The Utes: Dwellers of the Turquoise Sky |

The Utes: Dwellers of the Turquoise Sky

Mary Ellen Gillilandspecial to the daily

In 4,800 B.C., over 6,800 years ago, a proud caravan of nomad mountain Indians, the free-roaming Utes, scaled Vail Pass from the west. Open meadows at the summit provided the Indians with a rich hunting ground. They set up their hunting camp at the top, built fires and chipped out stone weapon points for an upcoming game hunt. Archeologists found their tools in 1975.The dark-skinned Utes, short, stocky and muscular hunters, would later descend the pass into Summit’s Ten Mile Canyon enroute to the favorite camping spots in the Blue River Valley, a gentle land they called Nah-oon-kara. From there, an age-old trail led over Hoosier Pass toward South Park and its vast buffalo herds. The Utes roamed all over Summit County, which formerly encompassed a huge area, stretching all the way to the present Utah border.Centuries later, in the year 1881, another caravan of Utes plodded dejectedly west toward the Colorado-Utah border, urged forward by United States militia. The Indians had inhabited their high country homeland for at least 10,000 years, according to documented recent archeological discoveries. Incredible, but true, the friendly Utes were driven out by gold-seeking white prospectors within about 20 years of their 1859 gold rush arrival in the Indians’ ancestral homeland. The White River Utes, who inhabited our Blue River Valley, departed their Colorado home forever in September, 1881, for final encampment in Utah’s Uintah Indian Reservation.Perhaps they whispered a last good-bye to Nah-oon-kara, translated roughly as “where the river of blue rises.” There nature had provided for the Utes in abundance. In what is now Summit County, elk, antelope, mountain sheep, deer, beaver, bear, rabbit, squirrel, and grouse abounded. Trout crowded swift mountain streams.The Indians found more than small game and fish here. Buffalo, the mainstay of western Indian life, roamed Summit County in large herds. (“The country was literally alive with buffalo,” U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers explorer Colonel John Fremont reported in his diary while passing through the Blue Valley in 1843.) But nearby South Park hosted even greater herds of the much-used beast. The presence of salt marshes in South Park, deposited by an ancient inland sea, plus the proliferation of buffalo grasses even in cold months, made South Park a buffalo habitat.Nature also shared her bounteous garden with the wandering Utes. Mountainsides blossomed forth wild raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, currants and rose hips, which the Utes combined with dried powdered meat for the winter’s supply of pemmican.Scientists Carbon-date Ute CampsitesUntil recently, little was known of Ute history in Summit County. But the Indians left an archeological record at their Vail Pass campsite and 1-70 highway archeological advance crews unearthed it. Utes hunted elk, deer and antelope at the summit for thousands of years before the time of Christ. Their hearth fires, layered one atop another over centuries, provided evidence for today’s scientists. (Radio carbon tests on these hearth charcoals in 1975 proved the ancient beginnings of the continuously-used 10,580-foot Vail Pass camp, highest known site of Indian activity in Colorado.) Also uncovered at the stratified Indian campsite were bone fragments of elk, deer and bison, arrowheads, Indian ceramics and tool fragments. A test excavation produced fragmented wood scrapers, knives, hammer stones and choppers.Archeologist John Gooding, who supervised the Vail Pass dig for the Colorado Department of Highways, speculated in a local newspaper that Indian hunting bands traveled to Vail Pass, killed and dressed an abundance of game and returned home with their meat. Bone fragments from big game animals remained in great number. Indians broke down animal bones to remove the nutritious bone marrow, Gooding said. They left the fragments over the one-quarter mile camp area now the site of an Interstate 70 highway rest area. The archeological site, covered by rest area construction, contains the Stone Age history of the campsite, used regularly from about 4,800 B.C. till about 1760 A.D. …”SUMMIT” is available in local bookstores and at Mary Ellen Gilliland’s eight local books include a humorous county history titled,”Colorado Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods,” and “The New Summit Hiker.”

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