Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/March 1880/Prehistoric Ruins in Southern Colorado

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620664Popular Science Monthly Volume 16 March 1880 — Prehistoric Ruins in Southern Colorado1880Henry Gannett



FROM the southern and western slopes of the San Juan Mountains, in southwestern Colorado, stretches far to the south and west a strange country. It is a country of plateaus and cañons—of plateaus whose surfaces are flat and unbroken for miles on miles; as far as one can see, the country presents a monotonous level, but is cut here and there by deep, almost impassable, cañons. As we recede from the mountains, these plateaus, which are there covered with piñion pine and sage, become more sterile, and finally vegetation ceases, except in isolated spots, and the surface is bare rock or drifting sand—a very Sahara.

The Rio San Juan heads in the southern slopes of the San Juan Mountains, and, flowing at first south, at a distance of about fifty miles turns west and keeps this course generally to its mouth. It flows through the middle of this desert country, fertilizing a narrow belt along its course.

In the region drained by this river there is little water. Of the branches which enter it from the north, there is but one stream west of the La Plata which succeeds in reaching the main river. This is the Rio Mancos. All the others, and they are numerous, start from the mountains as large, clear, beautiful streams. They reach the plateau; the water becomes discolored, alkaline, and in a few miles disappears. The dry atmosphere and the parched earth have absorbed it, and a dry cañon alone remains to mock the thirsty traveler. Reaching the edge of one of these cañons, five hundred or perhaps a thousand feet deep, with precipitous sides, one experiences a feeling akin to superstitious fear when, after descending to the bottom, and fully expecting to hear the rushing of a torrent of crystal water, he finds only a stream-bed of hot, glistening sand. The feeling is the same which one has on seeing any other monstrosity. Why this great cañon carved out of solid rock? Where is the agent which has produced such stupendous effects?

Doubtless in the early spring, when the snows in the high mountains and on their lower slopes yield to the power of the sun, these stream-beds are for a short time—a week or two, perhaps—each filled with a rushing torrent; but, like the people who once dwelt near them, the perennial streams, which in time past cut these gorges, have disappeared. Throughout this vast region, with the exception of the streams mentioned, the only water to be had is in springs and in water-holes, where rain-water, protected from the ardent rays of the sun, remains for a time. The sources of supply are precarious, and, without a knowledge of their location, one might travel for days without finding water.

Scattered over the region are the remains of a long-forgotten people—a people which, judging from the few relics left for our study, possessed a far higher degree of civilization than the wild tribes now roaming the country, higher than the Moquis and Pueblos of the present day, yet resembling them in many respects. We find the remains of their homes, their houses of stone, in various places and of various kinds: some, the homes of a happy, contented people, in full security, leading a pastoral life; others, mere houses built for shelter and defense in stormy times, as protection from the invader, for concealment, and for open defense. The general outline of their history is written in characters of stone all over the country.

The northern limit of their settlements seems to have been near north latitude 38°. Farther north than this no evidences of their occupation have been discovered, although exploring parties have examined the country thence to the Grand River. Toward the south and west their dwellings have been found in Utah, throughout Arizona, and in New Mexico as far east as the Rio Grande. But here, on the Rio San Juan and its tributaries, seems to have been a center of population. In this country, over a large area, the villages are quite near together, showing that it was comparatively densely peopled. Their remains consist of buildings in various stages of decay and dilapidation—cemeteries, pottery, most of it in a fine state of division, arrowheads, a little wicker-work, stone tools of various sorts, partially carbonized grain, corn-cobs, etc., and a few specimens of human remains.

The ruined buildings are, as was stated briefly above, of two general classes, representing two different periods in this ancient history, that of peaceful occupation, and that of invasion by a foreign power and of final expulsion of this people from their homes. All of these structures are of stone, dressed with more or less care, or chosen with reference to size and shape. There is little or no rough rubble-work. In all, the stones are set in adobe mortar, which has great cohesive power, as is shown in several examples.

The first class of structures is found on the fertile bottom-lands, close to water, and they are not arranged with the least regard to defense or security. They were the homes of an agricultural people, and were doubtless surrounded by fields of waving maize and orchards of peach-trees, while herds of goats pastured on the lower slopes of the mesa. The men labored in the fields, and took care of the herds; the women assumed the household duties, wove blankets, and molded pottery. But these happy days came to an end: the invader descended from the north and sought to drive them from their country. Long and deadly was the fray. They were driven from the fertile bottom-lands, and were forced to build houses, like the swallows, in cracks and crannies of the cliffs, wellnigh inaccessible from above or below; or they built strong fortifications on the mesas. But all was of no avail. One by one their warriors fell; step by step they were driven southward, until at last, totally discouraged and disheartened, and with ranks terribly thinned, they abandoned the homes of their fathers, and wandered southward, some to build on almost inaccessible heights—the Moquis towns of the present day—some to wander to the site of Zuni, others to the Rio Grande, where their descendants are found to-day: but, as is so often the case with a people forcibly transplanted from their native soil, they have deteriorated from their former state of civilization.

The buildings most frequently met with are rectangular or circular. The commonest form for dwelling-houses is the rectangle. In all cases where possible the dwellings are semi-communistic—that is, each of the houses is very large, intended to contain a number of families, but is divided into many rooms. In some cases, these dwellings, especially in agricultural towns, are from one to two hundred feet in length. At Aztec Spring, a few miles north of the San Juan, is a very large town, built in one mass, and covering 480,000 square feet. In the midst of this, one building, standing by itself, seems to be the principal house of the town, judging by its dimensions, thickness of its walls, and the care displayed in dressing and laying the stone; also by the presence of a circular room, which, as will be seen hereafter, is their temple and council-house. On the La Plata there is a large agricultural settlement, very much dilapidated, which consists mainly of houses of this kind. The largest of these is one hundred by one hundred and fifty feet. These dwelling-houses seem to have been very similar to those in the pueblos of the present day. A high wall was built, inclosing a rectangular space. The house was built all around the interior of this wall, which thus became the back wall of the house. In the interior was a rectangular court, on which the house opened. There were no openings for egress or ingress through the wall; the only way to obtain admission being to climb over the wall, by a ladder, and descend in the same manner to the court. The house was divided into many rooms, and, except in a few cases, they did not connect with one another directly.

None of the ruins of these houses thus far examined are in such a condition as to enable one to determine whether they had more than one story. In the pueblos of the present day they are found of three and even four stories in height.

In the towns built in time of war, for defensive purposes, these dwellings are usually much smaller than in the former case, and could have accommodated comparatively few persons: but this is due to the circumstances of building-site solely; for everything in their history shows them to have been a gregarious people. These towns were evidently built later, and in many cases are so situated as to be much better sheltered from the elements, and naturally are found in a much better state of preservation than the former.

In every village, whose site would admit of it, these people have built one or more cylindrical towers, which seem, to have been used as council-houses or temples, or both. The walls are generally double, a tower within a tower, and, in one or two cases observed, there is a third tower. The space between them, several feet in width, is divided by radial partitions into rooms. Within the inner tower, the ground is excavated, forming an hemispherical depression. Here it has been supposed that the eternal fire was kept; and it has been suggested that the circular section of the building was intended to symbolize the sun, the object of their worship. These buildings are, in all cases, the most thoroughly constructed; their walls are thicker and of larger and better-dressed stones than in any other buildings. Structures quite similar to these are found in the pueblos of the present day, and are used for the purposes above mentioned. They are always found in agricultural towns, and in fortified towns on the summits of mesas, but in most collections of the cliff-houses and in the cave-dwellings they are of necessity absent.

Well-preserved specimens of these structures have been found on the edge of the mesa above the San Juan, a few miles from the mouth of the Mancos. Here there are two towers on the very edge of the mesa, so close that the outer walls are not complete, but are open toward the cliff. In the smaller of these towers, the outer wall is twenty-two feet in diameter, the inner twelve feet. In the larger tower, the diameters of the walls are respectively one hundred and forty and one hundred and twenty-three feet. Both are much broken down, so that the original height can not be estimated. In the face of the cliff, directly beneath these towers, are several cave-dwellings connected with the top of the cliff by steps cut in its face.

In the cañon of the Mancos, on the river-bottom, are the ruins of a large tower, the diameters of whose walls are respectively forty-three and twenty-five feet.

On a low bench near the McElms, a dry cañon which heads in the plateau, and enters the San Juan below the mouth of the Mancos, is a large settlement. On one side of the town is a large tower, remarkable as having triple walls, whose diameters are respectively forty-five, thirty-five, and fifteen feet. The space between the outer and middle walls is divided by partition-walls, while that between the middle and inner walls is not. In this and all other such structures there are no openings through the walls into the interior apartment. Access to it was had probably through a subterranean passage, as has been observed in at least one case.

Connected with the agricultural and mesa towns are, in many cases, watch-towers usually of circular form, perched on fragments of rocks in commanding positions, whence the approach of enemies can be detected. These are small and with single walls. In the neighborhood of some agricultural settlements are holes dug in the earth, and the earth thrown up in heaps in front, as in rifle-pits. They probably were made for a similar use.

The rocks of which the cañon cliffs are composed are of sandstone and shale. The former is hard and is acted on by the elements slowly, while the latter is easily disintegrated. Hence it is common to find that strata pathways up the cliff have disintegrated faster than those above and below, leaving horizontal crevices of greater or less height and depth. These crevices have been utilized by these people, when hard pressed by their enemies, as strongholds. They built walls across the whole fronts, leaving only little holes for egress and ingress, light and air. Thus walled in, their position was absolutely impregnable from above or below. It is astonishing in what a limited space these beings contrived to exist; some of these cave-dwellings are scarcely large enough for a man to crawl into.

More pretentious than these are the cliff-houses, which are built in similar situations, differing only in the height of the crevices. Many excellent examples of these have been found. They are generally well preserved, as their situations protect them in great measure from the elements. There are several in the cañon of the Rio Mancos. In one place there is quite a large village, consisting of a series of rooms opening toward the back of the crevice, and with a smooth wall in front, broken only by a few small openings for air and light. Near the middle is the council-chamber, a circular room, as elsewhere, entered only by a very long, low, covered way, or tunnel, built of masonry. This is one of the very few cases where, in similar locations, there was more space than was absolutely essential for mere existence, and the extra space was forthwith devoted to this building, which shows that to it they attached great importance.

Above this village is a crevice similar to the one in which it is built, and this has been utilized as kitchen and storehouse, as is shown by beans and corn which have been found there in a good state of preservation. In the main village whole earthen pots have been found. It is a rare occurrence to find whole vessels, though fragments of them are as plentiful on the mesa as leaves in Vallambrosa's shades.

In another place in this cañon there is a single house high up on the cliffs, which rise still higher above it. It is of two stories. The remarkable feature about it is that the outside is covered with plaster, and painted to resemble the adjacent rock, in red and yellow grays, in the hope of avoiding detection. The insides of the front rooms in each story also are plastered and colored a deep maroon red, with a dingy-white band. Adjacent to it is a cistern to catch and hold the water which trickles down the rocks.

The Casa del Eco is one of the largest of these cliff villages. It is in the cañon of the San Juan, about twelve miles below the mouth of the Montezuma, a dry cañon which heads in the Sierra Abajo. The cañon-cliffs at this place are about two hundred feet high. A vertical and horizontal section of the cliff both present the form of a semi-circle; in other words, there is here a cave, in the form of a hemisphere. Along an horizontal curve which passes through its deepest part is a stratum of harder rock, ten feet wide at its widest part, making a projecting shelf, on which is perched the single row of houses of which the town consists. Here the people were entirely protected from attack from above, as the overhanging wall of the cliff projects at least one hundred feet. Below, the slope is extremely steep, making approach in that direction slow and tedious; and, finally, the shelf on which the town stands projects so far that it is wellnigh impossible to get on it without outside aid. The main building of the town, the council-house, is, in this case, rectangular, forty feet by ten, and twelve feet high. It is built in two stories, and each is divided into three rooms. The floor-beams of the second story are of the cedar so common in the country at present, prepared merely by stripping off the bark. Whether these houses had roofs, it is impossible to say. In so protected a situation as this they would be of little use.

In the mortar of these houses there has been detected the imprint of the fingers of the builders, showing even the fine lines of the texture of the skin, and in one or more places the impress of a complete hand. Their hands appear to have been smaller than the average. Indeed, everything tends to show that this was a race of small stature.

To gain access to these elevated abodes, the people made use of ladders, and of niches which they cut in the rocks.

The amount of labor involved in the construction of these towns was, for a people so absolutely dependent on their own unaided labor, enormous. In some of the cliff-houses, the stones had to be carried for hundreds of feet, up precipitous walls, where the only footing was by holes which they had cut in the rock. All the stone used in the enormous buildings at Aztec Spring was brought from the foot of a cliff fully a mile away, and this without the aid of beasts of burden.

Fragments of pottery are found everywhere. Indeed, it is slight exaggeration to say that the plateaus are paved with them. One may ride for miles with the constant accompaniment of the ring of the horse's hoof against the relics of the ancients. The amount of pottery which this people used was enormous. It would seem that careless servants are not among the innovations of the nineteenth century. Few whole vessels have been found; few, even, of large fragments. These vessels are variously ornamented. The surfaces of some are corrugated, apparently with the thumb-nail; on some, raised figures are seen; others, and these are by far the most abundant, are glazed, and covered with all conceivable figures, rudely painted.

The pottery resembles very much that made by the Moquis and other similar people to-day, but is in many respects superior to it. Arrow-heads seem to have been another staple article of manufacture, judging from the abundance of the specimens. They are made of varieties of quartz; and beautiful specimens, made of smoky quartz, chalcedony, moss agate, and opal, have been found.

The cemeteries which have been examined present a family resemblance. The graves, or family lots they may be, are surrounded by flat stones, set on edge in the earth. The little lots thus marked out are rectangular in shape, with sides six to ten feet in length. Several of these were opened, but nothing was found except a little charcoal.

With regard to the age of these ruins, and the date of the occupation of this country by these people, little has yet been learned. The erosion of cliffs in the neighborhood of the cliff-houses gives no satisfactory data on which to found an estimate. The cemeteries and some of the ruins are overgrown by large pines and cedars, some of them a foot or more in diameter. The Moquis and Pueblos have no traditions concerning these people, who were undoubtedly their ancestors. But neither of these facts gives more than the very general idea that the date of their occupation of the country was several centuries ago.

The ruins are, in many cases, found several miles from the nearest water—a fact which shows conclusively that at the time when these dwellings were inhabited the country was better watered than now. It has been suggested that these houses were inhabited only for a part of the year, when the streams were high from the spring freshets; but, as the structures are of stone, built with great labor, and in a permanent manner, and as the season when there is water in the streams is at most of but a few weeks' duration, the theory seems scarcely tenable. Moreover, within the observation of white men, the amount of water has decreased. Springs, which a very few years ago were important watering-places for travelers, have decreased in size, and in a few cases have dried up. Still, at that time the climate, though less arid, was in a measure such as it is now, since we find the timber used for beams, etc., in the houses, is the same species of cedar now so abundant on the plateaus—a species peculiar to a dry climate.

The study of the ancient inhabitants of America is one of surpassing interest, and the deep mystery in which the past is wrapped only adds to the zest with which we strive to draw the veil away. But thus far little has been discovered. We know that at some time, far back in the dim past, a great people lived in the Mississippi Valley; that they built there enormous structures, mere traces of which remain, scarcely enough to mock at the seeker after their history. Whence they came, and whither they went, we know not. In the Southwestern Territories we find these structures of a semi-civilized people—whether the same as the mound-builders, no one can tell. No one knows their earlier history; their later history has been sketched in its general features.