The Last Refuge
In 1889, rancher Richard Wetherill and his four brothers stumbled across ancient ruins in the cliffs of Mesa Verde in Colorado. They excavated the site, gathering thousands of artifacts which they sold to museums. The brothers sought to protect the ruins by making Mesa Verde a national park, but the government turned down their request.
When authorities tried to stop a Swedish archaeologist from sending a huge shipment of Mesa Verde artifacts abroad, they discovered that they were powerless to do so. There was no law in existence protecting antiquities.
Richard Wetherill and the Discovery of Chaco Canyon
Without any law protecting them, the ruins that the Wetherill brothers had first discovered at Mesa Verde were subjected to looting and vandalism.
Archaeologists were horrified by it all, fearing that a record of an ancient civilization would be lost forever. In their eyes, the Wetherill brothers were as much to blame as anyone else. This was a particularly sore spot for Richard Wetherill, who, despite his lack of formal education, wanted to be taken seriously as an archaeologist.
He had left Mesa Verde to search for other ruins in the southwest. Finally, in New Mexico, he came to a place called Chaco Canyon, where he began to study another set of ruins left behind by the ancient Puebloans.
Although Wetherill tried to carry on his work as scientifically as possible, he was still dismissed as a "pothunter," and professional archaeologists urged the government do something to stop him. Wetherill offered to give up any claim to the Chaco Canyon ruins, if only the federal government would do something to protect them.
The Extraordinary Power of the Antiquities Act
On June 29, 1906, President Roosevelt signed the law creating Mesa Verde National Park. It was the first park created specifically to celebrate a prehistoric culture and its people, and marked a broadening of the park idea.
But while Mesa Verde had been saved, there was no law protecting any of the other ancient ruins scattered throughout the Southwest. Growing anger over Richard Wetherill's excavations at Chaco Canyon would set in motion events that would change the course of park history.
With the help of John F. Lacey, the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities was passed. Now, any unauthorized disturbance of a prehistoric ruin was a federal crime.
The Antiquities Act also gave the president an extraordinary power: the exclusive authority--without any Congressional approval--to preserve places that would be called national monuments.
A President's Delight
Theodore Roosevelt wasted no time in putting his new powers to use. Devils Tower, in eastern Wyoming, became the first of many national monuments. And on March 11, 1907, the president did exactly what Richard Wetherill had wanted, by creating Chaco Canyon National Monument.
Roosevelt would also use the Antiquities Act to protect Muir Woods, an endangered grove of giant coastal redwoods named after his friend John Muir. He would use it again at Muir's request, to save an endangered fossilized forest in Arizona that dated back 200 million years. With a stroke of his pen, he created the Petrified Forest National Monument.
There was one more national park that President Roosevelt wanted to add to his list: the Grand Canyon, which was under threat by developers, miners and ranchers. But local opposition was so strong that not even he could persuade Congress to act.
Roosevelt realized that the wording of the Antiquities Act could be used to his advantage. He created a furor when on January 11, 1908, he stretched the Act to its limit by declaring the Grand Canyon to be "an object of unusual scientific interest"--and a national monument.
What The Last Refuge didn't mention was how the Navajos living around Chaco Canyon were forced out to make way for the park. Nor did it mention the frequent conflicts between park managers, environmentalists, and the Havasupai living in the Grand Canyon.
Once again we see Ken Burns's sanitizing of American history. Indians occupied the land, something or someone made them disappear, and the parks took shape where they used to be. With Indians no longer around, the parks brought (white) people together, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Ask the Indians whose land was taken if they agree with that. Answer: Probably not.
For photographs of my visit to Mesa Verde, see Colorado Trip Pix--Day 8. For more on the series, see Review of Burns's National Parks and Burns on Our National Parks.
Below: "Ruins at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, 1940."