Mesa Verde Connection
THE MESA VERDE CONNECTION by Dr. Linda Ekman Simmons
Mancos, Colorado, is known as the “Gateway to Mesa Verde.” It is the closest town to the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park and provides tourists headed to the prehistoric cliff dwellings with motels, campgrounds, restaurants, and art galleries in a pleasant small town atmosphere.
But that is not the only reason Mancos is connected with Mesa Verde. It was some adventuresome Mancos Valley cowboys who first made accessible the ruins of great pueblo-style houses tucked into the cliffs above the valley floor.
Way back in 1849-50 Lieutenant James Simpson reported seeing “ruined structures” in Mancos Canyon (Ubbelohhe, Benson, & Smith, 1982:241), and in 1873 Captain John Moss journeyed through the canyon and reported ruins in the canyon walls (Freeman, 2005;168). In 1874, just about the time men were perusing the Mancos Valley for potential mining and settlement, the government sent out a scientific team, the Hayden Survey, to investigate the ruins. On that expedition William H. Jackson, the “Photographer of the West,” completed the first photographs of some of the dwellings (Ubbelohde, Benson, & Smith, 1982:241). Imagine, however, how difficult access was to the twisting canyons spread over a large expanse of territory. Only a few of the ruins were discovered in those early days.
Fortunately, in 1882 some trappers stopped by the Alamo Ranch owned by the Wetherills in the Mancos Valley with a story of some old cliff ruins in the Mancos Canyon. The Wetherills oldest son Alfred was curious and investigated. He was successful in finding some ruins, and he and his brother Richard, along with brother-in-law Charlie Mason, later made many trips into the canyons between 1882 and 1888, finding large structures including Balcony House, round Tower House, Square Tower House and Spruce Tree House. In 1888 Alfred came upon the most spectacular of them all – Cliff Palace made up of two hundred rooms. Later Alfred, Richard, and Charlie visited Cliff Palace again, seeing it in “the full winter sun,” and spurred the family on to explore and excavate the ruins (Ellis, 1999:22-23).
The Wetherills made trips to Pueblo and Denver to try to interest the public officials in preservation of the ruins, but they were not successful. Instead the Wetherills began to outfit tourist parties for pack trips into the ruins. The Alamo ranch became the center of activity with a museum, tourist cabins, and corrals to serve visitors from far and wide. This continued until 1901 (Ellis, 1999: 23-24).
In 1906 the ruins were finally incorporated into Mesa Verde National Park. The Colorado Woman’s Club and their branch, the Colorado Cliff Dwellers Association (Ubbelohde, Benson, and Smith, 1982:242), among others, had attempted for many years to have the area designated a national park. The Cliff Dwellers Association actually obtained a lease from the Weeminuche Utes to protect the site, and they financed a road from Mancos to Cliff Canyon before the park legislation was finally passed by Congress (McTighe, 1984:325). Prior to the National Park designation, a plan for a state park and two bills in Congress were unsuccessful (Freeman, 2005:168).
The Alamo ranch still exists in the Mancos Valley, sitting on County Road 44. Driving past its white rail fence, one gets a sense of the place and the events that were and are so important to the history of the valley.
Ellis, Fern. Come Back to My Valley: An Early History of the Mancos Valley. Mancos, CO: Darrell Ellis, 1999 (reprinted from 1976).
Freeman, Ira S. A History of Montezuma County. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2005.
McTighe, James. Roadside History of Colorado. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, 1984.
Ubbelohde, Carl, Maxine Benson, and Duane A. Smith. A Colorado History. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1982.