Peoples of the Mesa Verde Region

The Historic Period: Late A.D. 1700s to Mid-1900s



Hayden Expedition. Copyright Colorado Historical Society (F-12188), all rights reserved.

Members of the 1871 Hayden Expedition. (See enlarged photograph.)

"Manifest Destiny" refers to the U.S. government policy to exert control over all territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. In 1846, in the name of Manifest Destiny, the United States declared war on Mexico to seize Mexican territories that stood in the way of westward expansion. In 1848, the two countries signed a treaty, and Mexico gave 55 percent of its territory—including the Mesa Verde region—to the United States.

After the U.S. acquired the former Mexican territory, the area was opened to American fur traders, prospectors, official explorers, and scientists (including archaeologists). The first official American survey of the Mesa Verde region took place in 1859 during the Macomb Expedition. It was followed by the Hayden Expedition in 1871 and the Jackson Expedition in 1874 and 1875. Members of these expeditions prepared maps, described plants and animals, and documented natural resources and archaeological sites. Miners, cowboys, and adventurers were drawn to the area, soon followed by homesteaders.

Narrow gauge train. Courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, Otto C. Perry, OP-7854.

Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow gauge train east of Mancos, Colorado, 1943. (See enlarged photograph.)

The earliest homesteaders in the Mesa Verde region were primarily ranchers. Many grazed cattle and sheep, grew crops, and sold produce to miners in the mountain mining towns. However, their primary source of income was cattle, which could be herded to market under their own power.

In 1888, an irrigation system brought water to the central part of the Mesa Verde region. The availability of water for farming and ranching opened the area to more-extensive settlement.

The railroad arrived in the region in the 1880s, which helped promote commercial development by opening new markets to farmers and ranchers. By the 1920s, motorized tractors were in general use, making it possible to cultivate even more land. Beans and apples were important new cash crops.

Main St., Cortez, early 1900s. Copyright Colorado Historical Society (Denver and Rio Grande Collection, CHS.X5324), all rights reserved.

In the early part of the twentieth century, automobiles shared the roads with horse-drawn wagons. This photo of Main Street in Cortez, Colorado, was taken circa 1900–1920. (See enlarged photograph; see also the same view 100 years later.)

The influx of American settlers into the Mesa Verde region in the late 1800s brought the new settlers into conflict with the Utes who already occupied and used the land. Several skirmishes throughout southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah resulted in casualties on both sides. Such conflicts led to treaties that greatly reduced Ute territories and confined them to reservations—often at great distances from their original lands.


Learn more . . .

Read about U.S. government efforts to protect archaeological sites in the Mesa Verde region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

More photos . . .
Stagecoaches. Courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, Louis Charles McClure (William Henry Jackson), MCC-2869. Camp. Courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-21030. Woman in doorway of farmhouse. Courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, Thomas Michael McKee, Z-1368.