The county established in 1889 in the southwestern corner of Colorado is rich in prehistoric ruins, including the first United Nations–designated World Heritage site in the United States—Mesa Verde National Park. As the county's name suggests, its fabulous cliff dwellings were not initially credited to local Native Americans but to the Aztecs of Mexico. Ironically, the county seat was named for Montezuma's nemesis, Hernando Cortés.
The Anasazi (Navajo for “ancient ones” or “ancient enemies”), not the Aztecs, built these stone cities into canyon walls. Then, like the builders of the tower of Babel, they disappeared, leaving ruins for moderns to ponder. Thousands of other prehistoric sites scattered around the county make it heaven on earth for archaeologists and prehistory buffs.
Native Americans still occupy the southern half of this county, which has one of Colorado's two Indian reservations—the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, whose hub is at Towaoc. Utes made up roughly a quarter of the 18,672 residents of Montezuma County in 1990. Archaeologists, who have determined the age of structures by using dendrochronology, or dating of tree rings, in the roof beams, estimate that twice as many people lived in the area during the golden age of the Anasazi, A.D. 900–1200.
Settlement by U.S. citizens began in the 1880s with the arrival of ranching, irrigation, and dry-land farming. Apples, apricots, grapes, and potatoes were major crops, eclipsed in recent years by pinto beans, most notably the popular, multi-colored, gourmet Anasazi bean. Early settlers did a little hard-rock mining, but the 1950s emergence of uranium and oil industries was more important.
Tourism focuses on Mesa Verde, the first national park (1906) established primarily to preserve architectural rather than natural resources. Anasazi buildings at Mesa Verde are Colorado's greatest architectural legacy. While the prehistoric cliff dwellings are the most remarkable Native American structures surviving in the United States, many of the National Park Service buildings are admirable examples of the Pueblo Revival Style.
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