Richard Wetherill (1858–1910) was a nineteenth-century rancher and explorer who lived in southwest Colorado. Although he is often credited with "discovering" some of the most significant Ancestral Pueblo archaeological sites in the Four Corners area, the sites had already been known to various indigenous people, including Ute, Apache, Navajo, and Pueblo, long before Wetherill arrived. Wetherill's findings got the attention of the white public and led to many expeditions that resulted in collections at both Colorado museums and prestigious East Coast institutions.
The earliest written reports of ancient structures in the Mesa Verde region date to the late 1700s, and William H. Jackson produced exquisite photographs of cliff dwellings in the late 1800s. However, it was not until 1888, when Wetherill and Charlie Mason encountered Cliff Palace and exhibited artifacts from there and surrounding sites, that the white public became interested in Colorado’s ancient past. That winter, Wetherill and Mason were chasing stray cattle in Cliff Canyon when Wetherill looked up and saw the site across the canyon. He knew what he was looking at because it had been described to him by Acowitz, a Ute friend. Wetherill and Mason investigated that day and collected a small number of items that they could carry easily. Thus began Wetherill’s career as an explorer of Ancestral Pueblo sites.
Richard was one of six children born to Benjamin and Marion Wetherill, a Quaker family who in 1880 settled in Mancos Canyon to become cattle ranchers. The Wetherills were known as supporters of Native Americans at a time when such sentiments were not popular. Richard was fluent in Navajo and Ute. He and his brothers, assisted occasionally by others, are credited with recording more than 180 cliff dwelling archaeological sites in the area. History Colorado, then known as the Colorado Historical Society, purchased the first and fourth Mesa Verde collection made by Richard and others in 1888–89 and 1893, respectively.
At the time of his rise to prominence, Wetherill’s formal training in the field of archaeology was in its infancy. Yet he produced remarkable notes, maps, and artifact catalogs. This is partly due to a season spent with Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a Swedish scientist, excavating sites in the summer of 1891. Nordenskiöld instructed Wetherill in scientific methods, including how to count the rings on trees to determine their age. Wetherill pursued archaeological exploration more deeply than his brothers and expanded his work to the Grand Gulch region of Utah, where he is credited with coining the term “Basketmaker” and recognizing that these people lived before the Ancestral Puebloans at Cliff Palace. He is also credited with being one of, if not the first, to recognize the importance of stratigraphy, or the study of rock layers. He also explored Keet Seel, a major cliff dwelling site in Arizona.
Wetherill led many expeditions by the Hyde brothers, whose collections were sent to the American Museum of Natural History, and George Pepper, who worked for Harvard. Wetherill went on to explore Chaco Canyon and finally moved there at the age of forty. While at Chaco, he explored, raised sheep, and started a trading post business. He unsuccessfully applied for permission to homestead there. Wetherill seemed to have run into conflict with professional archaeologists and was even accused of unethical business practices and mistreatment of Navajos. He gave up archaeology in 1906, focusing on his ranching and trading posts.
Richard was nearly broke when he was murdered at Chaco Canyon in 1910. While conflicting details surround his death, it appears he was killed as retaliation for one of his ranch workers beating a Navajo man whom the worker had accused of theft. Wetherill is buried at Chaco Canyon.