologists believe that they emigrated to neighboring valleys southwest. But why should they have left their prosperous farms and fine homes for regions which seem to us less desirable? And why, a profoundly religious people, should they have left Sun Temple unfinished?

What other supposition remains?

Only, I think, that, perhaps because of their prosperity and the unpreparedness that accompanies long periods of peace, they were suddenly overwhelmed by enemies.

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Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009