Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Denver: An Archaeological History

Denver: An Archaeological History

by Sarah M. Nelson, Stephen J. Leonard (Foreword by)

See All Formats & Editions

A vivid account of the prehistory and history of Denver as revealed in its archaeological record, Denver: An Archaeological History invites us to imagine Denver as it once was.

Around 12,000 B.C., groups of leather-clad Paleoindians passed through the juncture of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, following the herds of mammoth or buffalo they


A vivid account of the prehistory and history of Denver as revealed in its archaeological record, Denver: An Archaeological History invites us to imagine Denver as it once was.

Around 12,000 B.C., groups of leather-clad Paleoindians passed through the juncture of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, following the herds of mammoth or buffalo they hunted. In the Archaic period, people rested under the shade of trees along the riverbanks, with baskets full of plums as they waited for rabbits to be caught in their nearby snares. In the early Ceramic period, a group of mourners adorned with yellow pigment on their faces and beads of eagle bone followed Cherry Creek to the South Platte to attend a funeral at a neighboring village. And in 1858, the area was populated by the crude cottonwood log shacks with dirt floors and glassless windows, the homes of Denver's first inhabitants.

For at least 10,000 years, Greater Denver has been a collection of diverse lifeways and survival strategies, a crossroads of interaction, and a locus of cultural coexistence. Setting the scene with detailed descriptions of the natural environment, summaries of prehistoric sites, and archaeologists' knowledge of Denver's early inhabitants, Nelson and her colleagues bring the region's history to life. From prehistory to the present, this is a compelling narrative of Denver's cultural heritage that will fascinate lay readers, amateur archaeologists, professional archaeologists, and academic historians alike.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"An innovative look at the archaeology of a region (the Central Great Plains) through a longitudinal study of human occupation in a specific place - Denver, Colorado. It is an exciting, well-written account that sheds light on how people have survived changes in climate, plant life, animals, and human events over the past 14,000 years."
- Choice Magazine

"Overall, Denver is excellent for the professional or amateur archaeologist interested in understanding the development of the area across long spans of time."
- H-Net

Product Details

University Press of Colorado
Publication date:
Timberline Books Series
Product dimensions:
7.01(w) x 9.99(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Sarah M. Nelson K. Lynn Berry Richard F. Carrillo Bonnie J. Clark Lori E. Rhodes Dean Saitta


Copyright © 2008 University Press of Colorado
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87081-935-3

Chapter One

Greater Denver as a Region of Frontiers and Boundaries

Space—like history—is a product of human imagination and more often than not serves as an arena of social competition and conflict. —Mark P. Leone and Neil Asher Silberman, Invisible America

This book is written for readers interested in archaeology and in Denver's past, but the sources are unwritten history. Archaeological evidence and the evidence of material culture do not merely provide all we can know of the prehistoric inhabitants of the area; they enhance the written record of the historic period as well. The unwritten history of Denver is a story of the relationship of people to their environment on the edge between the High Plains and the Rocky Mountains, a story of frontiers and boundaries. Even in the geologic past the region was characterized by boundaries—sharp transitions—between mountains and plains, the wet and the dry. As a crossroads of cultures for millennia, the Greater Denver area is also an area of frontiers—areas of interpenetration of cultures or environments. It provides a backdrop for understanding the nature of cultural interactions and the processes of integration as well as maintenance of distinct expressions of unique cultural identities. Here many different groups of people have succeeded each other or coexisted.

Denver, nestled up against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, occupies a place of contrasts in altitude, geology, and climate. These contrasts have contributed to the juxtaposition of different ways of life. So the archaeology of Greater Denver tells a story of many frontiers—and many kinds of frontiers.

The urban core of Denver, the place where the city began, is centered on the confluence of two rivers, the Platte River and Cherry Creek. Since the 1850s this town site has been a confluence of cultures as well (Fig. 1.1), a meeting ground for a variety of economic and social interests, and at times the scene of struggles for dominance and an urge toward expansion. But although the second half of the nineteenth century was a period of particularly great change for Denver, various groups met at the Platte River and Cherry Creek for many centuries and perhaps millennia prior to that. The fact that Denver has been a frontier reflects its natural setting, in which the High Plains meet the mountains, creating a dynamic and unique environment that merges some elements and separates others. Its unique flavor was created by the blending and distinctiveness of the different people who have called it home.

A frontier is often thought of as the interaction of civilized and uncivilized, developed and undeveloped. No such implicit value judgment is intended here. Our concept of frontier includes earlier peoples with varied technologies and adaptations to the different ecological zones that abut in Greater Denver. Our sense of the frontier, then, is that it is a zone of interaction rather than a boundary line. In order to survive in the difficult "frontier" environment, the technologically advanced minority, in spite of their technology, had to borrow from the knowhow of the locally adapted majority and streamline its social order simply to cope with the new surroundings, difficult because unfamiliar. On the American frontier, this simpler mode of life—and all its perceptions of virtue—was short-lived for the Euro-American settlers. Learning from the less technologically advanced Native American populations (and exploiting their lands and resources) rapidly changed into self-sufficiency in Greater Denver.

Patricia Limerick shows that the American west was a meeting ground of cultures. "Happily or not," Limerick points out, "minorities and majorities occupied a common ground" (Limerick 1987:27). This is particularly true of Denver, which was settled later than Salt Lake City and other towns farther west and was thus surrounded by established Euro-American outposts. Land developers in Greater Denver regarded Arapaho and Cheyenne ownership of the land as little more than a bothersome "technicality" (Clark et al. 1993). Treaties negotiated with tribes and other interaction with them was largely carried out under the ethnocentric assumption that the Native American should and would succumb to the Euro-American methods of farming, education, commerce, and religion.

This is not to say that the various tribes failed to fight or negotiate for their independence. The purpose of this work, however, is not to document the maintenance of cultural identity and traditions, but to describe the general characteristics of cultural interaction in early Denver. The nature of the contact and conflicts between the two cultures created a particular climate for the developing city. The result was that Denver flourished as a city, but it did so ultimately at the cost of the local tribes. For example, Virginia Cole Trenholm (1970:160) writes, "We find casual mention of 'shameful outrages' to which the Arapaho in the Denver area were subjected. Upon more than one occasion in the winter of 1859–60, one authority tells us, their camps were invaded by brutal, half-drunk white ruffians who overpowered the braves and subjected the women to nameless indignities." It is this type of conflict that created a "frontier" environment (in the worst sense) in the city of Denver and the area around it. The conflicts, however, did not abate with the removal and subjugation of the Native Americans. Other marginalized peoples would replace the Indians in the urban environment.

How can the frontier character of Denver be explored archaeologically? Central to this examination is the concept that a landscape can be considered material culture. Not only can archaeological investigations within a city be concerned with urban issues or frontier typologies, but the city as a whole can also be viewed as an artifact. Also guiding this study is the search for social process in addition to pattern. It is the openness of cultures that is of interest here—the interrelated, connected processes of cultures through which patterns either persevere or change.


Denver as a city hasn't been around long, even on the relatively short time scale of American cities. It was founded in 1858 and mushroomed into local importance. Prior to the establishment of the "Queen City of the Plains," as Denver has been called, other groups of people inhabited the plains, mountains, forests, and riversides of the area. These people—Native Americans of various nations, tribes, and bands—did not mark their boundaries on maps, although they must have known the limits of their territories and their habitual trails intimately. These territories were probably both irregular and widespread, fluctuating with the ebb and flow of economic resources and political alliances, and perhaps overlapping with other groups. But even after the imposition of divisions and borders, networks of interaction stretched beyond the small geographic area that Greater Denver occupies today. The area's inhabitants since the beginning have been involved in broader patterns of settlement, as well as trade and cultural interaction with surrounding areas. However, our project required a defined area. Some boundaries for this book had to be drawn in the interest of maintaining a manageable set of data, and to focus on the central elements of what makes the Denver area unique. A rectangular map proved to be convenient for searching the files of the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (OAHP) and subsequently it was useful for mapping the region (Fig. 1. ). Counties seemed to be unnatural divisions, especially in view of prehistoric sites. At present, suburban Denver stretches about as far as the rectangle we chose. But this rectangle does not cover homogeneous land, so we divided it into four physiographic regions: Hogback, Black Forest, Streams, and Plains. These ecosystems were used differently by prehistoric and historic peoples, but we believe they were significant to all inhabitants. Those differences make intricate patterns on the weave of the urban center. Maps in this book thus reflect these regional differences.

In selecting our study area, the physiographic features of the Denver area provided a logical starting point. The mountains form an inexact but natural boundary to the west, while the foothills are closely related to Denver. Thus the western border of the study area was drawn to include the Hogback area. In the south, Denver's present suburbs stretch past Franktown, so this region needed to be included. The Palmer Divide separates the watershed of the South Platte from that of the Arkansas River. It also separates Greater Denver from Greater Colorado Springs. The higher elevations of the Black Forest catch more rainfall and therefore have different vegetation from downtown Denver, making for alternative uses through time. The riverine environments of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek affect archaeological sites in particular ways, thus we separated this area from the less watered plains. The Plains region to the east has helped to feed Denver with farms in historic times, but prehistoric people moved between the plains and the foothills for their own provisioning. But where in the north and east does Greater Denver end? Since the city of Denver now stretches to the northeast to include Denver International Airport, this new landmark provided a northeast corner for the study.

The Database

Once the project region was identified, our next step was to compile a total list of sites. The set of site data which we obtained from OAHP included more than 5,000 recorded archaeological sites or areas. Careful examination showed that there were some sites that were inappropriate for our purpose, because they represented isolated artifacts or sites that had no obvious archaeological component. Eliminating these left 1,401 sites, which by the time we added new data gathered during the period of writing grew to 1,517 sites (Fig. 1.3). This database gave us our first view of the range, scope, and density of archaeological resources in the Greater Denver study area. Sites are located throughout and represent a wide range of time periods and site types, from small prehistoric scatters of chipped stone, to rock shelters, to historic homes and mines. The database even includes the burial site of a local alleged cannibal, Alferd Packer.

The data as they came from OAHP had to be modified for our project. First, in an effort to group data into meaningful categories, we amalgamated some of the cultural affiliations for dated sites. Sites classified in a number of ways might mean roughly the same thing in the original database. We created larger categories; for example, "Early Ceramic," "Early Woodland," and "Late Woodland" were collapsed into "Early Ceramic."

We used the modified database to run a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping program. By using a GIS system, we were able to map the sites electronically and manipulate them to give information about patterning by time period and site type. The maps located throughout this book are the fruits of that labor.

GIS mapping depends on grid coordinates. The locations of sites in the Greater Denver study area were mapped using the worldwide metric grid system known as Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM). The system works very well with the right types of data, but when we began the project 7 of our sites did not have UTM designations. Locational data, some of which were recorded long ago, needed to be refined as well. In particular, some sites have been located only by township, range, section, and quarter-section, which is not easily used for computer mapping. After analyzing the collections at the University of Denver (the repository for many early Denver area studies) and synthesizing data on sites from numerous sources, we were able to pinpoint locational data on all but 88 sites. These last sites lacked specific locations and could not be mapped.

Another 81 sites that are linear features were not mapped. Linear features presented a mapping problem for two reasons. First, the number of UTM coordinates taken in the field may be inadequate to represent the course of the linear site accurately. Field personnel might record only enough points to roughly delineate the site, not to capture every turn and twist. Second, many of these sites have been recorded a number of times as projects intersect them, but the recorded segments are not readily identifiable as a continuous linear feature. The Highline Canal with site numbers 5AH 88, 5AM 61, 5DA600, and 5DV840 is a pertinent example, since it runs through four counties with a different number in each. We decided that mapping these features using UTMs was inappropriate and mapping by hand was beyond the scope and intent of the project. The most critical of the linear features, however, such as trails, were hand-mapped and appear on our historic period maps. These sites are the cornerstones of the archaeology of Greater Denver.

In order to have a flow to our narrative, we have put much of the technical information in boxes, which can be skipped, read later, or turned to immediately.


The first professional archaeologist in Denver was not educated as an archaeologist, but came to Colorado to teach French. He made up in diligence and reading what he lacked in training. Dr. Etienne B. Renaud was the founder of the University of Denver's Anthropology Department, in 1922. He and his students scoured Colorado and neighboring states, looking for sites and recording them. They examined the artifacts of collectors and talked to ranchers and farmers about what indications of the past were on their land. Renaud published a series of survey reports (Renaud 1931, 1932, 1933, 1935), of which one specifically pertains to Greater Denver. Some of these sites were reinvestigated over the years, and others have been added to the collections, but the foundations of Greater Denver archaeology were laid by the pioneering work of Renaud and his students. Many of the University of Denver sites were never properly published, so one goal of this book is to make available to the public and the archaeological profession the results of three-quarters of a century of site investigation in Greater Denver. Other sources, especially work done under contract (known as "gray literature"), are also extensively used. Other syntheses of the archaeology of Colorado have been published (Cassells 1983, Stone 1999), but they are of broader scope, including the entire state and beyond. We examine a smaller region in greater detail.

Some of Renaud's students—for example Marie Wormington—were bright lights in local and national archaeology. Others also became well-known archaeologists, such as John Cotter, who had a distinguished career in the National Park Service. When Arnold Withers came to the University of Denver, he inherited Renaud's site cards and site collections. Some of his students became prominent in the profession as well, David Breternitz, Alexander Lindsay, and Alan Olson among them. They worked on various local sites, including Franktown Cave, the only site in the entire area with perishable artifacts remaining. Students from the University of Colorado at Boulder also excavated in Greater Denver, including the Hazeltine Heights burial site. Amateur archaeologists have contributed a great deal through the years, and the responsible archaeological practices of the Colorado Archaeological Society, Denver Chapter, are a model for all paraprofessionals. The definitive work in Greater Denver was done by Cynthia Irwin-Williams and Henry Irwin, offspring of a dedicated amateur who themselves both became professional archaeologists. Working at both Magic Mountain and LoDaisKa, the Irwins created a stratigraphic record that in its larger outlines still stands. More recently, contract work by Cultural Resource Management (CRM) has added important new details to our understanding of the region.

Changing Archaeological Practices

The expansion of suburban Denver has had both a positive and a negative effect on archaeology. On the negative side is the disappearance of sites under buildings and parking lots. On the positive side many more sites have been recorded than previously were known, due to federal and state laws requiring archaeological surveys as well as increased local awareness and responsibility. A glance at the distribution map of all sites reveals how few prehistoric sites are recorded in the urban center relative to the total number reported in surveyed areas on the periphery. This does not mean that prehistoric peoples avoided the confluence of the Platte River and Cherry Creek. Rather, the city was built up before an interest in archaeology began, and the relatively rare excavations in the center of the city have concentrated on the historic period.


Excerpted from DENVER by Sarah M. Nelson K. Lynn Berry Richard F. Carrillo Bonnie J. Clark Lori E. Rhodes Dean Saitta Copyright © 2008 by University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY PRESS OF COLORADO. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sarah Milledge Nelson is John Evans Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Denver.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews