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Prehistoric Site Locational Patterning in the
Upper Green River Basin.

David Vlcek, BLM Pinedale and
Museum of the Mountain Man, Pinedale WY

A paper submitted for consideration for inclusion in the
Rocky Mountain Anthropology Conference Symposium on Southwestern Wyoming.
September 28-October 1, 1995, Steamboat, CO.


Surface survey in the upper reaches of the Green River Basin over the last twenty years has varied in intensity over a landscape of varying ecological settings. Inventory has been intense in energy-impacted zones such as the LaBarge Platform but sporadic throughout the remainder of the Upper Green River valley. Site recordation in high altitude settings has largely been driven by intuitive approaches and research-specific searches. The foothills of the western Wind River front and the Wyoming Range have been examined more by project-specific motives. Nonetheless, site locational patterning is apparent. This paper describes site distributional patterns for several select site types found within specific ecological settings. Synthesis of data from non energy extraction portions of the Upper Green is stressed.

Over the last twenty years, archaeological investigations in the upper Green River Basin have allowed for the identification of a number of site locational and distributional patterns. While most formal inventory has been conducted in energy development-impacted portions of the upper Green, this paper discusses site patterning removed from the energy development areas.

Site Patterning studies can isolate a particular site type, or a particular time period for greater scrutiny. The distribution of Paleoindian sites, for example will always interest prehistorians working in the area. Within the upper Green, Paleoindian occupations are limited to surface finds of diagnostics. Folsom finds do occur; at Boulder Lake, Trappers Point, the upper Green River itself, and the Big Sandy near Buckskin Crossing. The Folsoms associated with riverine environments are of local chert (Alkali Creek/Granite Wash chert) while the Boulder Lake Folsom is of obsidian sourced to Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone National Park (Schoen, 1993). Other Paleoindian surface finds occur: Scottsbluff material at Boulder Lake and Birch Creek; Hell Gap from the Blue Rim, and Stemmed/Indented Base from the dry Yellow Point country. We know of no intact subsurface Paleoindian deposits in the Upper Green.
Some of the more remote reaches of the study area are found near the Continental Divide within the Wind River Range of the Bridger/Teton Forest. Previous work (Vlcek, 1993) has identified several site clusters that owe their presence to important lithic source areas. Both Steatite and Madison Formation Chert outcrop in the Wind River Range and have been quarried for millennia. Numerous extraction sites are recorded. Two site locational patterns have emerged from reconnaissance near high altitude lithic source areas.

Madison Formation Chert is a medium to high grade chert found in select areas of the Wind Rivers. Schoen reports a large quarry above Slide Lake near Squaretop Mountain. In 2001, I visited "White Rock", a Cretaceous limestone mountain in the upper Green River valley and confirmed the existence of an extensive source of both (Madison Formation?) chert and bedded quartzite. The chert procured here is of variegated color and seems to have enjoyed extensive distribution on sites throughout the Wind Rivers area. Similarly, the high quality variegated cherts outcropping at both White Rock in the upper Green and at Noon Rock on Whiskey Mountain east of the Continental Divide are found on most prehistoric sites west of the Divide. Presence of this high quality chert on most sites throughout the Wind River range suggests that transport of the material was a common occurrence and that prehistoric peoples traveled extensively in high altitude environments.

Love, (1975, p 68) noted that chert and obsidian percentages seemed to differ on sites in the Gros Ventre and Crystal Creek drainages to the north of this study area; it appears that routes of passage and perhaps prehistoric annual migration patterns may be discernable by studying the movements of marker lithic materials throughout the mountains of western Wyoming. The ease of travel over Union Pass may have facilitated this transhumance.

Another recognized pattern is that of sites concentrating around steatite source areas. This oft-discussed situation won't be dwelled on here; a causal relationship for site presence has been suggested by the author in the past.

Mountain Passes over the Continental Divide near lithic source areas are seen to contain concentrations of sites. The author was so impressed by sites clustered near Europe Canyon that he posited a functional relationship between Continental Divide passes and steatite source areas. Recent work has suggested that the presumed correlation may have been overstated. Why?

Recently, I've been examining alpine settings near mountain passes at or above timberline, yet somewhat removed from steatite concentrations. If a model of site patterning stressing this lithic extraction was valid, then site densities would be expected to decline as distance from the source increased. Rather, the opposite was observed.

Concentrations of sites and presence of large sites are seen to associate themselves with several mountain passes removed from important lithic sources. This situation represents a third site distrubutional pattern in the Alpine setting. In particular, Washakie Creek, Hailey Pass and Washakie Pass contain impressive site concentrations. Ethnohistoric documents (Shimkin, 1947) suggested that Washakie Pass, for example, was a favored route of passage in the mid to late nineteenth century. My work this summer confirms the importance of this pass and suggests that the Washakie Pass country saw heavy use in Late Prehistoric times. Including Hailey Pass located several miles to the north, and one includes large sites at timberline. Note that the terminal Late Prehistoric reworked flake points attests that the pass was used as recently as the protohistoric period.

The Indian Basin site complex (Vlcek, 1993) near Fremont Peak may be overshadowed by site densities in the upper Roaring Fork drainage, Washakie Creek and upper East Fork drainages. Ease of passage over the Continental Divide and ease of access to the Green River Basin lowlands may have predicated greater archaeological concentrations.

Pedestrian travel over the Divide via Hailey Pass/Washakie Pass allows for use of several "easy" routes to the lowlands of the Big Sandy, East Fork and Sweetwater Rivers. Miles are reduced and the trail corridors follow gentle grassy meadows and valley floors offering ease of travel and perhaps increased hunting opportunities. In contrast, the descent from Indian Pass still leaves 20 miles of rough terrain along upper Pine Creek and the more normal pedestrian routes are encumbered by steep, rocky canyon country.

While sites such as located at Long Lake and Medina Mountain may still relate more obscurely to presence of lithic source areas, they are removed from the most direct routes. Prehistoric concentrations near Hall Lake at timberline is impressive, and suggests that generalized exploitation of the alpine setting was far more extensive than I previously thought. This is an emerging fourth site locational pattern. Somewhat related, refitting broken tools from surface assembledges of high altitude sites allows us to suggest integrity of place on such surficial lithic manifestations, while they remain. What about site distributions in non-mountainous terrain?

Several creeks draining the Western Wind River Range show site locational patterning. Marsh Creek is a small but archaeologically important drainage flowing from extensive Pleistocene-formed "Potholes" terrain near the New Fork Lakes. Small but well-developed alluvial pockets are formed along Marsh Creek, south of Black Butte. Archaeological sites containing lithics, tools, obsidian and large mammal bone have been recorded along the terraces of Marsh Creek. 48SU1810 has produced Late Archaic diagnostic material, while the adjacent 48SU1811 contains abundant bone and a quartzite lanceolate biface midsection. Oddly, few sites are found by Potholes; running water seems to have been important in prehistoric settlement patterns.

The more southerly Silver Creek drains the Winds nearer the East Fork River and also deposits a series of small alluvial pockets containing prehistoric occupations. Such streams begin to discharge their sediment load at the base of a dominant escarpment found all along the Wind Rivers at about the 7500 to 8500 ft. level. These creeks are all heavily influenced by the Late Wisconsian Pinedale Phase glaciation, cutting through lateral and terminal moraines in the foothills. The alluvial pockets formed by such spring and runoff discharge has preserved numerous sites. Several Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric components such as at 48SU1113 (Old Corral Site) and 48SU1115 (Little Trout Site) have been recorded. Testing data is available for SU1113. Limited Elk and Richardson's Ground Squirrel remains were recovered from a charcoal stained cultural lens C-14 dated at 1790+70.

Pole Creek also contains similar sites and similar site locational patterns. While 48SU677 lies lower on the Pole Creek valley floor, the site occupies a dry creek terrace similar in geomorphology and overall setting. Surface inventory of one acre of this large 40 acre site produced a number of diagnostics, lithic tools, obsidian and other artifacts. Archaic and Late Prehistoric Period occupations are suggested. Higher up on Pole Creek, 48SU1087 occupies the first alluvial valley formed where the drainage exits the mountains. Locals report lithics and projectile points up and down the Pole Creek drainage and our work tends to support the suggestion. A fifth site locational pattern involves sites found on similar alluvial pockets.

What of the Obsidian found at these sites? Schoen and Thompson have conducted sourcing studies of some of this material; their work is to be consulted for details. One preliminary observation is noteworthy: percentages of obsidian as compared to other lithic materials in the debitage seems to increase as one travels northward in the Upper Green. Some mountainous sites are composed predominantly of obsidian. But most lower altitude sites along the western Wind River Range contain at least some obsidian.

Several of these creek-side sites have produced large mammal bone such as Bison, Elk and smaller ungulates. The ecological setting is one of a sagebrush/bitterbrush transition zone formed between the timbered, mountainous terrain and the dryer sagebrush flats of the upper Green River Basin. Dominated by evidence of past glacial activity, the foothills transition zone also is an important seasonal migration area used by Elk, Mule Deer, Moose, Antelope and other mammals today. The recovery of Elk in faunal collections is noteworthy; Elk bone remains relatively scarce in the faunal lists of many sites excavated within the overall Green River Basin.

Some archaeologists working in the area (McKern, Thompson, Vlcek, Francis) think that presence of archaeological sites in the foothills zone relate directly to exploitation of large ungulates passing through this ecological zone during Late Fall-early Winter (driven down by snowfall), or in the early Spring (heading up to summer pasture). The seasonal animal migration frequently uses drainages such as Pine and Pole Creeks for routes of passage. The Trappers Point area occupies one such setting and contains an impressive 6,000 year old Antelope kill site (Francis, in prep.), and a large McKean occupation on the hill itself. The McKean material (Love, 1975) includes numerous point bases, many of obsidian, that suggests retooling of projectiles in a hunting camp/base camp situation.

The Finger Lakes of the west slope of the Wind River Range form another important site locational pattern. Recognized by Dr. Frison (1975), numerous sites flank the Pleistocene lakes of the upper Green. Site size and density at the Green River Lakes is truly impressive. While little excavation has been conducted to date, the presence of artifacts washing out of alluvial soils into the Green River below the outlet of the lower Green River Lake suggests excellent buried site potential. Horse trails cut into alluvium along the lakes and upper alpine valleys above the lakes further suggests numerous intact deposits.

Fremont Lake, in particular the outlet region, preserves impressive site concentrations. Work conducted by the Forest Service (Rose, no date) at Sandy Beach (48SU972) encountered stratified occupations spanning 5,000 years. The lakeside just above the old dam records 48SU830, a site containing quantities of mammal bone, large features and abundant artifacts washing into the lake. Pine Creek drains Fremont Lake and contains several miles of concentrated archaeological deposits (48SU1042, SU1122), beginning at Stewart Flat (Hoefer, III, 1991) below the lake. Archaic and Late Prehistoric occupations have been recorded, large and medium mammal bone is found, a steatite bowl was recently unearthed; yet oddly, no documented Paleoindian material has surfaced.

Boulder Lake is the southernmost of the Finger Lakes and may contain the densest prehistoric occupations. Virtually the entire lower third of Boulder Lake contains archaeological materials. An Obsidian Folsom Point has been collected from the northern outlet. Local collections contain quantities of Archaic and Late Prehistoric diagnostics, some ceramics (including portions of an entire vessel recovered by snorkeling) and an occasional Paleoindian lanceolate. Scottsbluff and Lovell Constricted varieties are in a local museum collection and were collected at Boulder Lake. Sadly, the dam at Boulder Lake has raised the water level 14 to 15 feet and inundated or otherwise destroyed large quantities of archaeological materials (Vlcek, 1995).

Other recognized site distributional patterns include stone alignments such as tipi rings (Vlcek and Decker, 1983) and have been previously summarized. Presumed ceremonial alignments like Medicine Wheels are known for the upper Green, but their low numbers preclude discerning locational patterning except in the most general sense.

While some of the site distributions discussed above are based upon new data, other patterns have been recognized for decades. The important point for archaeologists to remember is to interpret prehistoric settlement patterns from a wholistic perspective, recognizing prehistoric exploitation of all available ecological settings, not just the intensively studied, energy-impacted lower sagebrush country.


Frison, George
1975 "Archaeological Reconnaisance Survey of the Bridger-Teton National Forest". Archeological Report No. 1, Forest Service Intermountain Region, Ogden.

Hoefer III, Ted
1991 Archaeological Investigations at the Stewart Flat Site, 48SU1042, Sublette County, Wyoming. Archaeological Services, Western Wyoming Community College Contributions to Archaeology No. 4, Rock Springs.

Love, Charles M.
1975 An Archaeological Survey of the Jackson Hole Region, Wyoming. in The Wyoming Archaeologist, March and June 1975 issues, Laramie.

Schoen, Jamie
1993 A report on Obsidian X-Ray Florescence, and Source Obsidian Artifacts from Western Wyoming. on file, USFS, Jackson.

Schoen, Jamie and David Vlcek
1991 Steatite Sources in Western Wyoming. Paper given at the combined Montana/Wyoming Association of Professional Archaeologists meetings, Billings.

Shimkin Dimitri
1947 "Wind River Shoshone Ethnogeography". In Anthropological Records Vol. 5, Number 4, PP245-284, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

1986 "Eastern Shoshone" In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 11 Great Basin, pp 308-335. Smithsonian Institution, Washington.

Thompson, Kevin W., David Vlcek and Dirk Murcray
1994 "Non-Residential Prehistoric Architecture in the Wyoming Basin". Paper Presented at the 52nd Annual Plains Anthropological Conference, Lubbock.

Vlcek, David
1993 "Prehistoric Settlement Patterns Reflected in the High Altitude Sites of the Upper Green River Basin". Paper Presented at the First Rocky Mountain Anthropology Conference, Jackson, Wyoming.
1995 "A Class III Cultural Resources Inventory of the Boulder Lake Boat Ramp". report on file, BLM Pinedale and SHPO Office, Laramie.

Vlcek, David and Dean Decker
1983 "A Survey of Known Stone Circle Sites in Southwestern Wyoming" Paper presented at the 41st Annual Plains Anthropological Conference, Rapid City.

Last updated: 01-13-2011