USGS Logo Geological Survey Professional Paper 670
John Wesley Powell and the Anthropology of the Canyon Country


During the centuries in which the Anasazi and Fremont cultures were developing in Arizona and Utah, an older non-Pueblo way of life continued in the Great Basin in western Utah, Nevada, and southern Oregon. Archeologists call this tradition the Desert Archaic (Jennings, 1964). The climate and environment did not permit the practice of horticulture without irrigation, and the subsistence base continued to be one of foraging, hunting of animals and birds, fishing, and gathering a wide variety of seeds, roots, nuts, and insects for food.

About A.D. 1000 some of these Desert Archaic peoples who spoke Numic languages (Miller, 1966; Goss, 1968) began spreading in a fan-shaped pattern across the Great Basin from a point somewhere around Death Valley. These peoples were the ancestors of the historic tribes of the Great Basin and much of the Canyon Country (fig. 15).

FIGURE 15.—Distribution of historic tribes of the Canyon Country and Great Basin.(click on image for a PDF version)

The thrust of one group was along the Sierra Nevada and into southern Oregon. These people be came the historic Mono and Northern Paiute (Paviotso) of western Nevada, eastern California, and southern Oregon. After horses were introduced in the 18th century, some of these people moved into southern Idaho to become the Bannock tribe of historic times (Steward, 1938).

A second group spread across the central part of the Great Basin to become the Western Shoshoni, the Gosiute, the "Northwestern" or "Idaho" Shoshoni (who were closely affiliated with the Bannock in the 19th century), the Lemhi and Sheepeater Shoshoni in the mountains along the Idaho-Wyoming border, and the Wind River Shoshoni of western Wyoming (Stewart, 1958). Sometime in the late 17th or early 18th centuries, part of the Wind River Shoshoni pushed out onto the Great Plains and turned southward to become the Comanche of historic times (Shimkin, 1940).

A third group of Numic-speaking peoples spread south and east along the southern part of the Great Basin to become the historic Kawaiisu of California, the Chemehuevi of southern Nevada, and the various Ute-Southern Paiute groups of southern Nevada, southern and central Utah, and western and southern Colorado (Goss, 1968).

As noted above, the Numic-speaking peoples were carriers of the old Desert Archaic lifeway—they were foragers exploiting the available resources of an arid environment. As they pushed eastward, some of them may have encountered the Anasazi or the Fremont peoples. They may, in fact, have contributed to the withdrawal of the Anasazi or the Fremont peoples by raiding their fields and villages. The Southern Paiute may have learned farming techniques from the Anasazi peoples. In 1776, when the Southern Paiute along the Virgin River were visited by Dominguez and Escalante (Bolton, 1950), they were farming along the river bottoms. Basically, however, most of the Numic peoples, including the Southern Paiute, remained foragers.

A change for some of the Numic people, however, soon came. The Spanish began exploring the Southwest in 1540, and by the 1590's, they were well entrenched in Santa Fe and other settlements. The Spaniards brought new crops, such as wheat and peaches, to the area, as well as new animals, including sheep, burros, and the animal which had the greatest impact in the area—the horse.

By the late 1600's, the Indians around the Spanish settlements had learned to ride and care for horses. Soon the Indians began to steal horses, and horses began spreading rapidly northward to other tribes, often with the Ute, Comanche, and Wind River Shoshoni acting as intermediaries. By 1710, mounted bands of Southern Ute and Comanches were harassing the Spanish settlements. By 1750, horses had reached the northern Plains (Haimes, 1938). Many previously semisedentary, earth-lodge-dwelling farmers in that area rapidly became nomadic tipi-dwelling buffalo hunters—the true "Plains" Indians—for example, the Crow, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and others.

On the edges of the Canyon Country the Northern and the Southern Ute bands also became horsemen. They ranged through the central Rockies and out onto the high plains of Colorado, Wyoming, and even Kansas. The Indians in the Canyon Country and in the high plateaus of Utah and the Great Basin to the west, however, did not become horsemen until much later. There was little to be gained by owning horses. Few, if any, buffalo were in those areas. Furthermore, especially in the Great Basin, horses competed with the Indians for the available grasses, a primary seed-food resource. Not until the latter half of the 19th century did some of these peoples take up the use of horses and then only briefly, as an aid in preying on ranches and wagon trains.

By the time Powell visited them, the Numic-speaking peoples of the Canyon Country and the Great Basin had been in direct, if sometimes intermittent, contact with white men, or elements of their culture, for nearly 100 years. Fathers Dominguez and Escalante has passed through the area in 1776, seeking a trail to southern California (Bolton, 1950). The advent of the American fur trade in the early 19th century brought increasing contacts between whites and Indians, especially along the headwaters of the Green River (Cline, 1963). U.S. Army exploring parties began probing the area in the 1840's (Goetzmann, 1959). The Mormons began settling along the central cordillera of Utah in 1847, and the trail to the California gold country opened up the following year.

When Powell arrived in 1868, the Indian cultures were beginning to undergo a period of rapid transition. Steel and iron began replacing chipped stone for tools; pots and pans were replacing baskets and some pottery vessels; and castoff whitemen's clothes were being substituted for bark skirts and rabbit-skin robes (figs. 16 and 17).

FIGURE 16.—Tapeats, one of Powell's Southern Paiute informants, outside his house near St. George, Utah. Photograph by J. K. Hillers, 1873, from Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Collection.

FIGURE 17.—Kaibab Paiute camp on Kaibab Plateau. Indians are wearing rabbit-skin blankets. Photograph by J. K. Hillers, 1873, from Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Collection.

By 1868, the Indians were rapidly being dispossessed of their lands and resources. Settlers and miners were moving in and taking over land and fencing it—an idea completely foreign to the Indians. Livestock were turned loose in most areas and rapidly depleted the grasses and other plants on which the Indians depended heavily for food. Pinyon trees, another important Indian food source, were cut down for firewood and fenceposts.

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Last Updated: 13-Jan-2009