The sites featured below are from my list of recently visited or soon-to-be visited prehistoric sites in Colorado, including historical and archaeological sites of humans from their earliest times in Colorado to just before the Colorado historical period, which ranges from about 12,000 BC to AD 19th century. The Period is defined by the culture enjoyed at the time, from the earliest hunter-gatherers, the Paleo-Indians, to the prehistoric parents to the modern Native Americans.
There were more than 56,500 recorded prehistoric sites in Colorado by 1996. Important historical and archaeological sites are registered nationally with the National Register of Historic Places (National register) and within the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties (State register). Please use this QR code below to see the more specific list of ancient sites in Colorado that I use for adventure ideas.
The question of human antiquity on this continent had been a controversial scientific subject reaching as far back as the early 1800s, culminating during the early 1900s when the young field of archaeology was buzzing with this compelling question: How long had humans occupied North America?
To answer the question, go back to an essential Folsom culture archaeological site in North America that is right in our backyard! Discoveries made in the 1930s at the Lindenmeier Archaeological Site, located in Soapstone Prairie Natural Area north of Fort Collins, definitively dated human occupation in North America to over 11,000 years ago with artifacts dating to approximately 8710 BCE.
An extraordinary discovery made at the Lindenmeier Site in 1935 would answer this question and revolutionize the archaeological world. Loren Eiseley, a member of the excavation crew at the site, uncovered an ancient Bison antiquus vertebra with a human-made spear point embedded in it. This "smoking gun" gave proof that human occupation in North America stretched more than 11,000 years before the present.
Who was living here 11,000 years ago? Archaeologists call these early Colorado residents "Paleoindians." Many Native Americans refer to them as "Ancestors" or "Ancient Ones." Regardless of the name, we learn about these ancient peoples through oral histories passed down from elders, from the places they lived, and from the objects they made and left behind.
The Paleoindians who lived at Lindenmeier are a part of the Folsom Complex, named for an archaeological site in Folsom, New Mexico, where stone tools and animal bones were found in 1908. People living during the Folsom Era were known for making the delicate leaf-shaped and fluted spearhead known today as the "Folsom Point."
If you are a rock nut like me, I highly recommend hiking and exploring this exciting area in the Spring or Fall! You can visit this historical site at the Soapstone Prarie Natural Area north of Ft. Collins, Colorado.
Humans have used the Calhan paint mines area for at least 10,000 years, as indicated by the many cultural deposits distributed throughout the site. At least two locations in the paint mines contain artifacts from the Paleo-Indian Period (9500–5800 BCE), such as square-base Eden-style projectile points. At least three sites represent Middle and Late Archaic period (3000 BCE–150 CE) habitation. Most of the prehistoric artifacts in the paint mines date to the Ceramic Period (150–1540 CE), including minor corner-notched points, stemmed-style projectile points, and cord-marked ceramics.
Lamb Spring is a unique resource for the Denver metropolitan region and is valuable for public education and research because it is rich with information about natural and human history. The Lamb Spring Archaeological Preserve (LSAP) is an internationally important archaeological site containing bone- beds of extinct Ice Age animals and artifacts from later human occupation at the spring. Extinct Ice Age animals found at the site include over 30 Columbian Mammoths, the largest known from any Colorado site. It also contains the remains of Ice Age camels, horses, sloths, llamas, and wolves.
The Jurgens Site is a Paleo-Indian period (before 6000 BCE) bison processing site that dates to about 7120 BCE and includes the remains of at least sixty-eight bison spread across three separate camps. Located about nine miles east of Greeley near the South Platte River, the site was named for landowner George Jurgens and excavated in 1968 and 1970 by Joe Ben Wheat and Marie Wormington. Close analysis of the different concentrations of bones and artifacts at the Jurgens site helped provide a complete understanding of Paleo-Indians' other techniques for using bison on the High Plains. The Jurgens site consisted of three main concentrations of bones and artifacts. The two largest concentrations represented bison butchering and processing sites, distinguished from kill sites because they had few low-priority bones—such as skulls and other bones with little meat. No unbutchered animals were often left at the bottom of mass kill sites because the hunters could not reach them. Large sections of the bison, such as the front and rear quarters, were cut apart at the kill sites and brought to the butchering areas for further processing. Stone artifacts found at the processing sites indicated that projectile points used for killing bison could also be used as knives for carving bison carcasses.
Jurgens-Area 1, located at the southeast part of the site, represented a long-term camp where butchered at least thirty-one bison from a nearby mass kill. The presence of at least seventeen other species, including moose, elk, deer, pronghorn, and a variety of smaller animals, suggested that the people butchering bison there also performed daily hunting for subsistence.
Jurgens-Area 2, near the center of the site, represented a short-term camp focused on immediate consumption and hide preparation from a few small-scale kills. It included bones from at least two bison, three pronghorns, and about seven other animals, with most bones, smashed for marrow consumption.
Jurgens-Area 3, at the northwest corner of the site, represented a camp focused almost entirely on processing at least thirty-five bison from a nearby mass kill. The original kill sites have not been found. A piece of charcoal from area 3 returned a radiocarbon date of about 7120 BCE, placing the site solidly in the Plano complex of the Paleo-Indian Period.
The Olsen-Chubbuck kill site
When taken together with the Olsen-Chubbuck kill site, the three camps at the Jurgens site suggested that Plano people on the High Plains developed various techniques for dealing with bison, which was their most important resource. The range of responses that Plano people could use to solve problems led to clear functional distinctions between mass kill sites, butchering sites, long-term camps, and short-term camps.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the area was occupied by the ancestral Plains Apache. The Apache were pushed out in the 1700s by the Comanche and Ute. The Arapaho and Cheyenne, in turn, supplanted in the mid-nineteenth century.
The earliest explorers of European extraction to visit the area were Spanish explorers such as Coronado. However, the Coronado expedition of 1540–42 only skirted the future border of the Colorado Territory to the south and southeast.The lands that comprised the Colorado Territory were primarily inhabited by the Ute from Western Colorado onto the high eastern plains and Anasazi in southwestern, southern, and part of southeastern Colorado. The Comanche and Jicarilla Apache also formally ruled over the southeastern portions of the state. Arapaho and Cheyenne also hunted, warred, and sometimes lived in the eastern and northeastern plains of the state as well. In 1776, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalanteexplored southern Colorado in the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition. In 1779, Governor de Anza of New Mexico fought and defeated the Comanches under Cuerno Verdeon, the Eastern Slope of Colorado, probably south of Pueblo. In 1786, de Anza made peace with the Comanches, creating an alliance against the Apaches. In the south, in the San Luis Valley, early Mexican families established themselves in large land grants (later contested by the U.S.) from the Mexican government. In the early 19th century, the upper South Platte River valley had been infiltrated by fur traders but had not been the site of permanent settlement. The land, which ultimately became the Colorado Territory, had first come under the jurisdiction of the United States in three stages:
The land claims of Texas were, at first, controversial. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo redefined the border between the USA and Mexico at the end of the Mexican–American War in 1848. The final boundaries of Texas were established by the Congressional Compromise 1850. During that time, notable exploration was taking place:
The first movement of permanent U.S. settlers in the area began with the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing private land claims. Among the first settlers to establish claims were former fur traders who returned to the lands they once trapped, including Antoine Janis and other trappers from Fort Laramie, who established a town near Laporte along the Cache la Poudre in 1858. In 1858, Green Russell and a party of Georgians, having heard the story of the gold in the South Platte from Cherokee after they returned from California, set out to mine the area they described. They founded a mining camp, Auraria (named for a gold mining camp in Georgia), at the South Platte and Cherry Creek confluence. The Georgians left for their home state the following winter. At Bent's Fort along the Arkansas River, Russell told William Larimer, Jr., a Kansas land speculator, about the placer gold. Larimer, realizing the opportunity to capitalize on it, hurried to Auraria. Larimer's plan to promote his new town worked almost immediately. In November 1858, he laid claim to an area across Cherry Creek from Auraria. He named it "Denver City" in honor of James W. Denver, the current governor of the Kansas Territory. Larimer did not intend to mine gold himself; he wanted to promote the new town and sell real estate to eager miners. By the following spring, the western Kansas Territory along the South Platte was swarming with miners digging in river bottoms in what became known as the Colorado Gold Rush. Early arrivals moved upstream into the mountains quickly, seeking the lode source of the placer gold, and founded mining camps at Black Hawk and Central City. A rival group of civic individuals, including William A.H. Loveland, established the town of Golden at the base of the mountains west of Denver to supply the increasing tide of miners with necessary goods. In 1861, ten days before the establishment of the territory, the Arapaho and Cheyenne agreed with the U.S. to give up most of their areas of the plains to white settlement. Still, they were allowed to live in their larger traditional areas, so long as they could tolerate homesteaders near their camps. Yet, by the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the elimination of Native Americans on the High plains was nearly complete.A group of Cherokee crossed the South Platte and Cache la Poudre River valleys on their way to California in 1848 during the California Gold Rush. They reported finding trace amounts of gold in the South Platte and its tributaries passing along the mountains.
In the early days of the Colorado gold rush, Colorado was a Territory of Kansas and Territory of Jefferson. On August 1, 1876, Colorado was admitted as a state, maintaining its territorial borders.
The story of how we got there begins with The Colorado Gold Rush, originally known as the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, which started in 1858 and was the second-largest mining excitement in the United States history after the California rush a decade earlier. Over 100,000 people participated in this rush and were known as "Fifty-Niners," referring to 1859 when the rush to Colorado peaked. At that time, Colorado was still part of Kansas and Nebraska territory. The Pikes Peak gold rush followed the California Gold Rush by approximately a decade. And it was accompanied by a dramatic influx of emigrants into the Rocky Mountains region and exemplified by the phrase "Pikes Peak or Bust," a reference to the mountain in the Front Range that guided many early prospectors to the area westward over the Great Plains.
The prospectors provided the first significant caucasian population in the region. History shows their arrival leads to the creation of many early towns, including Denver and Boulder, and many other smaller mining towns, some of which have survived, such as Idaho Springs and Central City, but many of which have become ghost towns.
The first decade of the boom was primarily concentrated along the South Platte River at the base of the mountains, the canyon of Clear Creek in the mountains west of Golden, and South Park. As prospectors flooded the region in search of quick riches, the rapid population growth led to the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861 and the U.S. state of Colorado in 1876. The easy-to-reach gold deposits were primarily played out by 1863. Hard rock mining followed the exhaustion of the placer mines and continues to produce gold ore and many other minerals up to the present day.
The railroad lines built to haul gold from the mountains were significant in creating the region's economic base in the following decades, especially as Colorado experienced a companion mining boom in 1879 with the Colorado Silver Boom.
In 1848, a group of Cherokee tribal members discovered gold in a stream bed in the South Platte basin on their way to California over the Cherokee Trail. They did not stop to pan the stream beds for gold, but they reported the information to other members of their tribe upon returning to Oklahoma.
However, the information remained unused for the following decade until it reached William Green Russell, a Georgian who had worked the California gold fields in the 1850s. Russell was married to a Cherokee woman, and through his connections to the tribe, he heard about the reported gold in the Pikes Peak region of the western Kansas Territory.
In 1858, upon returning from California, Russel organized a party to the area, setting off with his two brothers and six companions in February 1858. They rendezvoused with Cherokee tribe members along the Arkansas River in present-day Oklahoma and continued westward along the Santa Fe Trail. Others joined the party along the way until the number reached 104.
Upon reaching Bent's Fort, they turned to the northwest, reaching the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte on May 23. They began prospecting in the river beds, exploring Cherry Creek and nearby Ralston Creek, without success. After twenty days, many of them decided to return home, leaving the Russell brothers and ten other men behind. The site of their initial explorations is present-day Confluence Park in Denver.
In the first week of July 1858, they finally discovered "good diggings" at the mouth of Little Dry Creek on the South Platte, panning out several hundred dollars of gold dust from a small pocket, the first significant gold discovery in the region. The discovery site is in the present-day Denver suburb of Englewood, just northwest of the junction of U.S. Highway 285 and Sante Fe.
Colorado's recorded history began with treaties and wars with Mexico and American Indian nations to gain territorial lands to support the transcontinental migration. When explorers, early trappers, hunters, and gold miners visited and settled in Colorado, the state was populated by American Indian nations. Westward expansion brought European settlers to the area. It is essential to know the specific tribes below when studying Colorado History.
The Ute tribes had several leaders; I consider Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, the Western Slope, the most valuable leaders with good people skills. They were generally called in to negotiate on behalf of their tribes. At the same time, Cheif Colorow and his family were nomads and historical accounts stories from the shining mountain area otherwise known as Independence Pass to all regions across the state. They often clashed with the Arapaho and Cheyenne and resisted the encroachment of these nations into the mountains. The Ute controlled nearly all of Colorado west of the continental divide, a situation that eroded after the silver boom of 1879. During the Meeker Massacre, Cheif Colorow let passions take hold of him. He killed Indian Agent Meeker by stabbing him in the face bringing on the Utes being outlawed in Colorado by the 1880 Ute Removal Act.