When Willa Cather said that she followed the real story of Richard Wetherill "very closely" in having Tom Outland discover Cliff City in Blue Mesa ("On The Professor's House" 32), she vastly oversimplified the creation of that part of The Professor's House. The creative route from Richard Wetherill to Tom Outland was not at all the straight line that Cather's acknowledgement suggests; rather, it was a more indirect journey that began before Cather came on the scene and that once under her direction diverged into other paths on its way to the novel. By employing some recently discovered biographical and historical material, together with a modest amount of speculation, we can now trace the route of the story through four major stages of development: the discovery of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado; the meeting between Willa Cather and Richard Wetherill's brother; Cather's retelling of the discovery story in her 1916 Mesa Verde essay; and, finally, her further adaptation of the story for her novel.
In 1888, while Willa Cather was helping her father fight his political battles in Red Cloud, Nebraska (Bennett 24-25), a family of Quaker cowboys near Mancos, Colorado, were trying to make a living on their Alamo Ranch. Because the father, B. K: Wetherill, was in poor health, most of the work was done by his sons: Richard, John, Al, Clayton, and Winslow. While tending to their ranching chores, the Wetherill brothers had also been hearing stories of ancient Indians having lived in Mesa Verde and had been finding evidence of these early habitations. Then on or about December 18, as they were "on a cruise of exploration" (Mason 2), Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason stopped their weary horses, walked over to the edge of a canyon, and stared in amazement at the opposite wall. What they saw was Cliff Palace, "the grandest view of all among the ancient ruins of the southwest," as Mason himself described it. They themselves were seeing it for the first time, though Richard's brother Al said he had caught a glimpse of the same ruins the year before as he trudged toward camp through the canyon below. The two cowboys "rode around the head of the canyon and found a way down over the cliffs to the level of the buildings" (Mason 2). Then, quite literally, they stepped into history, both the ancient Indians' and their own.
Such, anyway, is the familiar and generally received version of the discovery, the one that Cather probably heard. Although there is no point in disputing it now, it is worth noting that for decades afterward-and in some quarters even today—the actual discoverer of Cliff Palace remained a point of considerable dispute. Several other men claimed to have seen the ruin years before Wetherill and Mason did (see Fewkes 13; McNitt, Wetherill 29; Nusbaum 66-68), and even among family members Richard's claim was sometimes undercut (see B. A. Wetherill 110; Gillmor and Wetherill 29ff.; M. Wetherill 5). As Frank McNitt says, Cather did not become involved in this controversy (Wetherill 29), yet it seems unlikely that she never heard of any of it. Evidently, such complications were a part of the story that did not fit into her artistic design.
Another part of the story did fit her design, however: the long-acknowledged efforts by the Wetherills to interest the Smithsonian Institution in excavating the ruins they had discovered, efforts that must have suggested to Cather Tom Outland's fruitless and demoralizing trip to Washington. This Wetherill/Smithsonian correspondence has finally been documented by the recent discovery of seven letters: four from B. K. Wetherill (not Richard, as most earlier accounts had stated, but his father), two from Samuel Pierpont Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian, and one from William Henry Holmes, staff archeologist (see Harrell). This correspondence puts the Smithsonian in a less culpable light than Cather does, but it still tells the story of an opportunity lost, or at least delayed. Moreover, because they lacked the response the Wetherills had wanted, the Smithsonian letters may also account for some ill feelings between the family and the Institution (McNitt, Wetherill 36-37). It would not be surprising if Richard's brother conveyed these ill feelings to Cather, who later turned them into a major conflict of values.
Clearly, then, a good deal is now known about the first stage in the development of Cather's discovery episode, but the second—what Willa Cather was told by Richard Wetherill's brother—remains obscured in historical shadows.
The principal and, until recently, the only source of information about Willa Cather's visit to Mancos and Mesa Verde is Edith Lewis's account in Willa Cather Living. Lewis does provide some fascinating details about the tour of the ruins that she and Cather took in the summer of 1915, which was highlighted by their getting lost at the hands of an inexperienced guide and their being rescued by two "chivalrous" workers from Jesse Walter Few Fewkes's camp. But she offers frustratingly little information about meeting between Cather and the Wetherill brother (Richard had been killed in 1910). She says only that Cather had heard that one of Richard's brothers was still living in Mancos and that she "went to call on him" the evening before they went to Mesa Verde. From this brother "she heard the whole story of how Dick Wetherill swam the Mancos river on his horse and rode into the Mesa after lost cattle, and how he came upon the cliff dwellings that had been hidden there for centuries" (94-95).
Cather's own account is even less satisfying: "I myself had the good fortune to hear the story . . . from a very old man, brother of Dick Wetherell [sic]. Dick Wetherell as a young boy forded Mancos River and rode in to the Mesa after lost cattle. I followed the real story very closely in Tom Outland's narrative" ("On The Professor's House" 32).
The contents of the interview remain speculative, but there is some additional information about the possible identity of Cather's source and the place where the interview occurred. Frank McNitt was probably the first one to suggest that the brother with whom Willa Cather spoke was Clayton, the next to youngest (Letter). More recently, Carol Ann Wetherill, Clayton's grand-daughter, has reached the same conclusion: "We are now positive it was Clayt that Willa Cather conversed with at Mancos." Unlike the other brothers, who were all elsewhere during the summer of 1915, Clayton was "back and forth" between the Rio Grande drainage and the Mancos area regularly and served, in fact, as Dr. Fewkes's favorite guide in the summers of 1914 and 1915 (C. A. Wetherill). Moreover, according to an item in the Mancos Times-Tribune for August 27, 1915, Clayton and party "arrived Tuesday [August 24] from their exploring trip out in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah." Given the August 26, 1915, date of the New York Times story about the rescue ("Lost in Colorado Canon [sic]"), it would seem likely that Clayton was Willa Cather's Wetherill contact.
If he was, the interview probably occurred at the home of one of Clayton's in-laws. Contrary to what Edith Lewis says, none of the Wetherills were still living in Mancos in 1915. Their Alamo Ranch was sold at auction in 1902, nearly four years after the death of B. K. Wetherill, and shortly afterward the family members who had still been at the ranch established permanent residences elsewhere (McNitt, Wetherill 179-80). Clayton, however, acquired new family ties to Mancos when he married "home-town girl" Eugenia Faunce, whose family—including the Wattles, her mother's family—were still living in Mancos in 1915 (C. A. Wetherill). During his frequent stopovers in town, Clayton probably stayed with one or the other of these in-laws, so it must have been to one of their houses that Cather came calling.
Assuming that it was Clayton with whom Willa Cather spoke, her description of the Wetherill brother as "a very old man" ("On The Professor's House" 32) poses an interesting problem. In 1915 Richard Wetherill, had he lived, would have been only fifty-seven; Clayton, the second to youngest of the five brothers, was only forty-seven, just five years older than Cather herself and, as John Murphy has remarked, hardly an age that one would term "very old." Evidently, Cather was behaving in characteristic fashion by exaggerating or representing things as she chose rather than as they were. She did this with other details as well. After all, age thirty in 1888 Richard could hardly have been the "young boy" that Cather says he was. In short, Cather departed from her historical source in a number of ways to produce a story almost completely her own.
The recent discovery of Willa Cather's 1916 Mesa Verde essay by Susan Rosowski and Bernice Slote provides an important transition, a tangible link, between the first two stages of development and the final product in the novel itself. As these authors say, "The 1916 essay is 'Tom Outland's Story' in embryo" (91). It is also the first hard evidence of the divergent path along which Cather had already begun to direct the discovery story. In this case, differences become even more illuminating than similarities (cf. Rosowski and Slote 89) as Cather tells her version of Richard Wetherill's discovery: One must always think with envy of the entrada of Richard Wetherill, the first white man who discovered the ruins in its [Mesa Verde's] canons [sic] forty-odd years ago. Until that time the mesa was entirely unexplored, and was known only as a troublesome place into which cattle wandered off, and from which they never came back. All the country about it was open range. The Wetherills had a ranch west of Mancos. One December day a boy brought word to the ranch house that a bunch of cattle had got away and gone up into the mesa. The same thing had happened before, and young Richard Wetherill said that this time he was going after his beasts. He rode off with one of his cow man and they entered the mesa by a deep canon from the Mancos river, which flows at its base. They followed the canon toward the heart of the mesa until they could go no farther with horses They tied their mounts and went on foot up a side canon, now called Cliff canon. After a long stretch of hard climbing young Wetherill happened to glance up at the great cliffs above him, and there, thru a veil of lightly falling snow, he saw practically as it stands today and as it had stood for 800 years before, the cliff palace. ("Mesa Verde Wonderland" 83-84)
Although this account may seem accurate in general, its details are quite different from those of the actual event. To begin with, Richard was not the first white man to discover ruins in Mesa Verde. Anglo excursions had begun as early as the mid-nineteenth century (D. A. Smith, Mesa Verde 9-10; J. E. Smith 5), so that by 1888 Mesa Verde and its treasures, far from being "entirely unexplored," were already familiar to a great many people. Moreover, Richard's discovery was more recent than Cather says, fewer than thirty years before, not the "forty-odd" of the essay. Furthermore, Mesa Verde could be "a troublesome place" for cows to graze, but it was also highly desirable; in fact, the Wetherills enjoyed the unique privilege of Ute permission to graze their cows there, and other ranchers used it even without this permission. By the time Jesse Nusbaum became park superintendent in 1921, the mesa "had been overgrazed for years" (Nusbaum 77). The boy who "brought word . . . that a bunch of cattle had got away" is apparently an invention, as none of the other accounts mention him at all. Finally, the most striking divergence, which several people have noted, is Cather's version of Richard's physical point of view: at the bottom of Cliff Canyon looking up rather than from the opposite rim of the canyon looking almost straight across. As Rosowski and Slote suggest, Cather has confused Richard's perspective with his brother Al's about a year earlier (88).
Obviously, not even in this essay-ostensibly more fact than fiction—is Cather following the particulars of Richard's story "very closely." It would seem that as romanticist and storyteller, Cather is already attributing to Richard Wetherill some of the special traits and circumstances that would reach full growth in Tom Outland. By the time she wrote The Professor's House, the fourth and final stage of development, Cather seems to have left her model so far behind that a juxtaposition of significant details from fact and fiction becomes a nearly consistent study of contrasts, suggesting not a derivative story but a new creation—its parts cleaner, simpler, more noble, and more ideal than those of the historical incident that inspired it.
Tom Outland is an orphan uncertain of his age, a circumstance that arouses the reader's sympathy and automatically suggests a man who must make his way in the world alone. As such, he joins the ranks of some other American literary orphans: Huckleberry Finn, Ishmael, Billy Budd. Despite his uncertain age, however, Outland is clearly youthful enough to fulfill the "young boy" role that Cather had first assigned to Richard Wetherill. Richard, of course, was part of a large nuclear family, and he knew how old he was.
The Blue Mesa of the novel is virtually inaccessible and, like Mesa Verde in the essay, still unexplored. Furthermore, "the old settlers" told Tom Outland that "nobody had ever climbed" Blue Mesa itself, making it a remote and mysterious challenge, a stronghold still protecting a treasure yet to be claimed by someone worthy of it. Quite the opposite of this romantic myth, by 1888 Mesa Verde—or at least certain parts of it—had already been explored by several parties and individuals; artifacts had been removed; and the canyons and ruins had been surveyed, mapped, sketched, photographed, and described.
Tom Outland is the sole, undisputed discoverer of Cliff City. Unlike Richard Wetherill, he is unaccompanied at the time of the discovery, and afterward he is not bothered by jealous prior claimants or complications or controversy of any kind. Rather, the discovery remains a quiet private moment of inspiration and rejuvenation as Outland gazes reverentially upward from the canyon below, standing where Cather's Richard Wetherill had stood.
Tom Outland discovers Cliff City not on just any day in December but on Christmas Eve, suggesting the rebirth of an older, better world and a personal redemption for Outland as well. Full of reverence for his discovery, Outland is tempted "to keep it secret even from Roddy Blake" (Murphy), the Charlie Mason character, perhaps. By contrast, Wetherill and Mason tell the first people they see, three acquaintances in another camp for whom Richard draws a map showing the location of Cliff Palace (McNitt, Wetherill 27). Days after the discovery Tom Outland is still inclined to preserve the sanctity of the ruins, feeling "reluctant to expose those silent and beautiful places to vulgar curiosity" (Professor's House 205). Richard Wetherill took the tourists there himself, and soon after their discoveries he and his brothers tried to impress collections of relics upon audiences in Durango and Denver, who remained uninterested until, in the best P. T. Barnum style, the Wetherills included the mummy of a child found by Clayton and Charlie Mason (McNitt, Wetherill 30).
Tom Outland disdains both money and museums. To Mrs. St. Peter he gives a complete pot, but he will not have any of his artifacts placed in a museum. Richard and his brothers sought museums (much to their credit, incidentally), conducted paid tours, and sold photographs and whole collections of relics.
Finally, in the aftermath of his discovery, Tom Outland, this "boy of such humble pretensions" (Professor's House 231), goes to Washington to try to interest officials at the Smithsonian in excavating and preserving the ruins. The bureaucratic runaround and indifference that he encounters are now almost legendary. In actual fact, as already noted, it was B. K. Wetherill, not Richard, who made the initial contact with the Smithsonian—and that through the mail, not in person. Also in actual fact, the Smithsonian was more interested in the project than Cather's version allows, even though it was several years before it took any action.
Cather probably did not know either of these facts, but it is unlikely that they would have affected her plan even if she had known them. For her purposes in the novel, cold rejection person is far more poignant than lukewarm encouragement through the mail. Furthermore, Tom's trip to Washington allows Cather to contrast "the worst aspects of the city of the present . . . with the best aspects of the city of the past" (Murphy). Finally, there is the built-in theme of West versus East, exemplified here with irresistible romantic opposition: little man from the West with a truly significant find meets "crushing indifference" (McNitt, Wetherill 38) of large impersonal institution in the East. This was not the real story, but it certainly makes a better story.
That these divergences from fact are deliberate, calculated to heighten the qualities merely suggested by the historical incident, can be further demonstrated by noting briefly the few significant components that Cather has left unchanged. It is still a humble cowboy, a sort of western Everyman, who makes one of the grandest archeological finds of the century. There is still a light snow falling that at once obscures and reveals the scene like a vision in a dream. And there is still the reverence for the ruins, irresistible and everlasting, a reverence not so much for the dead as for an abandoned way of life, ancient and honorable, whose most mundane possessions inspire awe.
What Willa Cather found in Richard Wetherill's story was a historical frame for another story that she had been trying to write for years, the dramatization of a private myth that had haunted her since childhood (Lewis 81) Six years before she visited Mesa Verde, Cather had already begun to explore the theme of "discovering an ancient civilization on a high mesa in the Southwest" (Petty-Schmitt n.p.). In her short story "The Enchanted Bluff" (1909), a group of boys camp on a sandbar along a river in Nebraska and dream of conquering a legendary mesa where ancient Indians once lived. Two years later, in Alexander's Bridge, the "campfire on a sandbar in a Western river" is recalled, again "wistfully," as an image of a happier, less complicated life (114-15). The following year, in Winslow, Arizona, Cather was already thinking of a novel about the cliff dwellers, although she expected it to be written by her friend George Seibel, for whom she said she was saving the material (Letter).
In The Song of the Lark, written the year before the trip to Mesa Verde, the theme becomes more prominent, more fully realized. Ray Kennedy muses upon the debt to the ancient inhabitants that the cliff dwellings in Panther Canyon inspire in him, and Thea Kronborg finds during her sojourn among the ruins a kinship with those whose paths she walks and a peace theretofore unknown. The narrator speaks not just for Thea but also for Willa earlier in saying, "This was her old idea: a nest in a high cliff, full of sun" (Song 371).
That same year, perhaps with her upcoming trip to Mesa Verde in mind, Cather visited an exhibit of cliff dweller artifacts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (Sergeant 122-23), where she saw prototypes of the pots Tom Outland would find. Although no catalog of this exhibit is extant, "it is safe to say . . . that the Hall [housing the exhibit] included some or all of two collections acquired from the Wetherills" (Kaye). Thus, when Cather went to Mesa Verde the following year, she must have been familiar already with the Wetherills' work there and may even have known something of Richard's story itself. Her calling upon Richard's brother, then, was a deliberate bit of research.
In the essay written a few months after her visit to Mesa Verde, Cather puts the actual historical incident a little further into the past to make it seem more like a legend; and she makes her hero much younger than the real one to correspond to the boys in her earlier stories. Later that same year, 1916, Cather seems to have begun writing "Tom Outland's Story" itself under the title "The Blue Mesa," apparently the same manuscript that she completed in 1922 (Woodress, Literary Life 282, 323).
The parts—the dreams—of all these stories and experiences are finally brought together three years later in the published novel when Tom Outland, another boy, actually discovers such a place as Thea Kronborg and Willa Cather herself were shown. For Cather, this must have been a personally satisfying scene, especially in light of James Woodress's observation that Tom Outland is Cather's "dream self" (Life and Art 211). The vicarious pleasures do not end here, however. Cather adds yet another dimension to the relationship by having Professor St. Peter, with whom she is often identified, himself identify with Tom Outland. Rosowski offers this succinct account of the process: "In turning to Outland for his second youth years ago, St. Peter had found a surrogate, and in evoking his memory now [as he recalls Tom Outland's story and prepares to edit Tom Outland's diary], he gives himself up to the memory so completely that the surrogate (Outland) and the speaker (St. Peter) merge" (132-33). Therefore, in a scene rich with suggestive complexities, one character identifies with another, and the author identifies with them both, first individually and then collectively.
Evidently, however, not even this richness was enough to satisfy Cather for long. The myth of discovery must have continued to haunt her, because in the letter published fifteen years after the novel, she rewrote part of the story once again by making her Wetherill source much older than he was. With this one stroke Cather enhanced the picturesque aura of his tale and gave the teller something of the status of an oracle.
Within and around this historical frame, then, Willa Cather built an ideal fictional house. In doing so, she was not content merely to follow Richard Wetherill's story "very closely"; rather, she used it to help shape her private myth of discovery—the myth that began in childhood, that led her to Mesa Verde like a pilgrim to a shrine, that found its early tentative expression in the 1916 essay, and that finally came to fruition in the novel. Richard Wetherill was not a model but an inspiration, and the differences between his story and Tom Outland's show not an unfaithful historian but a careful weaver of myth.