Located in Apishapa Canyon in southeastern Colorado, the Snake Blakeslee Archaeological Site consists of two residential room clusters and several outlying structures that apparently made up a single Apishapa phase (1050–1450 CE) community. First described in the 1930s by Etienne B. Renaud, the site was later excavated in 1949 by Haldon Chase and Robert Stigler of Columbia University and in 1986 by James Gunnerson of the University of Nebraska State Museum. In the 1950s the site played a significant role in the initial formulation of the Apishapa Focus of the Panhandle Aspect (now called the Apishapa phase).
In the 1930s, University of Denver archaeologist Etienne B. Renaud published the first descriptions of the Snake Blakeslee site. He saw the site in 1930 when he first surveyed eastern Colorado, and a Fowler man named R. D. Mutz guided him to the Snake Blakeslee and Cramer sites near the mouth of Apishapa Canyon. Renaud returned the next year and again in 1941, when he completed new descriptions and maps of the sites, which he believed had a ceremonial function.
High Plains Expedition
In 1949, Columbia University student Haldon Chase conceived of a project to investigate early historic Apache sites on the high plains. This idea ultimately resulted in the Columbia University High Plains Expeditions of 1949, during which he and Robert Stigler (and, for a short time, Ferd Okada) spent more than five weeks excavating in Apishapa Canyon. They briefly visited the Cramer site in July, but most of their time in July and August was devoted to excavations at the Snake Blakeslee site, located on the rim of the canyon about five miles above its mouth. They named the site after the landowner’s brother, who went by the nickname “Snake.”
The Snake Blakeslee site was large, about 115 feet by 80 feet, and consisted of two room clusters and several outlying circular rooms. The site was built using vertical stone slabs arranged on bedrock to make rooms up to fifteen feet in diameter. The slabs formed walls about nine inches wide and several feet high, and the rooms would have had central posts about five feet high to hold the structure’s wooden roof. The western room cluster had three circular rooms, and the eastern room cluster, about sixteen feet away, had eight circular rooms. These clusters were probably expanded gradually over the years rather than built all at once. During their excavations, Chase and Stigler found hundreds of potsherds along with projectile points, stone tools, bone tools, and even a few corncob fragments.
Chase and Stigler spent five weeks at the site, but its large size and rich collections meant they excavated only five of the rooms. They never completed a report about their work, but their detailed notes, photographs, and collections were stored at the University of Denver. In 1950 Chase performed more excavations at the site with funding from Trinidad State Junior College. Later that decade the site influenced the definition of the Apishapa phase.
In 1985–86 James Gunnerson of the University of Nebraska State Museum led new excavations of archaeological sites in Apishapa Canyon. He focused primarily on the Cramer site but also spent several days at the Snake Blakeslee site, using Chase’s notes as a guide. He noted that there had been little vandalism since Chase’s excavation and that Chase’s notes were so thorough that it would have been possible to write a full report from them without ever visiting the site.
Gunnerson proposed a date of about 1350 CE for the Snake Blakeslee site, making it roughly contemporaneous with the nearby Cramer site. In contrast to the Cramer site, which was probably used primarily for ceremonies and bone processing, the Snake Blakeslee site’s many rooms were used for habitation. Gunnerson suggested that the Snake Blakeslee and Cramer sites be considered type sites for the “Classic Apishapa” phase in the 1300s. They were built not long before the Apishapa phase ended in the early 1400s, when droughts probably caused a migration to wetter climates farther east.