Petroglyphs and the Oregon Trail

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White Mountain Petroglyphs in the Red Desert, Wyoming

By William Deverell

July 11, 2018

Rock Springs to Daniel.  We stayed last night in a Best Western (“The Outlaw”) in Rock Springs.  Very accommodating, nice pool, warm people.  Architecturally, the strangest motel I’ve ever stayed in.  Everything is arrayed off a large and central courtyard, enclosed, and set up kind of like a convention.  All original construction they told me – ca. 1966 – kind of “mid-century awkward,” but we were well looked after and had a good time.

Just out of Rock Springs, we took a detour I’ve long wanted to take, over to the White Mountain petroglyphs.  Probably between 200 and 1000 years old, carved into a huge sandstone butte pockmarked with holes and caves.  It was amazing.  We were the only ones who’d taken the dirt road out there, and we stayed quite awhile looking at the carvings.  Deer, elk, birds, men, even a mounted man with a sword or lance (which gives it a convenient post-contact date).  The local indigenous people regard the site as sacred – utterly understandable and fitting.  We found ourselves in a kind of hushed reverie out there.  One of the carvings was of a man standing, face forward, and we could stand just where the native artist stood to do it – 100, 200, 500 years ago.

 

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On the way out, we could see the Boar’s Tusk volcanic spire rising from the floor of the Red Desert.  This was surely a landmark for not only the indigenous people, but the Oregon- and California-bound emigrants in the mid-19th century.  I bet it still is for oil and gas workers out here.

Rolling towards Pinedale we hit a rain squall, common in the summers anywhere in the Rockies.  We passed a few Oregon Trail markers – a campsite, a fork in the wagon road – these are always fascinating to me.  I can see them out there – caravans of hardscrabble farmer mostly, generally unprepared for what they faced on this perilous journey that could stretch to five or six months’ duration.  It wasn’t the Indians – the natives knew enough to stay away, for the most part, or to interact only in brief trading sessions.  It was disease, the bad water, the accidents, the stupid gunplay, and the drownings – that’s what got most of them.  I disagree with my colleagues who blip over this chapter in 19th century American history as either too romantic or a story already told over and over again.  There is still so much to learn from the stories of these 200,000 or 250,000 people, shock troops of Manifest Destiny, settler-colonials who re-made history on foot, for good, for ill, and for everything in between.

If you are interested in learning more about this era, let me direct you to the work of the historian Sarah Keyes, who did her doctoral work with us at USC.  See, for instance, her articles “Western Adventurers and Male Nurses: Indians, Cholera, and Masculinity in Overland Trail Narratives,” Western Historical Quarterly<https://academic.oup.com/whq/issue/49/1> (Spring 2018) and “Like a Roaring Lion’: The Overland Trail as a Sonic Conquest,” Journal of American History (June 2009).

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Rain Squall Coming into Pinedale

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