Routes, trails crisscrossed area long before Europeans arrived
On August 26, 1776, after descending the eastern side of the Uncompahgre Plateau to the Uncompahgre River Valley, Father Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante wrote, “In the meadow of this river … there is a very wide and well-beaten trail.”
Similarly, on Sept. 9, when the expedition he led with Father Francisco Atanasio Domínguez descended the north side of Douglas Pass, Escalante wrote that the group traveled nearly 30 miles “over a very well-beaten trail with only one bad stretch.”
Since very few Europeans had traveled this region prior to Dominguez and Escalante, it’s clear that these “well-beaten trails” were established by the natives who lived there. In 1776, that meant the Utes. But the trails were likely used by a variety of native people over the ages.
“Lots of people used these areas,” said Carl Conner, owner of Grand River Institute, an archaeological consulting firm in Grand Junction. He is also founder of the Dominquez Archaeological Research Group, or DARG, an associated nonprofit organization.
In the Piceance Basin of western Colorado, there is plenty of proof the Utes once lived here.
But Conner and his team have also found evidence in the area for members of the Fremont Culture, as well as Shoshones, Navajos and early ancestors of the Navajos. And there are traces of Dismal River culture, believed to be ancestors to the Apaches.
Additionally, archaeologists have found in western Colorado shell beads that originated on the Pacific Coast and obsidian from Wyoming, New Mexico and other parts of Colorado.
Clearly, many people moved through this region, whether trading, traveling or relocating. They almost certainly had a number of long-established routes.
Through DARG, Conner and Project Coordinator Richard Ott have undertaken the Ute Trails Project, attempting to trace major trails or routes in western Colorado. The project grew out of DARG’s Wickiup Project, which has recorded and examined old Ute habitation sites in Colorado.
“We wanted to take more of a landscape approach rather than just a site-by-site look,” Conner explained. “We wanted to try to discern how these sites relate to each other, with trails.”
One such trail is the path taken by Dominguez and Escalante in 1776, when they were led by Ute guides over long-used paths. On another route, from Wyoming south past Browns Canyon in Colorado and on toward the Piceance Basin, the researchers found water holes roughly every 25 miles, Ott said. That makes sense for people traveling on horseback, he added. The route may have been used by Utes who traveled north to raid for horses, then returned to their own territory with the stolen animals.
Water also was key to another route they investigated, on the advice of modern Ute leaders, from the Dolores River south of Gateway, over the Uncompahgre Plateau to the Gunnison River near Big Dominguez Canyon.
It’s not just rivers. Mountain passes, many of which today accommodate modern highways, were also used long ago by Utes and others.
“Every mountain pass that’s worth a hill of beans has (an archaeological) site of some sort on it,” said John Goodwin, who spent much of his career doing archaeological work for highway projects in Colorado. He is now retired and lives in California.
On some passes, artifacts dating back thousands of years have been discovered. Others show only more recent inhabitation or visitation.
The mountain passes where evidence of early visitation has been found include Vail Pass, Cerro Summit, Cottonwood Pass near Glenwood Springs, Cochetopa Pass near the San Luis Valley and Ute Pass, which connected Colorado Springs and South Park.
Perhaps no prehistoric trail in the Southwest is as famous the Chaco Meridian, which runs almost arrow straight from Aztec, New Mexico, through the Chaco Canyon complex and south to a prehistoric site in Sonora, Mexico.
University of Colorado archaeologist and author Stephen H. Lekson has detailed how the people of the Chacoan culture could have surveyed the roads, built roughly a thousand years ago, with only a few degrees of error. Archaeologists have long known there was trade between southern parts of Mexico and places like Chaco. Macaw and parrot feathers, copper and beads from far to the south have been found at Chaco and related sites.
Although many ancient routes became horse trails, wagon roads, and eventually highways, many more did not. People on foot could go up and over obstacles far easier than those pulling wagons or even riding horseback.
As Lekson put it: “Pueblo trails and Chacoan roads, whether symbolic or functional, were not bridle paths … Wagon roads, developed for new transportation technologies, may not represent the most important ancient routes.”
With that in mind, we know there are well-used old trails, such as the Navajo-Uncompahgre Trail, which ran north out of New Mexico and onto the Uncompahgre Plateau, which never became major routes for wagons or autos.
Another well-documented route across the Flat Tops from the Colorado River near Dotsero to the White River, used by the Utes and others, never developed beyond a horse trail. Similarly, the majority of a 19th century route from the Los Piños Indian Agency in the Uncompahgre River Valley to the White River Agency near present-day Meeker, highlighted on Hayden Survey maps from 1877, remained only a horse trail. The trail crossed Grand Mesa, and a portion of it was followed by Dominguez and Escalante a century earlier.
Even with the work of Conner, Ott and others, it’s impossible to identify all of the ancient pathways.
But there is a growing understanding that, whether riding horses or trekking on foot, the early inhabitants of this region had their own network of long-used routes and “well-beaten trails” as intricate as any modern highway system.
Information for this column came from interviews with archaeologists named in it, from “The Chaco Meridian,” by Stephen H. Lekson, and “Juan Rivera’s Colorado, 1765,” by Steven G. Baker, and “Pageant in the Wilderness,” by Herbert E. Bolton.