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Main page » Non-Fiction » Richard Wetherill: Anasazi

Richard Wetherill: Anasazi


Anasazi, the Navajos' name for the "Ancient Ones" who preceded them into the Southwest, is the nickname of Richard Wetherill, who devoted his life to a search for remains of these vanished peoples. He discovered the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and Kiet Siel and the Basket Maker sites at Grand Gulch, Utah, and at Chaco Canyon he initiated the excavation of Pueblo Bonito, the largest prehistoric ruin in the United States. His discoveries are among the most important ever made by an American archaeologist.

To the archaeologists Richard Wetherill is a villain -- an uneducated cowboy who plundered the ruins of the pre-historic civilization of the Southwestern Indians. Author McNitt takes the opposite tact, portraying Wetherill as an upright honest man whose accomplishments, the first scientific examinations of the great ruins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, far outweigh his faults. Adding to the enigma of Wetherill is the matter of his death -- murdered in cold blood by a Navajo Indian debtor according to this author, the loser in a gunfight caused by his own cattle rustling according to others. Wetherill inspired strong passions in both life and death.

This is a fine biography. The first few chapters may be hard slogging as the book goes through Wetherill's early life, but the chapters of Wetherill's life and work at Chaco Canyon leading up to his death in 1910 are fascinating. The author follows up the shooting of Wetherill with a full description of the trial of his killer and the aftermath of his death. This is a Western tale worthy of an epic movie and one has to wonder why it has not attracted Hollywood's attention.

McNitt makes a persuasive case that Wetherill's reputation was the victim of ambitious Eastern academics, jealous of his discoveries, and government Indian agents, jealous of his influence among the Navajo. I was impressed at how little dated were his descriptions of the ancient civilizations of the Anasazi, although the book was written in 1957.

Was Wetherill a hero or a villain? The controversy about his character makes for a fascinating read.

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Tags: Wetherill, Richard, Anasazi, Bonito, excavation