Mesa Verde National Park near Mancos, Colorado has some of the largest and best preserved Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the United States. One of these, Cliff Palace, was discovered by Richard Wetherill his brother-in-law Charlie Mason and Acowitz, a Ute Tribal member in December of 1888. The group had entered the valley system between Weber Mountain and what is now Mesa Verde National Park, following the North side of the Mancos River searching for missing cattle. West of Sandal House they found a gentle sloping area that gave them access to the top of the Mesa Verde from the river valley floor. The area was a dense Piñon Pine and Juniper forest which made searching for cattle difficult. When they reached the edge of a cliff and exited the forest they viewed a huge ruin that Richard later called "Cliff Palace." After entering the ruin that day Richard rode to another large ruin he called Spruce Tree House. This episode was to begin a life long endeavor for Richard and his family. Because of the families future activities it resulted in the formation of three National Parks, two National Monuments and the discovery of a new culture and collections of artifacts which were distributed to museums of world wide fame.
On November 29,1893 Richard Wetherill led an exploring expedition out of Mancos, Colorado toward Grand Gulch. After a short stop in Bluff City, Utah for supplies the expedition headed north on December 11. Just six days later Richard wrote: "Our success has surpassed all expectations. In the cave we are now working we have taken 28 skeletons and two more in sight and curious to tell, and a thing that will surprise the archaeologists of the country is the fact of our finding them at a depth of five and six feet in a cave in which there are cliff dwellings and we find the bodies under the ruins, three feet below any cliff dweller sign. They are a different race from anything I have ever seen. They had feather cloth and baskets, and no pottery-six of the bodies had stone spear heads in them." In these words Richard Wetherill announced that he had discovered an entirely new culture previously unknown to anyone. It was obvious that Richard's discovery preceded the Cliff Dweller culture as the excavation was well below the Cliff Dwellers. One of the expedition members coined the term "Basket Makers" after Richard suggested that the "Basket People" needed an official name. Fish Mouth Cave on Comb Ridge was once thought to have been the site of the discovery of the Basketmakers, but this has been disproved. Since some of Wetherill's records are missing and/or conflicting, the location of Cave 7 was uncertain until 1990 when Winston Hurst and others reexamined all of Wetherill's surviving records and photos as a part of the Wetherill-Grand Gulch Research Project. The rather nondescript cave is about 30 miles north of Bluff in a small side canyon of Cottonwood Wash.Winston Hurst and Christy Turner II wrote, "Wetherill has not been given all the credit he deserves for first discovering a relative chronology in Southwest sites, that is the Basketmaker-Pueblo sequence based on the Cave 7 stratigraphy." Also little noted, even today, is the evidence that he found of brutal murder during Basketmaker times. Two thirds of the 90 or so burials found in Cave 7 displayed evidence of perimortem trauma, and Wetherill reported finding projectile points or knives mingled with the bones of 20 more skeletons. After reexamining the bodies from Cave 7, Turner wrote, "The first stratigraphically-identified Basketmakers had been massively beaten, mutilated, scalped and probably tortured." Indeed, the Cave 7 burials seem to evidence a massacre. Basketmaker burials from other places also have demonstrated signs of violence.
Richard Wetherill was also the discoverer of Kiet Siel near Kayenta, Arizona. Richard, his brother, Al Wetherill and Charles Mason crossed the San Juan river south near Bluff City, Utah and entered the wasteland on the northern end of Monument Valley, Utah. The three men worked for the first two months of 1895 wandering and exploring the high caves and pueblo sites until they turned up Laguna Creek and followed it into Tsegi Canyon. Had the group continued straight ahead for a mile or so they would have discovered Betatakin, which was a ruin in an immense cave. It was discovered fourteen years later by Richard's brother, John Wetherill. Instead Richard chose to turn off to the right and follow the center branch to its head. Neephi, Richard's lead mule a "fat and rolicky" animal broke her hobble the night the group stopped and camped and caused Richard to look for her. He rounded a bend and glimpsed Kiet Siel. It came into view without warning; not even a potsherd was evident in the trash heap below the ruin.
Richard Wetherill married Marietta Palmer on December 12, 1896 in Sacramento, California. Later that summer he began excavations in Chaco Canyon at Pueblo Bonito. In 1898 Richard and Marietta moved permanently to Chaco Canyon, New Mexico to continue exploring. To support themselves, they established a trading post on the West Side of Pueblo Bonito. June 22, 1910, Richard Wetherill was shot to death , by Chis-chilling Begay, who was a customer of Richard's at the Pueblo Bonito Trading Post (Putnam). Begay was convicted of the murder and spent several years in the New Mexico State Penitentiary.
Ghosts on the Mesa
Richard Wetherill—who explored countless cliff dwellings across the Southwest, including Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace—may have been the most influential American archaeologist of the late 19th century. So why haven’t you ever heard of him?
In 1901, Richard Wetherill homesteaded land that included Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Del Arroyo, and Chetro Ketl in what is now Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Richard Wetherill remained in Chaco Canyon, homesteading and operating a trading post at Pueblo Bonito until his controversial murder in 1910.
Richard Wetherill Children
L-R Richard , Elizabeth, Robert, Marion. Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. ca 1909
Interview with Richard Wetherill II with editors notes and remarks by Richard N. Sandlin Durango, Colorado January 1978 Copyright 1978
L-R, George Pepper, Orion Buck, Richard Wetherill, Clayton Wetherill. The beginning of the Hyde Exploration Expedition excavations at Chaco Canyon 1896.
HEE, American Museum of Natiural History
Dr. C.E. Guthe 1920, National Anthropological Archives
A story written that describes Richard Wetherill's activities from the discovery of Cliff Palace in 1888 to his murder in 1910