Person of the Month


This article first appeared in the Vol. 4 No. 1 (January 1981) edition of the Courier.

Jesse L. Nusbaum: Defender of American antiquities
by Herb Evison

When Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906, by no means all of the prehistoric ruins on "The Green Table" were included in its boundaries; many were located on lands in the adjoining Ute Reservation and the Utes refused to give them up. However, Congress, in the Act establishing the park, placed under the supervision of the Secretary of the Interior all prehistoric ruins on Indian lands within 5 miles of the park's border.

Jesse L. Nusbaum
Jesse L. Nusbaum working on a pipeline for El Paso Natural Cas Co.

In 1907, a survey of the ruins on the Ute Reservation was undertaken. Associated with Archeologists A. V. Kidder and S. G. Morley in this study was a young school teacher who was also a trained archeologist. He was Jesse L. Nusbaum, and the experience of that year was the start of a long association with the Mesa Verde. In 1910, recommended for the job by the Smithsonian Institution, he undertook the restoration and stabilization of Balcony House, one of the notable ruins still on Ute lands. Also, by the previous year he was on the staff of the Museum of New Mexico, situated in the Palace of the Governors, facing Santa Fe's Plaza; and from that year into 1913, he was directing the tremendous chore of restoring that historic structure.

Commenting, 52 years later, on the Balcony House project, Jess—as he was known to a wide circle of friends and associates—noted that Balcony House was in a difficult position for such work, "high up on the cliff, sheer below, sheer above. And it was in terrible shape; it was tottering and would have been gone before long. Visitors there—and in the park—were crawling all over walls, breaking them down." Ruins stabilization was in its infancy. The work performed at Balcony House can properly be considered a pioneer, and successful, effort.

He prepared a complete report on the Balcony House project. But to this day, neither it nor the one he compiled on a later dig at Step House, on Wetherill Mesa, has been published.

This was the man who, on June 1, 1921 became superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park. Director Mather had visited the park late in the fall of the previous year, and was greatly distressed by the evidences of mismanagement that he observed. Nusbaum was recommended to the Service by the Smithsonian Institution; he was then employed in New York at the Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation and Dr. F. W. Hodge, himself a distinguished archaeologist and then Director of the Foundation, strongly seconded the Smithsonian recommendation.

The Nusbaum appointment aroused the wrath of Senator Lawrence Phipps of Colorado; who summoned Jess to Washington for a hearing. Though he then gave grudging approval, that did not prevent him from making several subsequent efforts to have him removed. Against the Senator's wishes, Jess had insisted on living in the park. Presidents Harding and Coolidge and Secretary Hubert Work all refused to fire Jess.

In June 1921, Mesa Verde had two rangers, one on duty in the park, the other in the Mancos office. To provide service to visitors as well as to prevent damage to the ruins, the new superintendent enlisted some of the park's labor force to serve as guides on occasions when there were many visitors. Their service was preceded by an intensive course in Mesa Verde archeology. The only ruin that visitors were allowed to enter without an escort was Spruce Tree House, lying under the eye of headquarters employees.

As early as 1915 the park had had a museum of sorts, with poorly displayed exhibits in a small log cabin. Jess enlisted the interest of Mrs. Stella Leviston of San Francisco in providing funds for a start on the museum which has now served the park for so many years; John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a visitor in 1924, supplied the money needed to complete it. So far as I am able to learn, this was the first time that Mr. Rockefeller's nascent interest in the national parks—ultimately to benefit so enormously from his gifts—manifested itself in the form of a contribution for a specific project. This he supplemented by financing archeological explorations.

Jesse L. Nusbaum
Jesse L. Nusbaum, on his haunches left, at the Cliff Palace or "Speaker Chief's House" in Mesa Verde NP. (NPS Photo, HPC-001693)

One of Superintendent Nusbaum's earliest projects was the building of a campfire circle; there each evening he gave a talk. To supplement these, he arranged for some of the many Navajos who worked in the park in summer to put on tribal dances.

Talking about this arrangement many years later, Jess remarked that the men were perfectly willing to perform but had only their work clothes in which to dance. "So I offered to furnish them what they needed—headbands, velveteen shirts, the necessary trousers. They supplemented their dances with part of one of their sings where they sing facing one another in a circle. Since these services were given after the day's work, the performers were allowed to pass the hat; then, in sight of the audience, the take was counted and divided equally among members of the group, with an extra 25 cents for the leader." Soon, however, the General Accounting Office stepped in with a requirement that the hat-passing be done by a ranger, who had to report the amount collected and how it was divided. The Navajos liked the arrangement; they made good money at it.

When Jess entered on duty he found that the park had been excessively overgrazed. "There was no grass under the trees at all, and everything was browsed as far up as the cattle could reach. And during wet weather the cattle churned up the roads so badly as to make them almost impassible." An early Nusbaum decision was to reduce grazing by 20 percent a year, to terminate it in 5 years. Though the permittees were not happy about it, he made the decision stick. The result was an almost miraculous recovery of the mesa vegetation.

It was on Jess's initiative that arrangements were made for the restoration, on the Mesa Verde, of the wild Merriam turkey—which the cliff-dwellers domesticated—and the bighorn sheep, which had lived on the mesa as recently as the 1880s.

He served as superintendent from 1921 to 1931; again, after service as director of the New Mexico Museum of Anthropology, from 1936 to 1939; and for a third time during World War II during the military furlough of Superintendent John S. McLaughlin.

Throughout his long Government career—indeed, during all his mature life—Jess was a stalwart defender and protector of prehistoric ruins and other archeological resources on the public lands, always subject to the inroads of pot-hunters and other damaging activities. For many years he served as Departmental archeologist, the official watch-dog constantly on the alert for the kinds of activities prohibited by the Antiquities Act of 1906.

In that 1962 interview, Jess noted that while he was at Mesa Verde, he was in an excellent position, through his evening campfire talks, to publicize the provisions—the prohibitions—of the Antiquities Act; it was also a good listening post for information about actual or planned illegal digs.

Perhaps the most notable Nusbaum accomplishment, was his success in compelling the El Paso Natural Gas Company to comply with the requirements of the Antiquities Act in its construction of a pipeline from near Farmington, N. Mex., across the Navajo Reservation and through the Flagstaff area to the Colorado River. At the start, El Paso officials were strongly opposed. Later, realizing that their cooperation was winning them priceless publicity, they cooperated wholeheartedly. Ultimately, this "pipeline archeology" was practiced along some 7,500 miles of El Paso right-of-way.

"Not only was our procedure followed on Federal lands," according to Jess. "Thanks to the interest of the El Paso Company officials, it was applied equally to other public lands and to the private lands crossed by their rights of way."

One of the results of pipeline archeology was to arouse the interest and concern—and participation—of highway builders. Though road construction involves cuts and fills rather than a continuous trench, the salvage of archeological values along the route of a road is at least as desirable as along a pipeline.

Early in his career, Jess made liberal use of photography as an important means of providing adequate records of such work as that of Balcony House and in the reconstruction of the Palace of the Governors. The result is a priceless collection of photographs, of great historical importance, which his widow Rosemary has devoted much time to examining and arranging. Many of them were used in her published account of the history and restoration of the Palace.

My own acquaintance with Jess Nusbaum began during his service with the State Museum, Thereafter I had frequent and enjoyable contacts with him. On occasion, I even traveled by automobile, with him in the driver's seat; his inveterate habit of pointing out things of interest along the way made this a somewhat scary experience on some of New Mexico's twisting roads. Deep of voice, eloquent, possessed of a robust sense of humor, and one of the best of companions, the friendship we shared to the day of his death is one of my most cherished memories. He was a skilled and dedicated public servant, truly one of the great persons who have given their devotion to the National Park Service and all the fine things it has always stood for.

Jesse L. Nusbaum
Jesse Nusbaum holding a Navajo child with two Navajo women in the background. (NPS Photo, HPC-000186)

Last Updated: 01-Jun-2014