Uinta Fremont

From about AD 1 to 1600 a group of people in northeastern Utah, including north of the Uinta Mountains and adjoining areas in northwestern Colorado relied extensively on maize horticulture as an economic strategy. Commonly referred to as the Uinta Fremont, this group shared the characteristics of the Fremont in other parts of the state of Utah. The Uinta Fremont started farming during a particularly favorable climatic period 2000 years ago when the local area was slightly warmer and wetter than other eras. Families generally lived in small scattered farmsteads or rancherias during this period. The people had adopted the bow and arrow, in addition to two-handed manos and trough shaped metates. Pottery may not have been adopted until sometime after AD 500.

After AD 500 the climate changed and was probably more like that of recent era. There was more seasonal variation and the weather was generally drier, with periods of drought. After generations of successful farming, the people struggled to maintain this lifestyle in the deteriorating conditions. The population may have shifted and coalesced onto better-watered drainages during this period. Between AD 500 to 1300 is the classic Fremont phase in this area. The population peake around AD 900. Large village sites occurred on major tributaries like Dry Fork, Brush Creek, Uinta River and Zimmerman Creek. Most habitations were pithouses, but a number of surface jacal structures could indicate a transition to another habitation structure later in the period. Granaries and storage structures are ubiquitous throughout the region and along the majority tributaries entire alcoves were devoted to storage. In several of these overhangs, considerable effort was used to create large storage units that were dug into bedrock or lined with clay and rock.

Rock art was an important trait of these people. Some of the rock art seems to have been used to mark important dates as a solar calendar or almanac. This may have been an attempt on their part to ensure an adequate harvest at the extreme northern edge of maize agriculture. Other panels may have commemorated significant events or individuals. While other panels may have been created for ritual reasons, such as to ensure a good hunt or record a dream or vision.

Personal ornamentation was important to the Uinta Fremont. Their rock art shows elaborated decorated individuals. A large number or decorative bone and stone beads and pendants have been found in excavations. This ornamentation was made into a wide range of objects and sizes. Material for the ornamentation includes a wide range of animal species, local freshwater shell, pottery, turquoise, sandstone, gilsonite, lignite, and even imported shell like olivella and abalone. A handful of clay figurines have also been found in the area. The meaning and purpose of these objects is still uncertain.

The Uinta Fremont made the typical split one-rod and bundle Fremont style basketry, but all of the known burden baskets from this area have decorative elements, usually a zig-zag, stairstep or lightning shaped design of colored fiber woven into the basket. Most of the known baskets had also fulfilled their use-life as a basket and had been incorporated as a liner in a storage structure. The Uinta made a limestone tempered pottery that was usually made into globular two handled pots. Occasionally coffee bean or other appliqué decoration was incorporated onto these pots, and in at least one case, a red cross-hatch painted design was fired onto a vessel. A number of pottery sherds from the periphery of the Uinta Basin suggest that temper or clay containing calcium carbonate, not just exclusively limestone, was purposely selected for ceramic making.

Rose Spring projectile points, often of exquisite material and craftsmanship, were made during the Fremont era. However, Elko-Corner notch points continued to be used until at least AD 1200. Local cherts and materials were used for chip stone tools, but Tiger chert from Wyoming became an important toolstone later in the Fremont period.

The main agricultural centers in the Uinta Basin may have been abandoned by AD 1200 to 1300. However, peripheral groups that lived along Red Canyon and in Browns Park continued to persist until at least AD 1550. These groups relied on maize agriculture during the growing season and made logistical upland visits in the fall to collect cheno-ams and hunt large mammals like deer and mountain sheep. This diverse economic strategy allowed these groups to persist much longer than the Fremont in the rest of the state.

How, when, and why the Uinta Fremont developed and ended is still unresolved. Climate appears to have played a major role in both instances. Neither period is well understood, but there is a little more data for adoption of agriculture. Some authors have suggested that agriculture started so quickly that it must have resulted from a migration of individuals into the area. We prefer to think that individuals already living in the area adopted the ideas and technology for farming. Elko-corner notch points and basketry construction are two of the items that suggest continuity between existing Archaic populations and later Fremont groups. The complex process that resulted in agriculture developing in this area is far from resolved.

Even more problematic is the transition between the Ute and Fremont cultures. Our earliest date with clearly Numic material culture is only AD 1850. There is currently no material culture and few dates between AD 1550 and 1850 that allows us to make any definitive statements about what happened during this important period of time.