Although it is on the eastern fringe of the area occupied by a people known to archaeology as the Fremont, Colorado is nevertheless important in the Fremont story, since clues to their origins and end are found there. Additionally, the presence of Fremont farmers had a profound influence on the indigenous hunting and gathering people of western Colorado.
The term “Fremont” describes people whose territory stretched from eastern Nevada to western Colorado, and from southern Utah to southern Idaho and Wyoming. In Colorado, their sites occur in a fifty-mile-wide swath along the Utah border, from roughly Unaweep Canyon near Grand Junction north to the Wyoming border. Fremont roots go back about 2,000 years; they disappeared about 500 years ago after florescence and decline. Like the better-known Basketmaker and Ancestral Pueblo people who inhabited the Four Corners region of Colorado, the Fremont were people who adopted farming into their subsistence patterns. They grew corn, beans, and squash, but their diet usually included a wide array of wild foods as well.
The “Fremont” people who lived during this 1500-year period are now recognized to have varied in many important ways and probably included people who spoke different languages and customs. Yet these people had enough in common that their archaeological remains share similarities. Artifacts common to the Fremont include a distinctive method of basketry called “one-rod-and-bundle,” moccasins constructed from the hock of deer or mountain sheep, clay figurines with trapezoidal bodies, hair bobs, headdresses and necklaces, and a distinctive, thin-walled gray pottery style of coiled construction. Of these, pottery is the most durable, and hence the most widely preserved. Another characteristic of the Fremont is the use of dispersed, sheltered stone storage features called granaries. But perhaps the most distinctive Fremont feature is their rock art style that includes the same trapezoidal human figures depicted in figurines. In fact, rock art is the most visible and most recognized aspect of the Fremont in Colorado with panels known from canyons in the Grand Junction area, the Rangely area, Dinosaur National Monument, and the Brown’s Park vicinity.
The distribution of Fremont living sites in Colorado largely mimics the distribution of rock art. Beginning in the south, some evidence of villages and rock shelters has been found in the Paradox Valley of western Montrose County, where the Fremont apparently had a rather tenuous presence that is not yet well understood. Known Fremont sites in the Glade Park area west of Grand Junction in Mesa County are mainly rock art panels. Sites with projectile points similar to Fremont styles have also been found, as have granaries. Northwestern Colorado has several important centers of Fremont activity on tributaries of the White, Yampa, and Green Rivers. Rock art, granaries, and habitation sites occur along these drainages. Sites such as Mantle’s Cave, the Texas Creek Overlook, Eagle Point shelter, and many others show a Fremont presence on what must have been the northeastern frontier of their heartland. Some of the earliest and latest dates on Fremont maize come from northwestern Colorado.
Maize growing began on the Colorado Plateau, including northwestern Colorado, shortly after about AD 1, with evidence of corn (pollen, kernels, cob fragments) gradually appearing in camp sites and small hamlets. These early experiments with farming are a northward extension of early farming from the eastern Basketmaker area of southwestern Colorado. Archaeologists now think that the Fremont culture developed from a combination of limited Basketmaker migrations and the adoption of crop growing on the part of indigenous hunter-gatherers. Fremont ceramics appear after AD 500, with distinctively Fremont farming villages appearing in Utah by about AD 750. The Fremont pattern reached its peak around AD 900 with a step-like decline after about AD 1050. By about AD 1300, farming as a way of life collapsed throughout most of Colorado and Utah, partly as a result of a series of severe droughts, but also compounded by increasingly complex social pressures.
Archaeologists now think of the development of the Fremont Culture as a process of interactions that occurred between people who were looking for good farmland and the people who already lived there. In short, a new culture developed from multiple roots as the change from a purely foraging-based diet shifted to a dependence on cultivated foods. Interaction between migrants and locals led to a new complex of artifacts, behaviors, and beliefs. In western Colorado farming was only viable in the lowest valleys, but the presence of farmers changed the lives of their foraging neighbors to the east and north. One important development, shared by the Fremont and their foraging neighbors, was the adoption of the bow and arrow, a significant change from the spear-like darts propelled by throwing sticks that had been the main weapon for thousands of years. The bow and arrow changed hunting strategies, and at the same time there was an apparent increase in the diversity of wild foods that were collected and processed. Like in the Fremont area, populations increased in the adjacent uplands in response to these changes.
Anthropological observations in many parts of the world show a complex relationship between farmers and their non-farming neighbors. Interactions take many forms, including trade partnerships, intermarriage, enslavement, raiding, and warfare. Interaction between these upland foragers and the Fremont is documented by trade items found in archaeological sites. Marine shell, obsidian, beads, and pendants made from minerals like lignite and jet, and pottery from the Fremont area show that some kind of exchange or trade occurred on a regular basis. Evidence of violence is found in several places, including the Douglas Creek area of Colorado, but thus far such evidence is not common. The nature and extent of Fremont-forager interaction is not yet well understood, but it is a topic worthy of future research.
What Happened to the Fremont?
We know from the abandonment of farming villages in northeastern Utah, as well as a region wide decline in the number of radiocarbon-dated sites that something changed in the prehistoric world beginning about AD 1050. In the Fremont area of central Utah, settled villages continued to be viable until about AD 1300, but elsewhere decline seems to have started earlier. Some people undoubtedly migrated to other areas; others returned to a foraging lifeway. A few others apparently continued to eke out a living with limited farming, and in fact, the Douglas Creek area south of Rangely and portions of Dinosaur National Monument display the latest known Fremont sites with dates as late as AD 1600. Changes affected not just the Fremont and Puebloan farmers, but also the upland foraging people as well. What led to this reorganization of societies?
Part of the explanation is climate. We know from tree ring and other records that a series of droughts occurred in the Colorado River system, with the worst conditions about AD 1150. These droughts not only affected the viability of farming, but also disrupted the distribution of plants and animals that were collected and hunted. Another factor was population growth, partly fueled by the economic success of farming during the good times. As conditions favorable for crop growing declined, people had to change their mode of subsistence or move. We know the area was not completely abandoned; there is good evidence that some people were able to return to foraging by using the resources of higher terrain, where cooler temperatures and more precipitation continued to make foraging viable. Hopi and other Puebloan oral traditions suggest that some of the Fremont people migrated south and integrated with people there. Other Fremont no doubt migrated elsewhere. Archaeologists continue to explore this problem through continued excavations, re-examination of materials excavated decades ago, interpretive studies of rock art, and learning more about the oral traditions of modern Native Americans.