A steady stream of people flowed through the doorway of the Log Chapel at the Frisco Historic Park on a recent Wednesday, squeezing into every available space, as park director Simone Belz set up additional chairs in the aisle. A few walked up to the door, took a glance inside and departed, mumbling that they should have gotten there earlier.
A few minutes after noon, Belz closed the doors to cut off the line of stragglers still peering in, hoping for a last-minute spot, then walked to the front of the chapel and introduced Curtis Martin, with the Dominquez Archaeological Research Group out of Grand Junction.
Martin is the principal investigator for the Colorado Wickiup Project, a group of archaeologists tasked with finding and cataloging all types of what he described as “aboriginal wooden features” left behind by the Ute tribes of Native Americans between 1500 and the 1920s.
“The Utes were in other areas, but I’m only going to talk about Colorado because my funding runs out at the Colorado border,” he said to a few chuckles from the crowd.
Artifacts and shelters
Martin started with a bit of history about the Utes, reaching back to the days before horses and even before bows and arrows, when the Native Americans migrated with the deer, elk and bison herds, hunting with stone-tipped spears and foraging for seeds and berries. They traveled in small family groups, generally between 12 and 20 people, and constructed temporary shelters called wikiups, conical structures about 4 feet tall made of tree branches. These shelters were built only to last a night or two, or maybe a week or possibly a season, and then they would be abandoned when the group moved on.
“Don’t think of these as houses, think of them as bedrooms,” Martin said, pointing at a slide of one of the wickiups his team found intact.
He flipped through a few more slides, describing how trappers brought trade goods from the Europeans up through the Americas and into the mountains, where the Utes traded hides for glass seed beads, metal spear and arrow tips and, eventually, guns. The trade goods showed up long before the Utes ever saw any white people, Martin said, and with the goods also came horses.
“The horse changed everything,” he said. “It was like the difference between us riding a tricycle and being in a Cadillac.”
The horse allowed the Utes to develop new types of shelters that could be carried on a travois dragged behind the animal. Prior to having horses, they were limited to only what they could pack themselves or have their dogs drag on small sleds. This advancement marked a change in the Utes’ shelter structures, from the rough-hewn wikiups to teepees supported by beautifully pealed poles that could be carried from place to place.
Because so many of the wikiups have fallen down or been lost completely to the natural cycle of decay, it’s critical to get out and record the remaining structures before they are gone. In all, Martin said, the Colorado Wickiup Project has documented 422 wooden features on 84 sites since 2004, ranging from early wikiups to utility poles used to dry hides and hang other items out of reach of animals to tree platforms, sweat lodges and summer shade structures.
Martin’s team is learning about how the structures were built and how they were used and has been in close contact with the Ute nation to figure out how or if the wikiups should be preserved. Through his research, he’s been able to share information with the Utes about their own culture, which he said is very rewarding.
“It’s wonderful for me to see my work being taught by the Ute elders to their children,” he said. “The work I do is about the people.”
Martin’s presentation was part of the Historic Park’s Lunchtime Lecture series. Presented by various local and regional experts, the lectures cover topics from mining and railroads to more modern events such as the construction of the dam and the Dillon Reservoir. The events happen at noon each Wednesday at the Historic Park, and as evidenced by the crowd gathered to listen to Martin, they are very popular.
“I think they’re a nice program to offer in the summer during the day that is convenient for folks during their busy schedules in the summer,” Belz said. “Before or after they recreate, they want something to do that’s cultural. They can come, sit down, relax, enjoy the museum and take part in a free program.
“Our venue is small, but one of the goals of the programs that we do here on site is to promote the museum and provide opportunities for people to come.”
Belz said the events are first come, first seated, so she encourages people to come early to grab a seat, and the participation size varies, though most lectures fill up. The events are kept at the Historic Park to maintain museum staffing during the presentations, rather than traveling off site and having to split the small staff or close the museum during the events.
“I think coming to museum presentations and listening to oral history is so important,” Belz said. “It’s important to listen to stories of history, it’s important to participate in cultural amenities, especially when they are free, so you really learn more about your heritage.
“All of the topics that we plan are usually connected to Frisco and its heritage, so that participants go away hopefully knowing something new about their community in the past, present and in the future.”
Matchless Silver Mine
The next presenter on the program, scheduled to speak on Wednesday, July 2, is Sarah Saxe, curator of the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum in Leadville. Saxe will talk about the Matchless Silver Mine near Leadville. She said many people know the story of Horace Tabor, who owned the mine, and his wife, Baby Doe, but not many know much about the mine itself.
“I plan on taking sort of a different approach: the history of the Matchless Mine before, during and after the silver boom in Leadville,” Saxe said. “I’ll call on different types of evidence: historical, archaeological and geological.”
Saxe said an intern at the mining museum has created Matchless educational kits, containing artifacts that have been found on the property. She hopes to have a hands-on section to her presentation.
“People can hold the artifacts and be their own archaeologists, raise questions and connect with the property that way rather than just listen to a speech,” she said.
This will be Saxe’s first time speaking for the Lunchtime Lecture series, and she said she’s a little nervous but mostly excited for the event. She’s attended similar seminars at other museums and said they seem like a popular way to get people involved with local history.
“It doesn’t cost anything, it’s informal, and it’s a great way for people to ask questions and dive into history in a way that you can’t at a museum because the curator or presenter is right there,” she said. “It’s a great education tool and outreach; maybe we’ll give it a try here in the future.”