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

Preface to First Edition

Located in southwestern Colorado and part of the Four Corners region—the only spot in the United States where four states come together—Mesa Verde National Park is America's first cultural park. Unlike its predecessors, it is not filled with the rugged topography and environmental wonders that made Yellowstone and Yosemite famous. Encompassing 80 square miles (52,074 acres), it celebrates a culture that slipped silently into history centuries earlier, and it is separated from today by an abyss of time. The first and only national park in the world to preserve solely the works of prehistoric people, Mesa Verde sits on the fringe of the American Southwest, among more natural and man-made attractions than any comparable part of North America—perhaps of the whole New World.

The eminent archaeologist and historian Robert Lister considers it likely that more people have examined firsthand the remains of prehistoric American Indian settlement at Mesa Verde than anywhere else in the United States. But the question lingers: How much does the visitor really understand?

Al Wetherill, one of the brothers who brought these ruins to public attention in the 1890s, commented several generations ago: "It is strange how unobserving some people are, or what little impression the Mesa Verde leaves upon them." Its vastness, he believed, contributed to the visitors' failure to grasp the significance of the park. Mesa Verde has not yielded its rich treasures to a quick glance here and there in the rush to reach yet another vacation attraction. The park must be savored and pondered to be understood and enjoyed.

It is difficult for us today to understand that the prehistoric world was very different indeed from ours. Failure to appreciate Mesa Verde comes from our inability to imagine what took place so long ago in these canyons and mesas. Visitors need to renew their curiosity so that they can learn from what they see. Perhaps all of us need to look at it with the wondering, expectant, exploring mind of a child.

Too often the public, burdened with twentieth-century parochialisms, arrives and departs in haste. In the summer of 1986, I overheard the telephone conversation of a California visitor telling someone back home about where she thought she had landed: "We're here at this Indian National Forest. You've heard of the Costa Mesa Cliff Dwellings—I'm calling from the parking lot." Mesa Verde deserves a better fate than to be a victim of ignorance. This book, however, does not tell the story of the people who called Mesa Verde home. Instead it traces the history of the area from the discovery of the abandoned cliff dwellings and the mesa sites to the struggle to save them, describes the creation of a national park in 1906, and assesses the impact of the years since then on Mesa Verde National Park. Although the superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park has been in charge of several other areas over the years, including Colorado, Aztec Ruins, and Hovenweep national monuments, these are not included; the focus of this book is solely on the national park.

Mesa Verde is timeless. When visitors today peer across the canyon to catch their first glimpse of Spruce Tree House, they probably feel some of the same excitement that came a hundred years earlier with its discovery. The past wields its influence on them in prosaic, as well as profound, ways: a mistake in the early days resulted in the misnaming of Spruce Tree House. It was a Douglas fir, not a spruce, which once grew there. But somehow Douglas-fir House does not slip off the tongue quite so smoothly—or maybe, like an old hat, Spruce Tree just fits better. In the following pages, the story of Mesa Verde—on multiple levels—unfolds as Americans and their government grew to appreciate the heritage preserved in the canyons and mesas.

WINSTON CHURCHILL ONCE SAID that writing a book is like "having a friend and companion at your side . . . whose society becomes more attractive as a new and widening field of interest is lighted in the mind." That certainly has been my experience with Mesa Verde, an evolution that would not have occurred without the assistance of many friends and colleagues.

No author could expect more helpful, cooperative support than I received from the personnel at Mesa Verde National Park. Special thanks go to Superintendent Robert Heyder, who gave me the "keys to the kingdom"; ever-helpful librarian Beverly Cunningham; cheerful Bill Creutz and his photographic work; insightful Jack Smith; and Allen Bohnert, Doug Caldwell, and Don Fiero.

The staffs of the Colorado Historical Society, the Western History Department of the Denver Public Library, the Western Historical Collection at the University of Colorado, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution provided a variety of help. I am grateful also to the Pioneers' Museum at Colorado Springs and to Becky Smoldt for assistance with the McClurg material. The cheerfulness of the Durango Public Library personnel will always be appreciated, as will their allowing me to pester them continually for the key to the locked collections—even after the key once traveled home with me! Brenda Bailey, who enthusiastically ferreted out interlibrary loans, and Danny LaVarta, a long-time friend in charge of the Fort Lewis College periodicals and microfilm, came up with some valuable gems. Tom Noel offered his usual sage advice.

My thanks to all those people who allowed me to interview them or who spent time corresponding about Mesa Verde matters. Bill and Merrie Winkler were especially helpful in sharing information, photographs, and memories of their era in the park. David Lavender went far beyond professional courtesy when he shared his research and writing on the park, as did Art Gomez, who allowed me to read chapters of his dissertation. Marty Brace spent hours searching for information at the University of Arizona, and Clay and Jean Bader and Kathy and Dale Anderson kindly shared interviews, photographs, and enthusiasm. Fellow southwestern enthusiast Jackson Clark supported my efforts in so many ways that he deserves more than the traditional three cheers.

To all of these people, and to the many others who helped in so many ways, I extend my warmest thanks. Again, my wife Gay's sharp editorial pen and skillful computer work carried me through to the end. I hope that they all feel that the final effort was worthy of their contributions and support.

This volume is dedicated to two dear friends, Jan and Glen Crandall, who have shared many an adventure in the San Juans, at Mesa Verde, and along the trails of the mining frontier.



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

smith1/preface1.htm — 06-Sep-2004