The prehistoric societies of the western Colorado Plateau and the eastern
Great Basin can be characterized by variation and diversity; they are neither
readily defined nor easily encapsulated within a single description. Some
people were primarily settled farmers, growing corn, beans, and squash in
small plots along streams at the base of mountain ranges; some were nomads,
collecting wild plants and animals to support themselves; still others would
shift between these lifestyles. In some areas the population was relatively
dense; in other places only small groups were found widely scattered across
the landscape. People living in this region may even have spoken different
languages or had widely divergent dialects. Yet, despite the diversity of
these lifestyles and the varied geography which helped structure their actions,
these people seem to have shared patterns of behavior and ways of living
that tie them together.
Today we call these scattered groups of hunters and farmers the Fremont,
but that name may be more reflective of our own need to categorize things
than it is a reflection of how closely related these people were to each
other. "Fremont" is really a generic label for a people who, like
the land in which they lived, are not easily described or classified. The
Fremont culture was first defined in 1931 by Noel Morss, a young Harvard
anthropology student working along the Fremont River in south-central Utah.
Because the Fremont are not easily categorized and do not readily fit into
archaeological classification schemes, they have been a source of confusion
and debate among archaeologists since they were first identified in the
late 1920s. The differences between the many small bands of the Great Basin
and those of the northern Colorado Plateau areas of the Intermountain West
were often quite great. As a result, archaeologists have had a difficult
time defining just who these people were and how they were related to each
other. There are actually few artifact similarities among these groups.
While the similarities include such things as a particular way of making
baskets, a unique moccasin style, clay figurines, and gray pottery, the
problem of categorizing Fremont groups is compounded by a number of factors.
The figurines are quite rare, for example, and the baskets and moccasins
are perishable materials which do not survive in most archaeological sites.
There is, in fact, only one single non-perishable trait which ties these
people together--a thin-walled gray pottery whose many variations have been
found as far west as Ely and Elko, Nevada, in the central Great Basin, as
far north as Pocatello, Idaho, on the Snake River Plain, as far east as
Grand Junction, Colorado, at the foot of the western Rocky Mountains, and
as far south as Moab and St. George, Utah, along the Colorado and Virgin
Most archaeologists believe the Fremont developed out of existing groups
of hunter-gatherers on the Colorado Plateau and in the eastern Great Basin.
These small groups were, like their Fremont descendants, diverse, flexible,
and adaptable. They ranged from fairly large and relatively sedentary populations
in environments where resources were more readily accessible, to small,
highly mobile family-sized groups where resources were widely dispersed.
Over a span of about a thousand years, from sometime after 2,500 years ago
to about 1,500 years ago, different groups of these hunter-gatherers gradually
adopted, in a piecemeal fashion, many of the traits associated with the
farming societies of the Southwest and Mexico.
First, corn and other cultivated plants (called domesticates), initially
developed in what is now Mexico, then diffused northward throughout the
greater Southwest and were added to the wild food subsistence base of native
people sometime about 2,500 to 2,000 years ago in areas on either side of
the southern Wasatch Plateau. This early use of corn and other domesticates
occurred well before settled villages developed, and it seems that farming
at first was just a part-time affair practiced by people who were still
essentially nomadic hunters and gatherers. The earliest "Fremont"
corn, radiocarbon dated to 2,340-l,940 years ago, comes from a cache near
Elsinore, Utah; corn in sites along Muddy Creek in the San Rafael Swell
date to just after the time of Christ. These sites suggest that farming
was well established in some areas by 2,000 years ago. Outside this region,
however, full-time hunting and gathering lifestyles seem to have continued
unchanged. For example, in the deserts of the eastern Great Basin, at all
of the many cave sites like Fish Springs, Lakeside, Black Rock, and Danger
Cave, domesticates are absent throughout this early period and subsistence
was based entirely on wild foods.
Second, between about 2,000 to 1,500 years ago, many of the objects associated
with the use of domesticates, such as pottery and large basin-shaped grinding
implements, were added to the people's tools. It is noteworthy that Fremont
pottery first occurs as early as 1,500 years ago in several caves and rock
shelters associated with mobile hunting and gathering groups and is not
found in what we think of as settled villages until several hundred years
later. The production and use of these tools, in addition to the growing
of corn, beans, and squash, appears to have spread to other hunting and
gathering groups to the north as well as to both the east and west of the
central Wasatch Plateau region. By about 1,300 years ago, sites with corn
and pottery are also found in the Uinta Basin and around the Great Salt
Lake; and within several hundred years after that, corn and/or pottery are
present throughout the Fremont region.
Third, between about 1,750 and 1,250 years ago, architecture at some (but
far from all) open sites changed from small, thin-walled habitation structures
and subterranean storage pits to larger semi-subterranean timber and mud
houses and above-ground mud- or rock-walled granaries. The presence of such
substantial buildings suggests that, at some sites at least, some people
were becoming more fully sedentary and were relying more on farming than
on the collecting of wild foods.
By about A.D. 750 , hunting and gathering groups on the east and west sides
of the Wasatch Plateau had adopted and modified many features of settled
village life and to a greater or lesser extent had integrated them into
their subsistence and settlement patterns. For the next five hundred years
or so, this crystallized Fremont pattern remained essentially unchanged
in the heartland of the Fremont region, but many of its features, such as
its pottery, spread to groups as far away as central Nevada, southern Idaho,
northwestern Colorado, and southwestern Wyoming. Whether these items were
present in all these areas as the result of trade or local manufacture is
Significantly, there are actually very few common traits that distinguish
what can be considered "classic" Fremont. Pithouse villages and
farming are found over large areas of the United States about this same
time and are not very helpful in distinguishing the Fremont from other groups.
Many artifact forms, such as projectile point styles, also are not unique
to the Fremont and are not helpful in separating the Fremont from their
contemporaries. A number of other material items--such as stone balls, basin-shaped
metates with small secondary grinding surfaces, and elongated corner-notched
arrow points--are characteristic of the Fremont, but they are either so
variable from place to place, or so limited in distribution, that they are
not very useful traits for distinguishing the Fremont.
Fortunately, there are four relatively distinctive artifact categories which
do distinguish the Fremont, materially, from other prehistoric societies.
Unfortunately, they are only rarely found together. The first is a one-rod-and-bundle
basketry construction style so unique that it has led some to suggest that
the Fremont culture can be defined on the basis of this single artifact
category alone. This technique is markedly different from that used by both
contemporary Anasazi groups and from later historically known Numic-speaking
groups such as the Ute and Shoshoni.
A second trait is a unique "Fremont" moccasin style constructed
from the hock of a deer or mountain sheep leg. This and other moccasin types
found in Fremont sites are very different from the woven yucca sandals of
the Anasazi. A third item is actually an art style represented in three
dimensions by trapezoidal-shaped clay figurines with readily identified
hair "bobs" and necklaces. These same trapezoidal figures are
depicted in Fremont pictographs and petroglyph panels. Magic and/or religious
functions have been ascribed to these painted and sculpted figures, but
no one really knows their purpose or meaning.
The fourth and last major artifact category is the gray, coil pottery which
is most often used to identify archaeological sites as Fremont. This pottery
is not very different from that made by other Southwestern groups, nor are
its vessel forms and designs distinct. What distinguishes Fremont pottery
from other ceramic types is the material from which it is constructed. Variations
in temper, the granular rock or sand added to wet clay to insure even drying
and to prevent cracking, have been used to identify five major Fremont ceramic
types. They include Snake Valley gray in the southwestern part of the Fremont
region, Sevier gray in the central area, Great Salt Lake gray in the northwestern
area, and Uinta and Emery gray in the northeast and southwestern regions.
Sevier, Snake Valley, and Emery gray also occur in painted varieties. A
unique and beautiful painted bowl form, Ivie Creek black-on-white, is found
along either side of the southern Wasatch Plateau. In addition to these
five major types found at Fremont villages, a variety of locally made pottery
wares are found on the fringes of the Fremont region in areas occupied by
people who seem to have been principally hunters and gatherers rather than
At the height of this classic Fremont period, about 1,000 years ago, people
who in one way or another fit the rather broad description of Fremont could
be found from what is now Grand Junction, Colorado, on the east to Ely,
Nevada, on the west. They lived as far north as modern Pocatello, Idaho,
and on the south to present-day Cedar City, Utah.
After about A.D. 1250, the Fremont as an identifiable archaeological phenomenon
began to disappear in much the same uneven fashion that it appeared. That
is, between the years 1250 and 1500, classic traits such as one-rod-and-bundle
basketry, thin-walled gray pottery, and clay figurines disappear from the
Fremont region. No one can quite agree on what happened, but there seem
to be a number of interrelated factors behind this change. Two seem most
likely. First, climatic conditions favorable for farming seem to have changed
during this period, forcing local groups to rely more and more on wild food
resources and to adopt the increased mobility necessitated in collecting
wild food. By itself, however, this climatic change probably would not have
resulted in the Fremont demise, because the flexibility and adaptability
which characterized the Fremont had allowed them to weather similar changes.
However, new groups of hunter-gatherers appear to have migrated into the
Fremont area from the southwestern Great Basin sometime after about 1,000
years ago. These full-time hunter-gatherers were apparently the ancestors
of the Numic-speaking Ute, Paiute, and Shoshoni peoples who inhabited the
region at historic contact, and perhaps they displaced or replaced the part-time
Fremont hunter-gatherers with whom they were in competition.
Whether or not Fremont peoples died out, were forced to move, or were integrated
into Numic-speaking groups is unclear, and even the matter of the postulated
Ute/Paiute/Shoshoni migration remains a matter of spirited debate. It appears
that the sudden replacement of classic Fremont artifacts by different kinds
of basketry, pottery, and art styles historically associated with Utah's
contemporary native inhabitants suggests that Fremont peoples were, for
the most part, pushed out of the region and were replaced rather than integrated
into Numic-speaking groups. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact
that the most recent Fremont or Fremont-like materials, dating to about
500 years ago, are found at the northern and easternmost fringes of the
Fremont region, in the Douglas Creek area of northwestern Colorado and on
the Snake River plain of southern Idaho--areas at maximum distance along
the postulated migration route of Numic-speaking populations.
See: David B. Madsen, Exploring The Fremont (1989).
David B. Madsen