Richard Wetherill (1858–1910), a member of a prominent Colorado ranching family, was an amateur explorer in the discovery, research and excavation of sites associated with the Ancient Pueblo People. He is credited with the discovery of Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde and was responsible for initially selecting the term Anasazi, Navajo for ancient enemies, as the name for these ancient people. He also discovered Kiet Seel ruin, now included, along with Betatakin ruin, in Navajo National Monument in northeastern Arizona. "Slightly smaller than Cliff Palace, Kiet Seel possesses qualities that, in the eyes of some, lend it greater charm and interest." Wetherill became fascinated by the ruins and artifacts and made a career as an explorer, guide, excavator and trading post operator.
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On December 18, 1888, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason, ranchers from Mancos, found Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde after spotting the ruins from the top of the mesa. Wetherill gave the ruin its current name. Richard Wetherill along with his father BK Wetherill, brothers Al, John and Win, extended family, and neighbors explored a number of the ruins, digging, excavating, cataloging, photographing, and gathering artifacts. The Wetherills sold their finds to the Historical Society of Colorado. Richard Wetherill's heirs donated a large collection to the University of New Mexico in 1954. BK Wetherill's request for scientists from the Smithsonian Institution were met with little interest.
Among the people who stayed with the Wetherills to explore the cliff-dwellings was mountaineer, photographer, and author Frederick H. Chapin who visited the region during 1889 and 1890. He described the landscape and ruins in an 1890 article and later in an 1892 book, The Land of the Cliff-Dwellers, which he illustrated with hand-drawn maps and personal photographs. The Wetherills also hosted Gustaf Nordenskiöld, the son of polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, in 1891. Nordenskiöld continued excavations begun by the Wetherills on the impressive Cliff Palace, unfortunately doing considerable damage as he dug and gathered artifacts. In 1893, Nordenskiöld published an illustrated account of his investigations called The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde. Nordenskiöl made arrangements to have his artifacts sent to his home country, sparking the first lawsuit which would eventually result in the Antiquities Act. At the time the courts found they had no power to stop artifacts from being removed from the country.
Wetherill's impact on the preservation, excavation and use of the Chaco Canyon is still a source of contention. In 1896, Wetherill, and the Hyde Exploring Expedition undertook massive excavation operations in the Chaco. Led by George Pepper on behalf of the HEE, Pueblo Bonito and several other ruins were excavated. The artifacts were then sent to the American Museum of Natural History. Eventually Richard set up a trading post, post office and homestead next to Pueblo Bonito. In his trading with the Navajo the Wetherills eventually opened trading posts across the Four Corners region and sold Navajo rugs in such faraway outlets as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Eventually Richard filed a homestead claim on the urging of the HEE, that included Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Del Arroyo, and Chetro Ketl. to preserve the ruins from destruction and competing expeditions.
In 1905 Richard, his brother Win and wife Marietta built an exhibition at the St. Louis World's Fair, bringing 16 Navajo's with them. In 1907 Richard gladly relinquished his claim on the ruins in the Chaco Canyon, contingent on it becoming a National Park. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed "Chaco Canyon National Monument" on March 11, 1907.
Richard Wetherill remained in Chaco Canyon, homesteading and operating a trading post at Pueblo Bonito until his controversial murder by gunshot in 1910. Depending on the source, Wetherill's death was murder in cold blood by a Navajo Indian debtor or the manipulation of the local Indian Agent against the Wetherills due to political factors over the use of the Canyon. The agent, Statcher, wanted to dam the canyon for water, fence both ends for grazing and build an Indian School (a forced "Americanizing" of the natives) among the ruins. Local Navajo Chiishchilí Biye', charged with his murder, served several years in prison, but was released in 1914 due to poor health. Wetherill and his wife Marietta are buried in the small cemetery west of Pueblo Bonito along with several Navajos. The cemetery lies just over a hundred meters west of Bonito behind a wooden fence.