While on a horseback near Flagstaff’s Elden Mountain in the fall of 1916, Mary Russell-Ferrell Colton made an impressive discovery that would eventually lead to a years-long naming battle between colleagues.
Colton described her find in a letter to her husband, Harold S. Colton: “Crossing the lumber railroad I soon came out upon a very high mound, and suddenly realized that I had found the largest pueblo we have yet to come upon. I should say it had been quite equal in size to Walpi (on the Hopi mesas). The buildings at the northern end having been at least two-story, and I believe three-story, the entire mound is over 15 feet high…by far the most impressive we have seen.”
The Coltons explored and documented archeological sites in the Southwest using a systematic classification system starting during their 1912 honeymoon. In 1918, the couple examined Mary’s find, initially naming it “Casa 142.” They noted rectangular blocks of limestone were used in its construction and other unusual features and published their findings in a 1918 article. They would later rename the site Sheep Hill Ruin for its proximity to Sheep Hill.
The Coltons took an active part in the early days of the Museum of Northern Arizona, which was originally founded to prevent museum interests from taking excavated items back to the Eastern United States. Harold and other Southwestern scientists organized the massive amounts of information coming from numerous archeological excavations. He coined the term “Sinagua,” an accepted term describing a prehistoric population in northern Arizona.
The naming war really began after Harold showed the Sheep Hill Ruin to Jesse Walter Fewkes, who, in 1918, was hired to the prominent position in archeology as the chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution. Fewkes had explored northern Arizona previously, but had missed Casa 142, or Sheep Hill Ruin. Fewkes led the 1926 excavation of the site.
In his report, Fewkes named the site “Elden Pueblo” because “of its neighborhood to Elden Mesa.” Harold Colton responded to Fewkes’ announcement in a remarkably terse and irritated tone. Taking umbrage with Fewkes’ statement that the site “was practically unknown to any scientific man” before he excavated it, Colton referred to the 1918 article in which the site is described and figured. An agitated Colton reminded Fewkes that he “had in his hands” a manuscript Colton sent him for publication more than a year and a half earlier in which Colton named the site Sheep Hill Ruin.
“Indeed, Dr. Fewkes undertook the excavation of the ruin at the suggestion of the writer and used (my) measured plan … in the early part of his excavations,” Colton later added. He also said “The name ‘Elden Pueblo’ is ill-advised” because in the manuscript Colton had named a different pueblo, west of Elden Spring, as “Elden Pueblo.”
This evoked a rather cold, haughty response from Fewkes that undoubtedly influenced Colton and others’ opinion that Fewkes was a carpetbagger from the “effete East,” as Mary referred to those who came to Flagstaff and arrogantly carried away local treasures. Fewkes said, “I regret exceedingly that through inadvertence, I neglected to state…that Professor Colton had already mentioned the existence of ‘Elden Pueblo’ in a manuscript now awaiting publication by the Bureau of American Ethnology.” As to the accepted convention that the first name applied to a site has preference, Fewkes believed that “inasmuch as this is the first ruin in the immediate neighborhood of Elden Mesa to be excavated and made available to tourists and students…I think that the appropriateness will not be questioned.”
To add further insult to injury, Fewkes also said: “Although Professor Colton spoke to me of the site. . . I must say that it was due more to the efforts of Mr. J.C. Clarke (then the Flagstaff postmaster and custodian of prehistoric sites in the region). . . that I undertook the excavation of this particular ruin. At no time in the course of the work was Professor Colton’ s measured plan used. Professor Colton aided my assistants to measure off the site of the ruin and a plan was made on which the walls were drawn in as excavated.” And there, the published comments end.
The Elden Pueblo moniker continues. Fewkes stated that the site should be available to tourists and students and Elden Pueblo serves that mission today. Colton and Fewkes may have disagreed on some fine points, but they successfully kept the site available for today’s scientists.
— S.D. Olberding. Photo by L. D. Memley for the USDA Forest Service, Coconino National Forest.