Great Basin National Park


The Great Basin boasts a long, rich history of human habitation, which visitors can discover through the structures and tools that these people have left behind. From archaeological digs that unearth the leavings of ancient Great Basin peoples to the remnants of the mining culture that engulfed the region beginning in 1916, the evidence of Great Basin dwellers is never far away. More than 70 archaeological and historic sites have been identified in the park, and archaeologists are working to unearth what is buried there—the stories of hundreds of people of many different cultures spanning thousands of years.

Ancient People of the Great Basin
People who lived in the Great Basin varied greatly. The vast majority of them lived lightly on the land, harvesting available animals, seeds, tubers, nuts and fruits without significantly modifying their environment. Among these cultures, the Fremont lived near what is now Great Basin National Park.

Two Fremont sites were found in the area. The first site, located a mile and a half north of Baker, was inhabited around 1000-1100 AD. Though the boundaries are unclear because of sediments deposited by mountain runoff, the area is thought to cover one square mile. A pit house and adobe walled structure were found in the village, along with grayware, shell and turquoise beads, hammerstones, and bone tools. Different artifact concentrations throughout the site represent Fremont movement through time, likely caused by stream flow changes in the valley. The most recent excavation of the site occurred in 1990 with tentative plans to expand excavation of the site in the future to gain a broader perspective of the Snake Valley Fremont. The second site, located near Garrison, on the Utah-Nevada border, interests archaeologists because of its irregularly shaped oval mounds and shallow depressions or basins. Under the mounds are the remains of buildings along with pieces of pottery and bone tools.

The Fremont are thought to have lived between 400-1300 AD with the height of their culture around 1000 AD. Evidence of the Fremont has been found in the Great Basin and on the Colorado Plateau with some clans sedentary and others mobile. A Harvard archaeology student, Noel Morss, discovered the first traces of the Fremont culture in 1931 in south central Utah. Since the artifacts were found on the banks of the Fremont River, he called the people "the Fremont."

Four common artifacts distinguish the Fremont from other Native Americans who lived in the Great Basin. First, they wove one-rod-and-bundle baskets, a style of construction that wraps fibers around rods that circle the basket. Second, they made unique moccasins, the heel of which was constructed from the ankle of the rear limb of a deer or mountain sheep. Also they fashioned three-dimensional trapezoidal-shaped clay figurines with identifiable hair "bobs" and necklaces, which are also seen in their pictographs and petroglyphs. Finally the Fremont made their pottery of gray coils and tempered it by adding granular rock or sand to the wet clay to ensure even drying and prevent cracking. Pottery is the single item that allows archaeologists to identify the Fremont throughout the region. Many people wonder whether the Fremont were like the Anasazi, who lived in the Southwest during the same era. Some evidence indicates a possible link between the two cultures. Excavation at some sites has revealed both Fremont and Anasazi artifiacts. South of the Henry Mountains of Utah, in Ticaboo, a young girl was buried wearing Fremont moccasins, but in her grave Anasazi pottery was found along with points common to both the Anasazi and Fremont. We know the two groups lived during the same time and that their territories overlapped, yet the details and extent of their interactions with one another still remain a mystery.

The Fremont began to disappear around 1250 AD. There are two theories archaeologists believe caused the Fremont to leave the area. The first reason is climatic changes made farming conditions unfavorable, so the Fremont had to return to a more nomadic existence and follow the animal herds. The second theory states that a new group of hunter-gatherers migrated into the area from the southwest section of the Great Basin soon after 1000 AD. These people were Numic-speaking Ute, Paiute and Shoshone, whose descendants still live in the Great Basin today. The Fremont may have perished, or they may have integrated into the Numic-speaking groups. The most likely possibility is that the Fremont were forced to move. Most evidence points toward a northeast migration. A replacement of Fremont artifacts suggests the Fremont were pushed out and did not join the new groups. The most recent Fremont artifacts, dating from 1500 AD, were found in the Snake River Plain of Southern Idaho and the Douglas Creek area of Northwest Colorado, the northern and eastern edges of the Fremont's region. The key to understanding the Fremont is variation. The Fremont were settled farmers, growing crops of corn, as well as nomadic desert hunters and gatherers who lived on pine nuts, crickets, and mountain sheep. They were small bands of highly adaptable people living in environments of varied landscapes. Like their successors, the Ute, Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone, they needed to be very resourceful and develop and nurture healthy communities in the arid Great Basin.

Johnson Lake Mine
More recent human activity—mining—has also made an impact on the Great Basin National Park land. In November of 1995 the Johnson Lake Mine was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The tungsten mine was in operation by 1916 and was worked, at least sporadically, until 1935 when it was damaged by a snowslide. The site contains 16 structures including a mill, four cabins, a stable, a dam, a corral, the mine adit, and an aerial tramway used to transport ore from the mine to the mill site. We invite you to visit the Johnson Lake site, but please remember to use caution when exploring this site and to leave our past intact for others to enjoy.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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