The history of the Mesa Verde National Park began with the making of America. All who have travelled in the southwest have seen mesas from the car-window. New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Utah, the region of the pueblos, constitute an elevated plateau largely arid. Many millions of years ago all was submerged in the intercontinental sea; in fact the region was sea many times, for it rose and fell alternately, accumulating thousands of feet of sands and gravels much of which hardened into stone after the slow great uplifting which made it the lofty plateau of to-day. Erosion did its work. For a million years or more the floods of spring have washed down the sands and gravels, and the rivers have carried them into the sea. Thousands of vertical feet have disappeared in this way from the potential altitude of the region. The spring floods are still washing down the sands and gravels, and the canyons, cliffs, and mesas of the desert are disclosed to-day as stages in the eternal levelling.
Thus were created the canyons and mesas of the Mesa Verde. Mesa, by the way, is Spanish for table, and verde for green. These, then, are the green table-lands, forest-covered and during the summer grown scantily with grass and richly with flowers.
The Mesa Verde National Park was created by act of Congress in June, 1906, and enlarged seven years later. The Mancos River, on its way to the San Juan and thence to the Colorado and the passage of the Grand Canyon, forms its southern boundary. Scores of canyons, large and small, nearly all dry except at the spring floods, are tributary. All of these trend south; in a general way they are parallel. Each of the greater stems has its lesser tributaries and each of these its lesser forks. Between the canyons lie the mesas. Their tops, if continued without break, would form a more or less level surface; that is, all had been a plain before floods cut the separating canyons.
The region has a wonderful scenic charm. It is markedly different in quality from other national parks, but in its own way is quite as startling and beautiful. Comparison is impossible because of the lack of elements in common, but it may be said that the Mesa Verde represents our great southwest in one of its most fascinating phases, combining the fundamentals of the desert with the flavor of the near-by mountains. The canyons, which are seven or eight hundred feet deep and two or three times as wide where the cliff-dwellings gather, are prevailingly tawny yellow. Masses of sloping talus reach more than half-way up; above them the cliffs are perpendicular; it is in cavities in these perpendiculars that the cliff-dwellings hide. Above the cliffs are low growths of yellowish-green cedar with pinyons and other conifers of darker foliage. Beneath the trees and covering the many opens grows the familiar sage of the desert, a gray which hints at green and yellow both but realizes neither. But the sage-brush shelters desert grasses, and, around the occasional springs and their slender outlets, grass grows rank and plenteous; a little water counts for a great deal in the desert.
Summer, then, is delightful on the Mesa Verde. The plateau is high and the air invigorating, warm by day in midsummer, always cool at night. The atmosphere is marvellously clear, and the sunsets are famous. The winter snows, which reach three or four feet in depth, disappear in April. From May to Thanksgiving the region is in its prime. It is important to realize that this land has much for the visitor besides its ruins. It has vigor, distinction, personality, and remarkable charm. It is the highest example of one of America’s most distinctive and important scenic phases, and this without reference to its prehistoric dwellings. No American traveller knows his America, even the great southwest, who does not know the border-land where desert and forest mingle.
The Southern Ute Indian Reservation bites a large rectangle from the southeast corner of the park, but its inhabitants are very different in quality of mind and spirit from the ancient and reverent builders of Sun Temple. Reservation Indians frequently enter the park, but they cannot be persuaded to approach the cliff-dwellings. The “little people,” they tell you, live there, and neither teaching nor example will convince them that these invisible inhabitants will not injure intruders. Some of these Indians allege that it was their own ancestors who built the cliff-dwellings, but there is neither record nor tradition to support such a claim. The fact appears to be that the Utes were the ancient enemies of this people. There is a Ute tradition of a victory over the ancient pueblo-dwellers at Battle Rock in McElmo Canyon.
There are, on the other hand, many reasons for the opinion that the Hopi Indians of the present day, so far at least as culture goes, are descendants of this remarkable prehistoric people. Besides the many similarities between the architectural types of the Mesa Verde and the pueblos of the modern Hopi, careful investigators have found suggestive points of similarity in their utensils, their art forms, and their customs. Doctor Fewkes cites a Hopi tradition to that effect by mentioning the visit of a Hopi courier a few years ago to prehistoric ruins in the Navajo National Monument to obtain water from an ancestral spring for use in a Hopi religious ceremonial. If these traditions are founded in fact, the promising civilization of the Mesa Verde has sadly retrograded in its transplanting. Hopi architecture and masonry shows marked retrogression from the splendid types of the Mesa Verde.
When the telephone-line was under construction to connect the park with the outside world, the Indians from the adjoining Ute reservation became suspicious and restless. Upon hearing its purpose, they begged the superintendent not to go on with the work, which was certain to bring evil to the neighborhood.
“The little people,” they solemnly declared, “will not like it.”
They assured the superintendent that the wires would not talk.
“The little people will not let them talk,” they told him.
But the line was completed and the wires talked.
The park is reached by motor and rail. From Denver, Salt Lake City, and Santa Fe railroad routes offer choice of some of the biggest country of the Rockies. From either direction a night is spent en route in a mountain mining-town, an experience which has its usefulness in preparation for the contrasted and unusual experience to come. Entrance is through Mancos, from which motor-stages thread the maze of canyons and mesas from the highlands of the northern border to the deep canyons of the south where cluster the ruins of distinction.
This entry is delightful. The road crosses the northern boundary at the base of a lofty butte known. as Point Lookout, the park’s highest elevation. En-circling its eastern side and crossing the Morefield Canyon the road perches for several miles upon the sinuous crest of a ridge more than eight thousand feet in altitude, whose north side plunges eighteen hundred feet into the broad Montezuma Valley, and whose gentle southern slope holds the small beginnings of the great canyons of the cliff-dwellers. Both north and south the panorama unfolds in impressive grandeur, eloquent of the beautiful scanty land and of the difficult conditions of living which confronted the sturdy builders whose ancient masterpieces we are on our way to see. At the northern end of Chapin Mesa we swing sharply south and follow its slope, presently entering the warm, glowing, scented forests, through which we speed to the hotel-camp perched upon a bluff overlooking the depths of Spruce Canyon.
Upon the top and under the eaves of this mesa are found very fine types of prehistoric civilization. At Mummy Lake, half-way down the mesa, we passed on the way a good example of pueblo architecture, and within an easy walk of our terminal camp we find some of the noblest examples of cliff-dwellings in existence. Here it was, near the head of this remote, nearly inaccessible, canyon, guarded by nature’s ramparts, that aboriginal American genius before the coming of the Anglo-Saxon found its culminating expression.
In this spirit the thoughtful American of today enters the Mesa Verde National Park and examines its precious memorials.