Skip to comments.Rancher unveils Indian site kept secret for years
Posted on 06/24/2004 7:04:48 PM PDT by Dog Gone
SALT LAKE CITY -- For more than 50 years, rancher Waldo Wilcox kept most outsiders off his land and the secret under wraps: a string of ancient Indian settlements so remarkably well-preserved that arrowheads and beads are still lying out in the open.
Archaeologists are calling it one of the most spectacular finds in the West.
Hidden deep inside Utah's nearly inaccessible Book Cliffs region, 130 miles from Salt Lake City, the prehistoric villages run for 12 miles and include hundreds of rock art panels, cliffside granaries, stone houses built halfway underground, rock shelters, and the mummified remains of long-ago inhabitants.
The site was occupied for at least 3,000 years until it abandoned more than 1,000 years ago, when the Fremont people mysteriously vanished.
What sets this ancient site apart from other, better-known ones in Utah, Arizona or Colorado is that it has been left virtually untouched by looters, with the ground still littered with arrowheads, arrow shafts, beads and pottery shards in places.
"It was just like walking into a different world," said Utah state archaeologist Kevin Jones, who was overcome on his first visit in 2002.
Wilcox, 74, said: "It's like being the first white man in there, the way I kept it. There's no place like it left."
The secret is only now coming to light, after the federal and state governments paid Wilcox $2.5 million for the 4,200-acre ranch, which is surrounded by wilderness study lands. The state took ownership earlier this year but has not decided yet how to control public access.
"It's a national treasure. There may not be another place like it in the continental 48 states," Duncan Metcalfe, a curator with the Utah Museum of Natural History, said today by satellite phone from the site.
Metcalfe said a team of researchers has documented about 200 pristine sites occupied as many as 4,500 years ago, "and we've only looked in a few places."
Wilcox said some skeletons have been exposed by shifting winds under dry ledges. "They were little people, the ones I've seen dug up. They were wrapped like Egyptians, in strips of beaver skin and cedar board, preserved as perfect," he said.
The Fremont, a collection of hunter-gatherers and farmers, preceded more modern American Indian tribes on the Colorado Plateau.
Archaeologists believe the sites may have been first occupied as much as 7,000 years ago; they could shed light on the earliest inhabitants of North America, who are believed to have arrived by way of the Bering Strait about 10,000 years ago.
The settlements are along the Range Creek, which sustained ancient people in the canyon until it possibly dried up in a drought, Wilcox said.
These days, the creek runs year-round, abundant with trout and shaded by cottonwood and box elder trees. Douglas fir covers the canyon sides. The canyon would have been rich in wildlife: elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bear, mountain lions, wild turkeys -- all animals that Wilcox said are still around, but in lesser numbers because of hunters.
"I didn't let people go in there to destroy it," said Wilcox, whose parents bought the ranch in 1951 and threw up a gate to the rugged canyon. "The less people know about this, the better."
Over the years, Wilcox occasionally welcomed archeologists to inspect part of the canyon, "but we'd watch 'em." When one Kent State researcher used a pick ax to take a pigment sample from a pictograph, Wilcox "took the pick from him and took him out of the gate."
Although the University of Utah hired a seasonal caretaker and students from three Utah schools are working the sites this summer, Wilcox worries about looting.
He said he gave up the land on a promise of protection from the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, which transferred the ranch to public ownership.
The promise barely assured Wilcox, but he said he knew one thing: "I'm getting old and couldn't take care of it." He said he asked $4 million for the ranch but settled for $2.5 million, moved to Green River and retired.
It was not until 2002 that archaeologists realized the full significance of Range Creek.
While many structures are still standing or visible, others could be buried. Archaeologists have not done any excavations yet, simply because "we have too big a task just to document" sites in plain view, Jones said.
After The Associated Press started inquiring, Metcalfe decided to hasten an announcement.
Next week, he plans to take news organizations to the ranch, which is 30 miles off the nearest paved highway over rough, mountainous terrain. A gate inside Range Creek canyon blocks access; from there a dirt road continues about 14 miles down the canyon to a ranch house, now a hub of archaeological activity.
"the ground still littered with arrowheads, arrow shafts, beads and pottery shards in places."
My grandfather told my mother of similar places he would picnic at with his family in the 19teens. They considered that stuff trash at that point in time.
Sorry, that's not the way real archaeologists work. Don't believe me? Send me a private post and I'll be happy to share 35 years of experience with you.
Did these little people walk all the way across the desolate Bering Strait land bridge and then across Alaska all the way down to Utah? It's not easy walking across that kind of terrain.
To actually enter the area, the trip involved a 4 wheel drive adventure, rafting and backpacking. I'm not sure but, I believe that he had to meet with or have a guide from the tribe.
Something tells me you'd be interested in this, and have probably already been in the area.
Yep, here in Texas, we officially spell it "archeology" (without the "ae" diphthong...)
Texas Archeological Steward
Ah, we cover Texas too.
Let's remind our whale friend of the humongous giant hyenas that stalked the Bering Strait.. I'll have to hunt for the thread, it was a couple years ago.
On the other hand, there are museums putting artifacts in storage so junior high kids can show how they intreprate history by displaying their art.
Once, while elk hunting in a driving snowstorm I topped a ridge and noticed several rock circles highlighted by the blowing snow. I rode up the canyon and there were dozens of the circles plus some larger rectangular outlines. Had I not been horseback or if the snow had not accented them I would never have seen them. There were still piles of flint and botched arrowheads where they had sat and chipped them out hundreds of years ago.
Thanks for the ping. I think this Wilcox guy is a decent man...
This will be an interesting story to follow. :0)
Maybe we'll be able to see some pictures next week. That would be cool.
Here's an excellent picture tour of Nine Mile and driving instructions... pretty inhospitable desert country, but an amazing cruise.
Many years ago when I was young, there were potsherds all over the ground at places in Mesa Verde, Bandelier, Chaco, etc. They are long gone now, either surface collected by the parks to preserve them for study or taken by tourists. My parents would strap canvas water bags onto the outside of the car (which made for cool water to drink and water to fill the car when it boiled over) and off we'd go every summer visiting those places.
Ten years ago my wife and I backpacked into a Utah wilderness area and saw the same sorts of things I saw as a boy -- corn cobs, hemp rope, potsherds lying freely. You can still find them if you get off the beaten path. Three years ago my son and I used a GPS to hike off trail across a large Utah mesa and found an arrowhead and lots of potsherds spread across the ground. We left them where they'd been lying for centuries.
Marvelous story about the rancher and his ruin-covered land. I've never done much in the Book Cliffs except ride up dusty dirt roads and look out for rattlesnakes.
I hope so. This is awesome.
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