Aztec Ruins
Administrative History
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After Nels C. Nelson's recommendation that the American Museum of Natural History undertake excavation of Aztec Ruin, on January 15, 1916, Pliny Earle Goddard, associate curator of anthropology, made the first overtures for the museum's involvement with the site. [1] Three weeks passed before a reply was received from Henry D. Abrams, owner of the farm that encircled the principal prehistoric mound and a dozen lesser ancient dwellings. Although delayed because of deep snow on mountain passes to the northeast, which had held up the mail trains, the response was favorable.

Excavation of Aztec Ruin was something to which Abrams obviously had given much thought. "In the matter of excavating the ruins I may outline an [sic] tentative understanding," he wrote. "Among the things will be the removing of the debra [sic] from the wall on the outside clearing out the rooms and court restoreing [sic] of the walls in minor places strengthening and capping them with cement where required to leave them in a permanent condition, a creditable collection of specimens to remain permanently in such a manner that it cannot be disposed of by any person." In suggesting a three-year project, Abrams generously offered the use of a shaded camp spot, water from his cistern, and assorted fruits from his orchard. [2] He also stipulated that work commence before August 1, 1916. [3] To make it official, he notified Wissler, "I hereby grant to the Department of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, a concession to excavate and study the whole series of prehistoric ruins (known as Aztec Ruins) on my land in northwest New Mexico" (see Appendix C).

On behalf of the museum, Wissler quickly agreed to all these conditions, including clearing down to the original surface, removing debris adjacent to the exterior walls to assure drainage and passage, and compensating Abrams for any damage to crops planted in tillable areas between several mounds of house remains. [4]

About the matter of a specimen collection, Wissler expressed reservations. This was not because of any perceived impropriety in an individual's yen for private acquisition of scientifically valuable public artifacts. It was because of the attitudes of potential donors to the museum's field programs. "When you specify that a representative collection of objects is to be left in your keeping, a great deal depends upon your idea of a representative collection," Wissler cautioned Abrams. "You see it might be very difficult to persuade a donor to contribute several thousand dollars to put another man's ruin in shape and then leave him the collection as well." [5] Nonetheless, in order to secure the deal, the museum agreed that an Abrams collection would be kept at the site or its vicinity for local display and, furthermore, that the project would not be abandoned before the entire village was excavated.

The season of 1917 at Aztec Ruin was so fruitful in artifact returns and in prospects for future research that museum officials began to give serious thought to the permanent conservation of the site. It was an idea that would have a very long gestation period, at the end of which no one would be totally satisfied. One proposal was to persuade Abrams to turn the land over to an established institution or executive board which, in turn, would create a perpetual park incorporating the major and associated satellite remains. In the glow of favorable publicity about the archeological finds being made at the site on the Animas, Wissler felt the museum would have little trouble raising funds for this purpose and in administering the holding. [6] He was not aware of a charter of the museum prohibiting such activity. A second suggestion was that Abrams and several associates form a corporation, with themselves as trustees, to manage this kind of facility. [7] Before any action could be taken on the first option, World War I dried up sponsorship funds for the museum; Abrams, a small-town merchant and farmer, was not sufficiently sophisticated to undertake the second. For the time being, the ruin's future remained in a state of status quo.

Although Abrams had a sincere interest in the ruins, perhaps as much from the celebrity status they provided him locally as from any moral conviction, his primary concern was his farming enterprise. Nor, apparently, was he a man to be rushed into hasty decisions. With detailed instructions in hand concerning the museum's terms for acquisition of the land, Morris and Talbot Hyde conferred with Abrams on several occasions during the summer of 1918 without conclusive results. A flood of proposals and counter proposals ensued.

By 1918, the museum had decided to attempt to purchase approximately 25 acres of the Abrams farm having the densest concentration of Anasazi mounds (see Appendixes D and E). Since the owner was not financially able to donate the ruins to the museum, an outright purchase was necessary. [8] The museum administration made this decision with an eye to future work at a pace slower than had been possible earlier and, at the same time, to protect a previous sizable investment of time and money. The funds to do this were to come from Archer M. Huntington, whose name was not to be used in the negotiations. President Henry Fairfield Osborn remarked that, "the name of Huntington looms large in the West like that of Morgan and Rockefeller," and the price would inflate accordingly. [9] Wissler favored a down payment and two subsequent annual installments. Abrams could retain cultivation privileges for the 10 years but would forfeit all claim to specimens retrieved in the past or in the future. [10]

Providing he could replace them with suitable land at the same figure paid for the ruins, Abrams responded with an offer to sell the 25 acres. He set the sale price for the ruins and encompassing land between $6,000 and $6,500. [11] Since the prevailing price of Animas valley farm land was $300 per acre, Abrams felt that in actuality he would be donating the ruins to the museum and seeking compensation only for the usable land. [12] He would not accept time payments.

Nor, as he made clear in a letter to Wissler, would Abrams give up rights to his artifact collection. "Now as to the relics after having cared for and protected the ruins from destructive `diggers' holding them untill [sic] such a time when just such an institution, as now working them, should take charge of and conduct an [sic] Scientific operation, I feel that I am justly entitled to the few relics that have so far been apportioned to me by your museum." [13] So far as can be determined, Abrams had only a few specimens from the exploratory season of 1916.

Morris stated that the "relics" Abrams had selected but allowed to be shipped to New York for study were among some of the choicest exhumed at the site. Regardless, he felt that Abrams could be persuaded to relinquish them if he could be shown "that without the shadow of a doubt that this archaeological exhibit would be maintained in perpetuity." [14] One of the provisions written into the tentative outline of the sale was that the property would be used solely for scientific and educational purposes and that there be a permanent exhibit of duplicate specimens from the site. [15]

As for the farm itself, Abrams wanted continued use of the tract surrounding the ruins for three to five years and would take care of any upkeep to internal cross fences. He had just planted alfalfa in part of the open land and valued the untillable mounded areas as winter shelter for his stock. At the end of whatever time the museum allotted him, he would remove all pens and sheds from the ruin area except the large hay barn situated to the northeast of the East Ruin. The moving of this structure to another location on his farm would be the museum's responsibility.

Because of the slowness of both parties in coming to an agreement, the museum then asked for and received a five-year extension of its excavation contract with Abrams. This arrangement took its tenure to April 1, 1924. [16]

Meantime, Huntington unexpectedly refused to acquire the property on his own. However, he had no objections to the museum buying it with monies he provided. At that point, the museum lawyers informed Wissler that, even under the guise of a donor name, the institution charter would not permit its permanent retention of real estate. The Trustees added to the dilemma by balking at allowing Abrams to occupy and use the property after its purchase. [17] There, the dealings stalled.

Doubtless frustrated, in the spring of 1919 Wissler asked museum president Osborn for permission to go to Aztec in order to personally present Abrams with four alternatives: (1) the purchase by the American Museum of Natural History of the entire group of antiquities of which the West Ruin was the heart, a tract estimated then at some 23-plus acres, for $6,500; (2) purchase of the West Ruin only; (3) purchase, with a five-year option, of either of the above; or (4) lease either for the purpose of excavation. In the same memorandum, Wissler asked Osborn to approve repair funds for Aztec Ruin because the unusually severe winter had caused many walls to fall. [18]

To Wissler's dismay, Osborn was weary of the seemingly unending troubles associated with Aztec Ruin. "In view of the difficulty of preserving the excavated ruins, and possibly legal questions with reference to the museum's holding such property," Osborn told him, "I do not consider it advisable to purchase the ruins outright." [19] Osborn advocated a long-term lease not to exceed $1,000, with no additional expense after excavation ended. To him, the perpetual preservation of this bit of Anasazi cultural history was not worth the cost.

Notwithstanding this change of heart on the part of the museum's president, Wissler traveled to Aztec during the following summer to put into motion the involved proceedings, which would result in the purchase of only the ruin being dug (see Appendix F). The museum proposed to offer $3,000, contributed by Archer M. Huntington, for the West Ruin and the 6.4 acres of land upon which it sat. The parcel included the area selected for the Morris house. [20] Huntington's reputation had elevated the price. The $3,000 figure did not correlate with the earlier price tag of four times the land for double the amount. Even so, upon learning that Abrams might be considering presenting the property to the state of New Mexico, the museum was anxious that Huntington be recognized as the donor and get philanthropic credit. [21]

To further justify actions contrary to Osborn's wishes as of that May, Wissler claimed that, by owning the land, dirt from the excavation could be dumped where convenient and not have to be hauled away. That would save cartage fees. What were considered "unpromising" parts of the settlement would not have to be dug. The museum no longer would be bound by the agreement of 1916 to expose the entire structure. Perhaps most persuasive of all was the publicity the museum would receive from the growing number of visitors to the ruin. Some 1,200 sightseers had been counted in 1918. [22]

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006