Jesse Nusbaum (1887–1975) was an early National Park Service (NPS) employee, historian, archaeologist, restoration specialist, and author active in Colorado and New Mexico in the early 1900s. As superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park, he imbued the fledgling National Park Service with a new professionalism and more effective management of the park units. Today, Nusbaum’s legacy can be seen in the numerous restoration projects he undertook in his lifetime, as well as the continuation of Mesa Verde National Park as one of the nation’s most popular destinations.
Jesse Logan Nusbaum was born in Greeley on September 3, 1887. His mother, Agnes Strickland Nusbaum, came there with her family in the first year of the Union Colony. Nusbaum’s father, Edward, came to Greeley a year later as a brick mason, a skill that Jesse drew on during his later years at Mesa Verde. Jesse was an active youth—when he was not reading about ancient cliff dwellings, he searched for arrowheads, learned his father’s trade, or earned money with his camera. His incipient, self-taught photographic skills helped him immensely in the years ahead.
Jesse first gained a reputation as a photographer while a student at the Colorado State Normal School (later the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley. He became the staff photographer for the school’s first yearbook. An active and popular student, he served as class treasurer, played on the basketball and football teams, and performed a major role in the senior class play. In 1907 Nusbaum graduated with a major in manual arts and began teaching the next term at the New Mexico Normal School at Las Vegas.
Before he could establish his career as a teacher, Nusbaum found himself sidetracked at Mesa Verde. The previous year, after years of lobbying by anthropologist Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association, and others, Congress designated Mesa Verde a national park. One of the first tasks in the new park was to obtain an accurate survey of the archaeological sites within its boundaries. Nobody knew how many cliff dwellings existed or their precise locations. The NPS assigned the task of completing the archaeological survey to Hewett and his Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). Assembling a crew to do the initial Mesa Verde survey, Hewett asked the president of the Colorado State Normal School to find him a “young and agile man, skilled in photography and interested in archaeology.” The president immediately recommended Nusbaum, and Hewett, who had briefly worked with Nusbaum, agreed. Although he probably appreciated his first few assignments with the field school, Nusbaum found Hewett hard to work with. In later years he recalled, “He wanted things done fast, you’d do it and then he would leave for the Near East, Athens, or Rome and then casually take credit for your work.”
Work in Mesa Verde and Elsewhere
And so the tall, outgoing young man attained his childhood desire and journeyed to the land of the cliff dwellers, an area he had only imagined as a boy. Nusbaum’s crew included A. V. Kidder and Sylvanus Morley, two young archaeologists who became Nusbaum’s lifelong friends. Some called them the Three Musketeers of southwestern archaeology, while they referred to themselves as “Hewett’s Chain Gang.” Nusbaum and Kidder fell into a daily routine of strapping their equipment to pack animals and walking the bluffs and canyons of the mesa. They recorded locations of cliff dwellings, and Nusbaum took scores of photographs documenting archaeological sites throughout the park and on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation next door: Cliff Palace, Casa Colorado, Spruce Tree House, Square Tower House, Inaccessible House, Sunset House, Little Long House, and Oak Tree House. Providing important data for future archaeologists, he photographed ceilings still intact, niches in kiva walls, and sealed doorways.
Nusbaum returned the following summer to complete the survey. This time he went to Wetherill Mesa on the west side of the park, where he photographed Spring House, Mug House, Jug House, and Long House. Following the completion of the Mesa Verde survey in 1908, Nusbaum continued to photograph and survey Ancestral Puebloan sites in nearby McElmo Canyon and at Hovenweep in eastern Utah. Then he journeyed farther west, to Alkali Ridge in Utah, where he worked on earlier sites. During these summers, after he had finished the survey work, Nusbaum joined the staff of the School of American Research at Rito de los Frijoles in the future Bandelier National Monument, west of Santa Fe. Here he learned practical experience in the new science and joined a promising group of young men who would shape southwestern archaeology for the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1909 Hewett invited Nusbaum to Santa Fe to oversee the restoration of the Palace of the Governors that had fallen into disrepair. In his journal, Nusbaum revealed the state of the building, his plans for repair, and his feelings concerning the importance of melding architecture with the environment. He held that “the palace was begun with an adaptation to climate and atmosphere and had been fitted into the color of earth and sky.” He would amplify this belief in the architecture he chose for Mesa Verde years later.
Return to Mesa Verde
In 1910 destiny sent Nusbaum back to Mesa Verde, where Hewett assigned him the task of restoring Balcony House, the work for which he is best known. It was not easy. Workers had to carry all their supplies in by horse from Mancos, some twenty miles away. The nearest water supply was a mile away and their leaky cabin was often cold. They began the job late in the year, on October 7. By the time they finished in mid-November, Nusbaum and the other remaining crew had to leave their tools and walk out in knee-deep snow. Nusbaum persevered and succeeded in stabilizing Balcony House in just forty-four days. When Hewett came to inspect the repair work, he arrived in a snowstorm. As it was late, Adams and Nusbaum built small fires throughout Balcony House to show off their completed work. In the eerie glow of the firelight, Hewett gave his approval. He left the next day, leaving the pair to clean up the site in the fresh snow.
In 1915, working under Kidder, Nusbaum began the stabilization and repair of the mission ruins at Pecos Pueblo, east of Santa Fe. At that time, Kidder was working on the stratigraphic study of Pecos that would make him famous, and together they tried to expand the scientific knowledge of the site. In 1916 Nusbaum assisted F. W. Hodge with his expedition at Hawikuh. In 1920 he led an expedition to southwestern Utah to excavate a Basketmaker site called Cave Du Pont, named for its financial backer. On this expedition, Nusbaum found himself at the apex of Southwest archaeology, as questions of Basketmaker culture were then under intense scrutiny.
National Park Service
In 1916 Congress had created the National Park Service, with Stephen Mather its first director and Horace Albright his assistant. They defended the parks from outside development, upgraded facilities, professionalized the ranger force, and established educational programs. Nusbaum, the first archaeologist to administer a national park, took over the administration of Mesa Verde in 1921. Before then, the park’s management had been plagued by ineptitude, nepotism, cronyism, and a lack of expertise in archaeology. But Nusbuam straightened out the park’s administration and turned it into the park visitors know and love today.
In Santa Fe, Nusbaum constructed the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts, winning concessions from the architects for the auditorium and entrance hall to match the style he uncovered at the mission church in Pecos. In San Diego, he designed and built the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition exhibit for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company. For this project, he erected adobe structures after the manner of the Pueblo villages of New Mexico and Arizona, showcasing Pueblo art and culture. Visitors watched Native Americans weave blankets, prepare traditional foods, make pottery, and perform ceremonial dances.
In all, Nusbaum served three times as park superintendent for a total of seventeen years. His first tenure lasted from June 3, 1921, to March 16, 1931. After a brief interlude as director of the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, he returned to Mesa Verde as its superintendent from 1936 to 1939. In May 1942, at the age of fifty-five, he came back to administer the park on a shoestring budget during World War II. He remained in the position until January 1946.
Following decades of tough reform work in Mesa Verde, transforming it from a laughingstock to a world-renowned archaeological site, the Interior Department awarded Nusbaum with its highest award—the Distinguished Service Medal—in December 1954. Three years later, Nusbaum formally retired from the NPS. He still kept abreast of happenings in archaeology and at Mesa Verde. Throughout his noteworthy career, Nusbaum proved more than just a pioneering southwestern archaeologist or an exemplary national park superintendent. He was a visionary—placing all future superintendents in his shadow—and a lifelong advocate of Mather and Albright’s national park ideal. Indeed, Albright once called him “one of the best superintendents we ever had.” Nusbaum died in his Santa Fe home on Sunday, December 21, 1975.
Adapted from Joseph Owen Weixelman, “Jesse Nusbaum and the Re-creation of Mesa Verde National Park,” Colorado Heritage 20, no. 2 (2000).