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Colorado Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve - Culture

小池清通 写真 Kiyomichi Koike Photography
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 History - Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve - Colorado

 Mosca, Colorado USA

Cultural History

Mosca Pass Toll Stateion: courtesy of Great Sand Dunes National Park & PreserveThe Human Connection
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main....Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tools; it tolls for thee.

John Donn

People and the Dunes:
an Enduring Connection
Human Beings have known about, visited, or lived near the Great Sand Dunes for a long, long time. The oldest evidence of humans in the area dates back about 11,000 years.

Making a Living: Early People of 11,000 years ago

Some of the first people to enter the San Luis Valley and the Great Sand Dunes were nomadic hunters and gatherers whose connection to the area centered around the herds of mammoths and prehistoric bison that grazed nearby. They were Stone Age people who hunted with large stone spear or dart points now identified as Clovis and Folsom points. Like nearly everyone else until about 400 years ago, they walked into the San Luis Valley, apparently spending time here when hunting and plant gathering was good, and avoiding the region during times of drought and scarcity.

A Living Connection: Modern American Indians

Although we don't know the names or the languages of those earliest people, modern American Indian tribes were familiar with the area when Spaniards first arrived about 400 years ago. The traditional Ute word for the Great Sand Dunes is sowapophe-uvehe, "The land that moves back and forth." Jicarilla Apaches settled in northern New Mexico and called the Dunes ei-anyedi, "it goes up and down," Blanca Peak, just southeast of the Dunes, is one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo. What was-and is-the connection for these people?

For the Jicarilla Apache and southern Ute tribes, it is a practical matter: they camped and hunted in the San Luis Valley. While they were here at the Dunes, they collected the inner layers of bark from ponderosa pine trees, useful to them as food and medicine. For the people from Tewa/Tiwa-speaking pueblos along the Rio Grande, it is a spiritual link. They remember a traditional site of great importance located in the San Luis Valley near the Dunes: the lake through which their people emerged into the present world.

"This was one of the places that the Utes used to gather…the Capulta band were the ones that used to camp in this area. Neighboring families would come here and camp with them?this was maybe early in the spring or late in the fall. The Utes used to use the bark from the ponderosa pine for medicinal purposes, and also for food sources…they would cut the bottom, pulling it apart. That's the way they harvested. The younger kids would help, to a certain age, but basically it was all the women that did the harvesting of the trees, and they're the ones that picked the trees out…"

Alden Narango, Southern Ute tribal historian

Spanish Explorations:
Don Diego de Vargas, 1694
Juan Bautista de Anza, 1776

In 1694, Don Diego de Vargas became the first European known to have entered the San Luis Valley, although herders and hunters from the Spanish colonies in present-day northern New Mexico probably entered the Valley as early as 1598. De Bargas and his men saw and hunted a herd of 500 bison, apparently in the southern part of the Valley, before returning to Santa Fe.

In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza and a huge entourage of men and livestock probably passed near the Dunes as they returned from a punitive raid against a group of Comanches. At this time, the San Luis Valley was a travel route between the High Plains and Santa Fe for Comanches, Utes, and Spanish soldiers. For some of them, the Dunes were likely a visible landmark along the trail.

Westward Expansion:
Zebulon Pike, 1807

Mysterious sand ripplesThe first known writings about the Dunes appear in Zebulon Pike's journals of 1807. As Lewis and Clark's expedition was returning east, U.S. Army Lt. Pike was commissioned to explore as far west as the Arkansas and Red Rivers. By the end of November 1806, Pike and his men had reached the site of today's Pueblo, Colorado. Still pushing southwest, and confused about the location of the Arkansas River, Pike crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just above the Great Sand Dunes. His journal from January 28th, 1807, reads:

"After marching some miles, we discovered…at the foot of the White Mountains [today's Sangre de Cristos] which we were then descending, sandy hills…When we encamped, I ascended one of the largest hills of sand, and with my glass could discover a large river [the Rio Grande]…The Sand-hills extended up and down the foot of the White Mountains about 15 miles, and appeared to be about 5 miles in width. Their appearance was exactly that of a sea in storm, except as to color, not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon."

John C. Fremont, 1848
John Gunnison, 1853

1n 1848, John C. Freemont was hired to find a railroad route from St. Louis to California. He crossed the Sangre de Cristos in the San Luis Valley in winter, courting disaster but proving that a winter crossing of this range was possible. He was followed in 1853 by Captain John Gunnison of the U.S. Topographical Survey. Gunnison's party crossed the dunefield on horseback: "Touring the southern base of the sand-hills, over the lowest of which we rode for a short distance, our horses half burying their hoofs only on the windward slopes, but sinking to their knees on the opposite, we for some distance followed the bed of the stream from the pass, now sunk in the sand, and then struck off across the sandy plain…The sand was so heavy that we were six hours and a half making ten miles…"

Routes into the Valley

In the years that followed, the Rockies were gradually explored, treaties were signed and broken with resident tribes, and people with widely differing goals flooded into Colorado from the United States and Mexico. In 1852, Fort Massachusetts was built and then relocated to Fort Garland, about 20 miles southeast of the Great Sand Dunes, to safeguard travel or settlers following the explorers into the San Luis Valley.

Although many settlers arrived in the San Luis Valley via the trails from Santa Fe or La Veta Pass, several routes over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains into the San Luis Valley were well-known to American Indians and increasingly used by settlers in the 1800s. Medano Pass, also known as Sand Hill pass, and Mosca Pass, also called Robidoux's Pass, offered more direct routes form the growing front-range cities and dropped into the San Luis Valley just east of the Great Sand Dunes. Trails were improved into wagon routes and eventually into rough roads. The Mosca Pass Toll Road was developed in the 1870s, and stages and the mail route used it regularly through about 1911. That year, the western portion was badly damaged in a flash flood. Partially rebuilt at times in the 1930s through the 1950s, it has been repeatedly closed by flooding and is now a trail for hikers.

Making a Home: Homesteaders

Homesteader Ulysses Herard, who with his family established a ranch and homestead along Medano Creek in 1875, would have used the old Medano Pass Road to travel to and from his home. The modern road, open only to 4WD, high clearance vehicles, follows the old route, skirting the dunefield before rising to Medano Pass and continuing east into the Wet Mountain Valley. The Herards grazed and bred livestock in the mountain meadows, built a home, raised horses, cattle, and chickens, and established a trout hatchery in the stream.

Other families homesteaded near the Dunes as well, including the Teofilo Trujillo family, who raised sheep west of the Dunes. And Frank and Virginia Wellington, who built the cabin and hand-dug the irrigation ditch that parallels Wellington Ditch Trail, just south of today's campground. Their son, Charles, ran a sawmill on Sawmill Creek, just north of the campground.

As people established homes, they often petitioned the U.S. Postal Department for post offices to serve their tiny villages. Zapata (1879); Blanca or North Arrastre; Orean (1881); Mosco (1880); later called Montville (1887-1900); Herard (1905); Liberty (1900); Duncan (1892) and others helped connect isolated homesteaders with the larger world.

Seeking Wealth: The Gold Rush, 1853 and later

Gold and silver rushes occurred around the Rockies after 1853, bringing miners by the thousands into the state and stimulating mining businesses that operate to this day. Numerous small strikes occurred in the mountains around the San Luis Valley. People had frequently speculated that gold might be present in the Great Sand Dunes, and in the 1920s, local newspapers ran articles estimating its worth at anywhere from 17 cents/ton to $3/ton. Active placer mining operations sprang up along Medano Creek, and in 1932 the Volcanic Mining Company established a gold mill designed to recover gold from the sand. Although minute quantities of gold were recovered, the technique was too labor-intensive, the stream was too seasonal, and the payout was too small to support any business for long.

Preserving the Beauty: Establishing a National Park Service Site

The idea that the Dunes could be destroyed by gold mining or concrete-making alarmed residents of Alamosa and Monte Vista. By the 1920s, the Dunes had become a source of pride for local people and a potential source of tourist dollars for local businesses.

Members of the Ladies PEO sponsored a bill to Congress asking for national monument status for the Great Sand Dunes. Widely supported by local businesses and Chanbers of Commerce, the bill was signed into law in 1932 by President Herbert Hoover.

Living at the Dunes
Imagine: you are standing on the edge of a shallow lake, surrounded by cattails and birdsong. The dunes hover on the horizon to the north. You're carrying a small fiber pouch filled with sharp flakes of stone, and you're wearing very little-to what time do you belong? Or again, it's a summer day and you're bridling your horse at Montville, Colorado and listening to the flies buzz. You wear the blue and gold of a cavalryman. When and where are you? And once again: you're digging a shallow pit in the side of an old grass-covered dune. Carefully you photograph the layers of different colored sandy soils you observe before digging deeper. What are you doing-and why?

Students in the future may be able to identify all three of the characters sketched above as people who lived part of their lives at the Great Sand Dunes, thanks to a four-year research project that began summer 2000. "This is a pretty neat project," states Resource Specialist Fred Bunch. "It's really a chance to look at all kinds of different reasons that all kinds of different people visited the dunes over a long, long time." Bunch is coordinating this project, but it's an interdisciplinary group of researchers and volunteers who are making it happen, including scientists who specialize in archeology, anthropology, geology, ethnography, and the Great Sand Dunes staff.

Traditionally, Great Sand Dunes National Park has been known as a 'geology' park - one where the most obvious stories revolve around the landscape and its formation. Questions about the dunes and how they formed continue to be some of the most commonly asked. However, local history tells the human side of the story as well; there is plenty of oral and written evidence of people visiting, passing by, or living for a time near the dunes. The Great Sand Dunes Eolian System Archaeological and Ethnographic Project is an attempt to better understand how people have interacted with the land around the dunes over time.

Some of the basic questions this project addresses and the researchers involved include:

How have people through time used what appears, at first glance, to be a constantly changing landscape? Dr. Richard Madole is a geomorphologist, one who studies the formation and evolution of landforms. He is concentrating on the 'eolian system'-that is, the wind influenced sand deposits-with a focus on understanding how the dunes, sand sheet, and sabkha have changed over time, and when those changes occurred. With that data, he and his colleagues can then consider how those changes could have affected people in the area.
How has climate change affected how people lived near the dunes over the past 13,000 years? Drs. Pegi Jodry and Dennis Stanford, a wife and husband team of archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution, have been working in the San Luis Valley for years. In summer 2000 and 2001, they surveyed or excavated several sites near springs on the Medano Ranch, just west of the main dunefield. "The Medano Ranch is really a wonderful opportunity," says Dr. Jodry. "We can gather data about human use there from Clovis times [about 12,000 years ago] to the present. It's amazing to think about, but the larger story of ancient humans in the San Luis Valley is really about how they adapted to the changing availability of water. As wetlands expanded or contracted over time, people used different options for making a living." For more on Pegi's and Dennis' work in the San Luis Valley and beyond, see the December 2000 issue of the National Geographic Magazine and Volume 2 (1) of American Archaeology Magazine.
How were pion-juniper forests of foothills used through time? Pion-juniper forests offer plentiful resources to hunters and gatherers-pion nuts, fuel, habitat for game animals-and so can give glimpses of how people in the past made their living near the dunes. Archaeologists Ted Hoefer and Marilyn Martorano and their teams began surveying known sites in the pion-juniper forest of the foothills east of the dunefield in summer 2000, after a wildfire had burned over many of the sites. In summer 2001, they continued their work and included Denton Springs and Montville, both sites that were occupied or used by ancient people as well as more modern ranchers, settlers, park visitors, and park staff.

What do American Indians living today have to say about the dunes and the San Luis Valley? Ethnographer David White began contacting tribes with ties to the San Luis Valley in 2000, initially focusing on the Jicarilla Apache, the Tewa Pueblo, and the Ute as groups known to have traditionally used or visited the area. In the next phase of his research, he hopes to contact the Tiwa and Towa Pueblos, the Navajo, the Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. For some of the people, the connection is not so much one of subsistence as spirituality-the Jicarilla Apache still collect sand from the dunes to create sand paintings used in healing ceremonies, and the Tewa regard the San Luis Lakes, just south of the dunes, as an important part of their creation story. Dr. White is quick to point out that the ethnographic story of the area is much larger than the current project, and could easily include the descendants of other tribes as well as of the European, Hispanic, and Asian people who settled in the San Luis Valley in the last few centuries.
Want to learn more about who was here, when, and why?

Pick up a copy of "The Hourglass" at the Visitor Center, for a summary of some of the findings from the archeology project described above.
Ask at the Visitor Center to see the video "Sacred Trees" which features members of the Ute tribe describing how ponderosa pine trees in the monument were used by their ancestors.
Consider purchasing "A Colorado Pre-History: A Cultural Context for the Rio Grande Basin", authored by several of the researchers mentioned here. Available at the Visitor Center bookstore, and may be found in your local library.

[This website is created to show the beauty and wonder of a great american natural treasure. The contents are courtesy of the National Park Service. It is created in English and in Japanese. All the photo images shown here, except the black & white photo onthe top which is a courtesy of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, are taken by Kiyomichi Koike. The copy rights are reserved.]


A line of light lights up the dunes.

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