One hundred years ago today, Richard Wetherill was shot and killed by Chischilly Begay near the western end of Chaco Canyon. That much is clear, but the circumstances surrounding Wetherill’s death are otherwise murky. The same could be said for his life and legacy.
Wetherill was an enormously important figure to the history of archaeological research in the Southwest in general and at Chaco in particular, but also a controversial one, both in his own time and since then. He was the eldest son of a Quaker family that gradually made its way west during the mid-nineteenth century, ending up in Mancos, Colorado. There they had a ranch, and would sometimes run their cattle on the nearby Ute reservation. Most of the Anglos in Mancos were on poor terms with the Utes, and occasional raids in both directions well into the late nineteenth century kept relations tense in the area. The Wetherills were Quakers, however, and as such were pacifists who posed little threat to the Utes, with whom they were on generally good terms. The Utes even allowed them to occasionally run their cattle on the reservation, and it was on one such drive in 1888 that Richard discovered the ruins of Cliff Palace on Mesa Verde. He wasn’t the first Anglo to see the sites on Mesa Verde; various expeditions had documented them earlier, but he was the first to popularize them by excavating for artifacts and running tours. He developed an interest in archaeology, and began to travel around the Southwest looking for ruins to excavate, in the company of his younger brothers.
In those days archaeology was not yet very professionalized, and the big eastern museums that were beginning to amass large collections of artifacts still acquired them largely by purchase from local diggers. The sort of thing the Wetherills were doing was not that uncommon in the area, but they operated somewhat differently from most local pothunters, inviting academic archaeologists to assist in their excavations. They still sold artifacts to museums, but as museums began to become more interested in pursuing their own more carefully controlled excavations Richard Wetherill was eager to assist. After supplying much of the material used in the “Cliff Dweller” exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, he met a rich young man from New York named Talbot Hyde who was interested in funding some excavations under what came to be known as the Hyde Exploring Expedition (HEE). The first work done by the HEE was in the Grand Gulch area of Utah, where it first identified and named the “Basketmaker” cultural stratum underlying the later “cliff-dweller” occupation.
By the mid-1890s, Wetherill and Hyde had begun to make arrangements to collaborate with Frederick Ward Putnam of the American Museum of Natural History, which was looking to strengthen its archaeological collections. The three men settled on Chaco Canyon as a good place to work, and excavations at Pueblo Bonito began in the summer of 1896. Wetherill had assumed that he would be in charge of the excavations, but Hyde and Putnam wanted a professional, scholarly archaeologist affiliated with the museum to oversee the work. Putnam was too busy to go himself, so he sent his 23-year-old protege George Pepper instead. This caused some tension with Wetherill when he found out, but the excavations went well, and the quantity and quality of artifacts found at Pueblo Bonito were astonishing. Work went on for five more seasons, during which time Wetherill moved to Chaco permanently and set up a trading post at Pueblo Bonito. The one store soon led to a whole network of trading posts in the area under the auspices of the HEE and run by various Wetherill brothers, along with a retail location in New York to sell the Navajo rugs and other handicrafts acquired from the local Navajos in exchange for the wide variety of goods sold in the stores.
Archaeology was still in its infancy then, and the techniques were crude by modern standards, but the Hyde Expedition actually did a pretty good job of recording and documenting the work by the standards of the day. Important to this was the extensive use of photography. Wetherill was a very skilled amateur photographer at a time when photography was still mainly the province of professionals, and he put his skills to work at documenting much of the digging, including photographing many artifacts in situ. Pepper also kept careful notes. As a result, this work is much better documented than even much professional archaeology at the same time, let alone the crude and destructive pothunting that was still more common.
Other professional archaeologists at the time didn’t see it that way, however, and there was a lot of opposition to the HEE’s work at Chaco. Some came from archaeologists associated with other eastern museums, who were engaged in pretty much the same thing at other sites and didn’t care for competition, but what turned out to be the more important opposition came from local archaeologists in New Mexico who disliked the prospect of the artifacts being taken off to New York. This group was located mainly in Santa Fe and led by Edgar Lee Hewett, president of the New Mexico Normal School (now New Mexico Highlands University) in Las Vegas. The accusations they hurled at the HEE, both through articles in the Santa Fe New Mexican and in complaints made to federal authorities, eventually resulted in federal investigations that shut down the excavations in 1901. Wetherill and Hyde made some unsuccessful attempts to homestead the land at that point, but by then various problems internal to the HEE had basically drained all enthusiasm for continued excavation, and the New Mexico presence of the Expedition was effectively over. It continued to exist in the east, as Hyde spent many more years wrangling with various museums over the artifacts collected at Chaco, but Wetherill no longer had anything to do with it.
He remained at Chaco, however, trading at his store next to Pueblo Bonito and running cattle. His relationship with the local Navajos was not always good, however, and it apparently ultimately led to his death.
The immediate cause of the dispute that led to the shooting appears to have been a horse that Wetherill bought from a relative of Chischilly Begay for his daughter. Shortly after the purchase, however, the horse somehow ended up back at the camp of the Navajo family that had sold it. They claimed that it had come there on its own, but Wetherill suspected that they had stolen it back and mistreated it. On June 22, 1910 he sent his right-hand-man, a rather rough cowboy type named Bill Finn, to the family’s camp near the western end of the canyon to get it back. Finn’s confrontation with the man who had sold the horse quickly turned violent, and Finn ended up pistol-whipping him so severely that the family thought he was either dead already or in the process of dying. (He did actually end up surviving.) Finn then left with the disputed horse, which he brought back to Wetherill at the store. When Wetherill heard what had happened he was not pleased, but he decided not to do anything more about it and that afternoon he, Finn, and other ranch hands set off to drive their cattle down the canyon.
While Finn was heading back up the canyon with the repossessed horse, Chischilly Begay, a relative of the beaten man who had witnessed Finn’s actions, was heading the other way, down the Chaco Wash past the end of the canyon to Tsaya Trading Post, run by George and Albert Blake. George Blake was running the store that day when Chischilly Begay came in and bought a gun and some ammunition. He then left the store and headed back up the wash toward Pueblo Bonito, Finn, and Wetherill.
Meanwhile, the cattle drive down the canyon continued, and Wetherill and Finn were, unbeknownst to them, heading steadily toward Chischilly Begay at the same time that he was heading steadily toward them. Eventually, near the western end of the canyon, they met.
Shots rang out on both sides, and the exact details are hard to discern at this remove. The result, however, was that Wetherill was killed, Finn and the other ranch hands quickly turned around and headed back to Bonito to tell Wetherill’s family what had happened, and Chischilly Begay also turned around and went back to Tsaya Trading Post, where he told George Blake what he had done and asked for advice on what to do next. Blake was understandably upset at what had happened, and he convinced Chischilly Begay to keep going northwest to Shiprock and to surrender himself to the Indian Agent there, which he did.
Chischilly Begay ended up standing trial for the murder. He was convicted and sentenced to a remarkably short prison term of only a few years in the Territorial Penitentiary in Santa Fe. This was not typical for cases in which an Indian killed a white man, and it speaks to Wetherill’s controversial status among even his fellow Anglos. The Indian Service officials, in particular, detested him, and they organized a strong defense at the trial. Chischilly Begay actually ended up serving only part of his short sentence, and he was released in 1914 as a result of illness. He apparently recovered, however, and went on to live until 1950.
The circumstances of Wetherill’s death remain somewhat mysterious. There are rumors that the whole thing was arranged by Finn, who was allegedly carrying on an affair with Wetherill’s wife Marietta. I find that rather implausible, but you never know. In any case, I think the main thing that comes through about Wetherill is that although he was a smart guy and talented in many ways, he was also just kind of jerk. Indeed, some accounts of his behavior toward his Navajo customers seems rather thuggish for a Quaker. He sounds like a difficult man to deal with, and I think it’s likely that his death was the end result of a long series of grievances against him by the local Navajos, and that Finn’s behavior while repossessing the horse was just the last straw. One thing Wetherill never seems to have realized is that a trader depended considerably on his good reputation with his local customers. Stores were spread rather widely, but there were quite a few of them by 1910, and the Navajos were quite willing to trade at a more distant store if they didn’t like the trader at their local one. The risk of a bad reputation was usually loss of business rather than loss of life, but Wetherill’s is not the only instance of a trader being murdered by irate customers in those days. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen, and most traders were careful to be nice and to deal honestly with their customers.
Wetherill wasn’t much of a trader, though. He has something of a reputation these days in a lot of circles as not having been much of an archaeologist either, but I think that’s a bit overblown and over-reliant on Hewett’s exaggerated complaints. Wetherill’s techniques were crude by the standards of today, but they were comparable to the standards of the best professional archaeologists at the time, and considerably better than many others. These days there’s a strong divide between archaeologists and pothunters, but in those days it was really more of a continuum, and Wetherill fell somewhere in the middle. He certainly wasn’t digging haphazardly into sites looking only for valuable artifacts the way typical pothunters did. His motivations are hard to discern, but they don’t seem to have been primarily financial. They may or may not have been “scholarly” in a narrow sense, but he certainly saw “professional” archaeologists more as potential collaborators than as potential competition.
It’s hard to defend him too much, though, because he really doesn’t seem to have been a very nice guy. In general I think he deserves a lot of criticism and he gets a lot of criticism, but most of the criticism he gets isn’t actually deserved. In any case, he’s an enigmatic figure, as mysterious and controversial today, a hundred years after his death, as he was in life.
Snead, J. (1999). Science, Commerce, and Control: Patronage and the Development of Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas American Anthropologist, 101 (2), 256-271 DOI: 10.1525/aa.19126.96.36.1996