Hundreds of generations of Native American ancestors are represented in Colorado by scatters of artifacts along with the less portable evidence of shelter, the warmth of hearths, storage needs, and symbolic expression. We learn about them through archaeology and indigenous peoples’ oral traditions.
Archaeologists define four broad eras in the history of Colorado and of the whole of the western United States. The most ancient is called the Paleo-Indian period, when hunting-oriented cultures embraced the challenging conditions and the sometimes-rapid changes occurring at the end of the Ice Age. This is followed by the Archaic period, an era of relatively stable hunter-gatherer lifeways, represented by several cultures of semi-nomadic peoples. More radical changes characterize the transition into the Formative period, when corn-based horticulture replaced foraging among a number of native peoples in the warmer parts of Colorado. Finally, the Historic period is the time frame when non-native explorers and settlers eventually displaced the native tribes in sometimes-violent encounters.
Paleo-Indian (12,000–6500 BC)
A handful of sites containing evidence for the hunting and butchering of late Ice Age animals—notably Columbian mammoths—between 13,000 and 18,000 years ago, if not earlier, have been preserved on the plains of Colorado. The evidence is generally limited to distinctively broken long bones thought to indicate marrow extraction and perhaps the use of the fragmented bones as simple tools.
Nomadic hunters of the Clovis culture (or cultures) had spread across the breadth of the country by 13,000 years ago. Their seemingly sudden appearance over such vast spaces begs the question of whether this represents swift migrations into previously unpopulated lands or merely the rapid spread of their lithic (stone) tool technology—most readily recognized by their iconic fluted projectile points—across an already thinly occupied landscape. The issue is still hotly debated.
In a general sense, “archaeological cultures” are defined as patterned groups of artifacts and features within a given time frame and geographical territory. The Clovis culture is best known in Colorado from the Dent site near Greeley, where remains of butchered mammoths have been found. However much or little that Clovis hunters contributed to their demise, mammoths and many other large-bodied Ice Age beasts (“megafauna” such as horses, camels, and ground sloths) vanished from Colorado not long after 11,000 BC.
One of the large game species that survived the dramatic climatic changes at the end of the Ice Age was the bison. Clovis and Folsom hunters pursued a more massive species with longer horns, Bison antiquus, from which the modern bison evolved. In time, later Paleo-Indian groups developed sophisticated systems of communal bison hunting that allowed them to successfully dispatch as many as 200 animals in a single communal game drive. Some of the resulting kill and butchery sites are preserved today for archaeological study, famously so in the “River of Bone” feature at the Olsen-Chubbuck site near Firstview in Cheyenne County, Colorado.
A few Paleo-Indian sites in Colorado provide evidence of aspects of everyday life other than hunting. Best known is the Lindenmeier site in Larimer County, a repeatedly used camp of the Folsom culture now designated as a National Historic Landmark. Lindenmeier also preserves less deeply buried layers of the later Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Formative periods.
Paleo-Indian camps rarely retain evidence of lightweight shelters, sometimes only indirectly recognized by the distribution of features and surrounding discarded artifacts. But at the Mountaineer Site near Gunnison, the rock foundations of more substantial wood-framed and mud-covered houses of Folsom groups have been found on a mesa top. Archaeologists believe these are winter occupations where the mesa-top setting had the advantage of being above the valley bottom where cold air pools during calm winter nights. All of Colorado’s larger parks—North, Middle, and South Parks, and the San Luis Valley—contain significant numbers of Paleo-Indian sites.
A few hints of the spiritual beliefs of Paleo-Indian groups also survive. In a high mountain cave in central Colorado, the bones of a man who died more than 8,000 years ago are preserved. Many traditional societies worldwide consider caves to be symbolic portals to and from the spirit world, so Paleo-Indians and later groups could have held similar beliefs. A formal burial site dating to this period, not far from the Lindenmeier site in Larimer County, was a traditional “flexed” interment of a young woman, with the legs folded and the knees drawn up toward the chest. Red ocher coated the remains, and numerous stone tools were present along with a few ornamental artifacts of animal bone and tooth.
Caches of artifacts—usually of flaked stone tools—have been found in isolated Paleo-Indian contexts at the Drake and Mahaffey sites in Colorado. Exceptionally well-made projectile points manufactured from materials gathered (or traded from) distant sources are present at the Drake Cache site in Logan County. Other sites like Mahaffey in Boulder County contain a mixed bag of tools, tool “preforms” (incomplete tool manufacture), and minimally modified stone flakes.
Changes toward more “broad spectrum” survival strategies become widespread in the succeeding Archaic period. This generalized hunter-gatherer lifeway is marked by changing styles of artifacts and features found in the archaeological record.
Archaic (6500 BC–AD 200)
For thousands of years during the Archaic period, the hunter-gatherer way of life held sway as the predominant cultural tradition among Colorado’s resident peoples. The term Archaic holds connotations of primitive or outdated, but Archaic peoples were the ultimate survivalists. Highly adapted to their environments, their familiarity with a huge range of natural resources enabled a critical flexibility in the face of climate, floral, and faunal changes.
Most if not all Archaic populations descended from preceding Paleo-Indian cultures. But regardless of their origins, Archaic cultures in Colorado shared certain basic technologies only slightly altered from Paleo-Indian forms. Thus, artifacts of stone, bone, antler, horn, wood, and other natural materials continued to be made in the absence of any metal or manufactured glass (obsidian, a natural volcanic glass, was used to a limited degree). Ceramic containers were not yet known, nor were hamlets or villages permanently occupied. So what was different about Archaic cultures?
The differences were more a matter of degree than of kind. Hunting weapons continued to be spears propelled by atlatls, but the stone spear tips were smaller than Paleo-Indian forms and might be notched on the lower edges or corners. Spear points and other flintknapped tools were usually made from locally available rock types rather than from distant source materials. Use of a broad range of native plant species is clear, far more so than in earlier millennia. The seeds of wild plants were milled into flour using a pair of grinding stones (the mano and metate) made of sandstone and other abrasive rocks. Large game animals continued to be hunted, but a range of smaller game such as rabbits and prairie dogs also were sought; fish and birds such as wild turkeys were taken less frequently. Snares, deadfall traps, and nets may have been used more often than spears for smaller game.
Herd hunting of bison and other large herbivores using communal game drive systems endured, but in the Archaic period the evidence for this is more abundant in the subalpine and alpine heights of the Front Range than it is on the plains or western plateaus. The Kaplan-Hoover bison kill site in Larimer County is one of the few such lower elevation sites known in Colorado for this period. Camps were established in many of the same places used by their ancestors, but the use of shallow rockshelters as camps increased markedly. A few such as Franktown Cave and Mantle’s Cave were dry enough to protect perishable artifacts of hide, feather, plant fiber, and other rarely preserved materials.
Rockshelter and cave walls, and open cliff faces and boulders, were sometimes adorned with rock art. Abstract and geometric designs are common and are interpreted as the work of shamans communicating with the spirit world. Representational images of people and animals also occur, sometimes with exaggerated features. Other spiritual aspects of Archaic cultures are seen in burial sites. Usually in isolated locations outside camps, Archaic groups buried their deceased in unlined pits using the same flexed body position as in Paleo-Indian times. Likely wrapped in hide, bark, or textile robes that have not preserved, the remains were often buried with the tools of everyday life such as seed milling implements, bone awls, hunting equipment, etc. Typically short in stature, Archaic people’s lifespans were also short, on average, after calculating the mortality rate of many children in the equation. But for those fortunate enough to survive childhood, a reasonably long life could be enjoyed. At the Yarmony site in Eagle County, an elderly woman 60 years old or more was buried with two sandstone manos.
Yarmony and many other Archaic camps preserve the buried foundations of houses in a variety of forms. Semi-subterranean pithouses comparable to much later Basketmaker houses of the Ancestral Puebloans have been found in the Colorado and Gunnison River basins. Similar surface-level dwellings—wood-framed and capped with an insulating layer of mud—are also known from the same areas. A few sites contain rock slab foundations. Several styles of more temporary shelters have been found, some similar to the wickiups and tipis found in much younger sites.
Although credible numbers are hard to come by, archaeologists believe that Archaic population levels were never very high, perhaps a few tens of thousands statewide. Higher populations would have stretched the available resources to the limit, given the need to accumulate a store of goods to survive long winters. But late in the Archaic period the transition to farming began in the American Southwest and soon spread to southern Colorado. The earliest evidence of farming in Colorado, at about 400–350 BC, is found in sites near Durango such as the Falls Creek Rock shelters. Once farming became more widespread, a very different era dawned: the Formative period.
Formative (AD 200–1500)
The contrast between the archaeology of the Formative period and the earlier eras is striking. What transpired among the inhabitants of the region to cause such a radical shift in lifeways? It was the Neolithic Revolution, to use the label describing the foraging-to-farming transition in the Old World.
Agriculture focused on the domestic crop triad of corn, beans, and squash, which afforded farmers occasional surpluses for storage, trade, and tribute. All three crops have their origins in the tropics of Mexico and do not thrive in the cool nights and erratic growing seasons of the northern Southwest. Farming in Colorado, then, was risky, and some groups such as the Fremont hedged their bets by hunting and gathering whenever the need arose. Others, such as the Plains Woodland peoples on the plains, only farmed on occasion and in localized areas where success was more likely. The indigenous mountain residents never farmed, although they may have traded for some of the harvest and otherwise interacted with their more sedentary neighbors. Intermarriage was undoubtedly common if the trends of recent history are any guide.
The production of ceramics, particularly cooking jars, made farming even more viable. The varieties of beans grown, today marketed by a Dove Creek company as “Anasazi beans,” are storable pinto beans that require extended cooking times. Dropping hot rocks into broths held in water-proofed baskets was the only way for Paleo-Indian and Archaic chefs to cook soups and stews, but it was not an effective method for beans. But ca. AD 500, pottery cooking-jars changed the dynamic, allowing beans to become a welcome supplement to Formative diets. Pottery was not an invention of Colorado residents but instead spread into the state from the south and east.
Another innovation of the Formative period was the bow and arrow, the origins of which are mysterious. Although there are hints of its use ca. 1400–1000 BC, the bow and arrow did not become an integral part of hunters’ gear until AD 200–500. The small stone “arrowheads” diagnostic of this weapon are found in profusion, including at farming villages where people tending fields could both control pests and supplement their meat and hide supply by “garden hunting” the animals attracted to the crops.
The permanent occupation of sites that first occurred in the Formative necessitated more durable forms of housing. Pithouses were the first design solution but, eventually, slab-lined surface dwellings followed by coursed masonry construction techniques were developed by Ancestral Puebloans and by some Fremont, Apishapa, and Sopris farmers. Room shapes evolved from the round forms of ancient times to square or rectangular shapes that accommodated expansion of the house footprint. Such expansion was itself driven by the rising populations that crop surpluses made possible.
Inevitably, the growth of villages required forms of leadership not previously needed. Community-scale gatherings began to take place as a way of maintaining social cohesion and to validate the roles of leaders. The design of large spaces such as dance plazas and great kivas (“public architecture”) are the archaeological signatures of these developments by the seventh century AD. The Ancestral Puebloans best represent the trend, as their territory was the most densely settled, but hints of social ranking are also present among the less populous Apishapa and Fremont.
A unique Southwestern development was the rise of the social system centered at Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Southwestern Colorado has a number of “Chaco outliers” such as Chimney Rock and Lowry Pueblo that display clearly Chacoan details such as Great House architecture built with distinctive wall construction methods, but these sites contain artifacts that strongly identify the inhabitants as locals.
Throughout the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods, there is scant evidence of violence among Colorado’s residents. However, with rising populations that clustered into more crowded homes, the Formative period witnessed increasing conflict, particularly when the crops failed, stores of food shrank, and potable water sources dwindled. In addition to violence directly seen in some skeletal remains in the Four Corners region, there are other indirect indicators of stressful times. Some Western Slope rock art sites depict warriors with weapons, protective shields, and the probable taking of human trophies. Other cliff dwellings were built with an eye toward defense, a choice also followed by the Apishapa in southeastern Colorado.
The end of the Formative period is defined by the end of farming in Colorado ca. AD 1400–1450. When the first Spanish explorers ventured into the Arkansas River basin and San Luis Valley, the only native peoples they encountered were nomadic bands of Apaches, Pawnees, and Utes. Archaeological evidence confirms the lack of farming throughout Colorado.
Historic (AD 1500–1900)
Much research has been done to connect the dots between the various Formative cultures and the native groups we know today. For their part, most modern tribes have little trouble recognizing the traditional sites of their ancestors. The physical evidence of this can be less convincing to archaeologists, however.
Such is not the case with the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly Anasazi) who have clear connections with a score of modern Pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona, each with its own cultural identity and traditions. The contraction of their territory began in the late thirteenth century, resulting in the near-total depopulation of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah within a few decades.
A very different story describes Fremont history. The Fremont core territory in central and northern Utah was vacant by AD 1350, but Fremont groups living at the geographic margins—including in northwestern Colorado—strove to maintain their way of life into the sixteenth century. But by the time that Spanish explorers traveled there two centuries later, the Fremont were gone. Well-established bands of Utes and, farther north, Shoshones held these lands. The fate of the Fremont has been the source of much debate, but no consensus has emerged.
On the Colorado plains, the Apishapa, Upper Republican, and Itskari peoples also had challenges maintaining their lifeways. Territorial contractions were part of their history as well, with fewer sites found through the AD 1300s and early 1400s, a period of frequent droughts. It is likely that more favorable conditions farther east drove the migrations. Both oral traditions and archaeological evidence connect these groups to the Pawnee and other Caddoan-speaking relatives. But despite their desire to reclaim their western territories once conditions improved, by the fifteenth century another foraging culture had moved into the high plains region: ancestors of the Apache.
The mountains and large portions of the Western Slope are the homeland of the Utes, but their connection to the foraging culture(s) of the Formative period is complicated by a divergence of views about that connection. Ute people today are adamant that their ancestors have always dwelled in the mountain and plateau country of Colorado and Utah. Thus, they maintain that they are the descendants of Archaic and Paleo-Indian groups in their traditional homelands. Many (but not all) archaeologists, on the other hand, interpret the evidence of artifacts, features, and linguistic patterns as indicative of a recent arrival of Ute and Shoshone ancestors in the Rocky Mountain region within the past 700–1000 years.
Today, nearly fifty federally-recognized tribes claim historical-traditional ties to parts of Colorado. Many of these tribes appear to have little relationship to the Formative cultures described in this Encyclopedia. But at one time or another, their presence here is documented by oral traditions or by non-native explorers, trappers, traders, miners, and homesteaders who populated the state in recent centuries. Those tribes not related to the Formative period cultures came to Colorado following different paths, pushed and pulled by events occurring in sometimes-distant lands.
More than 400 years ago, Spanish explorers were the first of the non-native groups to cross Colorado’s modern borders. For these tribes, the Spaniards’ arrival was a matter of great novelty, from the horses they rode to their metal armor and weapons, not to mention their odd physical appearance. More sinister was the visitors’ insistence that they abandon their religions in favor of Christianity. No less important was another Spanish import: new diseases against which the tribes had no immunity. Spanish domination of the local tribes mostly affected Pueblos but also some Apaches and Navajos. Spanish settlers needed the tribes for their resources and labor, forcibly obtained in their system of slavery.
Other tribes that the Spanish were unable to subdue engaged them in trade. By the 1620s, the Utes were among these trading partners. They acquired some horses in the early decades, and also sold some captive natives to Spanish slaveholders. More important, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 brought a huge number of horses into native hands, giving a major boost to the equestrian lifeways that developed in Colorado. Territorial ranges were expanded and modified, trading relationships were transformed, the size of social bands increased, and the volume of goods that could be moved from camps grew significantly.
By 1700, as more horses were being moved northward—the Utes and Apaches being middlemen in this trade—guns were moving southward out of the fur trade country of the Missouri River valley toward Colorado. Given the questionable quality of these muskets, horses were the more important commodity and had a deeper impact on native societies.
Spanish exploration of western Colorado was facilitated partly by Ute guides and partly by Spanish traders with prior experience in Ute territory. Most notable were the travels of Juan de Rivera in the 1760s and the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776, who followed well-established paths that later became known as the Old Spanish Trail system. Many of the place names in western Colorado originate in this period: the Dolores, Animas, and Los Pinos Rivers; the La Plata Mountains; Archuleta County; Canyon Pintado; and the Escalante archaeological site, to name a few. The Spanish era in Colorado ended with Mexican independence in 1821–22, leaving only a single site representing more than a transitory presence: a fort constructed north of La Veta Pass in 1819 to monitor American activities on the border with New Spain.
The Beginning of the End, or a New Beginning?
As the Spanish era in the Southwest waned, the Missouri River fur trade expanded into the southern Rocky Mountains. As far as Colorado’s native tribes were concerned, the fur traders and trappers of French and American extraction were less threatening to their way of life than the Spaniards. The tribes readily participated in the fur trade, albeit beaver pelts were rarely on their list of goods to provide. They were frequent visitors to the trading posts of the region, particularly to Bent’s Old Fort near present-day La Junta. Ute attacks ended trading activities at Fort Uncompahgre in 1844 and El Pueblo in 1854, while an influx of settlers focused on an agricultural life established towns in the San Luis Valley and southeastern Colorado’s Arkansas River valley.
Attempted settlement of the San Luis Valley came first, a northward migration from newly independent Mexico encouraged by the system of Mexican Land Grants. Apaches and Utes, unhappy about encroachment on their hunting grounds, raided new settlements and farmsteads, most of which failed to survive. But with the American victory in the Mexican-American War of 1846, southern Colorado became US territory and the government acted quickly to end the raiding. The “Treaty with the Utah” signed in 1849 at Abiquiú, New Mexico Territory, promised Indian annuities in return for an end to the raiding and allowed for the establishment of military posts in the Ute homeland. The US government wasted little time building posts at Fort Union, New Mexico, and in 1852, Fort Massachusetts in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
A few years later, in 1858, gold was discovered in Little Dry Creek in present-day Englewood, within Ute and Arapaho territory. The Colorado Gold Rush was in full swing the following year, and confrontations with the flood of immigrant miners, merchants, and other settlers were inevitable, as were the losses of tribes’ homelands. The Plains Indian Wars expanded into Colorado, with the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 perpetrated on a reservation established for the Arapaho and Cheyenne only three years before, followed by a series of clashes around stage stations and homesteads. Final Colorado battles occurred at Beecher Island (September 17–19, 1868) and Summit Springs (July 11, 1869).
By 1870 the plains of Colorado could no longer be called home by any tribe. All had been removed to reservations or federal trust lands in adjoining states. Ute and Shoshone lands in the mountains and Western Slope were likewise being whittled back during the 1860s and 1870s. The treaties reducing tribal lands contained similar provisions: free passage through tribal territories, allowance for the establishment of military posts and Indian agencies, return of stolen property or goods, permission for the tribes to continue hunting, encouragement of the tribes to settle down as farmers, and the promise of Indian annuities to cover shortfalls of critical resources.
The US government failed miserably at keeping their end of such bargains for a variety of reasons, including the misguided actions of Indian agents charged with meeting treaty terms. For the Utes, the most infamous agent was Nathanial Meeker at the White River Agency. The Northern Utes at the agency were so dismayed—both by government failure to provide promised rations and Meeker’s demands and decisions—that the 1879 Meeker Massacre resulted from their desperation and starvation.
The consequences were swift in coming. Calls that “the Utes must go” culminated with the Northern Utes’ removal to Utah within two years. Reservation life was miserable, and there are clear signs that some Utes occasionally left the misery behind to revisit traditional hunting grounds in western Colorado. Recent research has found that such off-reservation activities took place into the early twentieth century. Today, only the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes have reservations within Colorado. For all the other tribes in our history, Colorado remains a key part of their vibrant social memories.
Recent decades have seen a resurgence of Native American efforts to reclaim their cultural identities via the revitalization of crafts, native languages, oral traditions, ceremonies, and, literally, by reclaiming the remains of their ancestors. Passage of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 was matched the same year by the approval of an unmarked graves amendment to Colorado’s 1973 antiquities law. But Colorado’s native peoples do not dwell in the past. “We’re still here” is a common refrain and, like all Americans, they strive for a better future.
In August 1874, two men with the Wheeler Survey ascended Blanca Peak east of the San Luis Valley. Upon reaching the 14,345-foot summit, Wheeler’s men were surprised to find out they were not the first people to reach the crest. Low stone walls surrounding a depression had been built long before they arrived. We still don’t know who built those walls, or why. To the Navajo, Blanca Peak is their Sacred Mountain of the East, one of the natural features defining their spiritual world. The constructions on its crest may be from pilgrimages made by Navajo ancestors or by other mountaineers for a different purpose. But it is emblematic of the fact that there are few places in Colorado that our native tribes did not visit at one time or another, leaving physical traces of their presence from the subtle to the spectacular. Articles in the Origins section of the Encyclopedia tell these stories across at least 13,000 years of human history in Colorado.