Today in History, December 18: 1888 –
Rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charles Mason, with the help of Ute guide Acowitz “discover” some of the Cliff Dwellings in the canyons of the Mesa Verde area of Southwest Colorado. The Wetherills were certainly not the first to discover the hundreds of amazing ancient homes built into the protection of the cliffs centuries earlier. However they did persist in a campaign to institute Federal protection of the sites. The Wetherills were fearful that tourists and vandals would loot and destroy the sites.
Archaeologists tell us ancient Native Americans made the Cliff Dwellings their home for over seven hundred years before moving away within a two generations in the thirteenth century. As a reference, elsewhere in the world the Mongols were conquering Asia and the seventh Crusades were occurring.
The Wetherill family spent years exploring the canyon dwellings, collecting hundreds of artifacts which now reside in museums. Unfortunately much of the vandalism did occur and Swedish scientist Baron Gustaf E. A. Nordenskiöld mapped and collected many artifacts, taking them back to Sweden before the American government acted to protect the site.
After years of pressure from the Wetherill family and many others, and four unsuccessful attempts, Congress finally passed a bill creating the Mesa Verde National Park, which President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law.
In the same month in 1906, Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed into law “An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities”, or “The Antiquities Act”, inspired to protect sites such as Mesa Verde and others for generations to come. TR made great use of the Antiquities Act to set aside Historic sites for preservation.
The law has been in the news lately as President Trump dialed back the extent of land set aside by Presidents Clinton and Obama at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments.
According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the have been 157 National Monuments designated by 16 Presidents since President Theodore Roosevelt enthusiastically named 18 sites during his terms as Chief Executive.