Hero of Verde Valley archaeology

Dr. Edgar Mearns

Post Surgeon Dr. Edgar Mearns on the porch of the Post surgeon’s quarters at Fort Verde. Dr. Mearns served at Fort Verde from March 1884 to May 1888. The collection of metates on the porch is the result of Dr. Mearns’ archaeological explorations of the prehistoric remains in the Verde Valley.

Post Surgeon Dr. Edgar Mearns on the porch of the Post surgeon’s quarters at Fort Verde. Dr. Mearns served at Fort Verde from March 1884 to May 1888. The collection of metates on the porch is the result of Dr. Mearns’ archaeological explorations of the prehistoric remains in the Verde Valley.

The first time Edgar Mearns laid eyes on the Verde Valley was March 1884.

From his vantage point atop the Black Mountains he remarked that bare trees and a raging torrent brought down by the spring thaw marked the course of the Verde River and Beaver Creek.

He also noted that the San Francisco Peaks, still clad in their winter coat, pierced the stark blue sky to the north.

And, "Not a human habitation could be seen."

From his first impression, put down on paper some six years later, the Verde Valley must have been paradise.

An ornithologist by passion and a medical doctor by training, Mearns had joined the Army a year earlier hoping for a chance to come west and hunt for new species of plants and animals. His posting to Fort Verde was by choice.

It wasn't long, however, before Mearns realized that one of his first impressions was not true. There were signs of human habitation. Just not what he expected.

Everywhere he traveled in search of birds, reptiles, mammals and plants, he discovered "monumental ruins" of an "extinct race of men."

For whatever his passion and training, Mearns was by instinct a scientists. And not missing chance to report on his discoveries, regardless of their nature, Mearns began systematically recording and collecting the evidence of this ancient people.

A former employee of the American Museum of Natural History, he began packaging up his findings and shipping them, literally, by the wagonload back to the museum.

By the time Mearns returned east in 1888, he had sent thousands of artifacts to the museum. He also sent them thousands of stuffed, skinned and preserved birds, mammals, reptiles and plants to the Smithsonian.

To the Army Medical Museum in Washington he sent the remains of several of the "ancient race of men."

Peter Pilles, archaeologist for the Coconino National Forest, began studying Mearns a couple of years ago after realizing that for all the contribution Mearns had made to Verde Valley archaeology, he still remained just a footnote.

"Dr. Mearns is one of the least known and under-appreciated scientist to have studied prehistory and natural history in the Verde Valley," says Pilles. "As a scientist he kept meticulous records, and he understood the importance of careful documentation."

One of the meticulous records that Mearns kept, in abundance, is photographs. Pilles recently found more than 600 photographs Mearns made during his travels in Arizona.

In his four years at Fort Verde, Mearns conducted the most far-reaching survey of ruins ever done. Each site was assigned a number and included ones that have since been given names: Sacred Mountain, Clear Creek Ruin and Hatalacva.

Tuzigoot is simply called No. 49.

He is the first person to record the use of Montezuma Castle for the valley's most spectacular ruin. He excavated some of its rooms and spent a considerable time documenting its architectural details.

"Every single large pueblo we know of today appears on Mearns' survey," says Pilles.

Although he wrote 125 scholarly papers on flora and fauna in his life, it was his one archaeology paper had the most lasting effect on the Verde Valley.

In 1890, his report, "Ancient Dwellings of the Rio Verde Valley," was published in a well respected, if not scholarly magazine, The Popular Science Monthly.

It was the first published report to describe the extent of ancient ruins in central Arizona.

Most importantly, the report sparked the curiosity of two "professional" archaeologist whose work would further definer the culture once called the valley home -- Cosmos Mindeleff and Jesse Walter Fewkes.

After Mearns left Fort Verde, he went to Africa (twice), the Philippines, Florida and Yellowstone, and continued his collecting the whole time.

His is credited with having supplied at least 10 percent of all the bird specimens in the Smithsonian.

He has had 50 or more plants and animals named in his honor, including the Mearns quail, as well as three genera including a fish, a tree and a bird, all native to the Philippines.

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