Meet the Fremont—the Ancestral Pueblo People’s Northern Neighbors

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The ancient Fremont people once stretched out across a vast, rugged high-desert landscape larger than most European nations—and they left behind countless stone structures, beautiful and distinct artifacts, and pictograph and petroglyph panels that rival any found in the world.

And yet, for the most part, the Fremont people are something of an enigma.

There are many theories but little agreement on where the Fremont came from; what their relationship was to their neighbors (including the Ancestral Pueblo, the Hohokam, and the Ute, among others); and, most intriguingly, where they went after their culture finally collapsed around AD 1300.

But the clues they left behind give a tantalizing look into life for the people who called the region home for nearly 1,300 years.

The Fremont people, and their relationship to their neighbors in the Four Corners region, is the subject of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s Cultural Exploration travel seminar program “Fremont: Ute & Pueblo Perspectives and Pathways” — a week-long exploration of the Fremont landscape and culture and how it still impacts Ute and Pueblo culture today.

The scholars on the trip, scheduled for May 19-25, 2019, include some of the leading experts in Fremont culture and their interaction with neighboring tribes. Porter Swentzell, Ph.D. (Santa Clara Pueblo), is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Liberal Studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe; Steven Simms, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Utah State University, specializing in Fremont culture; Becky Hammond (Ute Mountain Ute) has been an educator at Crow Canyon since 1997 and brings an important cultural perspective to Crow Canyon’s work; and Carol Patterson, Ph.D., is an archaeologist and principal investigator for Urraca Archaeological Services in Montrose, Colorado who has published a number articles and books on rock art interpretation, including the rock art found on the Uncompahgre Plateau and Shavano Valley Petroglyph site.

The Fremont people (so named for Utah’s Fremont River, which in turn was named for American explorer John Charles Frémont—we may never know what the Fremont actually called themselves) lived in what is today Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, and Arizona. Archaeologists say that the diverse Fremont culture shared some similarities with their southern neighbors, the Ancestral Pueblo people, in that they grew corn, beans, and squash; built and lived in pithouses; and created distinct woven baskets and gray-walled pottery.

But where the Ancestral Pueblo people relied largely on farming for their existence the Fremont people remained at least partly nomadic, relying on hunting wild game animals and gathering other wild food sources in addition to farming for their diets.

One area where Fremont people are quite distinct from their neighbors is their footwear. Ancestral Pueblo people often wore sandals made of woven yucca and other materials, while Fremont people wore leather moccasins—often made of deerskin—with the animal’s dewclaw left in place. This could be for practical reasons, such as traction, or possibly for some symbolic meaning. But as is the case for so much about the Fremont, archaeologists may never know for certain.

The Fremont people also created countless rock art panels across the region—their exact meaning is unknown, but are seen by many researchers as being mostly symbolic representations of migrations, hunting trips, travel routes, religious or spiritual events, and celestial information. The panels often depict highly-decorated trapezoidal-shaped human figures, along with bighorn sheep, deer, dogs, birds, snakes, and lizards. The rock art sites also often include abstract and geometric shapes and handprints.

Becky Hammond says that in many ways the Fremont rock art panels are something of a mystery for the Ute people of today, whose ancestors arrived in the Four Corners region roughly the same time as when the Fremont people departed. Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands include many examples of Fremont rock art imagery and other Fremont artifacts.

She says that as a scholar on the seminar, she’s excited to hear other perspectives of the Fremont.

“I look forward to hearing a Pueblo perspective on the Fremont by Porter Swentzell,” says Hammond.

But the major question for many researchers remains: Where did the Fremont people go?

According to archaeologists, Fremont culture peaked around AD 1000, with a major decline starting in roughly AD 1150, and no archaeological evidence for a widespread Fremont culture past AD 1300. Researchers say that a combination of factors may have led to the abandonment of the Fremont culture—especially climate change that not only stressed the Fremont people (who tended to live at higher altitudes in which survival could be marginal even in good years) but also the neighboring Ancestral Pueblo people, which led to a decline in the availability of trade goods for the Fremont.

That time period also marked the arrival of Ute, Navajo, and other hunter-gatherer tribes to the region, which may have also placed added stress on Fremont culture. These and other factors likely led to the Fremont either leaving the region or becoming absorbed into other neighboring cultures.

In any case, the Fremont people left behind an incredible and unique, if somewhat mysterious, story on the landscape of the American West.

For more information about Crow Canyon’s “Fremont: Ute & Pueblo Perspectives and Pathways” Cultural Exploration travel seminar, click here or call 800-422-8975, ext. 457.