The buildings remain, but the people who created them are long gone. What happened to those who built one of the West's greatest treasures?
CLIFF-DWELLERS. This term, although of broader application, means in America that prehistoric race that built the houses and villages whose ruins are found in the southwestern part of the United States, and especially in the valley of the Rio San Juan and its tributaries. This river rises in the extreme southwestern corner of Colorado, and flows westward along the borders of adjoining States to a junction with the Rio Colorado. Its course lies mostly in a series of deeply depressed valleys, bounded on each side by tablelands (mesas) with abrupt and lofty faces, which in its lower course confine it in deep and narrow canyons. Its tributaries have cut their way from their mountain-sources down through the soft sandstones of these mesas to the river, forming thus side-canyons, some of which have broad “bottoms” on both sides of the now shrunken streams, always hemmed in by steep walls that have weathered into ledges and recesses varying in depth with the varying hardness of their strata.
The principal tributaries from the north are the Animas, the Mancos, the Hovenweep and the McElmo, in Colorado, whose canyons are cut through the Mesa Verde; and the Montezuma in Utah; and from the south the Chaco, in New Mexico, and the De Chelly and Navajo creeks in Arizona. The walls of all these streams and of lesser tributaries, abound in the cliff-dwellings and other remains of prehistoric inhabitants.Rumors of such ruins led to an effort by the United States Geological Survey in 1874 to find and investigate them, and a party led by W. H. Jackson and Ernest Ingersoll crossed the mountains in the summer of that year and made a hasty survey of the Mesa Verde region. This party discovered the since famous ruins of the Mancos Canyon and many others westward; and Mr. Ingersoll's letters to the New York Tribune in 1874 contained the first intelligent account of them; while Jackson's report, in the Annual Report of the Survey for that year, gave extended details, illustrated from photographs taken in the field of these novel and interesting remains. Since that time extensive explorations of this region by the Bureau of Ethnology and by private persons have brought to light vast additions to this information; and the government has made national reservations of certain districts, in order that these ruins may be preserved and easily visited.The area in which the cliff-dwellings occur is practically coextensive with that in which are now found traces of town-building and relics attributable to the Pueblo tribes. The general likeness throughout this region (and locally elsewhere in Arizona and northern Mexico) in architecture, implements, style of decoration, etc., shown by the ruins, establishes their close relationship, historically, with the existing village-Indians of the region .... and shows that in early periods, as now, numerous tribal groups were represented in the region, and that then, as now, “there was a general community of culture if not of kinship in blood.” This similarity, and the evidence of records and tradition, make it certain that the builders of these abandoned houses and towns were men of the same sort as, if not directly ancestral to, the modern Pueblo Indians.The valleys occupied are characterized, as has been said, by cliff-like walls of sandstone enclosing large spaces of flat bottom-lands, in which the soil is fertile when supplied with water. It will produce good crops under irrigation—an art well understood by both ancient and modern inhabitants of that arid region. The annual rainfall even now is considerable, and there is evidence that anciently it was much more copious.As to the origin of these vanished “cliff-dwellers” nothing is known; but it is evident that centuries ago these valleys were occupied by a considerable, sedentary population, who had fixed homes and cultivated fields for crops of corn (maize), beans, gourds and probably other things, by means of extensive systems of irrigation. They made pottery, cloth, baskets, etc., and stone implements, but nothing metallic.In this peaceful and industrious life they were exposed, however, to raids from the nomadic and more savage tribes of the mountains and plains north and east of them, and hence were compelled to concentrate their homes into defensive villages, to build fort-like walls and erect watch-towers along their frontiers and on surrounding heights. These structures, as indicated by their ruins, appear essentially like those now occupied in New Mexico and Arizona. The habits and general culture of these prehistoric people, or peoples, were apparently much the same as those of their descendants when first visited by Spanish explorers in the 16th century.The walls of the canyon-valleys were composed of sandstones in strata of varying hardness, so that in many places the wearing away of a softer layer left a long horizontal recess, sometimes several yards in depth, overhung by harder rock. These natural shelters were sometimes low down and easily accessible, and were naturally taken advantage of as good situations for storehouses for grain and for residence. Often there was room for only one or two houses, which could be built economically, as little more was required than a front and one or more side walls, enclosing a space of the ledge-floor and roofed by the overhanging rock. Such single houses were often found occupying niches hundreds of feet above the valley-floor. In several places, however, the recesses, or shallow caves, were of sufficient length and depth to accommodate a large number of houses, forming a real village, with granaries, kivas and protective front walls.
The most extensive of these towns yet known is that in Walnut Canyon, a tributary of Montezuma Creek, Colorado, called Cliff-Palace. This contained about 100 rooms. The terrace had been leveled and extended by building supporting walls along its irregular front, and long and prosperous occupancy is evident. This and another remarkable ruin nearby called Spruce Tree House, lately cleared of rubbish, are now national reservations and in the custody of the Smithsonian Institution. Such reservations also ensure the continued safety of similar remains in various places elsewhere .... The construction of these houses is described in the ‘Handbook of American Indians’ as follows:“In the large shelters the building are much diversified in plan and elevation owing to the irregularities in the conformation of the floor and walls. The first floor was the rock-surface, or, if that was uneven, of clay and flagstones, and upper floors were constructed of poles set in the masonry, often projecting through the walls and overlaid with smaller poles and willows, finished above with adobe cement The masonry is excellent, the rather small stones, gathered in many cases from distant sites, being laid in mortar. The stones were rarely dressed, but were carefully selected, so that the wall-surface was even, and in some cases a decorative effect was given by alternating layers of larger and smaller pieces and by chinking the crevices with spalls. The walls were sometimes plastered inside and out and finished with clay paint. The doorways were small and squarish, and often did not extend to the floor, except an opening or square notch in the centre for the passage of the feet. The lintels were stone slabs, or consisted of sticks or small timbers. Windows or outlook-apertures, were numerous and generally small. . . . Where the way is very steep niche-stairways were cut in the rock-face, making approach possible. Ladders of notched logs were also used.”In some parts of this district, as, especially on the eastern side of the Jemez Plateau, in New Mexico, great numbers of dwelling-places have been dug out of the rock, or crevices have been enlarged and the front walled up. Arizona and Mexico show these also. They are associated with the cliff-houses, but are more properly classified and described elsewhere .... The age of these ruins, by whom built, and when and why they were abandoned are matters of conjecture, with few substantial bases for hypothesis. They certainly antedate the coming of white men, for no objects of metal nor any evidences of domestic animals have been found.
Estimates as to antiquity vary from 500 to several thousand years — the latter probably very excessive. Many places have evidently been occupied within comparatively recent times, and 1,000 years seems enough to allow to the oldest. The best opinion is that pressure by enemies led to the making of these inconvenient habitations and that this with the increasing dryness of the climate (of which other evidence exists) finally compelled retreat. Speaking of the Mesa Verde district, Dr. J. Walter Fewkes, of the bureau of ethnology, who is perhaps the best informed man in the country on this subject, expresses the subjoined opinion:
“The inhabitants of these buildings struggled to gain a livelihood against their unfavorable environment until a too exacting nature finally overcame them. . . . One of the primary reasons was change of climate, which caused the water-supply to diminish and the crops to fail; but long before its final desertion many clans abandoned the place and drifting from point to point sought home-sites where water was more abundant. . . . Where the descendants of Cliff Palace now dwell, or whether they are now extinct, can be determined only by additional research.”
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920