Mesa Verde National Park:
Shadows of the Centuries
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter 4:

SLOWLY, STEADILY, WASHINGTON'S POLITICAL CLIMATE CAME AROUND to favoring the idea of a park at Mesa Verde. Congressman John Shafroth's yeoman efforts on behalf of the park paid dividends as the legislative sessions rolled by. He had educated fellow House members sufficiently to change congressional attitudes, but he had earlier warned Virginia McClurg that turning the ruins over to the state or to the women would create vehement opposition from the Smithsonian Institution and from the archaeological societies. McClurg, Lucy Peabody, and the others had worked to overcome that opposition, in the face of strong doubts outside of Colorado that their plans could succeed. The death of Senator Henry Teller's park bill in 1904 showed the depth of feeling. In that case, the issue was not the creation of the park itself, but who would have the right to excavate the ruins. The Smithsonian sought to retain that privilege. When the opposing sides failed to compromise, the bill died. [1]

In 1905, the Association members geared up for another try. A new urgency drove them—newcomers to Colorado were laying claim to 160-acre homestead sites in several canyons, a potential complication of the ownership issue. As these homesteaders struggled for a toehold, giving their names to Prater, Morefield, and Waters canyons in the process, they pushed the Association women into high gear to achieve their prize. [2] Each in his or her own way, the homesteader and the society woman chased the best of all worlds at the end of the western rainbow.

Shafroth had been correct in his assessment that it would be easier to pass a bill creating a national park than one creating a state park, and, with some reservations, McClurg finally concurred. Shafroth, however, no longer sat in the House, and despite the best efforts of Colorado representative Herschel Hogg, one of Colorado's leading attorneys and a Telluride resident, the 1905 bill died on the floor after it came out of committee. On the state front, the Historical Society backed Hogg's bill unreservedly, as did several archaeological societies throughout the country. [3] Although another session and another year had passed with success as elusive as ever, park support had grown in and out of Congress. The women stood on the threshold of victory when 1906 arrived.

Years of lobbying, promoting, and educating now started to pay rich dividends. From President Theodore Roosevelt to his secretary of the interior, through Congress to the Colorado people, the mood seemed to favor the national park plan. The women also reaped benefits from the now thriving conservation movement, which had caught the general public's attention as never before. For the past thirty years or so, Americans had been hearing and reading more and more about the general theme of conservation of natural resources, with particular emphasis on the future of forests and agriculture. In the arid west, these two subjects often translated into water issues.

With the popular Roosevelt in the White House, using the office as a "bully pulpit" for one of his favorite subjects, conservation came into favor as never before. Within the larger movement arose individuals who supported conservation not so much to protect watersheds or to assure America of future timber reserves but as a way to preserve wilderness areas for their inherent aesthetic, spiritual, and moral values. The two factions were accommodated nicely in the national park movement, although the seeds of dispute were sown for later disagreements between those who would favor the concept of multiple use of resources and those who would argue for preservation. At Mesa Verde, this particular conflict would erupt over the issue of whether grazing and coal mining should be allowed.

As early as the 1860s and 1870s, the wonders of Yellowstone and Yosemite had been called to the attention of Americans. As a result, the former was set aside as a park, and the latter was given to the state of California, which acted as a trustee for the federal government until Yosemite, too, eventually gained park status. The precedent for preservation had thereby been established, and in the following years various groups pushed to preserve other scenic sites. The supporters of Mesa Verde moved within this ground swell of interest, although they stressed the cultural and historic attributes of their potential park, not its natural wonders.

The Roosevelt era provided the best opportunity the conservationists had ever enjoyed for arousing support and for winning some of the battles they had been waging. Journalists and reporters, politicians and public officials, easterners and westerners, became more aware, more informed, and more involved, although the increased interest did not necessarily transfer into advocacy and action on behalf of conservation.

The push to preserve the Mesa Verde ruins clearly benefited from the popularity of the larger national movement. Now, everything seemed to be coming together, thanks to hard work and some fortunate circumstances over which the women and their supporters could exercise no control.

Hogg introduced another Mesa Verde National Park bill in December 1905 in the House; Senator Thomas Patterson followed suit in January 1906 in the Senate. Both bills survived committee votes, the point at which so many earlier bills had died. Once more, pressure was brought to bear. The Nebraska Academy of Sciences, the Colorado Equal Suffrage Association, the Davenport (Iowa) Academy of Sciences, the Pueblo Business Men's Association, the Colorado State Forestry Association, "men of high character" (professors and scholars), and "learned" women all endorsed and urged passage of the bill. Colorado governor Jesse McDonald wrote: "The People of Colorado, and I believe of the entire West, would be glad to see this bill favorably reported upon by your committee [Senate], as we are quite anxious that this historical place be properly protected." [4] Testimony in support of the bill called attention to the national significance of the ruins, the destruction that had already occurred, the unfit nature of the land for agriculture and its classification as "poor range at the best," and the potential tourist market. Proponents claimed that a park "would bring money into such towns as Durango and Mancos." Once again, the bills slowly wound their way through the congressional labyrinth, while the members of the Association anxiously watched and awaited the outcome.

This time the political atmosphere had changed, for a very significant reason. A second major bill was under discussion: an antiquities bill that would preserve historic and prehistoric ruins or monuments on government lands. It, too, had been introduced earlier, only to die, and it, too, had attracted more support, more interest, and more publicity even when it failed. It was ardent conservationist Iowa representative John Lacey who introduced the antiquities bill. Like Shafroth and others, Lacey had long supported historic preservation. It had been a long, drawn-out struggle to achieve agreement among all the interested parties. Noted southwestern archaeologist Edgar Hewett, who had worked persistently to protect important regional ruins, found it easy to support enthusiastically both the park and the preservation efforts and to rally his friends to the cause. Hewett was at the peak of his career; the one-time college president and skilled writer had the ability to create a scholarly and, at the same time, a popular account of the prehistoric ruins, which caught the attention of both academia and the general public.

Each bill complemented the other, since their goals overlapped. Some of the resolutions and endorsements supported both the park bill and the antiquities bill. Mesa Verde was, perhaps, the more emotional issue, but the antiquities bill raised a broader-based following, because of its benefits for the whole country, as opposed to one state in particular. As the women fought for Mesa Verde, they plowed the ground for the more sweeping antiquities idea at the same time. Antiquities advocates later returned the favor, rallying to support the specific park concept. It was a winning partnership—a two-front advance toward a common goal.

In 1906, when both bills went before the House Public Lands Committee, John Lacey was its chairman. Senator Patterson carried the cause to the Senate by sponsoring an identical effort. [5] The bills moved ahead at the typical tortoise pace, but they did move, with no major obstacles in their path. Beyond Congress sat the enthusiastic President Theodore Roosevelt, a conservationist, a historian, and an ardent supporter of all that the two bills proposed.

After nearly a quarter of a century of pleading, cajoling, and never-say-die lobbying by McClurg, and a decade's worth of effort by most of the others, victory lay only a few short weeks, or months at most, away. At this auspicious moment, the Association fell apart when its leaders began assaulting each other with rancorous name-calling over the old issue of state control versus federal control.

The sudden discovery that none of the major cliff dwellings was situated within the boundaries of the proposed park certainly proved embarrassing but did not pose an insoluble problem. An amendment to the bill was introduced to include in the park's jurisdiction all the ruins within five miles of the boundary. The issue should have rested there, but Virginia McClurg changed her mind or—more accurately—"reversed her position" and returned to her beloved idea of a state park, which would be comfortably controlled by the Association. Such an arrangement would, in effect, place the cliff dwellings under her personal control.

No question of the cause surrounded this change of heart—at the moment of victory, the once-allied Peabody and McClurg fell to fighting over the spoils. These two determined, independent, and strong-willed women had pledged themselves to a common cause in Mesa Verde; as the struggle for it continued, they could not completely contain their individualism. The split, which could have been predicted, had been long in coming.

Lucy Peabody, with her Washington connections, ardently supported the national park idea, while McClurg had been won over only by circumstances. Each had gathered her supporters within the Association, but for a time the rift had been smoothed over for the sake of the common aims. However, the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association had refused, back in November 1905, to endorse officially Hogg's bill, because it gave exclusive control of the national park to the secretary of the interior, something Secretary Ethan A. Hitchcock had pushed for. The refusal also hinted at the problem of the non-included cliff dwellings. [6] This lack of endorsement by the Association had escaped attention during the hubbub of the next couple of months.

Lucy Peabody as she appeared years after she played a role in the Mesa Verde story. (Courtesy: Colorado Historical Society)

Then in February 1906, McClurg came out openly against the bill, and all hell broke loose in the Association. Emotions and opinions that once had been suppressed now burst into public view in the face of numerous denials of a split in the ranks. Both factions rapidly issued statements, attacking and denying; the public witnessed a dismaying dissolution of unity. Peabody and McClurg battled it out in the press and outside of it, catching Representative Hogg, among others, in the cross fire. At one time he had supported McClurg. The following charges are typical of the exchanges in the struggle:

Meat in the coconut is that [McClurg] is loath to relinquish the prestige she has gained by reason of her interest in preserving these ruins.

[Hogg's] backbones belong rather to antediluvian dinosaurs than modern legislators.

The action of the Colorado Cliff Dwellers Association, however, may result in the defeat of this bill as well as the one that proposes to put it under feminine and individual control, and the state may be left in the lurch. [7]

All the slander made for gossipy press in February 1906, and for weeks thereafter the Denver newspapers reported the turmoil. The infighting, as one member commented, "precipitated a warm fight."

McClurg was attacked for putting her prestige too much on the line and conducting a personal vendetta against Peabody, when the park should have been of primary importance, and was castigated for blinding herself to the fact that preservation belonged to the government and not to a volunteer association of women to "manage it according to feminine ideas." McClurg responded heatedly, pointing with great glee to the women who maintained and operated Washington's Mount Vernon and charging that very "few members of the Association" had pressed for the national park.

McClurg's distrust of national control was shared by other women, in particular the women of Mount Vernon. It reflected a legitimate fear, as women did not even have the vote in most places yet. Perhaps she also feared putting matters in the hands of the far-off federal government with its "faceless bureaucracy." Lucy Peabody, more experienced at working with and within the government, obviously did not share such feelings or fears. Peabody continued to support publicly the national park concept, pointing to Yellowstone as an example of what the federal government could do with direct supervision. McClurg countered rather unconvincingly that Mesa Verde would "not thrive" under either state or federal control. Prompted by the belief that only her plan could succeed, she sent an open letter to the Rocky Mountain News, which published the letter on March 11, 1906. After graciously praising Peabody and others for their excellent work, McClurg expressed resentment of the slurs and mudslinging and thanked the Denver Post for supporting her. She again attacked the Hogg bill, claiming that the Association never had any national park policy, and pled for the issue to be kept out of politics. She also threw in a new twist by accusing the Peabody people of wanting the Utes removed so that those with "covetous eyes" could seize Indian land. [8]

The accusations, half-truths, and mudslinging sullied the park campaign; the women chose up sides and pressed ahead with tattered banners. As it turned out, Virginia won the battle, but Lucy won the war. Peabody resigned from the Association, taking her followers with her and leaving Regent McClurg with a decimated membership and a discredited cause. Even the Denver Post (February 23, 1906), which had praised McClurg, now proclaimed that Mesa Verde belonged to the world, not to any single organization. With a touch of sarcasm, a little misidentification, and a large dose of truth, the writer asked, "In fifty years from now who will care or know anything about the Cliff Dwellings Protective Association?" Prophetically, the article stated, "In fifty years from now if the government of the United States takes care of those Cliff Dwellings, the whole world will know of them." The Colorado press stayed involved, not only because of local interest in the cause but also because of the urban rivalries that had begun with Mancos, Cortez, and Durango vying for the tourist trade. Bigger stakes now brought Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo into the competition for their share of the glory. Some of the Denver support for Peabody reflected a desire to detract some attention from McClurg's Colorado Springs and her Pueblo supporters.

Countering the stories coming out of Colorado took some effort. Edgar Hewett and others managed to defuse some of their effects. Hewett's four-week visit to Mesa Verde in March and April 1906 inspired a long, enthusiastic letter that restated the value of the Mesa Verde archaeological district and warned of the continuing "irreparable damage" occurring every year. He supported the amended park bill and believed that no injustice would be done to the Utes, since both they and the park would be under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. [9]

Fortunately, while the women fought it out, Congress paid more attention to Hewett's type of continued backing. The House and Senate bills were pushed onward, as was the companion piece of legislation, the Antiquities Act, which moved a little faster and was signed by the president on June 8, 1906.

The Senate and the House both approved the Mesa Verde National Park bill later in June, and on the twenty-ninth President Theodore Roosevelt signed it. Section one carefully defined the park boundaries; section two provided that all prehistoric ruins within five miles of the park boundaries be "hereby placed under the custodianship of the Secretary of the Interior," who also had "exclusive control" of Mesa Verde National Park. The secretary was authorized to permit examination, excavations, and other gathering of objects, provided that they always "are undertaken only for the benefit of some reputable museum, university, college, or other recognized scientific or educational institution." Finally, to protect the ruins from vandalism, a fine of not more than one thousand dollars or imprisonment of not longer than twelve months could be imposed on anyone guilty of violating the ruins. [10] Curiously, this law established a much harsher set of penalties than did the Antiquities Act. The long struggle was at last over. The federal government now would chart the future of Colorado's first national park.

Mesa Verde joined an illustrious group of six national parks that included the already far-famed Yellowstone and Yosemite as well as Sequoia, General Grant, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake. Unfortunately, during the previous four years, three new parks had been set aside that did not measure up to the others' high standards. This was possible because of the lack of a congressional policy to govern the establishment of parks and of an agency to screen park proposals. Of these three inferior parks—Wind Cave, Sullys Hill, and Platt—only Wind Cave still exists as a national park. [11] Political pressure, local chauvinism, and misguided enthusiasm had been allowed to rule. The need for a regulatory agency was urgent, but no action came immediately. Some people undoubtedly saw Mesa Verde as of little more consequence than its recently born contemporaries. Some of the same methods had been used to press for its creation, albeit on a broader national level. Fortunately for Mesa Verde, its significance put it on a par with Yellowstone. Now its supporters had to develop that potential.

Southwestern Coloradans backed the creation of the park with far more enthusiasm than they supported nearby national forests. Mesa Verde National Park displaced few people, threatened no potential private interests, and promised ongoing benefits for the region. On the other hand, creation of national forests—for example Mesa Verde's neighboring San Juan National Forest in 1905—ended time-honored frontier traditions that allowed public utilization of natural resources with minimum payment and little or no government regulation. Local residents could envision the closing or federal management of grazing, mineral, and timber lands. They did not want to encourage that trend. The West's ambivalent relationship with the federal government never was more clearly shown than in this corner of Colorado.

The Colorado press's reaction to the momentous event seemed relatively subdued, perhaps because the emotional fight of the past few months had spent its energy. Mancos, however, fully appreciated what had happened; that community had struck a potential gold mine. "Mancos is IT. Mesa Verde National Park," hailed the Mancos Times-Tribune. The editor thought this might be just the needed spring tonic to energize the community and revive it from the economic blues. He envisioned publicity, visitors, a first-class hotel, increased sales for farmers and ranchers, and "thousands of dollars" in government contracts. Mancos, he bubbled, harbored within a very short radius every resource to make it a "first class town." It only remained for the residents to "shake off your lethargy of mind and body, roll up your sleeves and get out and help turn something up." Not satisfied, the editor admonished: "Let us remember that cities are made not grown, and the making depends upon the citizens themselves." [12]

Mancos, Colorado
Main Street in Mancos, 1917, during the town's heyday as the starting point for trips to Mesa Verde. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Of all the Colorado communities, little Mancos best understood what Mesa Verde could mean economically. It obviously had the most to gain, with Cortez out of the running and Durango apparently too far away to take real advantage of this opportunity. Mancos determined to turn Mesa Verde and the accompanying publicity windfall into an economic energizer that would spark the village's attainment of "city" status. Local surveyors had already won a contract to run the boundary line between the park and the Ute reservation. What Mancos gained, so did the region, the state, and the country. One newspaper reporter caught that spirit: "Hats off to the women of the association, and three cheers for Uncle Sam."

Unfortunately, the women could hardly hear the cheers, nor had they much spirit for merrymaking. Virginia McClurg, who had led the Association, had lost; Lucy Peabody, on the outside looking in, had won. Adherents of both women carried on the petty fight for months, justifying their own cause and attacking that of the others. The public victory, like the congressional one, went to Peabody. The American Anthropological Association extended to her its first-ever public vote of thanks for "her valuable services . . . [and] untiring effort," with no mention of McClurg. The press hailed Peabody as the "Mother of Mesa Verde National Park," and the "gifted and charming" Lucy (whose husband was the brother of Colorado's former governor James Peabody) earned a bright star in the family's Colorado heritage: "Perhaps, no woman in the country has more thorough and profound knowledge of Archaeology, Anthropology and Ethnology, than this earnest, able, enthusiastic student of scientific research. Colorado, the whole Nation, owes her a debt of gratitude." [13]

McClurg's supporters tried in vain to balance the story; their effort was doomed almost from the start by McClurg's decision not to support the national park. The Denver Times eventually recognized her contribution to the park's creation, attributing the achievement "in largest measure to her patient, continuous and self-denying work, covering a quarter century." She had been the "moving spirit," who failed to finish the race and who lost out before the cheering started. Virginia McClurg, unable to rise above the personal jealousies and the clash of personalities that had exploded over the past year, stood forlornly and bitterly on the sidelines for the victory celebration. [14] Although the breakdown of leadership did not fatally affect the park's establishment, it did handicap McClurg personally, and she never recovered from the setback. It would be over forty years before the last echoes of this feud were heard.

In spite of the sad ending to their story, the women had laid the foundation for Mesa Verde National Park and could be justly proud of what they had set in motion. From their first interest in the idea to the final battle, they stood in the vanguard, never retreating. The park they created brought with it a multitude of blessings, including the Antiquities Act, a new interest in archaeology, increased public awareness of the non-European past of North America, and the creation of four archaeological national monuments (Chaco Canyon, Bandelier, Hovenweep, and Aztec Ruins) in the Four Corners area in less than twenty years. Some of the characters in the Mesa Verde story also fought to preserve other areas. Hewett, for example, was instrumental in the Chaco Canyon designation. [15]

Mesa Verde had not been the first archaeological site to be set aside—that claim belonged to Arizona's Casa Grande, which had become a national monument in 1889, just as the Wetherills were exhibiting their first collection. Mesa Verde became the first national park, however, and as such was the crown jewel in the attempt to arouse the public's interest in preserving more sites. As a result, the Southwest would eventually boast of more archaeological national parks and monuments than all the rest of the country. The Mesa Verde struggle was also part of the ongoing establishment of federal regulations to protect antiquities. [16]

An evolution of western attitudes was an unexpected result of the campaign to create a park. More respect was being shown to the Utes than ever before, although they languished yet some distance from full equality in twentieth-century America. For the ancient peoples, the day of appreciation had finally come. Westerners were changing, and Colorado writer Eugene Parsons sensed that change as early as 1906, when he wrote: "Hitherto Westerners have been too busy making a living and getting rich to bother their heads much about cliff dwellings and cave homes, but the time will come when men and women will feel a curiosity to know something of the prehistoric past of the Southwest." [17] The greatest legacies left by the women who fought this good fight were the arousal of awareness, the stimulation of concern, and the motivation for action. Their park had achieved those things and more. The movement had been a watershed struggle in the fight to preserve America's cultural heritage. There would be no turning back now; Mesa Verde had set too valuable a precedent for future national parks, which would benefit mightily from the battle that had just been waged.


Mesa Verde National Park: Shadows of the Centuries
©2002, University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved by the University Press of Colorado

smith1/chap4.htm — 06-Oct-2004

Copyright © 2002 Duane A. Smith, published by the University Press of Colorado. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and the University Press of Colorado.