Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 as the country’s ninth national park. The site was visited and considered sacred by multiple Indigenous nations before it began attracting interest from white Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While male scientists and treasure hunters sought to extract artifacts and knowledge from the site, two Colorado women—Virginia Donaghe McClurg and Lucy Peabody—sought to preserve it. Their campaign marshaled the conservationist spirit that gripped many white Americans at the time, including President Theodore Roosevelt, and culminated in Mesa Verde’s designation as a national park.
Today, Mesa Verde National Park hosts more than 500,000 visitors per year and remains a sacred and important place for multiple Indigenous nations, especially the Pueblo people of New Mexico. On account of the park’s history as a colonized landscape, the story of how two white women spearheaded Mesa Verde’s creation raises important questions about what it means to “preserve” a site, who should do the preserving, and for whom these sites are preserved.
Colonization and Preservation
As with many other national parks, the establishment of Mesa Verde National Park was rooted in the process of settler-colonialism unfolding across the western United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As they violently displaced Indigenous nations and built cities, farms, mines, and railroads, white Americans found beauty in certain places and sought to protect them from industry and development.
By the late nineteenth century, the collection of cliff dwellings, kivas, and other structures built by the Ancestral Pueblo people at Mesa Verde began to attract interest from white Americans. Located in southwest Colorado, the site was then on land belonging to the Nuche (Ute people) and was still important to the Navajo and Pueblo people. However, white scientists and explorers repeatedly trespassed and took artifacts, either for study or sale. Imbued with notions of white supremacy, the young discipline of archaeology often blurred the lines between investigation and plunder.
Virginia McClurg and Lucy Peabody
Neither a scientist nor a treasure hunter, Virginia McClurg saw the site differently, maintaining that its value came from what was there instead of what could be taken from it. The first of the two women to visit the cliff dwellings, she became the site’s earliest white champion. She was the daughter of prosperous easterners, and her life mirrored that of many female reformers of the late nineteenth century who were both ambitious and willing to join various organizations in search of change. Educated in Virginia, McClurg established herself as a travel writer while still in her twenties and remained unmarried until she was in her thirties. Poor health brought her west to Colorado in 1879, where she attended classes at Colorado College, founded a private school, and reported intermittently for newspapers. In 1889 she married Gilbert McClurg, settled in Colorado, and eventually gave birth to a son.
McClurg’s interest in the cliff dwellings began in 1882, when the New York Daily Graphic asked her to visit Mesa Verde to investigate Colorado’s “lost” cities and buried homes. Fascinated by the structures, McClurg outfitted her own expedition to the cliff dwellings in 1886 to gather scientific evidence that might justify the site’s protection.
McClurg’s contemporaries included white men such as Richard Wetherill, a rancher who stumbled upon Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings in 1888, and Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a Swedish scientist who studied the site in the 1890s. Both men extracted artifacts from the site, and Nordenskiöld was briefly arrested for doing so. Nordenskiöld was actually interested in documenting Ancestral Pueblo culture, but many others simply plundered the site, leading McClurg to denounce “many instances of thoughtless vandalism.” McClurg was especially critical of Wetherill, whom she later referred to as a farmer who “casts away the walls from a prehistoric pueblo to line his irrigating ditch.” In contrast, she saw Mesa Verde as an area that needed more protection, in addition to study.
After McClurg published sketches of her trip, she became a minor celebrity. In 1893 she was the only woman invited to speak in the Anthropological Building at the Chicago World’s Fair. Seven years later, she established the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association (CCDA), a women’s group modeled after the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the country’s first historic preservation organization. McClurg became regent of the CCDA, with Lucy Peabody as vice regent. Peabody was an influential Denver retiree who had served as secretarial assistant in the Bureau of American Ethnology before her marriage. Despite its intentions, the CCDA had limited interactions with the Indigenous people who still considered Mesa Verde to be the home of their ancestors.
McClurg’s first goal was for the CCDA to obtain legal rights to Mesa Verde via a land lease from the Weeminuche Ute. In 1899 she traveled to the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Montezuma County to convince Ute leader Ignacio and his son Acowitz to lease the cliff dwellings to her. She offered him $300 a year for thirty years with $300 up front. Chief Ignacio was reluctant and demanded $9,000 on the spot. Unable to oblige, McClurg went home empty-handed. A year later, she sent Alice Bishop to Navajo Springs to try again. Bishop was successful, but US secretary of the interior Ethan Hitchcock declared the agreement illegal because private citizens did not have the authority to negotiate a treaty with tribes. The following year, the CCDA submitted the lease to the Department of the Interior a second time, only to have it rejected once again. In response, the CCDA lobbied elected officials. McClurg met with Colorado senators Henry Teller and Edward Wolcott to discuss political strategies and appealed directly to President Theodore Roosevelt. McClurg wrote the president a romantic sonnet in which she described the Ancestral Puebloans as a “peaceful race” who “toiled in fields with patient industry.”
Meanwhile, Lucy Peabody traveled to Washington, DC, to investigate the possibility of establishing a national park at the site despite McClurg’s wish that Mesa Verde become a state park. While there, Peabody secured a bill that left the CCDA out of the park’s new administration, which created a rift between McClurg and Peabody. In her 1904 annual address to the CCDA, McClurg said, “there are members of the association who are in favor of [a national park]—others a state or Association’s control . . . each may work in the field which suits her best—and time will show which plan will be crowned with success.” All of these plans failed to recognize Indigenous sovereignty over the site. In the meantime, the women of the CCDA worked hard to publicize and further colonize the site. By 1903 the CCDA created the first accurate map of the cliff dwellings, built a wagon road down the Mancos Canyon, and constructed a shelter at Spruce Tree House.
By 1905 the CCDA had convinced both the public and Congress that a national park should be established at Mesa Verde. That year, Colorado representative Herschel Hogg submitted the first Mesa Verde National Park bill to survive a congressional committee. The following year, Colorado senator Thomas Patterson submitted a bill to the Senate. McClurg, though she preferred a state park, reluctantly gave her blessing.
Conflict Over Management
That is, until February 1906, when McClurg suddenly withdrew her support for the new park. Contemporaries and historians alike have struggled to understand her sudden change of heart. Newspapers of the period derided her. The papers accused McClurg of being obsessed with her own celebrity. On February 23, 1906, for example, The Denver Post scolded McClurg and told her to “put all that tremendous energy of yours into the fight to get Uncle Sam to take up this wonderful bit of ancient, ancient history and preserve it for the wonder and pilgriming of the whole world.” A day later, the Post published a political cartoon that illustrated the paper’s belief that federal officials—embodied by the elderly male figure of Uncle Sam—would better care for the site. In the cartoon, a young woman, identified as Miss Colorado, happily and dutifully surrenders a model of the cliff dwellings to Uncle Sam, saying, “They’ll be safer in your care, Uncle!”
McClurg worried that federal intervention would damage the site—a concern that was not without merit. In 1881 the US Army sent Captain Moses Harris to Yellowstone to suppress illegal activities at the park. Since Harris’s arrival, residents of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho had complained about the army’s management of the park. McClurg was reticent to see the cliff dwellings managed by the army; rather, she hoped for Mesa Verde to be legally protected and financially supported by either the state or federal government while remaining under the direction of the clubwomen. She envisioned a new kind of partnership between government organizations and women’s clubs, one that provided women with an official role in state and federal bureaucracies, and thus famously declared, “Let [Mesa Verde] be a woman’s park.”
The Post insisted that no private individuals, especially women, were fit to manage the site. It told readers to “think of turning the Yosemite over to the custodianship of any band of the best meaning and the cleverest women, or men, either, in the world! Women die and women get married and lose interest in political life . . . so do men. The government of the United States lives!” Undeterred, McClurg continued to denounce the Hogg Bill, and the CCDA was divided, with one faction of clubwomen supporting McClurg and the other supporting Peabody.
In an apparent effort to sway public opinion toward her vision, McClurg concocted a conspiracy theory. She argued that the Hogg Bill was a thinly disguised congressional plot, a furtive means by which to acquire more Indigenous land. McClurg argued that the CCDA would never attempt something so heartless. She declared, “there has never been any plan to park Mesa Verde, which did not include the Indians remaining on their land.” There was, however, no truth to McClurg’s accusations, and despite her efforts, Congress passed Hogg’s bill in 1906 with widespread public approval. The bill came the same year as the Antiquities Act, designed to protect sites of archaeological interest from unscientific plundering and inspired by the increased publicity of places like Mesa Verde.
The CCDA did not officially disband until McClurg’s death in 1931. At that point, Mesa Verde was managed by the National Park Service (NPS). Peabody, not McClurg, was lauded as the heroine who “founded” Mesa Verde National Park—despite the fact that the dwellings had been created and maintained by generations of Indigenous people. In 1906 the American Anthropology Association thanked Peabody for her role in the preservation of the great monuments of ancient culture without mentioning McClurg.
Still, despite the best intentions of McClurg and the CCDA, the entire enterprise of creating the park amounted to a colonial project that placed an Indigenous site under the control of the US government. Today, Indigenous scholars argue that the national park system is itself a product of the dispossession and abuse of Indigenous peoples and cultures that occurred throughout Colorado and the American West in the nineteenth century. In this context, although it can still be seen as a monumental achievement, the two women’s work to create Mesa Verde National Park is more complicated and controversial than often considered.