14 Chapters
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4 LIVESTOCK: Cows, Feed, and Floods

James M. Aton Utah State University Press ePub

As the San Juan River has coursed through the Four Corners area, it has both encouraged and denied economic opportunities to Native American and Anglo-American entrepreneurs alike. Its system of canyons and floodplains offers forage for livestock, channels movement, suggests strategic locations for trade, and provides possibilities for agriculture. On the other hand, the river can swell uncontrollably to flood stage, ripping out everything in its path; it has served as a clearly defined legal boundary, restricting access to resources by people on both banks; and, due to the mere presence of its water in a desert environment, has created countless disputes over who should use it.

This chapter and the next focus on the role the river has played in two acts of the human drama staged across its narrow belt of riparian wealth. This chapter discusses the evolution of both the Navajo and Anglo livestock industry, the growth of trading posts that encouraged large herds to depend on the river’s resources, and the subsequent development of a road system to move ranching products to market. It is a multifaceted history that extends far beyond the San Juan and throughout the Four Corners region.

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2 NAVAJOS, PAIUTES, AND UTES: Views of a Sacred Land

James M. Aton Utah State University Press ePub

Close to the time (roughly A.D. 1300) when the Anasazi abandoned their alcove dwellings and floodplain farms for lands south of the San Juan River, the tribes that would be present at the start of the historic period arrived to take their place. Fortunately, because of written records and a healthy oral tradition, there is a much better understanding of the importance of the river in the lives of these Native American groups: the Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos. All three tribes took a physical, pragmatic stance toward the river, encouraging use of the riparian ecology in a high-desert environment. They also, however, held strong beliefs about its spiritual powers, based upon mythological teachings. What follows is an overview of traditional Native American perspectives that reflects a mundane, yet sacred, relationship between the land and its people.

Let’s begin with a brief sketch of these peoples’ prehistory and early history. The Numic-speaking Paiutes and Utes were the first to arrive on the brown waters of the San Juan. Anthropologists argue about when the ancestors of these people set foot in the Four Corners area. Some believe there were two different migrations of Numic speakers, one around A.D. 1 and the second around A.D. 1150. The latter movement generally coincides with Anasazi abandonment of the San Juan basin, but evidence of turmoil between the two groups is sketchy. Other anthropologists believe the Southern Utes came much later; most agree that by the 1500s, both groups were well established in the region.1

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7 MINING: Black and Yellow Gold in Redrock Country

James M. Aton Utah State University Press ePub

Once a beautiful, well-dressed woman visited the home of a powerful stranger. The master of the house invited her inside, asking who she was. She replied that she was the goddess of wealth, which pleased the master, who in turn entertained her with kindness. Soon another woman appeared, but this one was ugly and dressed in rags. The master of the house inquired her name, and she answered that she was the goddess of poverty. The man became frightened and tried to drive her away, but she hesitated to leave. She explained, “The goddess of wealth is my sister. There is an agreement between us that we are never to live separately; if you chase me out, she has to go with me.” Disregarding this advice, the master evicted the ugly woman, only to have the woman of wealth also disappear.1

Wealth and poverty have always been close relatives, as this Buddhist fable points out. There is no better historic example of this truth than the exploitative attempts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to wrest resources from the Lower San Juan River. When obtaining riches seemed possible, the desert and tortuous rocky canyons along the river became a welcome Eldorado for the miner and oil man. When mineral wealth literally did not pan out, the ugly and desolate wretch was abandoned to her own devices. The outcast river wandered along its course uninterrupted, waiting to be rediscovered.

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CHAPTER THREE Exploration: From Exploitation to Recreation

James M. Aton Utah State University Press ePub

BLM river ranger Jim Wright rows toward shore to inspect a campsite.

When river runners today leave Sand Wash they may feel like they are entering Powell’s “Great Unknown.”

The river, narrowly confined, drove them onward with
horrible speed and a frightful roar.

—Voltaire, Candide (1759)

When today’s river runners row away from Sand Wash, they probably feel as if they are entering Powell’s “great unknown.” In personal terms, perhaps many are. Current boaters, however, have all the technologically advanced (some say decadent) equipment that Northwest River Supply’s and Cascade Outfitters’ catalogs can offer. They carry French presses to brew Peet’s coffee and battery-operated blenders to mix margaritas. They sleep on thick, inflated pads inside of tents designed to protect them from the hardest rainstorms and fiercest mosquitoes (though not bears). They use waterproof river maps that show rapids, explain and visualize relevant history, and indicate fine terrain details. Roughing it in comfort, they hardly qualify as Lewis and Clarks or John C. Fremonts.

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CHAPTER TWO Walls of Rock Art: Unfolding the Native Story

James M. Aton Utah State University Press ePub

Before the opening of the Ute Reservation in 1905, more people called Desolation home than at any time in the last century.

Tavaputs Fremont granaries are large, remotely located, and, in some cases, elaborately camouflaged.

O, you have lived in desolation here,
Unseen, unvisited, much to our shame.

—William Shakespeare, Love’s Labor’s Lost

When John Wesley Powell floated into and named Desolation Canyon in early July 1869, he described it as “a region of the wildest desolation.”1 Explorer and scientist Powell found the natural features of Desolation and Gray Canyons and the surrounding Tavaputs Plateau anything but inviting. Today, now that the last few settlers have departed, the area lives up to the dictionary’s literal definition of its name: devoid of inhabitants or deserted. Yet from thirteen thousand years ago through the opening of the Ute Reservation in 1905, more people called Desolation home than any time in the last century. Water drew people in.

Even in prehistoric times, Desolation Canyon and the Tavaputs Plateau were never the population centers that Mesa Verde was for the Ancestral Puebloans, commonly called Anasazi, or Utah Lake was for the Timpanogots Utes. Native American adaptation in Desolation was similar to that in Glen Canyon: overall the area was only sparsely occupied except for a fluorescence by Puebloan-like people generally included in the imprecise designation of Fremont between AD 1000 and 1300. It is also possible that groups prior to the Fremont used the area as much as they did: such earlier people were the Clovis, Folsom, and Archaic. The subsequent Shoshoneans or Numa—umbrella terms used to describe the ethnically related Northern and Southern Utes, Northern and Southern Paiutes, Goshutes, Shoshones, and Comanches—entered the region at least a few centuries before historical records. Utes definitely used the region, but at various times, Shoshones, Comanches, and Paiutes may have been there as well.

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