March 22, 2019 | By:
Natural Bridges National Monument © John Miles

Around the Campfire, #78

Whence the Antiquities Act, Part I

Vandalism to archaeological areas in the American Southwest provided the chief motivation for passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906.

–Richard West Sellars

The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.2
–U.S. Congressman John F. Lacey, 1901

Since the last years of Bill Clinton’s administration, it seems as though everyone has been talking about the Antiquities Act, although not more than one or two in a score knows anything about what they are talking. Most of today’s “booboisie” will swallow the “alternative facts” spewed out by Republican office holders and alt-right loudmouths as if they were the Word of God.3

However, it’s not just the Tea Party and White Tribal yahoos who know nothing about the Antiquities Act.  It seems that most folks come out of high school without knowing much about American History or Civics, so no wonder many are baffled by or fall for the blowhardism from teevee and radio commentators and politicians.  Even many National Monument lovers are a bit fuzzy about the monuments and the Antiquities Act behind them.  This fuzziness is understandable because we are dealing with rather arcane history.  I’m lucky—as both a historian and a conservationist, I like digging around in musty old boxes of dusty papers (or, today, I suppose ferreting out somewhat hidden documents in the digital cobwebs of the internet).  Indeed, I’ve been accused by my wife and others of being a necromancer of old books, maps, and files in the mists of conservation history.  Guilty.

The Antiquities Act and the National Monuments created under its authority came out of the backwater territory of New Mexico in 1900.  At that time, for something so grand as the Antiquities Act to come out of New Mexico would have been a shock to the citizens of the Republic, had they known of it.  In 1900, New Mexico was known mostly as the stomping grounds of Billy the Kid and of Geronimo, though both Billy and Geronimo were better known than their home of New Mexico—most Americans likely put the Kid and the last wild Apache leader somewhere in the mythic vastness of the Wild West.

A number of happenings around the turn of the century, all driven in some way by the closing of the frontier, led to one of the great, if lesser known, acts of the Progressive Era to be passed by Congress and signed by the President in only six short years after it was first offered.


The overriding happening was the social, economic, and political boil brought by the End of the Frontier.  I say “boil” because there were those Westerners who did not acknowledge the End of the Frontier. Outlaws such as Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch and New Mexico’s Black Jack Ketchum worked to keep the Wild West alive after 1900.  As did the greatest of the pot hunters and ruin looters, Richard Wetherill in the Southwest.  On the other side, preachers, merchants, respectable women, and politicians hoped to civilize the West.

Among the greatest civilizers were the scientists, engineers, technocrats, and federal bureaucrats newly rising as stars in the Progressive Movement who hoped to bring their engineering and scientific skills to bear on bringing order to the disordered West.  Some became key players in the Administration of President Theodore Roosevelt.

1870 U.S. Population Density, U.S. Census Bureau

1870 U.S. Population Density, U.S. Census Bureau

Other scientists began to more deeply peer into the West.  As early as the 1870s, paleontologists found rich fossil beds holding dinosaurs and early mammals.  The federal government’s Biological Survey and biologists from the University of California mapped the ranges of species big and little.  Geologists seeking to understand geology found answers in the naked stone and sedimentary layers in deep canyons and high cliffs of the West.  And Richard Sellars writes that “the federal government and newly formed anthropological organizations sought to learn more about Indian life ways….  American Indians living in the pueblos of the Southwest attracted particular interest” from anthropologists.  The Puebloans were settled in villages surrounded by their farms with sophisticated irrigation systems.  This made them both fascinating and easy to study.  It did not take long for scholars to see that “the Puebloans were the descendants of the people who built the great ancient structures…in the Southwest.”5  This brings us to American and European archaeologists who came to study the most impressive ruins north of central Mexico.


The new science of archaeology rose in Europe with a bullseye on the ruins of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The first professional archaeologists in the United States followed and were also drawn to digging into the ruins of the early civilizations in the Middle East. However, before the turn of the century some in Europe and America began to acknowledge the beckoning ruins of past civilizations in the American Southwest as its far edges were explored and as artifacts, dug up by the likes of Wetherill and his brothers, were sold to the American Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, and other institutions.  Such pothunting, grave robbing, and careless digging up of priceless relics of the American past led to worry from the growing archaeological profession in the United States.  They began to call for protection of places such as Casa Grande in Arizona, Pajarito Plateau in New Mexico, and Mesa Verde in Colorado.

The upper-crust public in such cities as Boston as well as some members of Congress also called for steps to stop the ransacking of American “antiquities.”  In 1882, Sen. George F. Hoar of Massachusetts damned the looting of ruins in the Southwest before the Senate.  Since the time of Jefferson, Americans had been huffy about the cultural sense of superiority Europe waved over the upstart United States.6  Not only did the US have wild landscapes unmatched by those of Europe, now it had ruins of past civilizations worthy of scientific study.


The last and ultimately key factor in the making of the Antiquities Act were leaders who could get the job done.  One was Edgar Lee Hewett, a great New Mexican of the new century and a cultural and academic star in the post-frontier Southwest.  The other was John Lacey, a Republican congressman from Iowa, who was the first great conservationist in Congress, with two of his bills still called the Lacey Act.  Lacey and Hewett became good friends, and Lacey grew enthralled with New Mexico and its ruins, from Chaco Canyon to the Jemez Mountains, to which Hewett guided him.  Though there were others who helped gain the Antiquities Act, Hewett and Lacey were the keystones.  And let us not forget dusty, sunburnt Richard Wetherill who, in 1900, likely knew the ruins of the Southwest better than did anyone else.

Edward Lee Hewett, Public Domain

Edgar Lee Hewett, Public Domain

What follows is a squeezed-down tale of the jumbled six-year effort among competing archaeologists, members of Congress, and others to safeguard the newly recognized archaeological riches of the territories of New Mexico and Arizona, and the neighboring states of Colorado and Utah.  For a thorough history of the campaign see Richard Sellars’ landmark paper, and for an exhaustive account of the ins and outs of what led to the Antiquities Act and of National Monuments afterward, read Hal Rothman’s book.7


Though there were a score of others involved one way or the other, three men and one little-known federal agency were key.


Richard Wetherill, Colorado Encylopedia, Public Domain

Richard Wetherill, Colorado Encylopedia, Public Domain

Richard Wetherill was one of the sons of a family that began ranching along Mancos Creek in southwestern Colorado in 1881.  The Wetherill boys stumbled upon and became enthralled with the old Indian ruins and artifacts on the mesas and in the rough canyons as they chased after cattle on the family’s sprawling outfit.  Of the boys, Richard was the most taken with the old Indian stuff, but ranching had to come first in the unforgiving country.  In December of 1888, while searching for lost cattle in a blinding snowstorm on Mesa Verde, Richard and his brother-in-law glimpsed through the snow a mindboggling “palace” tucked into an alcove up a steep wall hemming a deep canyon.  The lost cattle were forgotten and the cowboys worked on finding a way into the alcove.  When at last they did after some harrowing scrambling, they spent much of the rest of the day exploring the wondrously unscathed three-story rock structure and its trove of unbroken pottery and other long-untouched antiquities.  Over the coming years, the whole family worked at crudely digging out the “Cliff Palace” ruins and others they found throughout the highland called Mesa Verde.  As they ferreted out long-hidden ruins, they looted them of artifacts “pot hunting,” as it’s known even today in the Southwest as an honorable, though illegal, hobby and business), which they sold to the Historical Society of Colorado and others.

Mesa Verde National Park, CO © Dave Foreman

Mesa Verde National Park, CO © Dave Foreman

In 1891, the Wetherill family guided a Swedish-Finnish nobleman and archaeologist, Gustav Nordenskiold, to Mesa Verde and helped him excavate sites not yet crudely dug out by them.  Sellars writes, “Nordenskiold’s detailed investigating, mapping, and photographing provided valuable data, while serving to instruct Richard Wetherill in archaeological methods and theory.” However, when the Wetherills and the foreign archaeologist tried to ship the artifacts to Sweden, all hell broke loose over looting American treasures to send to Europe.  As there was no law stopping this, Nordenskiold was able to get them to the Finnish National Museum in Helsinki for study and display.  Newspapers and others damned looting artifacts on public lands, helping to increase the drive for an Antiquities Act. 8

Richard Wetherill soon saw that finding, excavating, and selling looted antiquities was a damn sight better life than chasing cattle and paid much better.  He found sites throughout the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  He quickly became the expert on the ruins of the ancestral pueblo people, whom he named “Anasazi” after the name local Navajos used for the builders.9  Expeditions from legitimate institutions sought him out to guide them.  From them, he learned more about archaeology and professional methods of excavation (though crude according to the standards of today).  He sold “antiquities” to sundry museums and to collectors and tourists and amassed a huge personal collection.

By 1896, he moved his operation to Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico and tried to homestead the area around Pueblo Bonito, the biggest of all the ruins.  He set up a trading post for selling goods to the local Navajos and began controversial excavations and the selling of artifacts.  The family quickly began to dig through Pueblo Bonito for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  However, thanks to strong criticism from archaeological societies about the crude methods and ransacking by the Wetherills, the General Land Office, which managed the Public Domain, halted all excavations at Chaco.

Chaco Canyon National Park, NM © Dave Foreman

Chaco Canyon National Park, NM © Dave Foreman

Richard Wetherill was by no means wholly a villain, but he embodied the looting threat tearing through the Archaeological Frontier — much like the earlier mountain men wiped out the beaver populations (Fur Frontier), how miners sought gold and silver throughout the mountains of the West after the Forty-niners set the mold (Mining Frontier), and how pioneer ranchers degraded thick grasslands in the West into bare dirt and wasting gullies (Ranching Frontier).  Chaco Canyon became the bullseye of woe for how shabby digging and looting threatened American antiquities.  Thus Wetherill may have become the foremost shove for the Antiquities Act.


Edward Lee Hewett was born in Illinois at the end of the Civil War. After college, he joined the faculty of the Colorado Normal School in Greeley.10  His wife had tuberculosis, and in the early 1890s they decided to move to the drier, warmer weather of New Mexico.  He soon learned of the amazing ruins in Frijoles Canyon on Pajarito Mesa west of Santa Fe. The pioneering archaeologist Adolph Bandelier (from Switzerland) was then exploring and excavating in Frijoles. Hewett went there and found in Bandelier a mentor in his new field of archaeology. By 1896, Hewett was doing his own field work on the Pajarito Plateau. He was so overwhelmed by its richness of archaeological sites and its lovely, sublime mountain fastness that before the end of the century he called for a Pajarito National Park of over 100,000 acres.

In 1897, he was named the first President of New Mexico Normal School in Las Vegas (now New Mexico Highlands State University).  He took students into the field on Pajarito Mesa to help with excavation.  Even women—which was highly controversial at the time.  Hewett decided he needed to up his standing in archaeology and did a Ph.D. at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) in 1904.

In 1902, Congressman John Lacey, Chairman of the House Interior Committee, came to New Mexico and asked Hewett to guide him to Pajarito Mesa.  Lacey was so taken with Hewett that he hired him to write a report on the need for federal preservation of archaeological sites.  That report was delivered to the General Land Office, manager of all federal lands, in 1904.  Lacey was further swayed by the report and asked Hewett to work with him on a new version of an Antiquities Act.  During 1904-5, Hewett commuted between New Mexico (where he continued field work in Pajarito) and Washington, DC (where he worked on Lacey’s Antiquities Act).

Among his other accomplishments, Hewett was the founder and first Director of the Museum of New Mexico.  He worked with San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez (soon to be famous) on reviving Pueblo pottery and making it an artistic and commercial success.  He later helped start the University of New Mexico Anthropology Department and the Museum of Archaeology at UNM.  He died in Albuquerque in December 1946.11

John F. Lacey, Public Domain

John F. Lacey, Public Domain


John F. Lacey was born in Virginia in 1841; his family moved to Iowa in 1855.  When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  After the war he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1865.  In 1888, he was elected to Congress as a Republican.  Defeated in the Democratic rout of 1890, he was reelected in 1892 and served through 1906—twelve years as Chairman of the House Committee on Public Lands.

He soon became the first great conservationist in Congress, with two acts each named the Lacey Act to this day.  The first, in 1894, at long last protected wildlife in Yellowstone National Park.  The other, in 1900, banned cross-state trade in wildlife and plants illegally taken in a state.  This ended the dastardly plume trade, which was wiping out egret populations in Florida and elsewhere for the feathers used to bedeck the hats of “Gibson Girls.”  This Lacey Act likely saved egrets and other birds from extinction.  The capstone of his career was the 1906 Antiquities Act.


The General Land Office, little remembered today, was the first great federal land-managing agency.  The 1785 Land Ordinance, as I’ve earlier written,12 set the template for how the Public Domain would be mapped and only then sold to settlers or land speculators.  At first, the Treasury Department was in charge of the Public Domain, but, in 1812, the General Land Office was set up as an independent agency overseeing the Public Domain and land sales.  When the Department of the Interior was established in 1849, the General Land Office was brought into it.  (A century later, the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, set up the Grazing Service.  In 1946 the General Land Office and Grazing Service were merged into the Bureau of Land Management.)13  The GLO oversaw the surveying, plating, and sale of the Public Domain to settlers, land speculators, and corporations.  It administered the 1862 Homestead Act, the great land giveaways to railroads, and other disposal acts for the wealthy and politically connected.14

However, as the line of settlement hit the dry lands of the West, many in the GLO began to believe that some of the Public Domain should not go into private or corporate ownership, but be kept for all the citizens of the Republic.  When the Forest Reserve Act became law in 1891, the General Land Office was put in charge of the Forest Reserves.  President Grover Cleveland straightaway withdrew 13 million acres from the Public Domain—whereby it could no longer be homesteaded or otherwise claimed for private ownership (except for patented mining claims under the 1872 Mining Act).  With the Forest Reserves, the GLO came into its own as the first true conservation agency in the federal government.15  It developed an impressive corps of tough, honorable, brave field agents who worked to protect the Forest Reserves and special lands in the Public Domain such as archaeological sites.  Indeed, the GLO withdrew some lands from disposal to protect them.  It lost management of the Forest Reserves in 1905 when they were transferred to the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service but was given charge of the Antiquities Act’s National Monuments in 1906.

Note: The next edition of Around the Campfire will give the history of how the Antiquities Act of 1906 came about and how President Theodore Roosevelt interpreted and implemented the Antiquities Act, setting the precedent for future withdrawals of National Monuments by presidents until the baleful era of Trump.


1 Richard West Sellars, “A Very Large Array: Early Federal Historic Preservation—The Antiquities Act, Mesa Verde, and the National Park Service Act,” Natural Resources Journal, Vol. 47, Spring 2007, 267.  Sellars was the National Park Service historian in Santa Fe.  This paper is the best resource for understanding the origin and need for the Antiquities Act.  (You can find it on the internet.)  I’ve drawn heavily from it for this Campfire.  Alas, Dick Sellars recently left us.
2 Sellars, “A Very Large Array,” 268.
3 “Booboisie” was the incomparable and incorrigible curmudgeon H. L. Mencken’s term for the ignoramuses in the roaring 1920s.  We should bring it back for the Republican true-believers of today.
4 After the national census every ten years, the Census Bureau would map population density and show a “frontier line” beyond which the population density was less than 2 per square mile (except for “untaxed Indians”).  In 1890, the bureau said that there was so much settlement in spots throughout the West that no frontier line could be drawn.  The Frontier had ended.
5 Sellars, “Very Large Array,” 273.
6 Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience Second Edition, Revised (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1987), 11-32.
7 Sellars, “A Very Large Array.”  Hal Rothman, America’s National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1994).
8 Sellars, “A Very Large Array,” 278.
9 Today, we know that “Anasazi” is a name the modern Pueblos heartily dislike since it means “ancient enemy” in Navajo (though the Navajo had not yet come into the Southwest when the ruins were inhabited).  “Anasazi” is out as the name and “Ancestral Pueblo” people is the best moniker.
10 “Normal Schools” were teachers’ colleges.
11 My life overlapped his by two months as I was born in Albuquerque in October of 1946.  I majored in Anthropology at UNM beginning in 1965.
12 Dave Foreman, The Great Conservation Divide (Raven’s Eye Press, Durango, CO, 2014), 40.
13 Thus, the Bureau of Land Management is by far the oldest federal land-managing agency.
14 Foreman, Great Conservation Divide, 39-50.
15 Foreman, Great Conservation Divide, 110-112.

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