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Secrets of the Range Creek Ranch

Archaeologists cheered when Waldo Wilcox's vast spread was deeded to the state of Utah, believing that it holds keys to a tribe that flourished 1,000 years ago - and then mysteriously vanished.

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Lying nearby is a large metate, an indented stone that the Fremont used to grind corn and seeds. Jones points to a slight crack in a cliff wall about 20 feet above our heads. "There’s a little granary there," he says, peering through his binoculars. “They’re all over the place up here. You have to risk your life to get into them." Through my binoculars I can see a square structure wedged into a crack, sealed with mud. It looks virtually impossible to reach, and so far only accomplished climbers working with Range Creek researchers have been able to get into it. Renee Barlow, an archaeologist at the Utah Museum of Natural History and an experienced rock climber who has inspected granaries, has calculated that some held hundreds of bushels of maize. Filling them, she says, "would mean hundreds of trips climbing with big loaded baskets on your back."

Archaeologists speculate that the Fremont were "scatter hoarding," or hiding their food in multiple places. "You risk losing some of it, but at least if another person gets into it, they've only got one bit," Jones says. As we climb higher, Jones, who is 54 and husky, points out several more adobe granaries, molded into tiny crevices with reddish clay, virtually camouflaged high up on the sandstone cliff. There is evidence the Fremont used crude ladders or made toeholds in the rocks to reach them. Wilcox says he has never tried to reach the cliff granaries.

Wilcox turns his attention to a long, narrow crack in the big wall in front of us. “See that hole with them rocks back in there? I bet you a hundred dollars to ten dollars that you dig down under them rocks you’d find a dead Indian." Jones stiffens. I ask Wilcox how he would know. "Because them rocks are there, on top of the grave. And you'd find him all hunched up like a baby is after it’s born."

"Well, we're not going to test your hypothesis by digging into it," Jones says. Nothing makes an archaeologist more jittery than finding human remains on government land. It often triggers a federal review that requires researchers to notify tribes that may claim that the remains are those of an ancestor. Tribal concerns about possible desecration can bring research to a halt. As Wilcox talks on, Jones looks as if he wishes he were on another cliff. But the old rancher is just getting started. "You’re not going to find anything of value in a grave. I've seen several of them dug up, and I think these Indians were so damn poor that when they died they went to the happy hunting ground and there was no need to take what little they had."

The human remains issue has flared up before. When the Range Creek story first appeared in the news media, local tribes such as the Northern Ute, who claim affiliation to the Fremont, were angry that archaeologists had kept them in the dark about the site. Since then, researchers and tribal leaders have pretty much settled their differences. Still, Metcalfe reluctantly told me that archaeologists have found five sets of human remains, either on ranch property or nearby. He says the tribes have been notified and the researchers haven't touched the remains, much as they would like to analyze them. And though Wilcox once showed me a set of eroded bones and a skull partially buried about a quarter of a mile from his old homestead, he says he himself never dug up any graves: "My dad told me when I was a kid, 'we own the land, but we don’t own them dead Indians.'"

Archaeologists don’t like the term "Fremont." But they’ve been stuck with it since the 1920s, when Noel Morss, an anthropology student at Harvard, documented "distinctive unpainted black or grey pottery," a "unique type of moccasin," "elaborate clay figurines" and "abundant pictographs of distinctive types" along the banks of the Fremont River in south-central Utah.

Some scholars maintain the Fremont were country cousins of the Anasazi, or "ancestral puebloans"—a term contemporary Native Americans prefer. ("Anasazi" is said to be a Navajo word for "ancient enemy.") Others contend they developed from a distinct desert culture established before the Anasazi. Until recently, researchers had believed that the Fremont simply packed up when the climate turned dry. "The easy answer for a long time has been the 1300 A.D. drought," says Michael Berry, a Bureau of Reclamation archaeologist based in Salt Lake City. But the Fremont had endured similar droughts in the past. In another view, the drought, population pressures and an invasion combined to make life untenable for the Fremont. Utes, a tribe of hunter-gatherers, may have migrated into the area from California around the same time the Fremont were starting to retreat to the cliffs, and the competition for food perhaps turned ugly.

Archaeologists have also theorized that warfare among the Fremont broke out during this period."You know, if your family is starving to death, if you get corn farming pushed to the limits and you're only getting a quarter of what you need to make it through a Utah winter, then going in and raiding your neighbors is going to seem more and more like a better alternative," Metcalfe says. That Fremont life was treacherous seems obvious even from their rock art. Perhaps the most haunting petroglyph I see at Range Creek is an upside-down figure with a bucket-shaped head and either a tail or penis. It was colored red and etched on the rock at the base of a cliff. It may depict a Fremont who fell to his death.

About the only thing researchers know for sure is that by around A.D. 1350, all the physical trappings that shouted Fremont—the distinctive sandals, baskets and pottery—disappear from the archaeological record. It's possible the Fremont people just moved on. Scientists have recently uncovered potential evidence of Fremont hearths and dwellings, dating from around 1500, along a tributary of the Green River in northwestern Colorado, 75 miles north of Range Creek. Barlow and others wonder if the culture shifted from farming back to full-time hunter-gathering. "When you become a hunter-gatherer again, you don't stay in one place long," says Metcalfe. "You'll change your look to an archaeologist. The material culture will be very different, but it might be exactly the same people."

Like the story of the Fremont, the story of Range Creek is complicated. For starters, the canyon is not entirely pristine. Fur trappers arrived in the late 1800s, and cattle ranching began then too. One rancher, Clarence Pilling, found 11 clay figurines made by the Fremont. He later donated some of them to the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum in nearby Price, where they are now on display as the "Pilling figurines."

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