A perennial spring in a dry section of southeastern Colorado, Hackberry Springs has seen continuous human use for up to 7,000 years. The spring was also the site of the Battle of Bloody Springs, the last documented skirmish between Plains Indians and the US military in southeastern Colorado. For most of the last 150 years the area has been used for cattle ranching.
Because Hackberry Springs is a sheltered perennial water source in a dry part of the plains, it has been used and occupied by humans for thousands of years. Evidence at the site indicates its occupation as early as the Paleo-Indian period (before 7000 BCE), with confirmed subsequent use from the Archaic period (after 6500 BCE) until today. Over that span, this part of southeastern Colorado has been home to Archaic cultures, Plains Woodland cultures, Apaches, Comanches, and Cheyennes, as well as, in the past several centuries, to Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers. Few sites in Colorado have such a long history of occupation and contain such a wide range of surviving evidence.
Rock shelters at the site contain petroglyphs showing at least three distinct styles dating to different time periods, including some resembling Navajo rock art found in the Gobernador Canyon area in northern New Mexico. Much of the evidence—including fifteen stone enclosures, two hearth areas, and several types of points—indicates occupation by Plains Woodland peoples between about 350 and 1300 CE. A group of more than forty stone rings probably indicates a later Plains Indian encampment, though the rings could date to an earlier period. Metal bracelets from the 1800s demonstrate that Native Americans continued to occupy the site long after contact with whites.
Battle of Bloody Springs
After the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858-59, white settlers and Native Americans came into increasing conflict on Colorado’s eastern plains. In the late 1860s—feeling pressure from encroaching farmers, forts, and railroads—natives responded with raids. Dozens of settlers were killed and more than 1,000 livestock stolen in the summer of 1868. The US Army retaliated, with General Philip Sheridan sending groups of scouts and soldiers into the area south of Fort Lyon.
On September 8, 1868, US cavalry from Fort Lyon encountered a Cheyenne raiding party at Hackberry Springs, leading to a skirmish in which four Cheyennes and two soldiers were killed. The site acquired the name Bloody Springs. This was the last documented battle between Native Americans and US soldiers in southeastern Colorado; over the next year, battles along the Washita River in western Oklahoma and at Summit Springs in northeastern Colorado effectively ended Native American resistance to white settlement on the Colorado plains.
Recent History and Studies
The site has been used primarily for ranching since the late nineteenth century. A cattle ranch existed near the site as early as 1882, and the surrounding land continues to be used for that purpose. The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 spurred some farming in the area, but those attempts were abandoned by the early 1930s. The ruins of a homestead near the spring probably date to this period. The area has also been used by the military as an aerial gunnery range.
University of Denver archaeologist Etienne B. Renaud first recorded the site in the 1930s and described its stone enclosures. In 1975 Don Rickey, the chief historian for the Bureau of Land Management, examined the site because he believed it was where one of his distant relatives had died in the Battle of Bloody Springs. He noticed the rock art, recognized its significance, and arranged for the site to be surveyed in 1977–78.
The surveyors discovered a spent .50-caliber Spencer cartridge case, confirming that Hackberry was the location of the 1868 battle. The surveyors also mapped and photographed the site, made latex molds of its petroglyphs, and took some limited surface collections.
At some point after the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service, a New Deal agency created in 1935, used explosives to try to reengineer the flow from the spring. The explosives failed to improve the spring’s flow and did not cause any major disturbance to the archaeological evidence at the site. The Soil Conservation Service also built an earthen reservoir at the site for use as a stock tank.
The site’s relative isolation has protected it from vandalism, and the region’s dry climate has preserved thousands of years of evidence and artifacts with only minor deterioration. The main disturbances at the site have come from farming and ranching activities that have added to the history of human habitation at the spring.