Aztec Ruins
Administrative History
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Since neither the American Museum nor the National Park Service had clear-cut definitions of its future role in the Aztec Ruin and the vague interests of each organization at least theoretically intersected, conflicts arose from muddled administration. The lack of government funding and real interest in the intrinsic importance of the ruin threw a tremendous burden upon the donating institution. When accepting Aztec Ruin on behalf of the National Park Service, Stephen T. Mather, director from 1917 through 1928, stated, "It would be absolutely impossible for us to spend any money on the Aztec Ruin for many years to come, aside perhaps from that of putting in necessary metal warning and fire signs." [1] In the view of the National Park Service, the purpose of creating the monument was nothing more than giving the protection of federal laws to the area. [2] However, if the museum's important investment were not to be lost, it was imperative not only to halt human and natural attrition, but to push forward the research that it hoped would lead to its scholarly understanding. The desire to continue to do these things was there, but the wherewithal was limited and, according to some, no longer the responsibility of the museum.

Nevertheless, although Morris was to be paid by the museum, he also was charged as custodian for protecting government property and furthering government interests. He was to determine ruin repairs necessary to its maintenance and to oversee the work. The cost of laborers' wages and some materials would be met by the government. Minor excavations were to be continued sporadically by a few workmen under Morris's supervision, but the permits to carry on this work now had to come through government channels. [3]

In addition to Morris becoming custodian and Abrams being given a nonpaid semi-official title of U.S. Commissioner, Palmer T. Hudson, a local man who had worked on the excavations, was named park ranger at a token salary of $12.00 per annum. [4] These men legally could apprehend trespassers and turn them over to law enforcement officers. A copy of Rules and Regulations for Use and Management of National Monuments was to be their guidebook (see Appendix H).

One of the aspects of site management not spelled out in the change of ownership from the museum to the government was its visitation by the public. Mather's curt statement upon acceptance gave no formal recognition of this underlying reason for the ruin's conservation except to note that development funds did not exist. It seems to have been assumed that Morris would continue to take visitors through the house block, as he had from the beginning of exploration of Aztec Ruin. Perhaps it was not realized to what extent the tourist traffic would grow. Morris inquired, "Do you wish me to keep as close track as possible of the number of visitors who come here?" [5]

In the decade of the 1920s, the San Juan Basin was a relatively isolated northwest corner of New Mexico. A branch railroad line, the Red Apple Flyer, came down the Animas valley from Durango to the village of Aztec. After much local agitation for it, an undeveloped automobile road paralleled the same route for approximately 35 miles. [6] A rutty dirt track cut across the generally uninhabited uplands of the state from the Rio Grande to Bloomfield and to Farmington and Shiprock. A side road went from Bloomfield north to Aztec to join the continuation of the Durango road along the Animas to Farmington. A similar dirt road ran south from Shiprock through the western sector of the Navajo Reservation to connect at Gallup with the transcontinental U.S. Highway 66 and the Santa Fe Railroad (see Figure 6.1). All these routes across the northern wilderness of the state were subject to being closed in winter by deep snows and in summer by flash floods, slippery mud, or clouds of choking dust. As late as the 1930s, these conditions continued. "Cars are being pulled through sections of the Durango road with tractors, the Cuba road is closed, and our only road is now from Gallup," the custodian at Aztec Ruin wrote. "We walked to town several times this month." [7]

map of Aztec Ruins NM region
Figure 6.1. Map of location of Aztec Ruins National Monument and connecting highways in the Four Corners area.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Despite these drawbacks, from the beginning of the archeological work at Aztec many curious individuals made their way to the well-publicized site (see Figure 3.9). At first, these were local folks, who drove their buggies out in the country to watch friends toiling with residues of the past. Like a proud parent, Morris enjoyed showing off "his" site and explaining what was being learned about its former inhabitants. As automobiles became common after World War I and the urge to travel in them took Americans ever farther from home, the volume of visitation to the ruins increased. Miserable roads notwithstanding, at the end of the first year of the monument's existence more than 7,000 persons had come to the Anasazi great house on the Animas. [8] To prepare for this onslaught of sightseers, Morris hoisted an American flag at one corner of a barbed wire fence across the front yard of the museum property upon which was a sign announcing the hours of visitation (see Figure 6.2). [9] More time was demanded by visitors than could be reasonably expected of an unpaid one-man staff, yet those who made government appropriations did not see fit to provide Aztec Ruin with full-time employees.

Morris house
Figure 6.2. Morris house serving as monument entrance prior to 1934.

For most of the first seven months of 1923, Morris was at Aztec Ruin taking on these various tasks, as well as trying to settle down to writing the excavation reports that were beginning to weigh on his conscience. However, that fall, with grants from the American Museum and the University of Colorado, he set out upon a new absorbing excavation program in Canyon del Muerto, Arizona. As it turned out, that research spread over the next four autumns. More important to his commitment at Aztec Ruin was his acceptance of a position with the Carnegie Institution of Washington. That job required him to be in Yucatan, Mexico, for six months a year.

Because his services to the two groups involved at Aztec were entangled, preparations to cope with Morris's withdrawal were equally complicated. The American Museum arranged that Morris be given an annual six-months leave of absence to take the Carnegie Institution position and that he continue to have use of the Aztec house under a 10-year lease upon payment of $1.00 per year. [10] The first leave period was January through June 1924. The museum employed Hudson as caretaker of its property at $50 monthly during this time. [11] Abrams agreed to serve free of charge as the museum's agent in the event the caretaker encountered any problems. [12] Since Hudson already had an appointment as park ranger, he was empowered to act on the government's behalf. [13]

Hudson was to occupy the stone house so that someone always would be at the site. [14] Hudson misunderstood his mission, took on another job, and was gone most of the day. As a result, the National Park Service was upset that visitors could not gain entrance through the locked gate in front of the property, and the American Museum was fearful because its specimen collection had been left unguarded. [15] After Morris completed his second fall season at Canyon del Muerto in 1924, Hudson's appointment was terminated.

The only archeological work at Aztec Ruin during 1924 was small repairs and the excavation of Room 1912. These projects were done during the summer by Owens and Tatman, two helpers from the original crew. The single specimen recovered was a woven headband. [16]

Barely having time to repack his field gear between fall digging in Mummy Cave in Canyon del Muerto and winter rebuilding of the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Morris began to realize the hopelessness of his further control of affairs at Aztec Ruin and the evaporating prospects of his completing the ruin's total excavation should the American Museum ever decide to do so. Wissler continued to hold out hope that such a program would happen eventually. In the meantime, he would try to keep the American Museum interest alive. "I will endeavor to bring it about that it will be the Museum's policy to try to tide over by making these modest improvements to the house," he said, "keeping up minor repairs on the ruin, and providing such additional custodianship as may be needed." [17]

With this support, Morris's next choice for a replacement to meet his dual obligations to the American Museum and to the National Park Service to which he personally could not attend was Otha (Oley) O. Owens, a 52-year-old local farmer whom Morris converted into a competent archeological field hand. In the past, Owens looked after the ruin in Morris's absences. As Morris outlined the park ranger job to Owens, "Your duties as ranger will be the guarding of the ruin against vandalism, the keeping of a daily record of the number of visitors, and the sending of a report at the close of each month giving the total to Mr. Frank Pinkley, Sup't. of Southwestern Monuments, Blackwater, Arizona." [18] The National Park Service had begun its management of Aztec Ruin with the prerequisite governmental record keeping. To forestall any repetition of the dereliction of responsibility to the museum which was paying his $75 monthly stipend, Morris also cautioned Owens, "The Museum will expect in return for your salary your presence day and night at the ruin; that is, it is to be as if you were actually living there. If you have to be absent, I would prefer that you leave Oscar Tatman in your place. It is understood that you keep close watch of the Museum's property, and that you will take special pains to guard the building where the specimens are against fire." [19] Morris listed other tasks he wanted done. Most of these related to finishing details on the house. From August through December 1925, the museum expended $1,049.99 at Aztec, of which at least one-third was for completion of the house. [20] Four other projects within the ruin confirmed the museum's intention to continue modest repair and development.

Owens took his new assignment seriously, as is shown in a follow-up letter to Wissler. "I have not been able to do much yet," he explained, "as it came a big snow the next day after Earl left. Then the mercury dropped to 24 below zero. And has been hanging around there ever sence [sic]. And every thing will be looked after in no. 1 shape." [21]

Owens turned out to be a more reliable caretaker than Hudson. The National Park Service had no complaints. Upon his return to Aztec in the summer, Morris reported, "I am well satisfied with Owens's management of things here during my absence. He expended to advantage the residue of last year's Government funds for repair and did some digging in addition." Morris remained frustrated by having to attend to visitors at the ruins when he was back in Aztec. He asked that Owens continue to do this so that he could write. [22]

The digging in 1925 to which Morris referred occurred in two rooms, 192 on the second story of the West Wing and 193 in the North Wing. The first chamber was relatively sterile, so far as artifacts were concerned. A refuse deposit in Room 193 provided 73 specimens, including pottery, sandstone discs, stone implements, bone awls, yucca cordage and strips, yucca sandals, arrow shafts, fiber pot rests, basketry, and wooden objects. [23] From a large assortment of potsherds, Morris restored a mug, a jar, and two canteens. These vessels remain at Aztec Ruins. [24]

Owens once again served as ranger and caretaker of Aztec Ruin during the winter season of 1926. When Morris came back to Aztec that summer, he soon was off on a brief trip to inspect some ancient salt mines in the vicinity of Camp Verde, Arizona, taking Owens with him. In the fall, the two men went back to Canyon del Muerto to continue that exploration. During these absences, at his own expense, Morris employed a single, elderly man, Paul Fassel, a German whom he had met in Yucatan, to share the frame shanty with the archeological collection and the field equipment.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006