Wetherill Wetherill

A History of Discovery  

Benjamin Wetherill

Benjamin Alfred Wetherill better known as Al was the family poet, writer and humorist and the second son of Benjamin Kite Wetherill. The "Bald-Headed Smart Aleck" was a term of endearment applied to him by the editor of the Mancos Times. When he wrote letters to his family he often opened with "My Dear Darned Fambily". Al was more than likely the first to view Cliff Palace in 1885 but did not enter it. His Brother Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason were later credited with it's discovery, after they saw and entered the ruin in 1888.


 Here’s an article written for the Mancos Times in 1898

Courtesy of Harvey Leake

Seven Cities of Cibollo

By Al Wetherill
Al Wetherill Writes Interestingly of "Pueblo Bonito.”

In almost a direct line between Albuquerque and Mancos, and railway of these points, in what is known as Chaco Canon, are a group of immense ruins, or what remains of the habitations of an intelligent race of people who may, of may not, be represented by some of the existing tribes of village Indians now scattered about in New Mexico and Arizona. The villages which compose Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonitothis series are seven in number, and are generally supposed to have been the "Seven Cities of Cibollo," so long sought for by the Spanish explorers. Time was no object to those builders. Patience must have been one of their chief virtues. Not having been a war-like nation, all their efforts were for protection, comfort and advancement.

The building, or village, most spoken of is known in Hayden's report as "Pueblo Bonito," and is the largest of the group. It is built on the plan of an ancient amphitheater. An estimated circumference of it I place at three-fourths of a mile, with an open section on the south, in front of which are two immense mounds, and the uses for which have not yet been determined. The greater part of the building has been built upon the ruins, and partly from the material, of another building, which must have dated back to the most remote antiquity, and then occupied by many generations, as coat after coat of smoke begrimed plaster would indicate. The masonry of the older part is different from the newer, and even the latter is different from any we see in the ruins of the other sections of the country or of modern pueblo work, it having been made mostly of mud or adobe with poles laid along in the mortar, the rock work being just a shell on each side. Of course there are other classes of masonry, but this predominates.

In this pueblo there are scores of estufas, or under-ground ceremonial rooms. One of these opened last year is especially worthy of notice, as it is one step towards a direct connection with some of the present races existing near that vicinity. In this room were found, setting in a line but imbedded in the masonry of one of the recesses of the walls, the fourteen gods, or deities, or rather the little pedestals upon which the masks are placed, which represent the deities. The Navajos who were working there at the time, and who are familiar with the pueblo lore, named each one right off in its proper order. In the same room, and in the places which take the part of pillars in Cliff House estufas, there are logs let into the wall, one end projecting into the room, in each of which a small hole has been dug and then filled up with turquoise. This was then plastered over with mud. Near the other end of the logs there are occasionally placed small vessels of different shapes.

For a village the size of Bonito, what could have done with the dead? Did they cremate, as many ancient races did? They must have done that, or left them out in exposed spots to be destroyed by wild animals. An occasional isolated grave in the bottom of some of the rooms of the older parts of the building is all that has been so far found, and lucky is the person who can locate a body.

Just parallel with the main part of the building, and about thirty yards distant, the walls of the canon rise for nearly 200 feet-a sheer cliff entirely composed of one stratum of sandstone. A section of this, at some time, became detached, apparently while the house was occupied. The Navajo tradition is that they made great offering to the gods to keep it in place. To a certain extent, their prayers received an answer, as only a part of it has fallen. Under the balance, a great embankment was put up and enclosed in a wall. At intervals pillars were erected, and heavy pine logs were set against the cliff for braces. Modern engineers would smile at the slightness of such supports.

One remarkable tradition is in regard to the way the people at these houses got their supply of heavy timbers and roofing, as there are hundreds of pine and spruce logs twenty to thirty feet long. The saying is that they cut off sections of a tree for the wheels and made carts. This has quite a modem sound, but for lack of better information it will have to be accepted.

With their bodies are found quantities of beads, and in other places are birds. Bugs and tadpoles are carved on turquoise, while plain white beads and bone tools often have settings of it. AR sorts of ceremonial sticks, frag-ments of fibrous material, quantities of pottery, an occasional hammered copper bell, and a room full of parrot skeletons are some of the articles resulting from work done at this big village. Farming, after their primitive manner, could have been done almost anywhere, as the ground sub-irrigates and water for domestic purposes could be obtained by digging, although some immense tanks in the sandstone formation shows that water was not a despised element.

In all of these ruins there are numbers of underground rooms in "good” state of preservation, some of which are filled with such things as were valuable or necessary. Most rooms, however, contain only the ever present rat who has held undisputed possession for untold ages, and who should continue to have things his own way,. as it is hoped that New Mexico will follow the steps taken by Arizona for the preservation of her ancient historical land-marks.



Where The Hand Of Man Never Set Foot

by Samantha Wetherill

Many articles, papers and books have been written on the Wetherill Family. Please allow me to recount the story of the arrival of the Benjamin Kite Wetherill family to the area now called Mesa Verde country in Colorado.

Benjamin Kite Wetherill in 1879 left Kansas to go out to Rico, Colorado where sunny skies and the possibilities of finding silver in the San Juan Mountains beckoned. The rest of the family stayed in Atchison, Kansas. In the winter, Benjamin moved down out of the snowy mountains into an area called the Mancos Valley in Colorado. By spring of 1880 the "back to the soil" epidemic hit him. He purchased a small spread and sent for his oldest son Richard to help him get things started. By the spring of 1881 the whole family was together again, Benjamin and his wife Marion, their five sons, Richard, Alfred (Al), John, Clayton and Win and their lovely daughter Anna.

The building of a ranch is very hard work, especially without all the modern tools of today. They soon had crops growing where there use to be only sage brush. Fence posts were cut and set by the hundreds and innumerable irrigation ditches dug. Within a years time a barn and other out buildings went up using those funny old square nails. A small irrigation ditch ran by the front of the ranch house. Here Marion planted cottonwood switches which grew quickly. "It was those trees that gave the place it's name, Alamo Ranch, ranch of the Cottonwoods."

The family was very closely knit and held to the Quaker way of life. Their conviction about faith in God, loving your neighbor, being honest and kind earned them the respect of the surrounding settlers and the Ute and Paiute Indians living nearby.

Once the ranch was settled they went into the cattle business, running a good size herd on the acres they had accumulated. When grass became scarce, the Wetherills were the only settlers the Indians would allow to run cattle on their reservation land. "Often you would find old Chief Colorow and his group pitching camp in the Alamo Ranch front yard for indefinite periods.

It was at this time, while running the cattle in the canyons of the reservation, that the Wetherill brothers began to hear stories of old Indian ruins from the traders and prospectors. When the brothers questioned their Indian friends about the ruins they became reluctant to talk about them, just calling them the houses of the old ones, dead long ago.

In 1882, a trapper stopped at the ranch for a short visit. During his stay he told the family about finding a loom in one of the Indian ruins with a piece of cloth still in the loom.

Curiosity got the better of Al and he headed out to get his first close-up of a cliff dwelling. Coming back with his description of the ruin it became too much for the other boys. With their father's blessing the five brothers took off to investigate the mythical ruins of the Mesa Verde.

Al, in his journal wrote"When we rode into Navajo Canyon and found the ruins there, we felt our world rolled back unknown centuries. It was so much like treading 'holy ground' to go into the peaceful looking homes, untouched through all those long years."

When Al wasn't building fences or herding cattle, he was hunting and fishing, or in his words exploring "places where the hand of man never set foot."  Somewhere along the way Al records, "we graduated from ranching to archaeology." Thus began an eighteen year self-imposed assignment of excavating and research among the ruins of Mesa Verde. Ranching, unfortunately, took a secondary place.

They did not totally ignore the ranch. In the summer they began work before the sun came up and did not end a day until long after the sun had set behind the mesa. Once winter came and major ranch chores done, the exploration of their new discoveries began again. While the boys were gone their father, Benjamin Kite, wrote the Bureau of Ethnology telling them of his sons finds and asked the government to take over the project with the priceless possibilities in the world of archaeology. He soon received a reply that there were no funds available for old Indian cliff ruins. Not discouraged, Benjamin then wrote to the Smithsonian Institute. Again the reply he received was that they had no funds to take on such a project but would be glad to accept a collection of artifacts from these ancient homes if they cared to send it.

The family decided to build a museum on the ranch in order to protect the artifacts they had found. Each piece taken from a ruin was handled like a new born baby and many pieces were excavated with teaspoons and pocket knives in order not to harm them. Before an artifact left the ruin it came from it was numbered, identified and cataloged. At no time did the brothers rifle the dwellings and carelessly scatter the artifacts around the country.

It was about six years from the time of the brothers first discoveries until the sighting of a palace in the cliffs. In 1885 Richard and Al took a Dr. George Comfort, from Ft. Lewis, Colorado, into the Mesa Verde area. Dr. comfort had heard of the ruins the Wetherill's had found and wanted to see for himself. At one point the three men left their horses and scattered out in different directions to see what they could find. Al went up, down and across canyons and mesa tops until nearly dusk. He was "all in", but thought he would make just one more climb to see what might be in a branch canyon he had passed earlier in the day. He entered the branch canyon, dog tired and about to decide he had better meet up with the others before when he happened to look up. In his journal he wrote, "in the blue dusk, and the silence, what I saw had all the appearance of a mirage. The solemn grandeur of those outlines was breathtaking. I stood looking at the ruins in surprised awe. I had hoped to find some unexplored dwellings, but this discovery surpassed my wildest dreams. I gauged the steep walls of the canyon against my tired legs and the ebbing daylight and slowly turned away. It would wait, it had waited hundreds of years for the moment of discovery."

Further down the canyon Al met up with his brother Richard and Dr. Comfort. They had become anxious and started out to look for him. He told them of the magnificent ruin that looked like a small city and they agreed to return promptly. The pressures of ranch duties took over, so they had to postpone the exploration. That is how, in December 1988, they were rediscovered. Richard and brother-in-law Charles Mason were hunting lost cattle. Their search took them along the rim of the canyon to within sight of the cliffs where the immense ruins slept in the winter sunshine. They recognized them immediately from Als description and Richard exclaimed, "There are Als ruins!" Richard named the ruins Cliff Palace.

Owing to some limited advertising, a few tourists started coming to Alamo Ranch during the summer for horseback trips to view the ruins. At no time on these guided tours were the visitors allowed to dig artifacts or ransack the ruins. A number of the guests at the ranch included scientists, archaeologists, teachers, and botanists from as far away as Berlin, Germany. One gentleman visitor, who arrived at the ranch on July 2nd, 1891, had a large impact on the brother's lives, was Gustaf Nordenskiold. He introduced new ways to them in the world of archaeology.

The year 1898 was the passing of Benjamin Kite Wetherill after a lengthy illness. 1896 to 1899 saw the five sons and one daughter get married. All moved from the Alamo Ranch except Al and his wife Mary. Richard and his wife relocated to a place now called Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon where he built a ranch next to the ruins. John and his wife moved to Kayenta, Arizona to set up a trading post, later John became the first white man to stand under Rainbow Bridge. Clayton and his wife moved north into Colorado to start a fish hatchery and Win and his wife moved to Oregon but later relocated back to the Four Corners area.

Al and Mary stayed on the Alamo ranch in hopes of keeping it running. In January of 1902 the two had to leave the ranch. Cattle prices had hit bottom and there was no way to make the mortgage payment.

In 1906 the cliff ruins were finally designated as a national park, know today as Mesa Verde National Park.

In December of 1988 my Dad (Tom Wetherill) presented a paper on the Wetherills at a 2 day symposium held at Mesa Verde National Park celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Cliff Palace. His final statement was as follows."One technique of a reformer is to gently nudge, and nudge and to nudge again, until the point they're trying to get across finally settles in. I hope that my speech here today might be another nudge, and further symposiums and articles be future nudges that one day the common consensus will be, "those Wetherill boys did a pretty good job after all'."

I hope that my report here may be another nudge.

Benjamin Alfred Wetherill

Al Wetherill




True West, 1965 magazine story about "Al Wetherill of Mesa Verde" Click Here This is a very large file and may take more than a minute to download.