Spruce Tree House is the third-largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park, and the first seen by most visitors because of its location near park headquarters. Built by the Ancestral Pueblo in the 1200s, Euro-Americans came to know the 114-room dwelling through rancher Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason in December 1888. Along with the rest of Mesa Verde, Spruce Tree House was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site in 1978.
Construction and Use
Spruce Tree House is on the northeast wall of Spruce Tree Canyon, just across from the Mesa Verde Administrative District on Chapin Mesa. Like the other cliff dwellings in the area, Spruce Tree House was built during the Pueblo III period (1150–1300 CE) of the Ancestral Pueblo tradition, when Mesa Verde residents began to move from mesa tops to cliff alcoves, perhaps for greater protection. It probably housed about 100 people at any given time.
Spruce Tree House was built in pieces between about 1200 and 1280, with each family constructing its own kiva and room suite, and grew to include 114 rooms and eight kivas. Kivas—circular areas excavated into the ground—were the central residential structures at sites such as Spruce Tree House. They could be used for residences and ritual gatherings, and they could also be covered with a flat roof to make a small plaza. Suites of small rooms arranged around each kiva made up a courtyard complex shared by an extended family or clan. Front rooms were used for sleeping, back rooms for storage. As with nearby Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House was separated into two sections, suggesting a social organization based on two distinct groups. An imposing three-story central tower at the dwelling may have served to unify the two groups.
Like the rest of the Mesa Verde region, Spruce Tree House was evacuated in the final decades of the 1200s, when the Ancestral Pueblo migrated to the south and southwest. Although the exact reasons for the migration remain unknown, there is evidence that colder and drier weather, combined with increased conflict in the region, made it harder for residents to survive.
Local Indigenous people knew about sites like Spruce Tree House for generations before rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charles Mason, found such sites in December 1888. The men were searching for cattle with their Ute guide, Acowitz, when they first saw Cliff Palace. They discovered Spruce Tree House either later that day or the next day, naming it for what they believed to be a spruce tree growing in the ruins (it was a Douglas fir). Wetherill spent most of the winter digging for artifacts in Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House; he later sold his collection to the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado).
In 1891 Wetherill, his brothers, and Mason showed Mesa Verde to the visiting Swedish scholar Gustaf Nordenskiöld, who spent the summer excavating nearly two dozen cliff dwellings in the area, including Spruce Tree House. His book The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde (1893) played a crucial role in stimulating interest in the area’s archaeology. The artifacts he plundered during his excavations were long housed at the National Museum of Finland, but in 2019 the Finnish government agreed to return many of them—including some human remains and funerary objects—to native tribes in the region.
The decay of the cliff dwellings accelerated rapidly after their rediscovery, as they started to receive increased visitation from pothunters, amateur archaeologists, and tourists. In response, a movement developed in the 1890s and early 1900s to make Mesa Verde a national park and to pass the Antiquities Act (1906) to prevent looting and vandalism at prehistoric sites on public land.
Early Archaeological Work
In 1906 the Mesa Verde area, including Spruce Tree House, became a national park. Most of the structures in the park were still filled with debris and in danger of collapsing, so the Department of the Interior asked Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Bureau of American Ethnology to perform excavation, preservation, and repair work at the park. From 1908 to 1922, Fewkes excavated and stabilized a number of cliff dwellings.
In 1908 Fewkes started his work at Spruce Tree House because of its easy accessibility, proximity to where visitors camped, and better state of preservation compared to most other ruins in the park. To prepare the dwelling for visitors, Fewkes and his team cleared debris from the interior, repaired and stabilized the structure’s walls, improved drainage away from the site, and constructed trails for visitor access. Despite heavy looting over the previous two decades, they also found more than 500 artifacts.
Since Fewkes’s time, most work at the park has focused on preservation. Other than a trash mound excavation funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and carried out by park superintendent Jesse Nusbaum in 1923–24, nearly all work at Spruce Tree House has been part of an ongoing effort to stabilize the rock alcove in which the dwelling was built.
The same forces that formed Spruce Tree Cave continue to act, leading to large rockfalls as the arch above Spruce Tree House grows. In 1923 a fifty-foot slab fell from the roof of Spruce Tree Cave, but luckily it did little damage to the dwelling. In 1940 workers removed plants and rock debris from the main crack in the ledge above Spruce Tree House and applied a protective covering to try to keep water from widening it. A rockfall in 1960 led to the removal of the earlier protective covering, the application of cement grout in the crack, and the installation of a copper lip to divert drainage away from the ledge. Those precautions could not prevent three major rockfalls in the summer of 1964. The park closed the north end of the dwelling and kept visitors thirty feet away for safety until stabilization work was completed.
Stability at Spruce Tree House became a major concern again in 2015, when a rockfall led the dwelling to be closed to the public. A climbing team investigated the ledge above the dwelling and removed sixty cubic feet of rock. During their work, the team saw evidence that more rockfalls were likely to occur, so the park decided to keep Spruce Tree House closed until a full assessment and stabilization can be completed. The park plans to use Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to map the crack and prepare a stabilization plan. In the meantime, visitors can still view the dwelling from overlooks near park headquarters.