Peoples of the Mesa Verde Region
The Historic Period: Late A.D. 1700s to Mid-1900s
It is hard to imagine a period of more dramatic change than the one that began in the era of Spanish colonialism and ended with the rise of the United States as a global power. As the land that encompassed the Mesa Verde region passed from Spanish to Mexican and, finally, American hands, increasing numbers of people of European descent moved into the area, exerting political control, populating the land, and threatening the very existence of native cultures.
The European and American presence in the American West increased dramatically throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Between the late 1700s and the mid-twentieth century, political control of the Mesa Verde region changed three times. It was part of New Spain until 1821, when it came under Mexican control. In 1848, it became part of the United States.
Pueblo people did not live in the Mesa Verde region during this period. Instead, they inhabited long-settled farming communities along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico, in west-central New Mexico, and on the Hopi mesas in Arizona. By 1750, most Navajos had been forced from the region and were living in areas to the south.
The Utes, too, were forced from most of their homelands during this period. Nonetheless, they continued to live in portions of the Mesa Verde region throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, though the size of their territories grew smaller over time.
There were no Spanish settlements in the region during the Historic period. However, the Spanish explored and prospected throughout southwestern Colorado, including the Mesa Verde region, leaving occasional traces of their passing. American trappers, miners, homesteaders, and ranchers did not venture into the Mesa Verde region until the early to middle 1800s.
Starting in the mid-1800s, new United States government policy toward American Indians resulted in many changes in the lives of native peoples. Wars were waged to acquire territory, and more native peoples were forcibly removed from their homelands. Between 1880 and 1940, many American Indian children, including Pueblo, Ute, and Navajo, were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools run in the early years by Christian churches and in later years by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the federal government. There they were taught English, white American dress, and vocational skills and were punished for speaking their native languages or attempting to practice native customs. The philosophy and intent of the boarding schools was to assimilate Indian children into mainstream society and eliminate native cultures.