Mesa Verde National Park:
Shadows of the Centuries
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Chapter 3:
Women to the Rescue

ONCE THE WETHERILLS HAD DEMONSTRATED that a successful find held more potential income than did a year's labor on the farm or ranch, the scramble for the dollar started. B. K. Wetherill warned the Smithsonian in a March 3, 1890, letter that "the valleys of Mancos and Montezuma have been pretty thoroughly dug over, it being about the only means of support of quite a number of people." Of course, not everyone dug and destroyed for money. Some sought additions to their personal collections; others viewed their outings as a novel way to spend a Sunday afternoon or a couple of days. Regardless of the motive, the end result was the same—destruction of irretrievable archaeological evidence or, at the very least, damage to a site.

T. Mitchell Prudden observed that by the mid-1890s settlers were organizing picnics at the ruins on Sundays and holidays for the primary purpose of digging. A story current at that time was that a banker in a nearby town "grub staked" men to dig in the ruins, supplying them with food and equipment for a percentage of the profits on artifacts they sold. These pothunters, or "Sunday-diggers," hiked far into Mesa Verde, leaving behind a "rusty old can" or some other memento of their presence in a ruin that more often than not had been severely damaged. [1] Their trail often led to Durango, where there was a ready market for pothunters' wares. A Mesa Verde mummy was even featured in a county fair parade.

Dark days these for Mesa Verde, even though the hard times locally and the pressing need for new income during the depression made them understandable. The lure of adventure, added to the profit motive, made the ruins almost irresistible. Life at home, on the farm, or on the ranch rarely provided so much excitement.

B. K. Wetherill was not the only one to buck the general trend and warn that ultimate destruction and irreplaceable loss would be the outcome of uncontrolled access. From the federal government level (U.S. Geological Survey and Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock), from organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, and from private individuals protests arose against looting and vandalism. Colorado historian Frank Hall advocated that the ruins be "religiously preserved, not wantonly destroyed," and T. Mitchell Prudden lauded the Wetherills for being "most eager and persistent in preserving from harm the great ruins of the Mesa Verde as well as others."

Early preservation efforts were confronted by a wall of public indifference that created the need for a variety of solutions. Frederick Chapin, as early as 1889, had proposed the intriguing possibility that Cliff Palace "be converted into a museum and filled with relics of the lost people and become one of the attractions of southern Colorado." Establishment of a state or national park constituted a more general approach. The Colorado Historical Society favored a state park; Nordenskiold's attorney, Ben W. Ritter, preferred a national park. Prudden called it a national disgrace that the U.S. government had made no effort to save the relics, and in 1896 he called for a national park at Mesa Verde. Three years later, the Mancos Times followed suit, calling the national park idea "laudable" and urging every public-spirited Colorado citizen to support it. [2] Those citizens needed more time to think about it.

Random attempts also were made to involve the federal government. As early as May 1882, the New England Genealogical Society sent a memorial to the U.S. Senate, "praying" Congress to preserve some of the extinct cities. After the discovery of Mesa Verde, the Colorado legislature and several other local groups requested preservation of the prehistoric ruins, but all their efforts came to naught.

The situation demanded a leader determined to stay the course in the face of setbacks and public apathy. Previous efforts, though well intentioned, had lacked that determination. Finally all the essential ingredients were brought together by a dedicated woman, the irrepressible Virginia McClurg, and the followers she recruited in a campaign that lasted for over a decade. McClurg's interest in Mesa Verde dated back to her visits (as Virginia Donaghe) in 1882 and 1886. In the 1890s, she turned into a one-woman crusade, passionately devoted to saving the ruins and creating a park. She launched an emotional campaign in Colorado to awaken the public, and her message was soon transmitted to the rest of the American public.

This was not the first time a determined woman had coaxed the public to support preservation. Forty years earlier the shy, crippled southern gentlewoman Ann Pamela Cunningham had founded the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union to save George Washington's Potomac River home. She had organized committees in various states, overcome discouragements with perseverance and courage, and succeeded in purchasing the plantation buildings and grounds in 1859. The Civil War intervened, but Cunningham and her association were able to preserve Mount Vernon for posterity. They set a sterling example of what women could accomplish.

In 1894, Virginia McClurg gave a lecture series in Denver; at the conclusion a petition for the preservation of prehistoric ruins was drawn up and enthusiastically signed by those present. Off it went to Washington, where congressional apathy led to its quick demise. Disgusted, but not discouraged, McClurg vowed to continue her campaign. In 1897, she traveled to the Pueblo, Colorado, convention of the Colorado Federation of Women's Clubs, to plead with that group to make the cliff dwellings one of its projects. She was successful; the women responded wholeheartedly by organizing a fourteen-member committee with McClurg as chairman.

Having enlisted this eager support, McClurg unhesitatingly and boldly lobbied to win her goal. Colorado had granted women the right to vote in 1893, so it seemed the state would be receptive to women's taking an active role in previously male-dominated activities. Even so, this Victorian lady's aggressiveness and determination surprised many; she would not be deterred.

Virginia McClurg, who led the fight for the park; at the moment of victory, she saw her triumph slip away. (Courtesy: Pioneers' Museum, Colorado Springs.)

She talked with the Colorado senators, Edward Wolcott and Henry Teller, pressuring them for support. President and Mrs. William McKinley both received letters stating the need "to make it the most interesting park in the United States. Then all can explore our wonderland, but none can destroy or take away." In return, she received a letter from an assistant secretary to the president asking that McClurg kindly take her request to the secretary of the interior, rather than bothering the president or his wife. Undaunted by this rebuff, writer and poet McClurg feverishly wrote articles, gave speeches (some featuring that new wonder, "stereopticon" views), and attempted to raise money. With perpetual energy and a martyr's dedication, Virginia McClurg enthusiastically pleaded and promoted.

The Cliff place is the prey of the spoiler, soon it will be too late to guard these monuments. . . . We will act as custodians of specific ruins while the matter of national preservation . . . [is] pending. . . . for it is a noble work and not the least illustrious upon the roll of presidents will be the name of him who is the first to protect the oldest aboriginal monuments of the United States. [3]

She slowly awakened Americans and kept Mesa Verde fresh in the public mind.

At first the most appealing idea seemed to be making the committee of the Colorado Federation custodians of Mesa Verde while a national preservation act slowly worked its way through Congress—somewhat along the lines of the Mount Vernon effort. The urgency for preservation had become acute, as McClurg well knew and repeatedly warned, and some expeditious, inexpensive stopgap measure had to be found. Putting her talents to practical use, McClurg worked to get an accurate survey and hoped to have Indian police guard the ruins. The Denver Republican, however, warned that to do so would be unpopular, even though "practical and economical," because southwest Coloradans wanted to save the ruins while at the same time removing the only Indians extant in the vicinity, the Utes. With the Utes relocated elsewhere—anywhere—their land could be opened for settlement by people who considered themselves more progressive. Given that profit could be generated from interest in these ruins and relics, the Utes seemed to be only a hindrance. Old ideas died hard.

This predicament, as it turned out, brought one of the unexpected results of the growing interest in the cliff dwellers. Tension between the newcomers and the Utes had come with settlement, reflecting the centuries-old struggle over who would dominate. Over the most recent generation, relic collecting and exploration had produced new appreciation for the ancient people, if not for the Utes. Virginia McClurg and her backers promoted this amelioration of attitudes, and as an unintentional result, opinions began to change on a wider front. Perhaps Indians were not, after all, the barbarians of yesterday. Might it not be conceivable that westerners would come to appreciate their contemporary neighbors just as they were learning to value an earlier Indian culture?

These philosophical questions were tangential to the main one: establishment of a park to preserve the cliff dwellings. Pursuing that goal, McClurg and Durangoan Alice Bishop, an early visitor to Mesa Verde and a park supporter, traveled to Mancos in 1899 and then on to Ute headquarters at Navajo Springs in Mancos Canyon. There they met with the old and experienced Southern Ute leader, Ignacio, and Acowitz, the same one who had befriended the Wetherills. Through an interpreter, McClurg made an offer of a thirty-year lease for the land encompassing the ruins at $300 annual rent, with the Utes retaining grazing rights (a compromise that eased the consciences of these women, who felt guilty about removing the Indians from their own land). The Utes would also be granted the right to appoint special policemen for the park.

All these concessions meant little to the practical Ignacio, who stunned the women by suggesting that the entire $9,000 rent be "plunked down at one pop." That demand proved to be too much of a pop—the conference ended without a meeting of minds. McClurg then toured Mesa Verde, ablaze in its "autumn dress of gold and crimson," to inspect sites and conditions of ruins and to look for sources of water. [4]

The setback with Ignacio only temporarily disconcerted McClurg. She returned to the fundamental question: Who should control Mesa Verde? Even though she feared that under federal protection all relics of the cliff dwellings would belong to the Smithsonian, she was not convinced that a state park would be any better. Certainly not one run by a state like Colorado, McClurg sarcastically warned, "that considers closing its institutions of learning and cannot care for her blind, poor and insane." McClurg's dire predictions did not come to pass, however, and her moment of bitterness soon passed. When she returned to the question at hand, she knew what she wanted: "No, let this be the women's park."

In the meantime a survey had been made and a map drawn. A circular was sent to every town in Colorado that had a Women's Club, "innumerable letters" were written, and lobbying was undertaken in Washington. What McClurg wanted was Ute and government consent for a park; then the next step would be the construction of wagon roads and trails, a restoration project, excavation of relics, and, finally, a hotel. [5]

With vigor and innate stubbornness, Virginia McClurg forged ahead. McClurg was a natural leader who was able to attract an equally dedicated and determined corps of women to her cause and had a knack for arousing interest and enthusiasm among those she described as the "wealthy class who must have some outlet for their suppressed zeal."

The cultured and energetic Lucy Peabody, who became McClurg's lieutenant in the battle, led the fight in Washington, D.C., where she had previously worked and still retained excellent connections. She had come to Colorado as a bride in 1887 and now, in her thirties, was in the midst of a very active "public and private life." She had become deeply interested in ethnology while working in Washington, so it was natural that Lucy Peabody would turn to the fascinating Southwest and quickly be caught up in McClurg's excitement over Mesa Verde.

Behind McClurg and Peabody stood a loyal, hard-working cadre of women. Ella McNeil, the wife of one of Colorado's prominent bankers, worked in Washington, D.C., and Colorado. Ella Adams, the wife of former governor Alva Adams, joined the cause, as did Luna A. Thatcher of the Thatcher banking family and an energetic host of Durango women that included Alice Bishop; her mother, Jeanette Scoville; and Estelle Camp, McNeil's sister-in-law. Perhaps the most outspoken of the group was Helen Stoiber of Silverton, Colorado. Although her imperious manner created enmity, that never bothered her, and she fought the battle to the end with enthusiasm and her husband's mining money.

Most of the early supporters came from Colorado; later recruits joined from outside the state. Natalie Hammond, for example, the wife of noted mining engineer John Hays Hammond, visited the ruins, went on the lecture tour, and donated money to clean up and enlarge what became known as Hammond Spring near Spruce Tree House. [6] That these determined women faced an uphill struggle was a reality that did not seem to deter them.

Work within the Colorado Federation of Women's Clubs was acceptable to a point, but a single-issue organization was to be preferred. In May 1900, articles of incorporation for the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association were filed (the initiation fee was two dollars; yearly membership was one dollar). The obvious leadership emerged: McClurg was selected regent and Peabody the first vice-regent. Chapters in California, Arizona, Utah, and New York eventually joined the organization. With a new vehicle and an old goal, the women plunged ahead. Some husbands also played an active role in Colorado, where men were welcome to join.

Estelle Cam
Estelle Camp was one of the Durango women who joined in the effort to create the park. (Courtesy: Author's collection)

Al Wetherill represented the local chapter at Mancos. The California chapter, however, limited membership to "cultured Christian women."

As the women pushed forward, they found themselves in the mainstream of one of the major women's projects of the 1890s the club movement. Clubs had multiplied, splintered, and federated at an energetic pace throughout the preceding twenty years. When the century turned, a vocal, visible collection of clubs had spread from the east coast to the west with a network of local, state, and national organizations. Like Virginia McClurg's product, the various clubs provided thousands of middle- and upper-class women, usually white, native-born Americans, the chance to be active outside of the home and to work toward common goals. Members supported worthy projects, raised funds, and acquired for themselves an avenue for social activism in civic affairs. These organizations also provided educational and leadership outlets that were often unavailable to women of that generation and enriched the quality of members' lives.

Indeed, before long such clubs became a symbol of social activism for their members. As a later scholar, Nancy Woloch, wrote, they united in the conviction that women as women had something distinctive and significant to contribute collectively to public life. [7]

It may be that many of the Mesa Verde women were not aware of their role in the larger movement, as more pressing and immediate goals occupied their attention. One of those involved negotiating with the Utes about the land on which the cliff dwellings lay. The discussions met with one stumbling block after another. In 1900, four Durangoans, led by the veteran Alice Bishop, traveled by train to Mancos and then overland by buggy to Navajo Springs. There they met with Ute leaders and their agent and reached a tentative agreement on a lease. Estelle Camp never forgot the aftermath. The joyous Utes "staged a wild drunk, dancing and shouting about the store building all through the night." Unfortunately for the terrified, and utterly proper, Victorian women, the secretary of the interior refused to accept their treaty. They had no authority, and as far as Washington was concerned, a majority of the tribe had not authorized the lease. A redrafted treaty was submitted the next year, only to be rejected once more. The infuriated McClurg exploded, "The department fondly imagines that Weeminuche Utes sit at ease at their agency, pens and blotting paper in hand, ready to sign leases, but such is not the case." [8]

Washington's bureaucratic road blocks forced the Association to focus more of its attention there. Lucy Peabody and her capital connections provided the perfect solution, and her selection as chairman of the legislative committee was propitious. She left "no stone unturned" in her efforts. The federal government so far had shown little interest in preservation, except for the 1879 act of Congress that specified that all collections made by parties for the government must be housed in the National Museum in Washington. And a special agent had been sent to southwestern Colorado in December 1899, at the request of several Durangoans, to make a careful evaluation of the actual situation. [9] Nothing had come of those endeavors—neither the law nor the investigation benefited the Association.

With Peabody as their legislative leader, the women turned to promoting the introduction of park bills in both the House and the Senate. They found some important and willing congressional allies. Congressman John Shafroth, one of the most progressive Coloradans of his generation, devoted himself to this cause and to that of woman's suffrage, thereby endearing himself to the women of Colorado. This Missouri-born, University of Michigan—educated lawyer had first been elected to the House of Representatives in 1894. Now a House veteran, he had introduced national park bills in 1901 and in the two sessions following, only to meet defeat in committee hearings. Senator Edward Wolcott's efforts had gone no further. [10] Shafroth also fought for "good roads," a vital requirement for Colorado and for the welfare of the park should it come to fruition.

Undeterred by Washington's reluctance, the women redoubled their efforts. They attacked the "knockers," who believed a park campaign could not succeed, and they pressed ahead with speeches and pamphlets and with obvious confidence in their ultimate success. McClurg wrote to Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt, who responded much more favorably than had the president.

One method the women used to raise money was to have members ask their friends and acquaintances to contribute ten cents. "No one minds giving 10 cents and besides it makes the laudable work of the association known," wrote McClurg. They also sponsored rummage sales and other fund-raisers. [11] Each undertaking, in its own way, advertised the campaign; McClurg was right about the results of publicity. The careful laying of the ground work would, it was hoped, pay off in eventual benefits.

Early guide and first ranger Charles Kelly with part of his "string." (Courtesy: Jean Bader.)

Nothing caught the press's attention more than did a tour to Mesa Verde, which the Association sponsored for a "distinguished party of ladies and gentlemen" in September 1901. The group included a correspondent for the New York Herald and some leading archaeologists and scientists; McClurg, Peabody, McNeil, and other Association members conducted the tour for the opportunity it offered to tell the story of their fight. They rendezvoused in Durango, where Estelle Camp and the Reading Club met them at the depot. A tour of the city was followed by a "delightful" evening reception. Next day, it was on to Mancos and then to Mesa Verde, under the guidance of Al Wetherill and Charles B. Kelly. This was the "most interesting and influential body of people" yet to visit the cliff dwellings, claimed the Mancos Times. The writer optimistically added that the party would advertise the ruins more extensively than anyone ever had before and that hundreds of tourists would be induced to come to Mancos—a statement showing that hope never died in Mancos.

Not all of those expectations would come to pass, but Professor Jesse Fewkes, one of the party who did rally to the cause, was destined to play a significant role in the future park. Denver and New York newspapers gave the trip ample coverage; that particular goal of McClurg had been achieved. [12]

Two Story House
Kelly's cabin, near Spruce Tree House, provided the first accommodations at Mesa Verde. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

The celebrity tour proved to be the last hurrah for the Wetherills in the ongoing Mesa Verde story. Benjamin Wetherill had died in November 1898, naming Richard his heir-at-law, but Richard now lived at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, several days' ride to the south. Al and his mother lived at the ranch and carried on the work, but they faced debts, and times were not good for local ranching. Tourists still came, but others, especially Charles Kelly, now competed for a share of the guide service business. The ranch slowly declined, along with the Wetherill fortunes in the Mancos Valley, and in 1901, when a mortgage payment was overdue, a judgment was obtained against the property. After Al tried in vain to raise the money, the Alamo Ranch was sold at public auction in February 1902. [13] Circumstances had changed; following the Mesa Verde excitement, the Wetherill brothers had turned elsewhere to explore and dig and then move away. Their interest in the Mancos Valley naturally declined. With tourism on the increase, Charles Kelly, better known as C. B., certainly competed for the Wetherill guide service. Having come to Mancos in 1886, Kelly was almost as much of an old-timer as were his competitors, the Wetherills. From his "up-to-date" livery stable in Mancos, he guided visitors to Mesa Verde, and if the Mancos Times reporting can be trusted, by 1900 he was more than holding his own against Al and the Alamo. [14] A veteran of the Leadville, Colorado, silver excitement and the freighting business, this "good man" had some fascinating stories to tell his guests at the cabin he built opposite Spruce Tree House. The popular Kelly was an active member of the Mancos Hose Company and one of the region's noted race-horse owners.

Both Al and C. B. could have used a better road to the ruins. Mancos people also wanted a wagon road into the "heart of the region" to increase travel and to give them an advantage in the rivalry with their urban neighbors. No one had yet blinked in that ongoing faceoff. When visitors were told in Durango that "they could drive from Durango to Cliff Palace in carriages, thus avoiding the tedious horse-back ride from Mancos," the Mancos Times, June 14, 1901, exploded, "These things are laughable, but extremely annoying." Nor did the editor appreciate Cortez's claim that it was located twelve miles nearer to the cliff dwellings than Mancos. The facts did not bear that out, the Mancos Times (June 28) piously reported, and furthermore the "foot trail" from Cortez was much worse, and the guide "gets lost every time" he attempts the trip.

Sterl Thomas, the guide in question, did not actually get lost; the Mancos people could be as careless with the facts as their rivals. Montrose photographer Thomas McKee experienced one of Thomas's trips in 1900. He left this account of his long day's journey to Spruce Tree House.

We left Cortez and went southwest to an old trail which we followed, traveling east on the rim rock of the mesa on the north side, and really it was no trail at all, as to show itself and none whatever going down to Spruce Tree House; the underbrush, and the cedar and pinion trees were thick and made it hard to travel through the wilderness of forest with pack horses and our own saddle horses. [15]

When he got there, he endured the traditional lack of good water, as he toured the ruins and took his photographs. Twelve-year-old Minnie Hickman took the same trip four years later and retained similar memories. Their accounts emphasized why Cortez was a poor choice as a jumping-off place. Mancos boosters cheered the disadvantages of Cortez, but the trip from the Mancos side, though easier, still held some challenges. [16]

The adventures did not end upon reaching the ruins. Minnie remembered that one of her party was hit on the head by a rock as he climbed into Spruce Tree House. Effie Eldredge was embarrassed by the "ridiculous overalls" the ladies had to wear, and she waited until the very last moment to put them on. Victorian decorum had to be maintained even here so she and her sister Gladys retired to the sagebrush, changed, "giggled over the attire," and then rode toward Mesa Verde.

A group of early-day Mesa Verde visitors outside Kelly's cabin. (Courtesy: Jean Bader)

Up at sunrise, stiff and sore, they consumed a hearty breakfast and prepared for the day's touring. Fearful that mice would run up her legs, Gladys tied shoe laces tightly around her pants at the ankles, and off she went to see the sights. No mice ruined her day but the embarrassment of getting stuck in Spruce Tree House almost did. With a minimum of effort, she was extricated from her predicament. The party had lunch in the "court yard of Cliff Palace, amid broken stones and adobe." Only Effie, among the ladies, climbed the "rickety log ladder" and rope into Balcony House. While returning to their cabin (built near Spruce Tree House by Kelly to provide at least a rough frontier kind of comfort), the guide killed three rattlesnakes. Effie and her friends could only imagine hot baths and soft beds while they tidied their hair; Mesa Verde did not provide many Victorian amenities. [17] A meal of beans and salt pork and an early bedtime awaited them at the conclusion of their vigorous day.

The women of the Cliff Dwellings Association were working hard in the meantime to change this primitiveness and to save the ruins. They received a boost in 1903, when Congress authorized negotiations with the Utes. Back went the redoubtable Alice Bishop and her friends for another powwow, at which the Utes once again agreed to a lease. Something then happened that is undocumented, and the next year Senator Thomas Patterson and Virginia McClurg visited the Utes, who now claimed that the government had treated them unfairly. They objected to the rations they received and the failure of irrigation water to reach the reservation, in accordance with treaty obligations. Everything eventually was worked out, and Congress would ratify the agreement in 1906. [18] The treaty came too late, however, to be of much help in preservation or in attaining a major breakthrough toward creation of the park.

Another attempt in 1904 to create a park died when the House failed to act after the Senate passed the bill. But in losing, the cause won publicity and public attention. For example, that same year the government published a pamphlet about the prehistoric ruins of the Southwest. It forthrightly emphasized that preservation needed to be, and was becoming, a matter of much concern for the American people. More important, the author believed that no barriers hindered the "speedy accomplishment" of turning this awareness into saving the ruins.

The women must have wondered where such confidence came from after the setbacks they had suffered in Washington. They could not be displeased, however, by the author's praise of Mesa Verde as offering the finest specimens of "true cliff dwellings." The clincher came with the statement that a national park established there would "be of great educational value." The pamphlet favored the name Colorado Cliff Dwellings National Park; others suggested different titles. [19] By whatever name it would be called, the cherished park seemed to be closer to becoming a reality, even though it still lay tantalizingly just beyond the Association's reach.

Climbing up the canyon walls and into the ruins was an adventure in the pre-park days. (Courtesy: Jean Bader)

Vandalism and relic removal continued unabated all the while. So did damage as tourists wandered about; even the most careful contributed their unintended share. The need for action loomed more urgently than it had a decade before, repeatedly warned McClurg, Peabody, and the others in 1904. Time was working against them; if anything was to be preserved for the American people to see and for archaeologists to study, then action had to be taken now—not promised for tomorrow.


Mesa Verde National Park: Shadows of the Centuries
©2002, University Press of Colorado
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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.