Anasazi Indians of the
Mesa Verde - Kayenta
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After the demise of the Chaco Canyon Pueblos, a marked contraction occurred in Pueblo territory. Prolonged drought, famine, disease, raids by marauding nomads, exhaustion of resources, and quarrels among the Puebloans are put forth as causes for abandoning the Pueblos. Environmental conditions, or warfare, often triggered the collapse of a culture, but the basic problem was food supply.
The simple fact was stone-age Indians could live in small groups as hunter gatherers, but did not have the capability of living in large population center for prolonged periods. 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 domesticated work animals limited the ability of farmers to support areas such as Pueblo Bonita and Mesa Verde.
The peak population of the Mesa Verde period in southwestern Colorado, A.D. 1000-1300, is estimated at twenty-five-to-fifty-thousand inhabitants. Today, the same area (Montezuma County) supports eighteen-to-twenty-thousand people (Anasazi Heritage Center).
During the early Mesa Verde development, there were a great many villages on the valley floor and in the mouths of canyons.
The round tower construction of Hovenweep and at Painted Hand is a mystery not yet resolved by archeologists.
The main Lowry Pueblo was built in stages on top of abandoned pithouses of the eighth century peoples. Initially it consisted of only five rooms, and over a thirty year period was expanded to include forty rooms and eight kiva, or ritual rooms. The central part of the Pueblo had two or three stories. Not all rooms and kiva 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 that 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).
From 1150 A.D. to 1200 A.D., the small outlying villages on the mesas and in the valleys were abandoned. The people moved into larger more protected villages.
After 1150 A.D., the Mesa Verde area of the San Juan Basin had the largest number of people in the Southwest. Increases in the number of people in cliff dwellings reduced the inhabitant's ability to raise enough agriculture products to feed themselves. Around 1276, a long drought began that continued until the end of the century. Even without a drought trying to raise enough food on the mesas and getting water out of the canyons played a big part in the abandonment of the Four Corners area--while the people were in the cliff dwellings who protected the crops from marauding raiders? There is evidence of intra-regional conflict at some sites. According to Cordell there were "…numerous burned dwellings and human skeletons that had been burned and cannibalized…."
The idea of widespread warfare in the Four Corners region remains controversial, but new evidence suggests that some villages suffered violent attacks during the 1200s. Sand Canyon Pueblo, in the Montezuma Valley below Mesa Verde, was burned, and 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 may have turned to violence when faced with starvation (Walker).
The San Juan Basin in Southern Utah was completely abandoned by 1300 A.D. (Walker). The major migrations from the San Juan and Mesa Verde areas were to the Rio Grande and the Little Colorado River in Arizona and the Hopi of northeastern Arizona and the Zuni and Acoma pueblos of western New Mexico.
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 their village was founded in 1051.
The Acoma Pueblo was built on a three hundred and fifty-seven foot sandstone mesa. In 1598, the Spanish Governor Juan de Ońate and seventy soldiers killed and maimed many of the villagers because the villagers killed thirteen soldiers stealing grain from the village storehouse.
The cliff dwellings and the Pueblo villages in the Mesa Verde 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 ancient Indian villages near the Delores River.
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.
This great kiva was fifty- to sixty-five-feet in diameter. The small hole in the center is called a Sipapu. During the Chaco era, kivas were built above ground and were surrounded by rectangular walls. Kivas were used for social and religious gatherings.
After the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition, 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 a pueblo ruin, 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, who photographed the Yellowstone and Jackson Hole area a few years earlier, photographed Two Story Cliff House in Mancos Canyon in 1874.
In 1901, Richard Wetherill homesteaded land in Chaco Canyon that included Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Del Arroyo, and Chetro Ketl. Wetherill operated a trading post at Pueblo Bonito until 1910. During an argument over a horse, a Navajo killed him. Wetherill is buried in a small cemetery near Pueblo Bonito (Chaco Culture).
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. Coronado’s Expedition reached the Zuni villages a year later, and found out the Zuni villages were not the seven cities of Cibola, as Coronado had believed from Niza's report.
After the Spanish Conquistadors, the Franciscan Friars come to convert the Pueblos to the Christian religion. One of the earliest missions was San Geronimo de Taos. At that time, the Taos Indians had lived in the Taos Valley of New Mexico for more than 800 years.
The Franciscans Friars imposed taxes on the Pueblo Indians. The only way Puebloans had to pay these taxes was with labor, corn, pottery, and blankets. At first, most of the Pueblo Indians accepted the Franciscan Friars, but over the years, resentment grew against the taxation and the Spanish religious oppression.
The Taos Pueblo played a prominent role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Popé, the leader of the rebellion, was from the San Juan Pueblo, but planned the attack from the Taos Pueblo.
Fifteen years after being driven out by the Pueblos, the Spanish retook the land, and the Spanish missions were re-established.
Following the Mexican War, the Taos people resisted the Americans, just as they had others that tried to take their lands. In 1847, a Mexican loyalist, Tomas Romero, led a group of Pueblo Indians against the newly appointed Governor, Charles Bent. Governor Bent was killed. Prior to his appointment as Governor of New Mexico, Bent and his brother William had established Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River. When a U.S. army detachment reached Taos, many of the insurgents and some residents of Taos had barricaded themselves in the thick adobe-walled church. Cannon fire killed the inhabitants and destroyed the church. The bell tower and part of the walls of the church still stand.
Prior to the Pueblo Revolt, the only Indians familiar with horses were a few Apache and Navajo that worked on Spanish rancheros. When the Spanish abandoned the rancheros, thousands of horses were left behind. Alan Taylor, American Colonies, states the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, resulting in thousands of loose horses, was the greatest setback inflicted by American Indians on European expansion in North America. Within fifty years after the Pueblo revolt, horses had spread as far north as the Cree and Assiniboine Indians in Canada.
The Ancestral Puebloans were not the only American Indians to build large structures. 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).
Just as the Southwest Pueblos, the Mound Builders were many different cultures that shared common traits.
The 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) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
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Cordell, Linda S. Ancient Pueblo Peoples. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C. 1994.
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.
Stone, Tammy. The Prehistory of Colorado and Adjacent Areas. University of Utah Press, 1999.
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.
Anasazi Cultural Center, Delores, Colorado
James Q. Jacobs
Jay W. Sharp
Southwest Indian Relief Council