Sunday, September 25, 2011


Antoine Robidoux inscription,
Westwater canyon, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2001. 

On the wall of what is now named Westwater Canyon in the Bookcliffs of Grand County in eastern Utah (about 5 miles west of the Utah-Colorado border) there is a concentration of rock art. Ranging from Archaic to historic the pictographs and petroglyphs include painted Barrier Canyon style figures, pecked Archaic and Uncompaghre Style petroglyphs, painted Ute Indian figures and symbols, and some historic imagery. On the west wall of the canyon a surface approximately 9 feet high and 4½ feet wide bears a prehistoric painted red shield with an inscription carved above it that reads Antoine Robidoux passé ici le 13 Novembre 1837 pour etablire maison traitte a la Rv. Vert ou wiyte. Translated from the French, this means: “Antoine Robidoux passed here 13 November 1837 to establish a trading post at the Green River or White.”

Antoine Robidoux, 1843,
Museum of New Mexico.

Antoine Robidoux had been born in 1794, one of the sons of Joseph Robidoux, Sr., French-Canadian owner of a St. Louis-based fur trading company. In early 1824, Antoine and his brother Louis rode 800 miles to Santa Fe where they visited with an old family friend and close ally, Auguste Choteau. In the late summer of 1824 Antoine had joined a party of trappers led by Etienne Provost from Santa Fe into the wilderness of what would later become eastern Utah and western Colorado to explore the trapping and trading potential of new beaver country. They found streams filled with beaver and the resident Ute Indians friendly and eager to trade.

Antoine and his brother Louis became Mexican citizens and in 1827 Antoine was elected to the Santa Fe City Council. He had also been courting the Mexican Governor’s adopted daughter, Carmel Benevides. Antoine received the governor’s permission to marry Carmel in 1828. As the son-in-law of Santa Fe’s most powerful official, doors opened for Antoine that might otherwise have remained closed. Within weeks he received what amounted to an exclusive license to trade and trap in the mountain territory that would someday become western Colorado and eastern Utah. Antoine shortly organized an expedition into that area. Antoine took his pack animals north out of Taos, traveled into the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and then took an old Indian track over the continental divide at Cochetopa Pass. From there he descended down into the Gunnison Valley, passed south of what is now the Blue Mesa Reservoir, crossed Cerro Summit and dropped into the Uncompaghre Valley where he built his first trading post.

Fort Uncompaghre was erected in 1828 and trading began that year. It was built on the south bank of the Gunnison River. Antoine selected a site two miles below the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompaghre rivers, convenient also because it was a short distance from a natural fording place.

Reconstructed Fort Robidoux, in Delta, CO, from
Antoine Robidoux and Fort Uncompaghre, Ken Reyher,
1998, Western Reflections Inc., Ouray, CO.

In September 1844, warring Utes killed the employees of Fort Uncompaghre and took the trade goods. They also killed more than 100 settlers from Abique to the San Luis Valley before attacking the fort.  A new governor in Santa Fe placed part of the blame for the uprising on Robidoux and ordered an investigation of his sale of firearms to the Utes. Facing threatened legal action Carmel closed their Santa Fe home and returned to St. Joseph with her daughter. Antoine, who possibly spent several months in the Wyoming area, also returned east according to a story in the September 17, 1845, Missouri Democrat. After the 1844 destruction of Fort Uncompaghre, and with the trapping business in decline, Antoine spent the next few years as a guiding immigrant parties, and as an army interpreter.

Essentially starting over in 1849-50, Robidoux amassed another fortune outfitting immigrants at St. Joseph and then re-outfitting them at the only blacksmith and supply station in western Nebraska. An 1851 immigrant described "an old man nearly blind" wintering at the post. This was probably Antoine, who died in 1860 in St. Louis.

Although the inscription panel shows numerous bullet holes acquired during the historic period, actually primarily aimed at the Native American shield image, it presents us with a record of a fascinating piece of the history of the American West, an inscription from the latter years of the fur trappers and mountain men and the beginning of written history in the central intermountain area.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Orca petroglyph, Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell,
Alaska. Photo Peter Faris, 2001.

One form of vandalism of rock art that has many different facets that need to be considered is theft. First, many museums have examples of rock art in their collections that have been moved to the facility from its natural environment. This may have been done for many reasons. Often the rock has been moved to protect it from erosion or from theft or other vandalism. Other examples of rock art in museum collections were acquired before our modern sensibility to the feelings of indigenous peoples and our current attitude that these images belong where they were created. Many were collected just like any other artifact back in the 1800s. While we tend to overlook these heritage examples, I am afraid it still comes up once in a while. At least we now have considerably more sensibility to such occurrences.

More commonly are stories about people who have taken rocks with petroglyphs on them for their own personal reasons. If taken from public land this is theft and a federal crime.

One example I personally ran into in 2001 while on an Alaska cruise was the rock with the famous Orca (Killer Whale) petroglyph on Petroglyph Beach at Wrangell, Alaska. My wife and I searched the boulders for quite some time and could not find the image anywhere. We finally had to go to lunch but, after lunch, while she stayed on the ship I went back to search some more. Again I was unsuccessful and was actually turning to leave when I noticed that one of the houses with back yards adjoining the beach had a fire pit in the yard surrounded by boulders that matched the ones on the beach.

I went over to the fire ring (yes, I was trespassing) and found that one of the boulders in the ring had exactly the Orca petroglyph I had been searching for on it. In other words that home owner had stolen it. They probably did not think of it as theft, after all they live there. They may have thought of it as protecting the art. The fact is, however, they took the petroglyph rock away from its location on the public beach and placed it on their own private property. Maybe it is better protected now!

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Vermillion Canyon medicine wheel, visit by members of the
Denver Chapter, Colorado Archaeological Society.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1999.
Throughout the northern Great Plains a number of Medicine Wheels have been found. These usually consist of a circle of rocks with a number of interior spokes (there are a few examples which omit the circle and consist only of rock alignments like spokes) and may or may not include cairns of stone that mark various locations on the structure.

The medicine wheels, especially important to the northern Arapahos and to a lesser extent the Shoshones, reflected the reverence that all people of the plains maintained for the circle, a shape that suggested spiritual and political unity and connected people with one another and with the natural world.

Vermillion Canyon is found in Brown’s Park in far northeastern Colordo. It runs south from the Vermillion Basin carrying Vermillion Creek through the eastern end of the Cold Spring Mountains to join with the Green River at the south end of Brown’s Park. The northern half of Vermillion Canyon is a narrow slot cut through the rock of the ridge, and the southern half opens up into an enclosed bowl. This bowl is well watered by Vermillion Creek, a permanent stream, and shows signs of prehistoric habitation in addition to the rock art and medicine wheel discussed here. There is considerable rock art produced by the Fremont culture, dating from between AD 600 and AD 1000, in Browns Park and Vermillion Canyon. Most rock art in the Brown’s Park area is attributed to the Uinta Fremont culture and all rock art in Vermillion Canyon is Uinta Fremont. Some of the petroglyphs in Vermillion Canyon are of the Classic Vernal Style as defined by Polly Schaafsma.

In northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado the Fremont culture seems to have been followed by the Shoshone. About 1000 years ago speakers of the family of languages known to linguists as Numic, which includes Shoshone, began a movement that originated in the southwestern Great Basin and expanded northeastward. Groups of people who spoke the Shoshone language spread up through central Nevada and across northern Utah into southern Idaho and adjacent Wyoming. The Shoshone probably succeeded the Fremont Culture in northwestern Colorado around AD 1300.

In 1994 a medicine wheel was discovered in the lower reaches of Vermillion Canyon by John Tarnesse, an Eastern Shoshone spiritual leader, and Joseph Triscari, a Denver photographer. They had been told by elders on the Wind River Reservation (some 275 miles to the North) in Wyoming of rumors that there was a medicine wheel in that area and had been searching for it, as well as visiting the rock art in Vermillion Canyon.

The Vermillion Canyon Medicine Wheel is located in the bottom of the lower portion of Vermillion Canyon, near the foot of the slope of the western wall of the canyon. This position at the bottom of the canyon prevents the long sight lines to a distant horizon to be expected in a site with archaeoastronomical significance. I therefore conclude that the significance of the Vermillion Canyon medicine wheel had nothing to do with archaeoastronomy. Measuring approximately 27.5 feet in diameter (8.4 meters), the wheel is laid out as two concentric circles, linked by four spokes, and surrounding a single upright center stone. The four spokes consist of seven stones each for a total of twenty-eight stones. The number 28 is often quoted as the length in days of the lunar cycle (or synodic cycle) although the real number is 29.53 days. For instance there are 28 spokes in the Bighorn Medicine Wheel located in north central Wyoming.

The four spokes in the Brown’s Park Medicine Wheel are roughly aligned to the cardinal directions. The four winds or four directions of the compass represented both natural and metaphysical powers. In effect, because the great creator force (or Holy One Above) created everything in fours, the Plains Indians believed they should do as much as possible in fours”.

The age of the medicine wheel is unknown. Given the absence of an absolute date at this time, any guess as to its age must be made on the basis of relative factors. As earlier peoples are not known to have made medicine wheels, and since Shoshone occupation of the region began in about 1300 AD, it should date from that time or later.

The medicine wheel is located near three Fremont rock art sites on boulders that, as suggested above, may have provided part of the motivation for the location selected for the wheel.

A feature like the Vermillion Canyon Medicine Wheel in a location like Vermillion Canyon compels us to attempt to explain its purpose. As we have seen, medicine wheels were of spiritual significance to the Shoshone culture, and we must assume that no matter who originally created the Vermillion Canyon Medicine Wheel, the Shoshone people appropriated it later for their own cultural purposes.

However, it is likely that the Vermillion Canyon Medicine Wheel was created by the early Shoshone inhabitants of the area, the ancestors of the Eastern Shoshone tribe of the Wind River Reservation in Western Wyoming. They had a considerable time depth in occupation of the area. The proximity of the wheel to the rock art is known to be of considerable importance to the Shoshone. This suggests that Vermillion Canyon in northwestern Colorado is a location that was of rich spiritual significance to the Shoshones.

Considering its relatively recent discovery and nearly pristine condition there were early attempts to keep its location secret. However, during our first visit there in the company of a BLM archaeologist to whom we had sworn secrecy, we found a car from California parked nearby. It has apparently already made it to the New Agers circuit. Let’s hope that they don’t feel the need to bury offerings there to mess up the archaeological record.