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History and Archaeology at Bonderman Field Station at Rio Mesa

J. Trammel, B. Larsen, A. Pritchard, J. O'Connell
Archaeological Center
University of Utah

The Utah Bottoms, or Bonderman Field Station at Rio Mesa, has been occupied, probably intermittently, for the last 4,000-5,000 years. Sites recorded at the Field Station recall those associated with hunter-gatherers of the late Archaic, Proto-Historic and Historic Periods. Between 5,000-500 before present (B.P.), the northern Southwest witnessed a period of moisture, dune stabilization and soil formation (Antevs 1948; 1955; Haynes 1968; Betancourt 1990; Thompson 1990; Anderson 1993). During this time, sites located near cliff-base springs and canyon rims in the steep-walled canyon environments became attractive locations for human populations (Irwin-Williams 1979).

Between roughly 2,000 to 700 years B.P., southeastern Utah was occupied by farmers, with substantial evidence of Anasazi and Fremont rancherias and villages found along portions of the Dolores and Colorado Rivers (Plog 1979; Cordell 1984; Marwitt 1986). While the region as a whole is considered marginal for agriculture due to poor soil and limited moisture (Visher 1954; Lipe et al. 1988), the few areas suitable for agriculture occur predominantly on stabilized portions of flood plains and on lower terraces and fans in bottomlands, much like that found at Bonderman Field Station at Rio Mesa. These areas were attractive locations for prehistoric homesteads and farms and were made more productive through the use of water irrigation and erosion control systems.

Between 700-1,200 B.P., the region experienced a period of rapid population growth and population dispersion. Evidence of irrigation ditches, terraces, linear grids, field borders and check dams after this time suggests intensification of land-use and agricultural production (Plog 1979; Lipe 1988). A pattern developed in which rancherias or homestead-sites were settled by small family groups away from major population centers for short periods of time (less than a generation) (Plog et al. 1978). If the Bonderman Field Station at Rio Mesa were occupied by prehistoric farmers, it is likely that settlement occurred during this time period and was generally similar to this “homestead pattern”.

During the Proto-Historic Period, farming was abandoned throughout much of the area. The appearance of hunter-gatherers during this period is thought to mark the arrival of the ancestral populations of the historic inhabitants of the region, the southern Ute (e.g. Callaway et al. 1986; Reed 1994).

Beginning in the 16th Century, the arrival of Spanish and Mexican colonists brought about major changes in native subsistence, settlement and sociopolitical organization. Utes escaping from Spanish peonage obtained horses and are credited with the initial diffusion of the horse north of the Colorado River and throughout much of the Intermountain West (Shimkin 1986; Forbes 1959). Spaniards and Mexicans primarily limited their penetration of the region to exploration and trading expeditions, but the Anglo-Americans who streamed into the region after the 1840's sought to exploit the natural resources more completely and came into the area with the intent to settle (Malouf and Findlay 1986). The arrival of Mormon and non-Mormon settlers brought an end to hunting and gathering (and native slaving) and a return to agriculturally-based subsistence. By 1890, all arable land, capable of being irrigated by means of simple ditches constructed by two individuals, had been settled and farmed (Newell 1894).

Last Updated: 7/21/22