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Wilson Butte Cave



Who Camped at Wilson Butte Cave?
Tracing the Fremont and Shoshone Cultures
Some artifacts discovered at Wilson Butte Cave show a connection to the Indian Tribes that live in southern Idaho today. Other artifacts may shed light on the movements or relationships of Tribes of the Great Basin region.
The artifacts were found in the layer that represents the most recent occupation of Wilson Butte Cave.  The most recent radiocarbon date of human occupation is dated to 425 years ago (plus/minus 150 years). Because no historic artifacts were found after this time, archeologists assume that occupation of the cave ceased before the Historic Period (point of European contact).

The artifacts from this last occupation period of Wilson Butte Cave include pottery, projectile points and basketry. Some items are typical of the Shoshone Tribal culture and others have traits associated with the Fremont Tribal culture. The evidence of Fremont Tribal culture is both interesting and controversial, because the Fremont Tribe is usually thought to have lived further south, in Utah and Nevada.  
The Fremont Theory
The presence of Fremont people in Idaho was originally proposed by B. Robert Butler from The University of Utah in 1980. The idea was later revisited and supported by Ruth Gruhn’s discoveries during the 1989 excavation at Wilson Butte Cave. According to Gruhn, if the theory of Fremont presence is accurate, the Fremont culture came before the Shoshone culture. The incoming Shoshone (from the south) may have gradually absorbed the resident Idaho Fremont people, or the Fremont could have evolved directly into the historic Shoshone. 
Other experts in the field dispute the existence of the Fremont at Wilson Butte Cave because they believe cultural limits of the Fremont extend only to northern Utah. The Fremont most likely occupied parts of Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Nevada from 700-1300. The Fremont also relied on agriculture for survival, which may not have been available in the Wilson Butte Cave area. 

Fremont Culture Map
Fremont Culture Map
Fremont Culture
Fremont people are best known for their distinctive artifacts and remnants of basketry, pottery, clay figurines, pictographs, and petroglyphs. The Fremont tribes were a hunting/gathering and farming community that cultivated corn, beans, and squash, as well as nuts, berries, and bulbs. Their farming abilities are thought to be descendant of southwest and Mexican societies. 
Which Wilson Butte Cave artifact best represents Fremont Culture?
The major artifact found at Wilson Butte Cave most likely linked to the Fremont era was identified as Great Salt Lake Pottery. Other artifacts with Fremont traits include reed matting, leaf-shaped knives, expanding base drills, and a variety of awls
The finding of the Fremont-related artifacts does not prove the presence of Fremont people at Wilson Butte Cave, because items may have been acquired through trade. At the very least, these artifacts reflect the cultural relationship among these two Native American groups.
Pilling Figurine - Fremont Culture, Utah
Fremont Figurine - part of an elaborate series of male and female figurines that have lasted for over 1000 years in the dry deserts of Utah and Nevada. CEU Prehistoric Museum.
Basket Cases, an Ashley National Forest Website.
Range Creek Canyon, Utah, a National Geographic Website.
Making Fremont-style pottery, a PBS teacher's guide.

Northern Side notched Point, red jasper from Strata A
Northern Side notched point from Strata A,
red jasper.

Shoshone Culture
Shoshone presence along the Lemhi River (northeastern Idaho) was documented in the journals of Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s and evidence from the 1959 excavation at Wilson Butte Cave shows that Shoshonean tribes may have initially occupied southern Idaho around 1300-1400. 

The Shoshone Tribes were nomadic and moved with the seasons to trade, fish, and hunt bison in the late summer, and to gather camas and bitterroot in the spring and fall. The Tribes traveled to Wyoming and Montana after bison became extinct in southern Idaho around 1850.  The Shoshone diet also relied on fish (salmon and trout), wildroots, waterfowl, rabbits, squirrels, and other small creatures. Every creature and plant has a spirit, so respect was always paid before an animal was killed or a plant was picked. Wolves, coyotes, and eagles were never killed because they were considered sacred and powerful.

Which Wilson Butte Cave artifact best represents Shoshone Culture?
Specific artifacts found at Wilson Butte Cave thought to encompass Shoshone traits include wooden/horn handles, desert side-notched projectile points, circular/oval scrapers, thick-walled Shoshone ware pottery, reed mats, and cylindrical/elk tooth beads.

Next Page: What Was Found at Wilson Butte Cave?
Cora Tendoy with elk teeth ornamentation on hide dress   
Ta Gwah Wee with elk-tooth
bead ornamentation
on hide dress.
She is Chief Tendoy's third wife, 
an Agaidika (Lemhi Shoshone).
Photo courtesy Idaho Historical Library.

Occupation Period
Who Camped Here
What Was Found
Daily Life

Age Dating
Meet the Team


Out of the Ice Age
Idaho's Past Climate

The First People
A New Theory
Indian Tribes
Native Legends
Early Sites

and Gathering

Major Changes
Tools I
• Tools II
• Ice Caves
Gathering Plants
Food / Medicine


Teacher Pages

Resource Protection

More Information


Last updated: 06-11-2013