Many years possibly centuries before Columbus discovered America, a community of cliff-dwellers inhabiting a group of canyons in what is now southwestern Colorado entirely disappeared.
Many generations before that, again possibly centuries, the founders of this community, abandoning the primitive pueblos of their people elsewhere, had sought new homes in the valleys tributary to the Mancos River. Perhaps they were enterprising young men and women dissatisfied with the poor and unprogressivoe life at home. Perhaps they were dissenters from ancient religious forms, outcasts and pilgrims, for there is abundant evidence that the prehistoric sun-worshippers of our southwest were deeply religious, and human nature is the same under skins of all colors in every land and age. More likely they were merely thrifty pioneers attracted to the green cedar-grown mesas by the hope of better conditions.
Whatever the reason for their pilgrimage, it is a fair inference that, like our own Pilgrim Fathers, they were sturdy of body and progressive of spirit, for they had a culture which their descendants carried beyond that of other tribes and communities of prehistoric people in America north of the land of the Aztecs.
Beginning with modest stone structures of the usual cliff-dwellers’ type built in deep clefts in the mesa’s perpendicular cliff, safe from enemies above and below, these enterprising people developed in time a complicated architecture of a high order; they advanced the arts beyond the practice of their fore-fathers and their neighbors; they herded cattle upon the mesas; they raised corn and melons in clearings in the forests, and watered their crops in the dry sea-sons by means of simple irrigation systems as soundly scientific, so far as they went, as those of to-day; out-growing their cliff homes, they invaded the neighboring mesas, where they built pueblos and more ambitious structures.
Then, apparently suddenly, for they left behind them many of their household goods, and left unfinished an elaborate temple to their god, the sun, they vanished. There is no clew to the reason or the manner of their going.
Meantime European civilization was pushing in all directions. Columbus discovered America; De Soto explored the southeast and ascended the Mississippi; Cortez pushed into Mexico and conquered the Aztecs; Spanish priests carried the gospel north and west from the Antilles to the continent; Raleigh sent explorers to Virginia; the Pilgrim Fathers landed in Massachusetts; the white man pushed the Indian aside, and at last the European pioneer sought a pre-carious living on the sands of the southwest.
One December day in 1888 Richard and Alfred Wetherill hunted lost cattle on the top of one of the green mesas north and west of the Mancos River. They knew this mesa well. Many a time before had they rounded up their herds and stalked the deer among the thin cedar and pinyon forests. Often, doubtless, in their explorations of the broad Mancos Valley below, they had happened upon ruins of primitive isolated or grouped stone buildings hidden by sage-brush, half buried in rock and sand. No doubt, around their ranch fire, they had often speculated concerning the manner of men that had inhabited these lowly structures so many years before that sometimes aged cedars grew upon the broken walls.
But this December day brought the Wetherills the surprise of their uneventful lives. Some of the cattle had wandered far, and the search led to the very brink of a deep and narrow canyon, across which, in a long deep cleft under the overhang of the opposite cliff, they saw what appeared to be a city. Those who have looked upon the stirring spectacle of Cliff Palace from this point can imagine the astonishment of these ranchmen.
Whether or not the lost cattle were ever found is not recorded, but we may assume that living on the mesa was not plentiful enough to make the Wetherills forget them in the pleasure of discovering a ruin. But they lost no time in investigating their find, and soon after crossed the canyon and climbed into this prehistoric city. They named it Cliff Palace, most inappropriately, by the way, for it was in fact that most democratic of structures, a community dwelling. Pushing their explorations farther, presently they discovered also a smaller ruin, which they named Spruce Tree House, because a prominent spruce grew in front of it. These are the largest two cliff-dwellings in the Mesa Verde National Park, and, until Doctor J. Walter Fewkes unearthed Sun Temple in 1915, among the most extraordinary prehistoric buildings north of Mexico.
There are thousands of prehistoric ruins in our southwest, and many besides those of the Mesa Verde are examples of an aboriginal civilization. Hundreds of canyons tell the story of the ancient cliff-dwellers; and still more numerous are the remains of communal houses built of stone or sun-dried brick under the open sky. These pueblos in the open are either isolated structures like the lesser cliff-dwellings, or are crowded together till they touch walls, as in our modern cities; often they were several stories high, the floors connected by ladders. Sometimes, for protection against the elements, whole villages were built in caves. Pueblos occasionally may be seen from the car-window in New Mexico. The least modified of the prehistoric type which are occupied to-day are the eight villages of the Hopi near the Grand Canyon in Arizona; a suggestive reproduction of a model pueblo, familiar to many thou-sands who have visited the canyon, stands near the El Tovar Hotel.
It was not therefore because of the rarity of pre-historic dwellings of either type that the cliff villages of the Mesa Verde were conserved as a national park, nor only because they are the best preserved of all North American ruins, but because they disclose a type of this culture in advance of all others.
The builders and inhabitants of these dwellings were Indians having physical features common to all American tribes. That their accomplishment differed in degree from that of the shiftless war-making tribes north and east of them, and from that of the cultured and artistic Mayas of Central America, was doubtless due to differences in conditions of living. The struggle for bare existence in the southwest, like that of the habitats of other North American Indians, was in-tense; but these were agriculturalists and protected by environment. The desert was a handicap, of course, but it offered opportunity in many places for dry farming; the Indian raised his corn. The winters, too, were short. It is only in the southwest that enterprise developed the architecture of stone houses which distinguish pueblo Indians from others in North America.
The dwellers in the Mesa Verde were more fortunate even than their fellow pueblo dwellers. The forested mesas, so different from the and cliffs farther south and west, possessed constant moisture and fertile soil. The grasses lured the deer within capture. The Mancos River provided fish. Above all, the remoteness of these fastness canyons from the trails of raiders and traders and their ease of defense made for long generations of peace. The enterprise innate in the spirit of man did the rest.