It was in 1765 that explorers from New Mexico first discovered this extraordinary area, but only nearly 100 years later, did the name become formalized. A mesa is an elevated piece of land, with a flat top and sides, much like a vast table made of stone, but it less the green table element of the area than the architectural ruins, built into the sides of the mesa that are a source of much fascination to curious visitors and professional researchers alike. From far, as you approach the park, you will see the thick and verdant forests of juniper and piñon trees which have been growing on the top of the mesa for literally millenia, and you will appreciate how the area’s name was coined.
Nomadic people known collectively as the Pueblo, comprising at least 26 different cultural communities, initially make homes by digging into the cliff walls on the sides of the mesa. These people are understood to have been subsistence farmers and hunters who lived of the spoils of the land and farmed vegetables such as squash, corn and beans. They were also thought to be semi-nomadic, but over time, they digressed from their semi-permanent caves and began to construct the hauntingly beautiful architecture, which still stands today.
The area was first photographed by a pioneer photographer called William Henry Jackson, in 1875, and effectively this made the idiosyncrasies of this area known to the world. Photography was at that time a brand new technology and Jackson arguably become one of the world’s first documentary landscape photographers, as a result of this.
Different aspects of Mesa Verde bear different names, that is about pinpointing sites which explorers have discovered over the years, rather than describing their value or origins. The Two Story house was one of the ones discovered and photographed by Jackson, but there are many more, including Sixteen Window House, Balcony House, Spruce Tree House and Square Tower House, among others.
It was already in 1886, with a rise of vandals in the area that the idea was coined that the place somehow must be protected by the state. People were pillaging the area for the objects that they were able to find there and sell to private individuals. The situation became quite extreme, with parts of walls being demolished for the cave art that was there. Eventually, along those lines, a local ranger by the name of Richard Wetherill began collecting archaeological specimens from the area which he sold to the Colorado Historical Society, for safe-keeping.
But it was not only artifacts that enthralled Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charles Mason, they were both overwhelmed by the exploration possibilities in this magical space. During the 1880s, they meticulously counted and documented 182 cliff dwellings in the region.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado - Photo: cbdusty/Fotolia