"…of what value are objects of a past people if we don't allow ourselves to be touched by them. They are alive. They have a voice. They remind us what it means to be human; that it is our nature to survive, to be resourceful, to be attentive to the world we live in."
- Terry Tempest Williams from Exploring the Fremont
Rock art figures created by ancient Native Americans can be seen in several places in Capitol Reef National Park. Most are attributed to the Fremont Culture, which existed in areas of Utah from approximately AD 600 to 1300. The Fremont people were contemporaries of the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) of the Four Corners area.
Very impressive petroglyph figures can be seen along a sheer cliff that parallels Hwy 24 just east of the Visitor Center in Capitol Reef (1.5 miles east of the visitor center on Highway 14). The figures cover several rock panels and the diversity of images is astonishing. A road sign identifies the area, which includes a parking turnout. Boardwalks and viewing platforms have been established to make it easy for visitors to see the figures.
Fremont pictographs (painted on rock surfaces) and petroglyphs (carved or pecked into the rock) depict people, animals and other shapes and forms. Anthropomorphic (human-like) figures usually have trapezoidal shaped bodies with arms, legs and fingers. The figures are often elaborately decorated with headdresses, ear bobs, necklaces, clothing items and facial expressions. A wide variety of zoomorphic (animal-like) figures include bighorn sheep, deer, dogs, birds, snakes and lizards. Abstract designs, geometric shapes and hand prints are also common.
The meaning of rock art is unknown. Artists may have recorded religious or mythological events, migrations, hunting trips, resource locations, travel routes, celestial information and other important knowledge. Many archeologists propose that rock art uses symbolic concepts that provide an observer with important information and that it was not simply artistic expression. The Fremont people, more than other neighboring Native American cultures, were prolific with their rock art output.
Some day we may better understand rock art, but only if these sites are not destroyed. The slightest touch removes fine granules of sand and leaves behind a residue of sweat and oil. Please refrain from touching the panels. If you see anyone damaging rock art or any archeological site, report it immediately to a park ranger.
The Fremont culture was named for the Fremont River Valley in which sites were discovered and first defined. The Fremont people lived in pit houses (dug into the ground and covered with a brush roof) and natural rock shelters. Their social structure was likely composed of small, loosely organized bands consisting of several families. Their lives were tied closely to nature and they had to remain flexible, adapting to changes in their environment.
Fremont and ancestral Puebloan people began to incorporate farming into their hunter and gatherer lifestyles approximately 2,000 years ago. Petroglyph panels throughout the park depict ancient art and stories of these people who lived in the area from approximately 600-1300 common era (CE). Named for the Fremont River that flows through the park, evidence now shows that these people lived throughout Utah and adjacent areas of Idaho, Colorado and Nevada.
The Fremont lived in pit houses (dug into the ground and covered with a brush roof) and natural rock shelters. Their social structure was likely composed of small, loosely organized bands consisting of several families. They were closely tied to nature and flexible, making frequent modifications in their life ways as social or environmental changes occurred.
Anthropologists suggest that the Fremont were hunter-gatherers who supplemented their diet by farming, growing corn, beans and squash along the river bottoms. Edible native plants included pinyon nuts, rice grass and a variety of berries, nuts, bulbs, and tubers. Corn was ground into meal on a stone surface (metate) using a hand-held grinding stone (mano). Deer, bighorn sheep, rabbits, birds, fish and rodents were hunted using snares, nets, fishhooks, the Atlatl (spear-throwing stick) and the bow and arrow.
Several artifacts are distinctive to the Fremont. A unique singular style of basketry, called one-rod-and-bundle, incorporated willow, yucca, milkweed and other native fibers. Pottery, mostly graywares, had smooth, polished surfaces or corrugated designs pinched into the clay. The Fremont made moccasins from the lower-leg hide of large animals, such as deer, bighorn sheep or bison. Dew claws were left on the soles, possibly to act as hobnails, providing extra traction on slippery surfaces.
Pictographs (painted on rock surfaces) and petroglyphs (carved or pecked into the rock surface) depict people, animals and other shapes and forms on rock surfaces. Anthropomorphic (human-like) figures usually have trapezoidal shaped bodies with arms, legs and fingers. The figures are often elaborately decorated with headdresses, ear bobs, necklaces, clothing items and facial expressions. A wide variety of zoomorphic (animal-like) figures include bighorn sheep, deer, dogs, birds, snakes and lizards. Abstract designs, geometric shapes and handprints are also common. Designs may have recorded religious or mythological events, migrations, hunting trips, resource locations, travel routes, celestial information and other important knowledge.
The Fremont moved in small groups, as clans, medicinal societies, or co-residence groups encountering other people and residing with them for periods of time. Gradually these groups merged and dispersed, repeating this process continually in a practice known as residential cycling. This reshuffling continued for thousands of years and coalesced into todays' tribal groups of Utes, Paiutes, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni, continuing as European and American explorers came through Capitol Reef.
Situated in the Capitol Reef National Park is the old Mormon settlement of Fruita. Amazingly, this community, surrounded by thousands of square miles of desert and situated along the prone-to-flooding Fremont River, thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Settlement came late to south-central Utah as much of the region had not even been charted by credible explorers until 1872. However, in the last half of the century, the Mormons began to establish farming and grazing communities in the high plateau lands west of what is now the Capitol Reef National Park. As they looked to form more communities, they moved eastward along the Fremont River.
In 1880, the Mormons established a small Community at the junction of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, with the first landholder being a man named Niels Johnson. Soon, a few more families followed and the small settlement became known as "Junction.”
The industrious families, utilizing the river for irrigation, began to plant a number of crops, including sorghum and alfalfa, but would become most famous for its many fruit orchards. Though it never comprised more than 300 acres, Fruita would become an important settlement due to its relatively long growing season and abundant water. The residents planted apple, peach, pear, cherry, and plum trees, as well as walnut and almond orchards. Later they added grape orchards.
And, lucky for them, they were less subject to the frequent flooding of the Fremont River as were other small settlements further downriver, such as Aldrich, Caineville, and Blue Valley.
Surviving on their crops and vegetables until the fruit trees matured, the residents also made syrup and molasses from the sorghum. Living in a barter society, the community prospered by trading their crops and products for items they weren’t able to produce.
In 1884, the townspeople built a passage through Capitol Gorge that extended to Caineville and Hanksville. This 37 mile primitive and difficult roadway, called the "Blue Dugway," amazingly continued to serve as the primary roadway until after World War II.
In 1896, the residents built a one-room schoolhouse that also served as a community center, where they held dances and socials. A couple of stores and a small lodge were later added.
Though a Mormon settlement, its early life also included a frontier mentality. While it never sported a saloon or a Wild West atmosphere like so many early towns in the west, it did tend to live on the fringe of the Mormon culture – sometimes harboring fugitives, never having a church, tolerating drinking, and even sporting a few moonshiners within its midst.
By the turn of the century, the small community, which by then numbered about ten families, and its abundant fruit became familiarly known as "the Eden of Wayne County." A few years later, in 1902, the settlement’s name was changed from "Junction” to "Fruita," but the town was never incorporated.
Fruit growers usually picked the fruit prior to maturation and hauled it by the wagon load to bigger towns like Price and Richfield. As roads began to be developed through the area, some Fruita men worked with the state road crews, but annual fruit sales remained the major source of revenue.
When the great depression hit the rest of the nation, Fruita, with its remoteness, remained unscathed, as its economy had long been based on barter rather than cash.
Manual farming techniques continued until well into the 20th century, as the first tractor wasn’t purchased until after World War II. The families continued their quiet existence in the lush valley of the Fremont River until 1937, when the Capitol Reef National Monument was established. Though this didn’t initially affect the residents of the isolated community, it would eventually become a death knell for the community. After World War II, when people began to travel at a pace never known before, numerous visitors began to move through the area. In 1940, a road was paved from Richfield to Torrey. In 1952, the pavement was extended to Fruita and the settlement began to see people in numbers they had never experienced. Still unconcerned by its new National Monument status, several locals began to work for the Park Service.
However, in the 1950s the government began to aggressively purchase any and all private lands within the monument’s boundaries. By 1959, the last resident was gone and Fruita was completely merged into the park. Unfortunately, many of the original buildings were razed.
However, unlike many National Parks, a few of the buildings were kept, including the school house; the Gifford farm, including the 1908 house and barn, a few outbuildings, and the orchards.
Today, the still-producing orchards remain and dominate the landscape, though they are gradually being changed to centralize the fruit produced. The Gifford home now serves as a museum. The original site of the Niels homestead is now a picnic ground.
Near the old town site of Fruita, the park provides an additional scenic drive (with fee) that leads to overlooks, canyons, arches, and the site of the old wagon trail, which provides a peek at the Pioneer Register, where early travelers recorded their passage on the canyon walls. Also in Capitol Gorge can be found petroglyphs left by the early Fremont Indians.