Mesa Verde/Ute Mountain

The trail is in many places a difficult one to follow, and the tourist who may be tempted to visit this locality for the purpose of studying the works of the ancient inhabitants will find it no holiday to work his way through the mazes of fallen rocks and sharp-cut gullies.

Over the greater part of the area, . . . the general level is well sustained by the massive layer of sandstone of the Upper Escarpment, not as an unbroken mass of block strata of course, for the erosive forces have invaded it on all sides and the edges are scalloped by a thousand cannoned gorges.

Annual Report for 1875 (Hayden 1877)

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Southwest Border of the Mesa Verde

(Atlas [Hayden Survey 1877], Sheet XX)

DRAWN/TAKEN FROM GEOGRAPHIC COORDINATES: LATITUDE: 37°02′40′′ N | LONGITUDE: 108°38′14′′ W | UTM zone 12N | 710,243 mE | 4,102,218 mN
VIEW ANGLE: West-southwest clockwise through north-northwest | COUNTY: Montezuma | NEAREST CITY: Towaoc

This view was drawn from just below the top of a secondary mesa that sits on the eastern edge of Tanner Mesa—the farthest southwest of all the ancillary mesas that create Mesa Verde. It overlooks Ute Mountain and the Four Corners region of the Southwest.

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The Hayden Survey left this remote, far southwestern corner of Colorado for late in the sequence of their work, 1875. What William Henry Holmes and his division found that year was a geologic landscape that may have been the most straightforward of any in Colorado. The rock lay flat, the strata were easily in view, and the recognizable formations marched on for mile after mile after mile in relative homogeneity. The difficulties of doing this survey were great, however. These simple-looking strata were cut by uncountable canyons that wound through the ancient rock in mind-boggling complexity. The year before (1874) William Henry Jackson had seen a small sample of ancient ruins, many of which he photographed. But once the survey began to meticulously navigate this natural labyrinth, they started to find a cornucopia of an amazing, complex, and long hidden record of occupation that made the geology pale in comparison and that had been only a rumor for the whites in the survey and an almost mythical history for the native groups who still lived here.

Ancient ruins in the canon of the Mancos

The William Henry Holmes landscape featured in this section was drawn from the far southwestern edge of the massive upland of the Mesa Verde. The exact spot was a large, desolate extension of Mesa Verde called Tanner Mesa. From here one can see far into the territories of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. The well-known “Four Corners” that is today visited by thousands of people a year in their cars is just a few miles to the southwest from here. Tanner Mesa also afforded Holmes and his crew superlative views of Ute Mountain and the Mancos River Valley [(b) on the panorama].

In the grand scale of Southwestern geology, this area would be considered the far northeastern corner of the expansive Colorado Plateau. As the Rocky Mountains were being formed by tectonic forces that seemed to torture the rock by bending and fracturing, the Colorado Plateau, in relative terms, was being gently raised en masse with few of the contortions seen in the mountain orogenies to the north and east. Of course the pressures and energy were great to have uplifted more than 100,000 square miles of land in the Colorado Plateau several thousand feet vertically. And there was plenty of rock fracturing and bending involved. Only in comparison to the wrenching, and seemingly random, forces of the mountain uplift was the Colorado Plateau epeirogeny a quiescent event.

AncientruinsAncient ruins in the canon of the Mancos
(photo by William Henry Jackson, courtesy of the University of Chicago Library) This is one of the multitude of the first photographs of the ruins in and around Mesa Verde, 1874.

The rock strata and geologic column of Mesa Verde are stratigraphically straightforward. The lowest level in the region is the nearly ubiquitous Mancos shale seen throughout western Colorado. There are a few, widely scattered outcroppings of older (lower) rocks such as the Dakota sandstone, but the Mancos shale is the overwhelming “basement” rock seen. Mesa Verde itself is composed, appropriately, of the Mesa Verde (often spelled Mesaverde in geology texts) formation or group—a collection of rock strata made up of three separate stratum or members. The lowest and oldest member of the group is the erosion-resistant Point Lookout sandstone. This is a relatively massive layer that sits atop the Mancos and is the bottom rock layer that is the foundation for the mesa above. The second member just atop the Point Lookout is called the Menefee formation and is a much softer shale and coal stratum.

This rock is found throughout western Colorado and is known for its coal measures often described by Hayden in his numerous reports. Previous sections have discussed this formation and its economic and environmental impacts on the state. The upper-most stratum of the Mesa Verde group is the Cliff House sandstone—an apropos name for its geologic and cultural impact on the mesa. This is the erosion-resistant rock that produced the hundreds of cliffs, overhangs, and alcoves into which the Ancient Ones (often called the Anasazi) built their iconic cliff houses in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Earlier people built their houses and kivas on top of the Cliff House member.

An interesting modern-day geologic event results from this three-layered upland. When the Mesa Verde National Park built its access road from Highway 160 into the park, they necessarily had to traverse all three strata to get the road to the top. In doing so, they cut through the rock of both the middle shale and upper sandstone members. When heavy or prolonged rain or a significant snowmelt occurs, the shale layer is weakened and the underpinning for the rock above is undermined. Gravity often pulls the rock layers down the slope and these landslides damage and/or close the road.

In this land of flat-lying rock and flat, layered vistas, Ute Mountain (sometimes called Sleeping Ute Mountain) or Sierra Late by the Hayden Survey is a geologic outlier. It is a Tertiary-age volcanic laccolith that intruded into the sedimentary rock strata above. This uplift provided the energy necessary in subsequent eons for the erosion that stripped the older sediments from the mountain top and flanks. What is left is a much more vertical landform than the mesas that appears almost out of place in this land of plateaus. Ute Mountain is prominent in the drawing done by Holmes and is still a religious/cultural icon for the Utes, especially those of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.

In 1874 John Moss, the same Captain Moss we met near Hesperus Mountain, escorted William Henry Jackson into the labyrinthine canyons that carve up Mesa Verde. The first Anasazi ruin Jackson saw was what he called “Two Story House.” This was the first recorded encounter of nonnatives with the cliff dwellings and the first-known photograph of these architectural gems. In 1875 Holmes led his geologic division of the survey here to investigate and survey the area in greater detail. Neither Jackson nor Holmes more than scratched the surface of the extant nature of the cliff dwellings and other structures in or on the mesa.

Not until 1888 did the overwhelming extent of the ruins become apparent. A family of ranchers in the area, the Wetherills, began the episode of major archaeological finds at the mesa including the iconic ruins now included in the main portion of Mesa Verde National Park. The Wetherills did their exploring as a way to defeat the boredom of watching their cattle on the summer range. We now know that there are hundreds of cliff dwellings, pit houses, storage structures, and kivas in and around the Mesa Verde area. Further, the massive collection of structures certainly means that a very large concentration of people once lived here and created a sophisticated society that had links far into New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and other parts of Colorado.

The built environment of the Ancient Ones is a most intriguing occurrence. How and why did they build these superb dwellings with masonry skills that would be hard to match even with today’s technology? But even more at issue is the social and cultural fabric of this group. Questions arise: Not only why they moved from the mesa top to the cliffs around 1,100 CE, but why, after creating the masterpiece of the cliff dwellings, did they leave the area altogether less than 200 years later? There are many theories for these seemingly inexplicable actions. Some say it was a major climate shift that decimated the farming opportunities; some say that there was prolonged clan violence; or both. Some say that religion played a significant part, and a kind of cultural attraction to other groups in what would become New Mexico was the impetus. Many archaeologists are coming slowly to the conclusion that it was probably a complex synergy of many factors that caused the rapid and complete out-migration. From all evidence the exodus took place quickly and thoroughly. By 1,300 CE no one remained on Mesa Verde or on the entire Colorado Plateau.

The nineteenth-century Native Americans of southwestern Colorado and the Hayden Survey encountered each other during a time of considerable upheaval. The Brunot Treaty of 1873 forced the Utes to cede most of the San Juan Mountains (loosely defined) to the miners, ranchers, and other settlers invading the area. Felix Brunot, the federal Indian commissioner, and Chief Ouray, ostensibly representing the Utes, agreed to terms that allowed a flood of prospectors into this part of Colorado. Soon after the treaty took effect, surveyors from the Government Land Office arrived with their straight-lined surveying methods to start carving up the land into parcels that were anathema to the Utes. In 1875, when part of the Hayden Survey came here with their surveying instruments, there was already an extremely tense situation in existence. The most dangerous clash between the survey and the Utes took place near the Dolores River not far from Mesa Verde.

James Gardner was in charge of a small part of the survey that was confronted by Utes. There was a small, but frightening nighttime attack that resulted in no injuries, but it caused Gardner and his men to make a run to get out of the vicinity. One other group of Utes scared a small contingent from the survey headed by William Henry Jackson who was back to do more photography of the Mesa Verde. This confrontation was not as serious as the Gardner affair, and no one was hurt.

With calls for removal of the Utes from all of Colorado, a compromise was not reached until the 1890s that established a Ute reservation along the southern border of the state. The group identified as the Southern Utes was really a collection of three distinct bands: the Capotes, the Mouaches, and the Weeminuches. When the government decided to grant the Southern Utes a reservation, the plan was to force them to “homestead” on allotments of 160 acres—much like the homesteaders were doing throughout the West. All families of the Southern Utes were to get an allotment, and the land that was left over in the reservation would be open to white settlement. Eventually the Capotes and Mouaches accepted the deal, but the Weeminuches refused. Finally, a formal split was made in the reservation. Approximately the eastern, more arable two-thirds of the reservation was put into the allotments for the Capotes and the Mouaches as the Southern Ute Reservation, and the western, more arid land was kept by the Weeminuches in common trust as the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. This structure remains basically intact today.

The Holmes drawing from Tanner Mesa is from an area of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation that has been designated the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, an area bigger than Mesa Verde National Park. All entry into the tribal park must be accompanied by Ute Mountain Reservation personnel who work for the park and are authorized guides. The photo that accompanies the drawing was taken using one of these guides. The park is home to innumerable and valuable ruins and artifacts, and the Ute Mountain Utes understandably want to maintain these resources in perpetuity.