Piedra River - Passport in Time

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Piedra River and First Fork Area Heritage Inventory

San Juan National Forest, Colorado, 1998-1999
by Sharon Hatch, FS Archaeologist

The land of “red meat and board feet” has long been the colorful description foresters on the Columbine Ranger District use to refer to the Piedra River and First Fork project areas. The land consists of rugged peaks, large mountain parks, steep narrow canyons, streams and springs, and is surrounded by stands of aspen, fir, and pine. These areas have been historically known for cattle grazing and timber harvesting. Although archaeologists suspected that this high-elevation mountain area of the Piedra River and its tributaries had been used for thousands of years prior to these known historic uses, the extent and age of that use was not fully realized until the last two field seasons and the work of the PIT volunteers.

The primary site types were seasonal hunting and resource-gathering camps ranging in elevation from 7,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level. These are defined by the presence of atlatl dart and arrow points, pottery, manos and metates, and numerous other tools. Occasionally, circular stone alignments, possibly representing the remnants of tepee rings, were identified. The archaeological data allowing us to identify cultural groups and time periods include an extraordinary 47 complete projectile points and 6 pot sherds (a lot for high-elevation mountain sites in southwestern Colorado).

The projectile points indicate that hunter-gatherers from the Great Basin and areas in New Mexico ventured into the San Juan Mountains in the summer months during the middle to late Archaic period, ca. 2000–6000 B.C. Projectile points and ceramics dating to the later Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) have also been found at some of the same sites in the area. These may have been left by residents of the nearby permanent Ancestral Pueblo settlement defining the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, a Chacoan Outlier and an important astronomical observatory. One of the more pressing research questions is, Did nomadic hunter-gatherers, specifically the Ute Indians, use the mountains at the same time as the more sedentary Ancestral Pueblo peoples of the Chimney Rock area?

Evidence of Ute occupation of this region is prevalent. This year the tribal historian for the Southern Ute Tribe talked to PIT participants about how the project area is part of the Ute’s traditional homeland and about the kinds of sites we can expect to find. He said we should find arrow points, tepee rings, and peeled ponderosa pine, or “medicine trees.” These are large, oval-shaped scars that occur on ponderosa pine trees as a result of peeling the bark to expose and consume the inner cambium for medicinal purposes. We were successful in identifying both of these important features.

The most interesting Euroamerican historical-period property in the project area is the Pine–Piedra Stock Driveway, a 26-mile corridor through the forest that links low-elevation winter pasture to high-elevation summer pasture. The driveway was used by both sheep and cattle ranchers from as early as 1900 to ca. 1950. The 10-mile stretch in our project area has hundreds of aspen tree carvings or arborglyphs from this era. These carvings illustrate brands, dates, names, and events, and the bitter rivalry between the ranchers about the grazing priority of sheep or cows, as evidenced by this example: “Notice: No sheep allowed on this stock drive . . . just cows.” A sheep rancher responded on the same tree, but I’ll leave his response to your imagination.

Ten weeks and two field seasons later, the fieldwork for the Piedra and First Fork Heritage Inventory project is complete. Twelve PIT volunteers and students from the Fort Lewis College field school joined FS heritage staff for two weeks in 1998. In 1999, 11 PIT volunteers and staff from the Natural Resources Division of the Southern Ute Tribe working with FS staff spent another two weeks to complete the project. In sum, we surveyed 5,000 acres and identified, recorded, and evaluated 42 new prehistoric and historical-period sites. This was a tremendous undertaking that would not have been accomplished without the dedication and support of Fort Lewis College, the Southern Ute Tribe, and the PIT volunteers.

“Red meat, board feet, and archaeologically neat” is how I hope foresters will know this area in the future. “Big beautiful vistas and a lot of rain” may be the colorful description some PIT volunteers use to remember the project. Several will remember the relief of knowing that this was not a certain Pomeranian’s (Pigweed Beauvais) last PIT project. I will remember how dedicated, hardworking, and knowledgeable everyone was, and how it was a privilege to work with all of the PIT volunteers.
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