A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Closely guarded ruins on a cattle ranch may unlock the secrets of a Great Basin culture.
It was a secret few could keep: magnificent ruins untouched by relic hunters and barely known to archaeologists. Yet Waldo Wilcox, an old-time cattle rancher in central Utah, kept the secret for more than half a century. So did his wife, his children, and his father before him. For three generations, their cattle grazed by ancient pit houses surrounded by neat lines of rocks marking prehistoric property lines. The children played near perfectly preserved rock-art paintings. White and amber colored stone tools carved by a mysterious Native American tribe lay scattered on the ground. While the Wilcoxes kept mum, the ruins remained safe, hidden on a remote 4,000-acre ranch called Range Creek. Though the nearest paved road is an hour away, Wilcox put up gates and "road closed" signs just in case pot hunters learned of the artifacts littering the ranch.
"It did not belong to us. If those people wanted to leave their things there, I thought we should leave them alone," says Wilcox, sitting in a chair under a stuffed head of a bighorn sheep that hangs on the wall of his mobile home in Green River, Utah, about an hour south of his old ranch. He wears battered jeans and scuffed gray cowboy boots. When he tells stories of Range Creek, he flashes a big white grin.
In the past few years, Wilcox decided he was too old to care for Range Creek, so after long negotiations he sold it to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for $2.5 million. It was then that the Wilcox family secret was revealed: Range Creek holds some of the purest archaeological evidence of the mysterious and enigmatic Fremont Indians, a Great Basin culture that thrived for more than a thousand years.
Currently Range Creek is overseen by Corinne Springer, an archaeologist from the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah. This spring she moved into Waldo Wilcox's former ranch home, a small house nestled in a shady spot and surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The awesome 9,000-foot-tall Book Cliff Mountains that surround Springer's house look like they were carved by an eccentric sculptor who piled boulders atop narrow pillars of rock.
"There are so many sites here, and most are undisturbed," says Springer. "Range Creek is a microcosm of the Fremont world."
Archaeologists estimate that several small communities of farmers and foragers lived at Range Creek 1,000 years ago, about the same time the Anasazi inhabited the Four Corners area some 300 miles to the south. The ruins are perhaps the best cared-for record of the Fremont Indians that exists. No excavations have begun yet, but archaeologists are working on documenting the approximately 300 sites that exist at the ranch. Renee Barlow, an assistant professor of anthropology at Salt Lake Community College and one of the main field researchers at Range Creek, says that as of the summer of 2004, archaeologists have found four pit house villages with five to 12 structures each, 16 individual pit houses, 50 sites with rock-art petroglyphs, anthropomorphs, and animals, and 38 granaries. At least another 150 sites remain to be cataloged.
Melissa Sanford, a freelance journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah, regularly writes for The New York Times and produces news segments for CBS.