The legacy of the Wetherill family, an adventurous clan who put the ruins of Mesa Verde on the map in 1888, lives on in Montezuma County.
Marietta Wetherill Eaton is the manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and director of the Anasazi Heritage Center. She carries on the family’s love of archaeology.
Her great-grandfather was Richard Wetherill, and she is named after his wife.
Eaton shared some of her family history during a presentation at the museum she directs.
The Wetherills came of age in the late 19th century during a time of science and exploration, she said.
“The spirit of knowledge was really valued, a time of big explorations and expeditions. It was Manifest Destiny with a lot of opportunity,” Eaton said.
The Mancos Wetherills originated from Ireland, where they were Quakers.
“It was that upbringing where they learned tolerance and allowed them to befriend their neighbors and the Indians,” she said.
Family patriarch Benjamin Kite Wetherill was an Native American agent during President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, negotiating safe travel along the Chisholm Trail. He passed down his diplomacy to his sons.
“Much of the success they had was talking with the indigenous people, learning from them,” Eaton said. “The Wetherills made a point that they weren’t the ‘discoverers’ – they gave credit.”
Richard Wetherill is known for his explorations at Mesa Verde, Keet Seel, Grand Gulch and Chaco, but he was not given proper credit for being the first to identify the Basketmaker culture, Eaton said, citing a study by Winston Hurst and Kristen Turner.
Richard Wetherill revealed that the first Basketmaker people had been massively beaten, and people did not want to accept that image of the ancestral Puebloans.
“The noble savage was still a popular concept, so they just disregarded (Richard) Wetherill’s discovery. That dark side of pre-historic life was not fitting their mythology,” Eaton said.
Richard and his brother Al famously found Cliff Palace in 1887-1888, triggering a flurry of discovery at Mesa Verde. While taking care of his ailing parents, Al became the postmaster in Gallup, N.M., for 20 years.
“A lot of our archives are attributed to Tom Wetherill, Al’s grandson,” Eaton said. “He’s the one that kept a lot of stuff – a hoarder, like I am.”
Eaton focused on the lesser-known, but talented network of siblings, scientists and scholars that influenced the family.
Clayton Wetherill was the family daredevil. “The guy willing to be tied off on a rope and be lowered over a cliff to see what was there,” Eaton said.
He built the first trading post in Chaco Canyon, which was so successful that it led to 12 more to being started in the area.
Anna Wetherill Mason earned the reputation for the family’s hospitality on its ranch in Mancos.
“It was a time when you didn’t just turn on the stove or have a refrigerator,” Eaton said. “People referred to the Wetherill hospitality when they came to visit, and Anna was the unsung hero working behind the scenes.”
Alice Eastwood was an important presence among the Wetherills. A botanist, she accompanied the family on six expeditions, collecting samples.
Eastwood made the first observations of the use of tobacco, rice-grass hairbrushes and the use of cotton to make textiles. She became curator for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and ran into a burning building to rescue 1,500 specimens after the 1906 earthquake.
Gustaf Nordenskiold was the first scientist to excavate a cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. When he tried to leave with boxes of artifacts by train from Durango, it caused an uproar, and he was arrested. He was allowed to leave, however, because there were no laws against it at the time.
“It was one of the dominoes that ended up creating the Antiquities Act of 1906,” Eaton said. “Interesting enough, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument was created from that act.”
Mitchell Prudden was a Yale pathologist and archaeologist who worked with the Wetherills on excavations. He was one of the first to study bacteria and helped develop the first vaccines for cholera and diphtheria.
“As an archaeologist, he was the first to identify the unipueblo style,” Eaton said. “The detailed maps he made of the region are phenomenal.”
Prudden was the first to look at the bigger context of ancient communities, she said, and he did research at Yellow Jacket, and Cannonball on the monument.
Indigenous people made countless contributions to archaeology, but the names were not often recorded, Eaton said. Native guides often led the way, including on the expedition to Rainbow Bridge in 1909.
The Wetherills’ Kayenta trading post became a destination for Harvey Cars. Tourists would take the train to Flagstaff, then take the touring cars to Monument Valley.
Eaton recalled a story her grandfather would tell about author Zane Grey.
He said Grey would travel with a Japanese cook and two Hollywood “secretaries.”
“They would always camp away from everyone else, and only the cook had his own tent!” Eaton said.
The Wetherills were part of a larger community fascinated with ancient cultures of the Southwest, Eaton said.
“They were constantly interested in learning,” she said. “They learned from the best minds of the time and shared that knowledge.”