Cultural Resources Study
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The following is an overview of the prehistoric and historic resources of the Lower Pecos River region. You will find detailed information in appendixes. Determinations of scientific significance are based upon significance criteria of the National Register of Historic Places; and NPS-28, the National Park Service guideline for cultural resources management.

Another important aspect of resource significance is the meaning these resources may have to contemporary American Indian groups. Consultation with Indian tribes who may have traditional associations with the resources of the Lower Pecos remains to be done. The National Pork Service will begin an ethnographic study of West Texas, including the Lower Pecos, in 1995.

Pecos River, 16-feet red-painted anthropomorphic figure at Panther Cave. Source: David Muench



Lower Pecos River region rock art is considered by experts to be world class, and comparable in significance to sites in Europe, Australia, and America's Baja California. Additionally, the region contains some of the oldest dated, and best preserved archeological deposits in North America:

1. With 250-plus known sites within a 100-square-mile area, the Lower Pecos River region is among the densest concentrations of Archaic rock art in the New World.

2. The area's dry rockshelters harbor an unparalleled record of human prehistory that spons nearly 12,000 years.

3. Lower Pecos River region pictographs (paintings on rock faces) are among the largest polychromatic (multicolored) images in North America: some reach more than 13 feet (4m) tall; some are clustered in panels extending over 100 feet (20m) along the rear walls of rockshelters.

Source: Texas Archeological Research Laboratory. Arehosa Shelter, Pecos River.

4. The remoteness of the Lower Pecos River region has kept vandalism of the pictographs to a minimum.

5. An experimental technique that is currently used to date rock art sites around the world was developed by Texas A&M University scientists at Amistad National Recreation Area, as part of the national recreation area's Volunteers-In-Parks (VIP) scientific research program.

6. Four major prehistoric styles and one historic pictograph style are represented in the Lower Pecos River region, with the oldest style tentatively dated as far back as 3,500-4,500 years before the present.

7. The quantity of the area's rock art sites, and the size, variety, and preservation of the paints used in Lower Pecos River region rock art have few parallels in the New World.

Source: Texas Archeological Research Laboratory. Bonfire Shelter Excavations.

8. The long, continuous occupation of the Lower Pecos River region may well have begun before 10,000 B.C., and continued in vary ing forms until the end of the 19th century.

9. At Bonfire Shelter, the remains of 100-plus bison antiquus or occidentalis date back to nearly 9000 B.C., and represent one of North America's oldest known bison jump sites (sites where herds of bison were stampeded off cliffs as a killing method).

10. The preservation of archeological remains in the region's many dry rockshelters is astonishing. Preserved fiber materials allow researchers to study aspects of prehistoric material culture unavailable to most scientists in the United States.

11. Amistad National Recreation Area has a museum collection of artifacts from more than 200 sites and 22 major excavations that is estimated to contain more than 1 million objects.

12. The park's Federally-owned museum collection has one of the largest Archaic sandal assemblages in the National Park Service.

13. Evidence of the oldest known dated use of peyote in the New World (5000 B.C.) was found in a dry rockshelter in the Lower Pecos River region.

Source: Ancient Texans, Illustration by George Strickland. Lower Pecos, sandals.


For convenience and presentation, Lower Pecos River region prehistory has been divided into four broad time periods, each characterized by a variety of traits ranging from economics, to projectile point styles (often considered time markers, because the age of common Lower Pecos River region point styles has been determined by radiocarbon dating), to pictograph styles. The exact beginning and ending dates assigned to these time periods are arbitrary, because the transition from one stage to the next was often slow and gradual: The Paleolndian occupation (before 7000 B.C.) occurred at the end of the Pleistocene (Ice Age), when large game animals, now extinct, still roamed the Lower Pecos region. As the climate became more arid, the human populations adapted to a semi-desert environment, developing the cultural traits characteristic of the Archaic Period (7000 B.C. to A.D. 600). Sometime around A.D. 600 to A.D. 1000, changes such as the adoption of the bow and arrow signaled the advent of the Late Prehistoric Period (A.D. 600 to 1600). The coming of the first Europeans at the close of the 16th century marks the end of prehistory and the beginning of the Historic Period.

Archealogy provides us with ways of understanding aspects of the lifeways of these prehistoric hunters and gatherers. For example, rockshelter refuse tells us much about their activities, technology, and diet. Mapping the distribution of known sites across the landscape tells us about preferences in choosing sites for open-air camps, and for one rockshelter over another. And from archeological evidence, we know that these prehistoric peoples were hunters and gatherers who appear to have had very little trade or contact with other contemporaneous groups in the U.S. or Mexico. Hunting and foraging were always the mainstays of the Lower Pecos economy, ranging in scale from mass kills of herd animals to trapping of small rodents, mammals, and lizards, and roasting of desert plants such as yucca and agave. All current information indicates that, throughout prehistory, the Lower Pecos people remained nomadic—moving from place to place according to the seasonal availability of food, water, and other resources.

Source: Ancient Texans, Illustration by George Strickland. Short-term habitation site.

The fascinating rock art of the Lower Pecos River region offers us glimpses into the cognitive, esthetic, and ideological worlds of native peoples. In terms of archeology, four major prehistoric pictograph styles have been defined, and several minor styles proposed. The styles can be arranged in chronological order, beginning with the elaborate, polychrome Pecos River style, which is generally thought to be between 3,000 and 4,000 years old. The miniature Red Linear pictographs are probably more recent, but their span may overlap with the older style. The two latest prehistoric styles—the Red Monochrome and the Bold Line Geometrics—are believed to be Late Prehistoric in age, dating sometime after A.D. 600 and before A.D. 1600. Some historic pictographs, painted in a style characteristic of the Plains Indians, can be more precisely dated, but many miscellaneous panels can not be assigned to any specific group, to any defined style, or to even the broadest time range. Nor is it likely that any exact translation of rock art symbols into our frame of reference will ever be within our reach—or that we will ever be able to completely understand the supernatural world of the aboriginal mind. The people and the culture that produced these pictographs are extinct; thus, the meanings, functions, and purposes of the images are lost forever.

Pictograph styles in chronological order.

Many other questions about Lower Pecos River region prehistory also remain unanswered. For instance, what were tribal identities, alliances, and enemies? And what did the people call themselves? No familiar American Indian names are mentioned in historic documents until the influx during historic times of Plains Indians, such as Apaches and Comanches, after the great Pueblo Revolt of 1680 in New Mexico. One name commonly used in the popular press—"Pecos Man"—simply refers to a geographic location. Archaic peoples in the Lower Pecos are often classified as "Coahuiltecans," based on similarities in lifeways and material culture, but this designation only implies that they probably belonged to the same language group as other hunter-gatherers encountered in southern Texas and northeastern Mexico at the time of first European contact.

One way we can make some inferences about the social structure of the Lower Pecos peoples, and the unwritten rules that made for orderly societies, is by comparing Lower Pecos hunting and gathering technology and subsistence with living or documented groups in similar arid environments. Such comparisons suggest that the populations of hunting and gathering societies in the Lower Pecos—like most hunting and gathering societies in arid environments—must remain sparse and thinly distributed in order to exploit seasonal or geographic resources without seriously depleting them. The basic social unit would probably have been the extended family—a small, highly mobile group drawn together by ties of kinship. Familial relationships would serve to further the unity of the group, increasing cooperation through familiarity and affection. Other members might be attracted by the success of some individual or simple compatibility. Group composition would be fluid, permitting any friction to be resolved by members moving to another band. Practicing a nomadic life, these small groups could make seasonal rounds, harvesting plant foods as they ripened or moving when local supplies were diminished.

During times of relative plenty, for example, when desert fruits such as persimmons, mesquite beans, and pricklypear cactus ripened, the dispersed families could congregate for communal harvests and celebrations. The need for exogamy—the rule of marrying outside the group—could be satisfied at these meetings. A forum for the exchange of information could be provided, and political ties could be formed or cemented. It seems probable that much of the Lower Pecos River region's most elaborate pictographs were pointed as part of rituals enacted during the periods when dispersed families congregated.

Marriages (probably highly informal by modern standards) contracted between members of different groups could serve a most useful function by providing ties with a larger segment of the population. The more links an individual could forge, the more options would be available during times of economic, social, and environmental stress. Thus, marriage would be a political alliance, with implications beyond the individuals concerned.

To keep the nuclear family small, within the limits imposed by the food supply and the need for mobility, some form of population control—sexual abstinence or infanticide—would be necessary to augment the high infant mortality rate. Life expectancy would be short; children would learn to perform their mature roles at an early age, and probably make a rapid transition to adulthood. The miniature weapons and domestic utensils that have been found in Lower Pecos River region rockshelter refuse might have served the dual purpose of amusement and education. Women, in an economy that emphasizes the gathering of plant foods, would be responsible for the bulk of the foodstuffs. Girls and young women would learn to harvest and process plant material for both consumption and the manufacture of clothing and utensils.

Source: Solveig Turpin. Archaic tool kit.

Traditionally, men would have controlled the hunting of larger animals and the manufacture of the more complex stone tools. The production of the finest projectile points found in the Lower Pecos River region would involve labor that goes far beyond that needed to produce an efficient weapon. Such an expenditure of time and effort to produce esthetically pleasing tools must have carried psychological or social rewards beyond that of sheer utility.

In all human societies, some able members of the group fulfill the need for leadership, although the degree to which power con be exercised corresponds to the population density and the resources to be controlled. In an area such as the Lower Pecos, where both people and basic commodities were sparse and dispersed, a leader would usually rise to the top during times when organization was needed for a specific task. Examples might include the direction of a communal hunt by the most able hunter, or the leading of a raid or defending of a camp by the bravest warrior. It is interesting to note that many historic Southern Plains and Northern Mexican bands and groups had both war and peace leaders, based upon the principle that the one most qualified to fight may not have been the best advocate of reconciliation. Because the headman's power was simply a matter of acknowledged ability, high rank was not hereditary, nor was it endowed with much control over the rest of society. Often such a leader functioned only during his prime, to be later replaced by another, more competitive and able, man. The elderly were not without merit, their experience and wisdom often contributing to endurance through times of stress.

The oldest and most widespread form of religious thought in North America— shamanism—is found among hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world. In this tradition, the shaman—or "medicine man"—was charged with the general welfare of the group. The shaman was probably the most powerful single individual in a society. Shamans controlled the powers that permeated and affected every aspect of their physical and ideological worlds—which were often inseparable. As magician or conjurer, through their special relationship with the supernatural world, they were able to affect the success of a hunt or battle, cast spells to enchant people and animals, and communicate with the spirits. As the most learned person in the group, they served as a storehouse of oral tradition, stories, myths, and facts about the group's history, and about the order of the universe. Some researchers have speculated that pictographs may have functioned as mnemonic devices—images used by shamans and storytellers to recall or remember specific events, people, or myths that were part of the oral histories. In many respects, the shaman would have been a teacher, relating his accumulated knowledge to the youth. On an even more practical level, the shaman would have been an herbalist, curing disease through a combination of real and magical treatments. The most obvious evidence for the role of shamanism in Lower Pecos ideology is Pecos River style pictographs. These complex and elaborate artworks are considered by many to be shamanic works— perhaps visions achieved in trance, and then made permanent on the walls of the canyons.

The prehistoric peoples of the Lower Pecos were "primitive" peoples only in the sense that the dictionary defines "primitive" as "relating to the earliest age or period." Their lives could never be considered "primitive" in the sense of being inefficient or impoverished. The pictographs for which the area is most noted testify to a complex ideological or mythological world far more varied than their economic and technological remains suggest. Furthermore, by adapting to their environment, learning to utilize rather than drastically alter the natural resources, the native peoples of the Lower Pecos River region were able to endure for the impressive time-span of over 10,000 years.



The close of the 16th century marked the beginning of the Historic Period in the Lower Pecos River region. During historic times, settlement was scattered in this region, and there were no major towns. Nevertheless, the region is rich in the history of major political, economic, and military events, and in the stories of the long parade of people who sometimes stopped for water and forage at designated camps as they passed through the region.


You will note that some of the following historical events (which are detailed in an appendix) have been described in greater detail than others—indicating that they offer the richest sources of primary documentation for future research. A dearth of information exists for other events or time periods—suggesting what future researchers might uncover.

1. American Indian Period, from Late Prehistoric into Spanish Colonial Period: Although the Coahuiltecan groups native to the Amistad area had been largely exterminated by European diseases, Spanish slave-raiding, and encroachment by other American Indians by 1680, several historic American Indian populations are associated with the region. Most—like the Comanche, Kickapoo, and Kiowa Apache—merely passed through the Lower Pecos area en route to Mexico. However, the Upan Apache, and to a lesser degree the Mescalero Apache, may have occupied the area, at least sporadically, from as early as 1680 to 1880. At present, only a handful of sites in Val Verde County are definitely associated with the Apache; however, such mobile populations are often archeologically "invisible," because much of their material culture is identical to that of many prehistoric groups.

Source: Southern Pacific Railroad. Painted Cave, Amistad Reservoir Basin, circa 1883-1892.

2. Spanish colonial Period, 1590-1821: In 1590-1591, en route to Pecos Pueblo, Castaño de Sosa became the first known European to travel through the Lower Pecos River region. Spanish expeditions traveled through the Amistad Reservoir basin, stopping only to make temporary camps and to forage their animals. The Spanish described the region as "despoblado," or unpopulated by indigenous pre-Spanish groups. A number of pictograph sites in the region, including the Vaquero Shelter, are attributed to Southern Plains Indian groups who traversed the region after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico. In 1821, the Treaty of Cordova granted Mexico independence from Spain; and the region became part of Mexico. Tangible remains representing this period include trails, campsites, graffiti, military artifacts, and structures. There are no Spanish Colonial Period cultural resources near the NRA's legislated boundaries, and none have been identified for possible acquisition.

3. Mexican Period, 1831-1836: The Mexican Period ended abruptly with Texas Independence following the Battle of San Jacinto (1836) near present-day Houston, Texas. Most of northeastern Mexico and southwestern Texas were at this time unsettled. There were few transportation links in the area, with ranching dominating most regional economies. Little in the region is known about or attributed to the Mexican Period. Potential tangible remains include trails, campsites, graffiti, military artifacts, structures, stock pens, and remains of small homesteads. Other than American Indian rock art, no archeological sites in or around Amistad NRA have been dated to this period.

4. Texas Republic Period, 1836-1845: On December 29, 1845, Texas joined the Union as the 28th state—bringing to an end the short-lived Republic of Texas. The Lower Pecos River region remained unpopulated by Europeans; during this time, no cities or towns were established by European immigrants in the area that is now the national recreation area. Southern Plains Indian groups and Northern Mexican Indians traversed the region, with no known groups apparently residing for more than short periods of time. The border between Mexico and the Republic of Texas was the Nueces River (80 miles east of the reservoir). The present NRA was part of Mexico during this period. Potential tangible remains include trails, campsites, graffiti, structures, stock pens, remains of small homesteads, and certain military artifacts. Other than American Indian rock art, no archeological sites in or around Amistad NRA have been dated to this period.

5. Texas statehood (before the civil War), 1845-1861: Shortly after Texas's admission to the Union in 1845, the U.S. Army Bureau of Topographic Engineers began an intensive program to identify potential locations for military posts and commercial transportation links between existing cities and the gulf coast. In 1848 seven major topographic expeditions were in the state, several of them traversing and mapping today's Amistad Reservoir Basin. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which ended the Mexican-American War) re-established the border between the two nations from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande, making today's NRA part of the U.S. for the first time. By 1854, Camp Blake was established at the confluence of the Devils River and the Rio Grande (now submerged under the waters of Lake Amistad) to protect traffic along the San Antonio-El Paso Road. By 1855, the San Antonio-El Paso Road had become a bustling commercial and military transportation route, which crossed the Amistad Basin at several locations. Camp Hudson (25 miles north of the reservoir) was established by 1856 to guard the road from roving Indian attacks. Several skirmishes occurred within today's park area. Attacks on wagon trains along the road through the basin continued unabated until the early 1870s. Tangible remains from this period include trails, temporary campsites, graffiti, military artifacts, and the remains of ranching activities such as stock pens, small homesteads, and associated rock structures. There are no cultural sites attributable to this period identified for acquisition.

Source: Ft. John L. Bullis, Retirement, 1899. Lt. Bullis commanded the Seminole Negro-Indian Scout Troops at Ft. Clark, Texas.

6. Civil War Period, 1861-1865: On January 28, 1861, Texas seceded from the United States and joined the Confederate States of America. All Federal military installations in Texas were abandoned, as U.S. Army troops left Texas. There were no known engagements in the vicinity of Amistad NRA. Camp Hudson was abandoned by March, with Confederate troops occupying the post by October 1861. Post duties under the Confederacy at Camp Hudson changed little; troops guarded military wagon trains and commercial shipments on the road from attacks. Confederate troops abandoned Camp Hudson before the war ended, because they were needed elsewhere. Federal troops returned to Texas by late 1865, even though Texas was not re-admitted to the Union until March 30, 1870, following the period of Reconstruction. Extant or tangible remains from this period include trails, temporary campsites, graffiti, and military artifacts. There are no Civil War Period sites identified for possible acquisition.

7. Texas Statehood (post-Civil War) Period, 1865-1880: As the U.S. Army returned to Texas following the war, they did not re-occupy all the pre-war forts and military posts in southwest Texas along the Rio Grande, deciding instead to construct a new line of forts north and west of the Amistad Basin, as the Texas frontier moved ever westward. From 1865-1873, Indian raids and Mexican bandits had continually disrupted commercial and military traffic along the San Antonio-El Paso Road. In April 1873, Colonel Ranald S. MacKenzie and 400 heavily armed cavalry troops drawn from the commands at Fort Clark and Fort Duncan slipped across the Rio Grande under the cover of darkness and attacked three Indian villages (80 miles, or 128km, into Mexico) at Rey Molino, burning and killing Kickapoo, Lipan, and Mescalero Apache Indians. There was on initial reduction on Indian raids, but by 1876, several more incursions into Mexico had occurred. (The last documented Indian raid into Texas and through the area now within the NRA occurred on April 14, 1881.) In late 1880, the Southern Transcontinental Rail Road became a reality, forever changing the economic base and land-use patterns for the Lower Pecos River region. Extant or tangible remains from this period include trails, temporary campsites, graffiti, military artifacts, and remains associated with early homesteads and ranching. There are no post-Civil War sites identified for possible acquisition.

Source: Southern Pacific Railroad. High railroad bridge, Pecos River.

8. Railroad Era (Southern Pacific RR), 1880-World War II: In 1881, the first surveys for the Southern Transcontinental Rail Road began in the Lower Pecos River region area. The Southern Pacific planned to build east from California and west from San Antonio, with the two lines destined to be joined at the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande. In 1881-1883, upwards of 6,000 people worked in the reservoir basin. The Western Division was made up of veterans from the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad, along with 6,000 Chinese workers. The Eastern Division comprised a mix of immigrant Irish, Germans, Mexicans, and Africans; it also hired numerous contractors to build grades, blast tunnels, and build trestles. The line opened in 1883, with the driving of a silver spike about 1 mile west of the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande (a site targeted for possible acquisition). The first and second railroad tunnels built in Texas are part of the system (the first is already within Amistad National Recreation Area; the second is targeted for possible acquisition). There were over 3,000 feet (914m) of wooden trestles and 14 metal spans—each between 100 and 300 feet (30 and 90m). (All that remains of these features today are cut-block footers and foundation remnants.) In 1892, the line was re-routed out of the Rio Grande canyon because of high maintenance costs and occasional flooding of the bridge, which was only about 40 feet (12m) above the river bottom. Eleven miles (17km) of track that had been blasted into the canyon walls were eliminated. (Some of the bed for the track is still visible today, with portions under water.) In 1893, the Pecos Viaduct bridge opened, at 322 feet (98m) above the Pecos River—the highest bridge in the United States, and the third-highest in the world. Tangible remains include tunnels, trestles, graffiti, construction camps, railroad grades, trash scatters, buildings, and other structures. Several significant railroad sites are targeted for possible acquisition.

9. Ranching Era, 1880-World War II: With the coming of the railroad, vast expanses of wilderness in west Texas and northern Mexico were opened to commercial purposes and European settlement. Sheep and goat ranching spread quickly across the region, with the railroad providing the transportation link to get the goods to market. By World War I, the Lower Pecos River region was one of the Southwest's largest wool and mohair producers. Over-grazing, deep-well drilling for water, and the suppression of natural grass fires are responsible for the drastic environmental changes that the ranching industry set into motion. By World War II, ranching had transformed much of the region into the scrub and thorn brush countryside that characterizes it today. Ranching is still the economic cornerstone for the regional economy. Tangible remains include windmills, stock tanks, structures, trash scatters, and fence lines. A historic stock tank located along the Devils River is the only Ranching Era site identified for possible acquisition.

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Last Updated: 26-Mar-2007