Mesa Verde National Park on the Colorado Plateau in southwestern Colorado offers visitors a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Puebloan people (or Anasazi) who flourished for centuries over a large area of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The park’s more than 4,000 archaeological sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the entire United States. During the period from about 550 to 1300, Pre-Columbian Indians established communities throughout Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”), first building pithouses, then elaborate stone villages (pueblos), and finally about 600 cliff dwellings situated in alcoves and caves high on the canyon walls.
In the late 1200s, after occupying this area for seven centuries, the Ancestral Puebloans abruptly abandoned their homes and moved away. After decades of exploration, excavation, classification, analysis, and debate, archaeologists are still trying to figure out exactly why. It remains one of the most perplexing and intriguing questions in American archeology.
Today more than half a million people visit Mesa Verde National Park each year to gaze in wonder at the remarkable ruins and ponder what might have happened to the people who lived and died there.
How a national park focused on the Mesa Verde ruins came to be created is a fascinating story. Established in 1906 (a full decade before the National Park Service was created), Mesa Verde is a comparatively old national park and the very first to be created for the specific purpose of protecting and preserving the works of humans.
The campaign to establish a national park at Mesa Verde began in the late 1880s when journalist Virginia McClurg began lobbying federal officials to protect the Mesa Verde archaeological resources. Ms. McClurg had visited the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings for the first time in 1872. She returned with an expedition in 1876 and was thereafter devoted to preserving the site.
Ms. McClurg believed that federal protection would be the most certain way to achieve this goal, and that the site deserved to be a national park because of its extraordinary cultural, scientific, and scenic values. An 1886 editorial in the Denver Tribune Republican became the first recorded suggestion to set aside Mesa Verde as a national park.
Ms. McClurg and other concerned individuals had good reason to seek protection for the Mesa Verde artifacts as quickly as possible. By the early 1880s, picnicking and pot-hunting at Mesa Verde had become a local pastime and the locals were looting and trashing the place. There was a booming market for Anasazi relics, so economics was a strong motivating factor. Good collections of Anasazi pots, baskets, and other artifacts (even skeletal remains) could be sold for thousands of dollars at a time when farmers and ranchers were earning perhaps $300 or $400 a year. Locals picked up, dug up, and carried away anything that looked like it could be valuable.
Much of the damage they did to the site--and they did plenty--reflected vandalistic urges or downright stupidity. Some people broke or burned artifacts that collectors would have gladly paid a lot of money for. Some pot-hunters entered dwellings and recesses only after throwing dynamite inside to kill rattlesnakes and create openings for better access and light. Barring quick intervention, there would soon be little to save at Mesa Verde.
Ms. McClurg’s arguments and entreaties in behalf of federal protection for the Mesa Verde ruins fell on deaf ears. Remember that the national parks were still pretty much a new idea at that time. The very first national park had been created at Yellowstone less than 20 years before, and only a few had been added or proposed since then.
Other issues clouded Ms. McClurg’s campaign. No national park honoring the works of humans had ever been created, and the federal officials who did favor creating more national parks wanted to preserve natural scenery and geologic wonders, not Indian relics.
Indians and their artifacts were not exactly in good standing with Congress and the American public, either. The Battle of the Little Bighorn (“Custer’s last stand”) was a recent event (June 1876) and reservation Indians were still considered a threat.
Ms. McClurg’s early lack of success was also rooted in the fact that she was a woman at a time when women were not taken very seriously on the political scene. Women did not routinely influence legislators back then, and did not even win the right to vote in national elections until 20 years after Mesa Verde became a national park.
Ms. McClurg, a woman whom friends and enemies alike described as “indomitable” and “indefatigable,” certainly did not give up easily. She appealed for help from the Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs, a 5,000-member organization that was primed to address important social, economic, and political issues of the times through the combined efforts of its various local chapters. The CFWC formed a committee that eventually became the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association.
The CCDA not only sponsored vigorous public education campaigns on behalf of Mesa Verde preservation, but also funded mapping projects and built the first wagon road to the site. The vice-regent of the CCDA, an energetic woman named Lucy Peterson, was an ardent and effective Washington lobbyist in behalf of national park status for Mesa Verde.
The first bill to establish the park was introduced in Congress in 1901, but died very quickly in committee. Four more bills were introduced during the next five years. Even though all failed, it was becoming quite clear that Mesa Verde was likely to become a national park sooner or later.
Ms. McClurg then made a blunder that has kept her from being more widely recognized as a hero of the national parks movement. For reasons she never explained, she reversed her public position on the Mesa Verde national park issue-–a position she had held for a quarter-century--and began to fiercely resist federal control of the site.
Ms. McClurg began arguing that Mesa Verde should be designated a Colorado state park, and that the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association should be placed in charge of it. Nothing ever resulted from that proposal, of course, except the virtual destruction of Ms. McClurg’s hard-won reputation as a national park advocate.
During 1901-1905, U.S. Representative John Shafroth of Colorado introduced bills in three successive sessions of Congress to create the Colorado Cliff Dwellings National Park. These attempts were unsuccessful. Finally, in 1906, another Colorado Congressman, Representative H. M. Hogg, introduced a bill to create the Mesa Verde National Park. This did the trick.
On June 15, 1906 the House Committee on Public Lands reported the Mesa Verde National Park bill favorably, and eight days later it had passed both the House and Senate. President Roosevelt signed the bill into law on June 29, 1906, and Mesa Verde National Park finally came into existence.
It's not clear why Congress gave Mesa Verde special treatment by designating it a national park. The Antiquities Act had been passed just three weeks before (on June 8), and the President could have used the authority granted him under terms of the Antiquities Act to proclaim Mesa Verde a national monument. The Colorado sponsors of the bill probably wanted a national park instead of a national monument. Some park advocates also argued that Mesa Verde was too large and complex to be a national monument.
Will we live to see the restoration of Virginia McClurg’s reputation as one of the early heroes of national park advocacy? Probably not. She’s more likely to remain just one of those lost stories.