Those who came before: Basketmakers, Puebloans

The first Animas Valley residents of European descent found many ancient relics as they tilled and worked the soil. Later, Zink family members, often the children, discovered and were fascinated by the potsherds, metates (grinding stones) and pots on their land. The late-19th-century newcomers, as well as the Zinks, wondered at the artifacts’ origin. Answers are still coming to light.

Human beings have inhabited the Americas for nearly 20,000 years. Whether these newcomers from Asia who crossed the Bering Strait were running from something or heading to greener pastures is debatable. But this much has become clear during the last century of often-controversial archaeological research:

By 11,000 years ago they had reached present-day Colorado and New Mexico, and it’s possible they were here before that. The Folsom site in New Mexico, unearthed in 1926, dates to this era and is part of the Clovis Complex.[1]

Nothing that old has been discovered in La Plata County or the Animas Valley. But the ancestral Puebloans (earlier called the Anasazi) were here in full force. More than 14,000 sites have been documented in Southwest Colorado, the majority in Montezuma County but plenty in La Plata as well.[2]

When a man named Zeke Flora began digging up pots around the Animas Valley north of Durango in the 1930s, archaeologists took note. Little by little, they began to realize this was an important find.

Basketmaker II

Residents of the Animas Valley were growing corn more than 2,300 years ago.[3] They hung around in sandals weaved from yucca, and hunted with a spear-throwing device called an atlatl. They carried food in baskets made of yucca, sumac, and rabbitbrush. Mule deer provided meat, and also bones for a variety of intricate tools.[4]

The area around Trimble Hot Springs and up into Falls Creek is dotted with archaeological sites, explains former Fort Lewis College archaeologist Mona Charles, now grant project director at the Animas Museum in Durango. Many of these sites have been dated to the so-called Basketmaker II period, which extended from approximately 500-700 B.C. to 500 A.D.[5]

Two sites in Falls Creek, as well as the Talus Village site near Trimble, and the Darkmold site in the foothills just south of Trimble, are among only a handful of Basketmaker II sites found in Colorado. This area, which borders Waterfall Ranch, has become recognized as the epicenter of the Durango-area Basketmaker II population.

Archaeologist Earl Morris hired Flora and excavated the Falls Creek shelters from 1938-39 and Talus Village in 1940. Falls Creek proved to be a rich find. In 1937 a burial crevice was discovered there, and mummified remains included several “intact” bodies and a couple dozen in all. One mummy found, actually in 1934 by Flora, was named Esther, and one Jasper. We won’t get into the details here, but suffice to say that Esther and Jasper were poked, prodded, fought over, and moved around before their descendants, the Puebloan Indians, stepped in and made sure they were given proper burials.

Along with bodies, among the other finds were baskets (of course), bags, aprons, corn kernels, tools, and much more. The Southwest’s dry climate helped preserve items that elsewhere might have disintegrated. The Animas Valley discoveries changed the known prehistory of the whole region, Charles says.

“To this day the Durango Basketmakers are very, very famous throughout the Southwest.”

In 1939 Falls Creek Flats was excavated, and those remains were determined to be from around 700-900 A.D., the Pueblo I period.

The Talus Village site showed the Basketmakers had constructed shallow houses of logs on terraces as early as 231 B.C. Charles says this created an “aha!” moment, when archaeologists realized the Basketmakers, who ranged as far north as Tamarron, weren’t simply living in rock shelters.

And although baskets were their method of transporting items such as food, and animal hide bags were used for cooking, the Basketmaker II’s were beginning to make a transition.

“A few samples of crude, poorly fired pottery are known from this period, so it is evident that limited experimentation was going on,” E. Steve Cassells wrote about the Durango-area Basketmaker II dwellers in “Archaeology of Colorado.”

Darkmold, a more recent find, again changed how the Basketmakers are perceived. Fort Lewis College, under Mona Charles’ lead, made the site a field school from 1999-2008. Students sifted through, screening the dirt, and came up with 46,000 artifacts, Charles says. Almost all the finds were from the Basketmaker II period.

They were farmers, whose chief crop became corn – kernels have been dated to 360 B.C. Piñon nuts and sunflower seeds that were a staple for them remain a delicacy for some today. But the Basketmakers took advantage of other plants we only look at and admire now: squawbush berries, yucca fruit, oak acorns, and juniper fruit, for starters.

One draw for the Basketmakers was the hot springs. Undoubtedly they enjoyed it, particularly on cold winter nights, as we do today. Perhaps the springs were the most coveted resource the Basketmaker II people of the Animas Valley had. Mona Charles wonders if they might have made trades with others in the region – beads, rare stones, corals for a dip in our hot springs?

As the local archaeological excavations continued, a bit of a mystery developed. Almost nothing has been found in the Animas Valley dating from 500 to 700 A.D. So, where did they go? Did weather fluctuations render their corn-growing lifestyle difficult to maintain?

Charles thinks the Animas Valley population, probably never all that large, may have dwindled to the point where it was unsustainable. The small group may have gone south to join other bands in the region. Two of the largest civilizations of the period, and the most studied and well-known today, were at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and Mesa Verde. It’s possible they went to the Chaco or Mesa Verde areas, or to Navajo Reservoir, or farther west into what’s now northern Arizona and southeastern Utah.

Another gap developed, as almost nothing can be found that dates between 840 A.D. to the time the Utes showed up. In Western Colorado, Utes arrived around 1100.[6] Navajos entered the Southwest around the 1400s, but little evidence of them has been found north of New Mexico.[7] It has been established that the ancestral Puebloans’ descendants include the present-day Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and Rio Grande Indians.[8]

The Utes actually called themselves the Nuche, and were comprised of six main bands: Uintah, White River, Uncompahgre, Mouche, Caputa and Weenuchiu.[9] Later, the Spaniards called the Nuche the Yutas, after the Shining Mountains in which they lived.

The Europeans

Europeans landed in the Americas in the 1490s, but it took them a while to reach the Animas Valley. Spaniards settled in New Mexico by the early 1600s, and perhaps a few of them ventured up this way. The horses they brought filtered into the tribes, changing their lifestyle and ability to travel.

It is known that in 1765, Don Juan Maria de Rivera led a group from Santa Fe up into the San Juan Mountains,[10] and it is believed he crossed the Animas River near Durango. They were searching, unsurprisingly, for precious metals. They made contacts with the Utes and pumped them for information. It was around this time that area rivers were given Spanish names.

The next, best-documented visit was made by Dominguez and Escalante in 1776, coincidentally just as the thirteen colonies, a couple thousand miles away, were declaring their independence from Great Britain. Fathers Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, along with eight other men, a couple of whom had traveled with Rivera, also left from Santa Fe and came through the area later to be known as Durango. They were searching for a good route to settlements in California.

For the most part, the Utes were left to their own devices, periodically having to fend off Comanches or Apaches or Navajos or other tribes in the area.

Explorers and beaver pelt-seekers from the recently created United States began entering the San Juan Mountains around the 1820s. Gold discoveries in 1859 in the mountains along Colorado’s Front Range brought a rush of miners and fortune-seekers to Denver and Colorado Springs and the hills beyond.[11] The rush didn’t stop there. A year later, a group of American citizens would reach the Animas Valley and begin a very new phase of rapid development. This group was known as the Baker party.



[1] The Archaeology of Colorado, revised edition, E. Steve Cassells, 1997, Johnson Books, p. 51.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Information from 2017 exhibit at the Animas Museum, created by Mona Charles, the museum’s grant project director.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mona Charles, from talk given during a driving tour sponsored by the La Plata County Historical Preservation Review Commission, May 20, 2017.

[6] The Archaeology of Colorado, p. 241.

[7] The Archaeology of Colorado, p. 240.

[8] 2017 exhibit at the Animas Museum.

[9] Ibid.

[10] A Colorado History, ninth edition, Ubbelohde/Benson/Smith, 2006, Pruett Publishing Co., p. 15.

[11] A Colorado History, pp. 65-67.