Located in the southern part of Fort Carson, the Turkey Creek Canyon Archaeological District contains abundant rock art and other prehistoric sites from the Middle Archaic to Diversification periods (roughly 2000 BCE–1500 CE). Much of the rock art cannot be dated, but other cultural artifacts in and around the canyon make it clear that the area was used by a variety of hunter-gatherer groups during the Apishapa phase (1050–1450 CE). First recorded by Etienne B. Renaud in the 1930s, the area has been studied intensively since the 1960s, when it was annexed by Fort Carson.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, the area around Turkey Creek Canyon was used primarily for ranching. At least one homestead in the area dates to the 1860s or 1870s; later, the mining tycoon and philanthropist Spencer Penrose owned Turkey Creek Ranch and raised livestock there from 1912 to 1939. In the early twentieth century, the area also saw stone quarrying and clay mining, which continued until the 1960s. These activities had little effect on Turkey Creek Canyon’s archaeological resources.
University of Denver archaeologist Etienne B. Renaud performed the first archaeological investigations at Turkey Creek Canyon during the summers of 1930–31, when he surveyed much of southern and eastern Colorado. Recognizing the significance of the area’s stone enclosures and rock art sites, he named it the Turkey Canyon District and returned there several times to record rock art, excavate a rock shelter, and collect artifacts.
Two of the most important sites Renaud recorded were Picture Rock (now known as the Circle site) and Renaud’s Shelter. The Circle site consists of more than fifty petroglyphs carved into a forty-foot sandstone overhang on the eastern face of Turkey Creek Canyon. Some of the petroglyphs are of human and animal figures but most are abstract circles, which Renaud thought might represent a day or some other sequence of time. Renaud’s Shelter is a rock shelter on the east wall of the canyon with six rock art motifs drawn on the stone with a red pigment. One of the elements is an abstract linear design; the rest are representational drawings of animal figures.
During World War II, Camp Carson was established just south of Colorado Springs. After the war it became permanent and was renamed Fort Carson. By the end of the 1950s, the US Army was planning to expand Fort Carson by acquiring land to the south that could be used for training and maneuvers. The Army’s expansion of Fort Carson triggered a reconnaissance inventory of the planned acquisition, which included Turkey Creek Canyon. Sponsored by the National Park Service, the inventory reexamined many of the sites Renaud had described decades earlier and corroborated his findings.
In addition, in 1963 University of Denver archaeologist Arnold Withers discovered the Avery Ranch site on the rim of Turkey Creek Canyon. Two University of Denver graduate students excavated the site over the next six years. An Apishapa phase site with occupations dating to 1020–1040 CE and 1200–1290 CE, Avery Ranch has two small rock structures that contain evidence of bison processing and were probably occupied seasonally.
Some nearby sites were disturbed as a result of military activities after the Army acquired the land in 1965, but Turkey Creek Canyon itself was not significantly affected. In 1976 a 480-acre section of the canyon was listed on the National Register of Historic Places to help recognize and preserve the area’s rock art.
After 1976 the site began to see more archaeological surveys and studies as Fort Carson prepared a master plan for its vast territory. From 1978 to 1982, Grand River Consultants carried out an intensive inventory of about one-third of Fort Carson’s land. In the mid-1980s, Centennial Archaeology investigated the area just east of Turkey Creek Canyon, excavated the Recon John Shelter, a Middle Archaic (3000–1000 BCE) site east of the creek, and developed a comprehensive historic preservation plan for the fort.
Centennial Archaeology’s inventory of Turkey Creek Canyon revealed that the area’s Late Archaic (1000 BCE–150 CE) and Developmental period (150–1150 CE) sites were more likely to be located inside the canyon, while the Diversification period (1150–1540 CE) sites were typically on the canyon rim. The inventory also found that more than 10 percent of the prehistoric sites in Turkey Creek Canyon have associated rock art, mostly inside the canyon where Dakota sandstone is exposed. Abstract rectilinear and curvilinear designs are most prevalent, but there are also representational panels featuring quadrupeds and bird tracks. It proved impossible to date many of the rock art panels because there were no other cultural artifacts associated with them.
The Centennial Archaeology researchers and an archaeological team from Fort Lewis College in the 1990s have expressed frustration at the official boundaries of the Turkey Creek Canyon Archaeological District, which were drawn before the area was fully inventoried. The boundaries include many sites that are not rock art but also leave out many other prehistoric sites in the area. Centennial Archaeology recommended modifying the district’s boundaries to include more sites and removing the rock art theme from the district’s justification, while the Fort Lewis College team suggested making the district into a noncontiguous district focusing specifically on the rock art resources in the canyon. No action has been taken on those recommendations.