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BLM Colorado | WRFO Cultural Resources | Cultural History of Northwest Colorado

Cultural History of Northwest Colorado 

Lookout Point in Douglas Creek basin


The Paleoindian Era (c. 13,000–6,400 BC) is poorly represented in Northwest Colorado. However, sites from this era have been found scattered across the region. Examples of the well-known Clovis and Folsom types of projectile points have been found within the boundaries of the White River Resource Area. Paleoindian projectile points are typically much larger than those of succeeding eras.


The Paleoindian peoples of Northwest Colorado lived in a colder, moister environment than we experience today. Their adaptation required far-ranging seasonal migrations, following herds of megafauna such as the mammoth and mastodon. Paleoindian hunters also sought now-extinct animals such as early bison (Bison antiquus) and camels, in addition to more familiar game. By the end of this era, North American megafauna were extinct.



The Archaic Era (c. 6,400-400 BC) saw subtle shifts in the way people lived. With the extinction of North America’s megafauna and the warmer temperatures of c. 8,000 years ago, Archaic peoples developed new tools to adapt to these new environmental conditions. Archaic projectile points, for example, were smaller than Paleoindian points but substantially larger than those of the succeeding Formative Era. These points were used to tip spear-like darts, thrown with a device known as an atlatl.


As glaciers retreated in the face of warmer global temperatures, today’s alpine regions opened to seasonal use by animals and people alike. Still nomads, archaic peoples traveled far smaller yearly circuits than their Paleoindian predecessors. As a consequence, groups of archaic peoples became partly isolated from one another, allowing for the development of different regional cultures.



Drastic changes in technologies and settlement patterns define the Formative Era (c. 400 BC-AD 1,300). Generally, peoples became more localized and settled. Differences between different cultures became more pronounced, though extensive trade networks kept people connected. New technologies allowed for more the intensive use of smaller areas of land: the use of the atlatl and dart gave way to the bow and arrow, masonry and adobe architecture partly replaced the transitory structures of nomads, ceramics replaced baskets in certain functions, and corn horticulture supplemented hunting and gathering throughout the Southwest.


In Northwest Colorado, the Formative Era is represented by the Fremont culture (c. AD 1-1,300). This is an archaeological culture defined by the general Formative adaptations listed above and by specific, local styles of tools, rock art, architecture, and ceramics. The Fremont identifiers include:

·         The use of stone masonry (dry and wet laid) and adobe to construct dwellings and cliff-sheltered granaries.

·         Growing domesticated maize (corn). Locally there is a greater reliance on native chenopodium and amaranthus seeds, while Fremont elsewhere grew beans and squash.

·         Unique rock art styles prominently featuring trapezoidal-bodied anthropomorphs, infrequently mirrored in trapezoidal ceramic figurines.

·         Unique styles of moccasins, ceramics, and basketry.


Researchers have identified a number of regional variants within the Fremont culture. While the definitions of these subgroups are still in debate, along with the definitions of Fremont culture as a whole and the validity of this grouping, a rough consensus exists. Northwestern Colorado was home to two distinct Fremont variants—the Uinta Fremont of the Yampa and Green River drainages, and the San Rafael Fremont of the White and Colorado River drainages. Some have argued for a separate Douglas Creek Fremont unit, related in some ways to the San Rafael Fremont, in and around Canyon Pintado. These variants are demonstrated in a number of ways, but especially through architecture and rock art. For example, the rock art of Canyon Pintado is very similar to that of the Moab area and Nine Mile Canyon in Utah, but distinct from the Classic style art of the Irish Canyon-Vernal region in form and content.


The ethnic and linguistic affiliations of the Fremont culture remain a mystery to archaeologists. Researchers define the Fremont culture and its variants by looking primarily at art and tool styles, settlement patterns, and modes of food procurement. The resulting analytical units do not necessarily reflect the ways Fremont peoples would have identified themselves culturally and politically. The disappearance of the Fremont culture, observed in the archaeological record around AD 1,300, may represent a mass exodus of the Fremont peoples, possible dispersal and assimilation with surrounding groups, or a revolutionary change in technology and lifestyle for a people who remained in place.


Protohistoric/Historic Ute

The Protohistoric Era (c. AD 1,300-1881), as it is termed by archaeologists, refers to the span of time from the end of semi-settled, horticultural adaptations in the region to the end of permanent Native American occupation in Northwest Colorado. The term “Historic Period” would be more technically correct, though as a label, “Protohistoric” is used to differentiate Native American and EuroAmerican sites as the former are poorly represented in our written histories. 


According to contact-period written records, the Shoshone and possibly the Comanche occupied the northern areas of the Yampa River drainage, though the Ute unquestionably dominated all of western Colorado. In the White River Resource Area, Utes appear to have been the only long-term inhabitants since at least the end of the Formative Period. They had a nomadic lifestyle with hunting-gathering traditions while retaining use of ceramics and small unnotched or side-notched projectile points. Later identifiers include equestrian rock art motifs, presence of European trade goods, wickiups, and an increased use of obsidian. 


The Protohistoric Ute time period has been defined as ending in 1881, when the Uncompahgre and White River Utes were removed to Utah by a detachment of United States cavalry. However, recent research has dated wooden features attributed to the Ute into the early 1900s.  These dates correspond with oral histories and historic accounts that at least some Ute continued to use the Resource Area after being removed to reservations.


Historic EuroAmerican

Most EuroAmerican archaeological sites of the region date from around 1880, just before the removal of the Utes, through the 1950s. Historic houses, fences, and corrals abound on public lands—often the remnants of failed attempts to homestead in an unforgiving environment. Early oil shale and coal mining operations left their mark, as well as the early oil and gas developments of the 1930s and 1940s.


Even though we have written histories chronicling the colonization and development of Northwest Colorado by EuroAmericans, these records by no means discourage archaeological investigations. Historic records provide a partial, often romanticized or exaggerated view of life for EuroAmerican pioneers. In addition, there were a great many people who lived well outside the view of the government and media agencies who generated historic records. Squatters and outlaws may have actively avoided notice, but they left their mark on the archaeological record. Minorities likely received less attention from history’s authors, but equally contributed to the physical record. The day-to-day activities of the average person probably held less interest for book writers and newspapermen than the rare exceptional occurrence, but archaeology can help to fill in such gaps. Archaeological data complement written and oral histories, allowing researchers to provide a fuller, less biased account of past events.