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Mountains of Stone

Winds of Change

     Mesa Verde - Kayenta - Hovenweep Period
O. Ned Eddins

Mound Builders

After the demise of Pueblo Bonita and the other Chaco Canyon Pueblos, there was a marked contraction in Anasazi territory. Prolonged drought, famine, disease, raids by marauding nomads, exhaustion of  resources, and quarrels among the Puebloans are given as causes for abandoning the Pueblos. Environmental conditions or warfare often triggered the collapse of a culture, but the basic problem was food supply. Eventually stone-tooled farmers could not produce enough food to sustain religious leaders and laborers within centers like Pueblo Bonita. North American or Meso-American Indians never acquired the technology to grow, transport, or distribute food to large numbers of people in concentrated population centers. Until Cortez brought horses to Mesoamerica in 1519, there were no large animals in North or South America suitable for domestication. A lack of work animals limited the ability of farmers to support large cultural center for extended periods of time.

As the Chaco system failed, some areas in the Four Corners region, such as, Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, and Kayenta increased in population. Eventually, outside pressures forced the Anasazi to build the massive cliff dwellings like Cliff Place and Spruce Tree House located in Mesa Verde National Park. After 1150 A.D., the Mesa Verde area of the San Juan Basin had the largest number of people in the Southwest. The peak population of the Mesa Verde period (A.D. 1000-1200) is estimated at twenty-five-to-fifty-thousand Puebloans. Today, the same area in Montezuma County, Colorado supports eighteen-to-twenty-thousand people (Anasazi Heritage Center). 

During the early Mesa Verde period, there were a great many villages on the valley floor and in the mouths of canyons i.e. Lowry Pueblo, Hovenweep. The round tower construction of Painted Hand near Lowry Pueblo and the towers of Hovenweep is a mystery yet to be resolved by archeologists.

                                                         Painted Hand

                                                          Hovenweep Castle

The main Lowry Pueblo was built in stages on top of abandoned pithouses. Initially Lowry Pueblo consisted of only five rooms. Over the next thirty years, the pueblo was expanded to forty rooms and eight kivas, or ritual rooms. The central part of the Pueblo had two or three stories. Not all rooms and kivas were used at the same time. Some rooms were for sleeping, some for storage, some for work areas, and some for social and religious events. The presence of a great kiva suggests Lowry Pueblo was a regional urban ritual center. At its population climax, Lowry housed about one hundred people. It was abandoned around 1150 A.D. (BLM sign).

                                                              Lowry Pueblo

Outside pressures forced the Anasazi to build the cliff dwellings. Living in the cliff dwellings reduced the peoples ability to raise enough agriculture products to feed themselves...while the people were in the cliff dwellings who protected the crops from marauding raiders? Around 1276, a drought began and continued until the end of the century. Even without a drought raising enough food on the mesas, and getting water out of the canyons, played a big part in the abandonment of the Four Corners area.

                                                          Cliff House Canyon

The idea of widespread warfare in the Four Corners region remains controversial, but new evidence suggests some villages suffered violent attacks during the 1200s.  According to Cordell there were …numerous burned dwellings and human skeletons that had been burned and cannibalized…. In the Montezuma Valley, the Sand Canyon Pueblo was burned with as many as two hundred and fifty people killed.  Archaeologist, Stephen LeBlanc believes the Ancestral Puebloans split themselves into at least three warring factions: Mesa Verde, Montezuma Valley, and the Aztec area. These otherwise peaceful agrarian people turned to violence when faced with starvation (Walker, Dold). 

The San Juan Basin was completely abandoned by 1300 A.D. (Walker).  The major migrations from the Mesa Verde area were to the Rio Grande and Little Colorado River in Arizona. Some of the people joined the Hopi of northeastern Arizona and the Zuni of western New Mexico. The Mesa Verde cliff dwellings and the Pueblo villages in the four corners area were abandoned several hundred years before the first white men saw them.

On July 29, 1776, Father Francisco Dominguez and Father Silvestre Escalante left Santa Fe with eight men to explore a trading route to Monterey, California. Father Escalante recorded in his journal the presence of an ancient Indian village along the Delores River in Colorado.  

Upon an elevation on the river’s [Delores River] south side, there was in ancient times a small settlement of the same as those of the Indians in New Mexico…

The Anasazi Heritage Center near Delores, Colorado is located close to where Escalante made his observations. The nearby "Escalante Ruins” have been excavated and stabilized.

                                                              Escalante Kiva

This great kiva was fifty- to sixty-five-feet in diameter. Ancestral Puebloans used kivas for social and religious gatherings. The small hole in the center is called a Sipapu. During the Chaco Canyon era, kivas were built above ground and were surrounded by rectangular walls. Smaller kivas were built under overhangs or shallow caves.

                                              Butler Wash-Cold Spring Cave Kiva

After the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776, there is no recorded evidence of anyone seeing the Anasazi Pueblos until the mid-eighteen hundreds. In September 1849 while on patrol, Lt. James Hervey Simpson came upon Pueblo Pintado. A few days later, the army patrol under Lt. Colonel John M. Washington saw the great houses of Chaco Canyon (Frazier). Hovenweep and Lowry Ruins on the valley floor were undoubtedly observed by the mid-1800s. William Henry Jackson photographed the Two Story Cliff House in Mancos Canyon in 1874. A few years earlier, Jackson had photographed the Yellowstone and Jackson Hole area.

                                                  Mesa Verde Spruce Tree House

 Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason discovered Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace in December of 1888 (Wenger).

                                                         Mesa Verde Cliff Palace

In 1901, Richard Wetherill homesteaded land in Chaco Canyon including Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Del Arroyo, and Chetro Ketl. Wetherill operated a trading post at Pueblo Bonito until 1910. During an argument over a horse, Wetherill was killed by a Navajo . Wetherill is buried near Pueblo Bonito (Chaco Culture).

1680 Pueblo Indian Revolt:

Spanish expeditions in the sixteenth century visited the Pueblos villages of northwestern Arizona and western New Mexico. Fray Marcos de Niza made the first recorded contact with the Zuni in 1539. A year later, Coronado’s Expedition reached the Zuni villages to find the Zuni villages were not the seven cities of Cibola as Coronado had believed from Niza's report.

Following the Spanish Conquistadors, the Franciscan Friars started to build missions among the Pueblo Indians. One of the earliest missions was San Geronimo de Taos; the Taos Indians had been in the Taos Valley of New Mexico for more than 800 years.

                                                       Taos Pueblo Mission Tower

 The Franciscan Friars supported the missions through tribute from the Pueblo Indians. The only thing the Puebloans had of value was their labor, corn, pottery, and blankets. With the exception of the Hopi, most of the Pueblo Indians accepted the Franciscan Friars, but over the years, resentment grew against the oppressive labor and the Spanish religious oppression.

In 1680, the Pueblo Indians revolted and drove Spanish south of the Rio Grande. The Taos Pueblo played a prominent role in the Pueblo Revolt. Popé, the leader of the rebellion was from the San Juan Pueblo, but he plotted the revolt at the Taos Pueblo. Fifteen years after being driven out of the area, the Spanish retook the land and re-established the Spanish missions.

Warfare between the Pueblo Indians and the neighboring tribes of Navajo, Ute, and Comanche took its toll on the Pueblo villages. Following the Mexican War, the Taos people resisted the Americans, just as they had the others trying to take their lands. In 1847, Pueblo Indians killed the newly appointed Governor, Charles Bent. Prior to his appointment as Governor of New Mexico, Bent and his brother William had established Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River near La Junta, Colorado. Despite occasional warfare, the Taos Pueblo was the major fur trade center during the Mountain Man period in the Southwest (Weber).

The southwest Pueblos with multiple languages and ethnic groups are the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States.

                                                         Old Oraibi 1051 - 2006

The Hopi village of Old Oraibi and the Pueblo village of Acoma have been continuously occupied since 1150 A.D. (Southwest Indian Council). Inhabitants at Old Oraibi claim the village of Old Oraibi was founded in 1051.

                                                    Acoma - The Sky City

The Acoma Pueblo was built on a three hundred and fifty-seven foot sandstone mesa.  In 1598, the Spanish Governor Juan de Oñate and seventy soldiers killed and maimed many of the villagers---the villagers had killed thirteen soldiers stealing grain from the village storehouse.

 A reader recently pointed out the Acoma Pueblo people were not part of the Zuni people. I really appreciate it when someone points out an error on the website...Thank you very much..

Mound Builders:

The Ancestral Puebloans were not the only American Indians to build large structures during this time period. Primarily east of the Mississippi River, the American Indian Mound Builders built spectacular mounds. Cahokia in Illinois was a flourishing population center and a city in every sense of the word when London was a few scattered huts. The Mississippian Culture in North America reached its peak around 1450 A.D., although it lasted into the 18th century with the Natchez. Some forms of mound building lasted well into the late 19th century (mound builder internet site).

                                                       Cahokia Mound

Just as the Southwest Pueblos, the Mound Builders were many different cultures sharing common traits.

Recent archeological data indicates the North and South American Indians were using forms of agriculture as early as 10,000 B.C.. Over fifty percent of the world's agriculture comes from plants first domesticated by the South Americas Indians.

The Anasazi Mesa Verde article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.

Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Afton, Wyoming. 2002.

Related Articles: Paleo-Indians       Meso-American Indians      Barrier Canyon       Anasazi      Cedar Mesa-Grand Gulch       Fremont Indians    Indian Petroglyphs       Hovenweep        Monument Valley     


Cordell, Linda S. Ancient Pueblo Peoples.  Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C. 1994.

Dillehay, Thomas D. The Settlement of the Americas. Basic Books, New York, NY. 2000.

Ferguson, William M. and Rohm, Arthur H. Anasazi Ruins of the Southwest in Color.  University of New Mexico Press. 1990.

Frazier, Kendrick. People of Chaco: A Canyon and its Culture. W. W. Norton, New York, NY. 1999.

Koppel, Tom. Did They Come By Sea? American Archeology Magazine, Spring. 2002.

Stone, Tammy. The Prehistory of Colorado and Adjacent Areas.  University of Utah Press, 1999.

Taylor, Allan. AMERICAN COLONIES The settling of North America. Penguin Books. New York, NY. 2002.

Walker, Paul Robert. The Southwest Gold Gods & Grandeur. National Geographic Society. 2001.

Warner, Ted J., Ed. The Dominguez-Escalante Journal – Their Expedition through Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico in 1776.  University of Utah Press.

Weber, David J. The Taos Trappers-The Fur Trade in the Southwest 1540-1846.  University of Oklahoma Press. 1982.

Wenger, Gilbert. The Story of Mesa Verde National Park.  1980.

Internet Sources:

Anasazi Cultural Center, Delores, Colorado   

Anna Sofaer

Catherine Dold - Cowboy Wash Cannibalism 1140 AD

Hopi Indians

Harrison Lapahie

James Q. Jacobs

Jay W. Sharp  

Southwest Indian Relief Council