Wetherill Wetherill

A History of Discovery  

Richard Wetherill

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, CliffCliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park 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 Sandal House, Ute Mountain Tribal Park, ColoradoJuniper 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 world wide. 

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 Ruin in Cave 7more 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 archeologist, Winston Hurst and others reexamined all of Wetherill's surving records and photos as 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 southwestern sites, that is, that the Basketmaker-Pueblo sequence based on Cave 7 stratrigraphy."

Also little noted, even today, is the evidence that he found brutal murder's 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.

Winston Hurst and avocational archaeologist Owen Severance reentered Cave 7 in 1990 after its location had been lost for more than a hundred years.

Richard Wetherill first entered Keet Seel ruin near Kayenta, Arizona. Keet Seel is one of the two largest ancient ruins in Arizona.

In winter and spring of 1894 and 1895 Richard began explorations with his brothers, John, Al, and brother in-law Charlie Mason in Southeastern Utah.

Once again, it was to prove a very productive trip. While in Keet Seel photo courtesy Anasazi Heritage CenterMarsh Pass they turned into Laguna Creek and the Tsegi Canyon exploring small ruins along the way. Most were covered in sand and the only evidence of their existence was pottery chards scattered about. Reaching a large flat plain, they chose to turn right into Keet Seel Canyon crossing a running streambed dozens of times climbing over five waterfalls with not the hint of any human habitation. While camped in the canyon one evening Neephi, Richard’s lead mule broke his hobbles and strayed off. The next morning while searching for the mule Richard turned a corner and into view with no warning was a massive ruin tucked into a cliff face. It was the second largest Cliff Dweller ruin in theKeet Seel southwest and the largest in Arizona. Richard with his brothers and Charlie used ancient toeholds and a huge tree trunk to access it. After working three or four days in the ruin they left and Richard was not to return for two years to make a more extensive excavation. Richard wrote Talbot Hyde in June of 1895 that he had been in New Mexic0, Utah and Arizona and had made an extensive collection of 400 pieces of pottery. This expedition is the only one that has no records or a trace of what happened to the collection. I suspect that the arrest and incarceration of Gustaf Nordenskjiöld, Richard and his brothers at Mesa Verde had something to do with the secrecy surrounding the collection and its documentation.

Richard Wetherill married Marietta Palmer  on December 12, 1896 in Sacramento, California.  Later that summerhe began excavations in Chaco Canyon at Pueblo Bonito. In 1898 Richard and Marietta moved permanently toPueblo Bonito Chaco Canyon, New Mexico Chaco Canyon, New Mexico to continue exploring.  To support themselves, they established a trading post onthe West Side of Pueblo Bonito. June 22, 1910 Richard Wetherill was shot to death by 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

Ghosts on the Mesa


Robert Sanchez

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? 

5280 The Denver Magazine: Ghosts on the Mesa

 Dr. Christy Turner and his Canabalism Theory at Chaco canyon

Dr. Christy Turner is shown visiting Chaco Canyon and presents his theories about how humans were systematically butchered and eaten in the ancient pueblos of the Southwest between about A.D. 900 and 1250.


   Richard Wetherill

Richard Wetherill

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


Richard Wetherill Children, Courtesy Anasazi Heritage Center

L-R Richard , Elizabeth, Robert, Marion. Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. ca 1909

A Day of Remberence for Richard Wetherill June 22, 2010

Richard Wetherill Grave Site



Interview with Richard Wetherill II with editors notes and remarks by Richard N. Sandlin Durango, Colorado January 1978 Copyright 1978

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Chaco Canyon May,1896

HEE Camp Site


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

Richard Wetherill Grave Site Chaco Canyon , New Mexico

Richard Wetherill Grave  Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

Dr. C.E. Guthe 1920, National Anthropological Archives

Ghosts on the Mesa


Robert Sanchez

A story written that describes Richard Wetherill's activities from the discovery of Cliff Palace in 1888 to his murder in 1910

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What became of the collection made in Tsegi Canyon in the spring of 1895? It is the one major collection Richard [Wetherill] made which has not been traced.

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Excavatiing the Wetherill well at Chaco Canyon.

Wetherill well beside Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

 Archeologists excavating next to Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon.  They  found the dirt covered Wetherill well in 2008 and began to excavate until a danger of a cave in prevented them from excavating any deeper. They did fine a HEE token used by the customers at the Wetherill trading post in 1900.

The Surveyor
A quartely publication of the Colorado Archeological Society. Volume 12 Issue 4, 2014


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 "............When you walk along the canyon rims, mesas, and rincons, or bushwhack through canyon bottoms and boulders scattered in the shadows of pine and cottonwood trees, or scuffle your backside along precarious red slickrock ledges tucked in the bends of remote chasms where windswept....."

Dr Putnam photo album of Chaco Canyon
 and Mesa Verde, Colorado
Abt. 1896

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A back packing trip to Keet Seel

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