The Fremont Indians – Prehistoric Retreat of Agriculture in the American West

Scattered among the canyons, mesas and lake shorelines of northern Utah and adjacent areas of Colorado, Nevada and southern Idaho can be found evidence of an ancient agricultural people who inhabited and farmed the region for centuries before the arrival of Europeans – and then mysteriously disappeared. These native farmers, who raised crops such as corn (maize), squash and beans are referred to as the Fremont People by archaeologists. Exactly who they were and which native North American linguistic group they belonged to remains a mystery. They certainly did not refer to themselves as Fremonts – this name comes from the Fremont River region of Utah and is a modern designation applied to these lost people.

Fremont watch tower ruins at Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
Fremont watch tower ruins at Nine Mile Canyon, Utah

From roughly AD 700 to AD 1300 the Fremont held sway over a large portion of the intermountain west. To their south were the Anasazi farmers of the Southwest. Elsewhere around the Fremont lived a number of different hunting and gathering cultures. Evidence of their presence can be seen in the ruins of stone and adobe villages and towers with broken pottery and stone artifacts. In many areas, careful searching of high cliff faces and ledges reveals hidden storage cysts or granaries. Who were these caches of food so carefully being hidden from?

Between AD 1200 and AD 1500 the Fremont disappeared, their villages and fields fell into ruin and no other agriculturists tilled the fields of northern Utah until the arrival of Europeans. When the Spanish led Dominguez-Escalante Expedition crossed northern Utah in 1776 they reported the following from near present-day Roosevelt

We continued upstream along the latter and after going west one league we saw the ruins near it of a very ancient pueblo where there were fragments of stones for grinding maize, of jars and of pots of clay. The pueblos shape was circular as indicated by the ruins now almost completely in mounds.

Despite these ruins there was no evidence for current agriculture to be found by the Spanish for hundreds upon hundreds of miles of the region.

So, what happened to the Fremont and why did agriculture retreat southward from the interior of western North America during the late prehistoric period. This remains an enduring mystery. It is difficult to invoke land mis-management as all evidence suggests the Fremont had a relatively light imprint on the environment. Nor were the Fremont rigid in their life ways and strictly dependent upon one crop. The evidence is that they switched to hunting and gathering easily and supplemented crops with things like pinyon pine nuts. One interesting fact is that the period of AD 1100 to 1300 was a time of natural global warming and there seems to have been enhanced aridity and more prolonged droughts in southwestern North America. Perhaps prehistoric climate change produced a tipping point at which environmental pressures and societal pressures combined to cause the frontier of agriculture to retreat and remain absent for hundreds of years until the arrival of a new group of farmers – European immigrants.

As a last thought – driving in search of Fremont sites one sees many abandoned farmsteads and ranches in the hard country of eastern Utah and western Colorado. In some ways, just as remarkable as their disappearance is the fact that using only stone tools and ancient styles of farming the Fremont were able to persist so long in many of their now remote and forgotten sites.

Abandoned homestead in northeastern Colorado
Abandoned homestead in northeastern Colorado

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