On A Hilltop, Traces Of History

Fremont Indian State Park


Every morning, someone had to begin the process of hauling water up to the village from the river. Hauling water was a constant in life here, as was the struggle to grow enough food during the short frost-free season and find protection from unfriendly tribes.

Hauling water was strenuous and time consuming - it was all uphill from the stream to the village. The crops - corn, beans and squash - were down by the river and irrigated there, but water for cooking, cleaning, drinking and pottery had to be slung up the hill, bucket by bucket, in ceramic clay pots. To call it a village, though, is really not correct. For its time and location - about A.D. 1000, south-central Utah - this was really a metropolis. Over 100 structures dotted the serrated hilltop, and living conditions were crowded enough that some people had to move off the summit and downhill.

For such a population (perhaps as many as 300) to gather here, the living conditions must not have been too bad. It was the largest settlement of its kind for a week's walk, perhaps longer. Besides the river and the protective hilltop, the area was full of deer, fish, lizards and squirrels.

But how good was it? At some point, probably around A.D. 1250, everyone abruptly left.

1983 meets 1250

In the early 1980s the federal Department of Transportation began planning and preliminary work on the last stretch of Interstate 70: 30 miles through Clear Creek Canyon and the foothills of the Tushar Mountains. A slow and windy road was to be replaced with the four-lane super highway.

Out here in the West, large earth-moving projects often uncover pretty interesting things, and the transportation department had sent ahead a group of archeologists to pan the future roadway, looking for signs of pre-historic occupation. Scientists found evidence of past inhabitation in a place called Icicle Cave where pictographs, petroglyphs and pottery shards suggested human occupation in the area stretched back to 5000 B.C.

The find was significant, though not extraordinary. Still, schools down in Richfield brought students to see the cave and get a short field lesson on the area's ancient history. One schoolboy went home and told his dad about the adventure, and that got the dad to thinking and remembering. A few days later, he called Brigham Young University and U.S. Forest Service archaeologists and told them about what he thought was an Indian burial ground he knew of atop a hill. The hill was to be dynamited and removed for the new highway.

Four days before Christmas, in December of 1983, the scientists visited that hilltop and found not a burial ground but what appeared to be a significant Fremont Indian village - probably the largest ever found.

Rock Carving Surveying and excavation of the site began just after Christmas and by spring of 1984 scientists and students had uncovered over 100 structures, including 60 homes, 40 granaries and even some covered pottery making areas. Ceramic materials and ancient fabrics were found - often nearly intact - and gradually the scientists pieced together the story of what we now call Five Fingers Ridge. The size of the village forced scientists to rethink earlier assumptions they had made about Fremont culture.

Off all the prehistoric peoples in the West, the Fremont Indians are one of the most mysterious. These people left behind relatively sophisticated and artistic artifacts such as carved rock, carved bone, rock art and pottery. Long before the arrival of the Americans they traveled across the Intermountain West and traded with Indians living along the Pacific Ocean. But then the Fremont disappeared - quite suddenly, it seems - and no trace of what became of them has been found. If they had a language, we have never heard it. If they had rituals, they are lost. If they had a religion, it is dead.

A New Park

Scientists had to hurry to complete their work before the highway came through. Five Fingers Ridge was excavated and recorded and artifacts were removed. Elsewhere in beautiful Clear Creek Canyon, more evidence of habitation and travel were found. One cave had dozens of handprints. Surrounding cliffs sported hundreds of carvings and paintings. Hidden granaries were discovered.

Bulldozers tore into Five Fingers Ridge. Today, only a small part of it remains - locals say during the winter it has become one of the best sledding hills in the county. In 1986 the artifacts were moved into a new museum across the street and the surrounding canyon dedicated a state park.

Fremont Indian State Park is one of those gems in Utah no one seems to know about. When you have half a dozen national parks, who needs a dinky state park? Thousands drive past it each day on their way to Zion or Bryce Canyon.

They would be wise to stop.

Park Particulars:

Cave of 100 Hands Fremont Indian State Park sports an excellent museum (entrance fee: $3 per person; my favorite things were the moccasins and the scale model hilltop village with lights to show where different structures were) and visitors center (which itself has some very interesting and hard-to-find books for sale, such as an Indian cookbook and a two-volume book set with photos of every rock art panel in the state). The canyon itself has over 500 rock art panels, some marked and accessible by hiking trails and others purposefully left unmarked. There are about a dozen hiking trails, none longer than an hour long. (Unfortunately, some of the trails are so poorly marked you practically need a guide to help you figure out where they are.) One of the trials is paved and barrier-free.

There is a 31-site campground with running water and bathrooms. There is one mountain biking trail. Rock climbing is not encouraged due to soft rock. The nearby 12,000-foot high Tushar Mountains have ample hiking, biking and skiing.

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