Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Archeology of Val Verde County

 

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College, 207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840
(830) 703-1554 dbraudaway@swtjc.edu

Val Verde County is home to some of the greatest archeological sites in North America.

This bold statement is supported by the Handbook of Texas. The Handbook's listing for "Prehistory" (Volume 5, pages 3l9-325) features several Val Verde sites. "Langtry" is the name of one particular type of projectile point. Some of the earliest archeological studies in Texas were conducted by San Antonio's Witte Museum, the University of Texas, Texas Tech University, and the Smithsonian Institution in Val Verde County during the 1930s, decades before the Texas Antiquities Code was enacted in 1969. The Handbook entry notes Bonfire Shelter as one of the oldest North American human habitation sites (9,000 B.C.). Two of the three photographs reproduced for the entry (as well as the photograph of artifacts included with the entry "Pre-Columbian Exploration") are of Val Verde archeology: Baker Cave, the White Shaman (and a medicine bundle from Horseshow Ranch Caves). The "lower Pecos" region of Texas is repeatedly referenced, and archeologists have known for decades that Val Verde is a very special place.

The first American to visit the land now called Val Verde County did not care about the wondrous archeological resources of the area. He was too busy avoiding pain and death. Ranger Captain Jack Hays was leading an expedition out of San Antonio toward El Paso in an effort to link the two cities with a trade road. The expedition succeeded-with some deaths and a lot of pain-and within two years, the San Antonio-El Paso Road was in use.

Only when the Canyon Country of Southwest Texas became familiar to Texans did the art and remains of the prehistoric indigenous peoples attract attention and interest. The completion of the railroad through Val Verde County made travel easier and allowed for a new kind of travel here that might be called recreational. People rode the trains to see the Pecos River, Devil's River and Rio Grande, to see their canyons and the bridges that soared across them. And some people began looking at the ancient art.

Formal study of Val Verde's archeological resources did not begin until the twentieth-century, and one of the twentieth-century pioneers was the husband and wife team of Forrest and Lula Kirkland. Artist Forrest (1892-1942) and wife Lula did not undertake archeological studies from an archeological background. Rather, they began traveling the state in 1934 painting copies of the rock art found. "Why shouldn't I return to Paint Rock [in the Concho River valley] and carefully copy every picture still remaining on the cliff and so save them for future generations?... I went to the library for information but found almost nothing on the subject - just two short articles in the Texas Folklore Society publications."1 Serious study of the archeology had not yet begun.

The Kirklands first arrived in the lower Pecos River area in 1936 driving a 1929 Model A Ford coupe. A journal of the events of the summer relays the difficultly of getting to the sites. Lula wrote that the "descent into [Rattlesnake] Canyon was so steep and difficult he [Forrest] had to let his paint box down with a rope and climb down after it. I followed him soon and having no rope I took along a pair of trousers, tied up the end of one leg, placed my camera outfit and our lunch in it, and while holding to one end I slid down the rocks. It was far too difficult to climb in and out of canyons to get a bite of lunch so we usually carried it with us."2 The Kirklands made several return trips (1937, 1938, 1940) to the area to record different sites, often wading through the Pecos River to get to the shelter sites that housed (and sometimes didn't hosue) pictographs. Forrest Kirkland died in 1942, but his reproductions are considered classics in the field, and with the vandalism and moisture (from Lake Amistad) and greater human contact of modern life, Kirkland's paintings are themselves a window into the past.3

At this same time, the mid-1930s, a few archeologists began to study Texas archeology, in general, and Val Verde archeology, in particular. A.T. Jackson was the first to publish studies of Lower Pecos Archeology, beginning his research in 1932 and publishing his work in 1938. The Jackson research is a statewide study, but very quickly, the reader sees Val Verde's presence in the state's archeology. The frontspiece photo, opposite page one, is entitled "Indian Art at Its Best in Texas: Realistic paintings in natural color. Site No. 90, Val Verde County, Texas." Jackson charts the known pictograph and petroglyph sites in Texas on page three: "Distribution of Petrographic Sites by Counties"; Val Verde County contained more sites (forty) than any other county. (Culberson County was listed in second place with nineteen sites.) Jackson then summarized the numbers, stating that "Twenty-four percent of the [known] sites are in Val Verde County." The Jackson study does not have the interpretation expected in modern archeological publications; but years of study and information gathering had to pass before people could begin interpreting what was becoming known.4

A few others studied the area in the 1930s, scientists generally associated with Texas institutions. George C. Martin, with San Antonio's Witte Museum, and Victor J. Smith, with Sul Ross College (now State University). "These early pioneers...collected an enormous body of data that has been useful for comparative and technological studies."5

The Witte Museum's interest in the county's archeology dates back to Museum founder Ellen Quillin (@1890-1970). A botany teacher, Quillin convinced Emma Gutzeit, the vice prinicipal of San Antoino's Main Avenue High School to spare some rooms for historical displays. (The "Gutzeit Expedition" is noted on an attached page.) Beyond their early study of West Texas archeology, it is interesting and important to note that women were among the early archeologists playing significant roles in preserving Val Verde's pre-history. Quillin first traveled to West Texas in 1928 on a survey of pre-historic sites. She had to beg for donations of cash and supplies to finance the early trips; donated candy was traded in the field for staples of meat and beans. The Smithsonian, Sul Ross College, and the University of Texas were beginning their studies during the 1920s and 1930s, "But when [Quillin's] work had been completed, the Witte Museum was then considered first in the importance of its Basketmaker material."6

Another Witte Museum person, Sam Woolford, "had been visiting W.H. Dodd, the postmaster at Langtry…. We had been crawling under 'The Jersey Lilly' looking for items of interest, when Mr. Dodd suggested that we also look at Eagle Nest Canyon." There they found arrowheads and other pre-historic debris. In 1931, the Witte contacted Guy Skiles who "had pioneered in the search" in the Langtry area. Skiles continued supporting archeological studies, and his son Jack Skiles continues supporting Val Verde archeology today. "Langtry became the center of a large circle of exploration. Prosser's Ranch, Rattlesnake Canyon, Painted Cave and Button Willow Waterhole offered paintings of beauty and scientific value." Later, in 1933, the Witte explored Shumla Caves on the Rio Grande between the mouth of the Pecos River and Langtry.7

The Witte Museum opened its "Basketmaker Hall" in 1934, and the county's archeology has been featured in the Museum ever since.8 Currently, the Museum offers numerous photos, displays and a large floor reproducing petroglyphs from the county.

Little work was done during the 1940s; the Second World War probably interrupted studies all across the country. Attention was slow in returning afterward "The only significant field work after 1940, up to the recent initiation of salvage operations at Amistad, was that done by Herbert C. Taylor while a student at The University of Texas. His work included both surveying and test excavations (H.C. Taylor, 1948, 1949a, 1949b)."9

The bulk of the 1950s saw little archeological study. "Little of the data recovered through [1930's] investigations has been adequately described. Only two major reports appeared during the early period: Pearce and Jackson's A Prehistoric Rock Shelter in Val Verde County, Texas (1933) and Martin's Archaeological Explorations of the Shumla Caves (1933). Recently, however, Mrs. Mardith K. Schuetz, Curator of Anthropology at the Witte Museum, has taken steps to describe much of the early, unpublished material (Schuetz, 1956, 1961, 1963)."10 But another generation of archeologists was coming to Val Verde County. Jim Zintgraff of the Rock Art Foundation was a commercial photographer who discovered Val Verde's pictographs while hunting in the area in the early 1950's. During 1958, Zintgraff, Mark Parsons, and Curtis Tunnel (once the State Archeologist) discovered the White Shaman Site on the Pecos River, a site now owned and protected by the Rock Art Foundation. Zintgraff is not professionally trained as an archeologist; he calls himself a "romantic" as opposed to a scientist. Nevertheless, the romantics who protect rock art sites have become an important force in the preservation of Val Verde archeology.11

The creation of a major flood control project-Amistad Dam and Reservoir-prompted a new phase of archeological study. "The most intense period of archaeological activity in the Lower Pecos area was from 1958 to 1969, when the Texas Archeological Salvage Project (now the Texas Archeological Survey) at the University of Texas conducted a program of salvage work in the proposed Amistad Reservoir Basin.12 Amistad Reservoir was planned in the late 1950s as a flood control project designed to capture flood surges from the Rio Grande, Pecos River and Devil's River. The deal was signed into being in 1960 and completed in 1969. "In 1958, after plans for the construction of the dam had been completed, archeological reconnaissance teams surveyed both the United States and Mexican sides of the reservoir, with the result that a large number of caves, rockshelters, and open sites were found and recorded." The National Park Service, River Basin Survey recorded 188 sites, while the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia de México recorded 63 more.13 More than one-hundred linear miles of canyon were inundated. Amistad National Recreation Area, run by the National Park Service, now occupies much of the Lower Pecos region and has a professional archeologist on staff. An appended list of archeological studies notes a great many studies dating to the 1960s.

"Excavations at Bonfire Shelter, a unique site in the Amistad region, were begun in 1963 under the direction of David S. Dibble. Bonfire Shelter was not a typical occupied rockshelter, although limited use of it was made for camping at two different times. The shelter fill contained three layers of concentrated animals bones, forming three 'bone beds,' two of which were the result of Indians having driven bison into a cleft."14

"Archaeological fieldwork diminished in the 1970s." But the work continues. "The data acquired from fifty years of intense archaeological activity in the Lower Pecos River region is probably unmatched by that from any other area in North America."15

The archeological history of Val Verde County acquired a new home in 1980 with the creation of Seminole Canyon State Park. On October 20 Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, Curtis Tunnel of the Texas Historical Commission's Archeological Division, David Dibble of the Texas Archeological Survey, and State Rep. Susan Gurley McBee joined Val Verde County Judge Sergio Gonzalez and Del Rio Mayor Herb Whitis and other community leaders for the dedication ceremony of the new park.16

One of the main reasons this early archeology and art is so important is the degradation of the archeological sites. With more visitors and moisture from Lake Amistad on top of weather and erosion, some pictographs are no longer as clean and crisp as they were in the early twentieth-century. Speaking particularly about the pictographs at Seminole Cave, Solveig Turpin concludes "There can be little doubt that severe deterioration has taken place at 41 VV 72 since [Kirkland's] reproductions were drawn. Many figures are now decipherable only when viewed in the context of his drawings."17 References to other particular sites are often noted with similar deterioration. Included in the illustrations is a page showing a set of pictographs: at top as photographed in 1932 by A.T. Jackson, and at bottom a photograph show in 1981. That "deterioration" is very evident.

"Seminole Canyon State Historical Park is composed of 2,172.5 acres of dramatic semi-arid landscape located along and within a dry canyon in Val Verde County, Texas. Within Seminole Canyon, there are several rock shelters of varying size, cut out of the Georgetown limestone by water action. Seven of these shelters contain outstanding examples of pre-historic pictographs remarkable for their scale, high artistic quality, iconographic richness, and antiquity. However, Seminole Canyon also contains an eighteenth century pictograph (41 VV 77) of possible Apache authorship and a late nineteenth century pictograph painted by an "Anglo" employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad (41 VV 226).

"As an ensemble, the rock art of Seminole Canyon comprises almost 2000 years of artistic contact with the landscape by at least three different cultures. The importance of these pictographs has been recognized since the 1930's, when many were first recorded by Forrest Kirkland. Since Kirkland's time, its listing on the National Register of Historic Places has designated Seminole Canyon as a cultural resource of national importance. Most recently, Seminole Canyon was made a Texas State Historical Park...."18

In sum, the study of archeology in Texas has some of its earliest roots in Val Verde County and Seminole Canyon State Historical Park and the Val Verde County Historical Commission would like to tell the state and the nation that the study of our prehistoric ancestors is important, significant, and worthy of continued examination.

Bibliography--

Del Rio News-Herald articles.

Rebecca Huffstutler to DLB, interview, July 9, 2004. Interview not recorded.

A.T. Jackson, Picture-Writing of Texas Indians, University of Texas Publication, No. 3809:
    March 1, 1938 (Bureau of Research in the Social Sciences, Study No. 27).

LeRoy Johnson, Jr., The Devil's Mouth Site: A Stratified Campsite at Amistad Reservoir, Val
    Verde County, Texas
, University of Texas, Dept. of Anthropology, Archaeology Series,
    Number 6, 1964.

W.W. Newcomb, The Rock Art of Texas Indians, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967
    (reissued in 1996).

San Antonio Express-News article.

Harry J. Shafer (with Jim Zintgraff), Ancient Texans: Rock Art and Lifeways Along the Lower
    Pecos
, Texas Monthly Press [for the Witte Museum], 1986, page 228.

Solveig A. Turpin, "Seminole Canyon: The Art and the Archeology, Val Verde County, Texas,"
    Texas Archeological Survey: Research Report No. 83, University of Texas, 1982.

Bess Carroll Woolford and Ellen Schulz Quillin, The Story of the Witte Memorial Museum,
    1922-1960
, San Antonio Museum Association, 1966.

Jim Zintgraff to DLB, interview, May 28, 2004. Audiotape by DLB.

Footnotes--

1Forrest Kirkland, quoted in W.W. Newcomb, The Rock Art of Texas Indians, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967 (reissued in 1996), page 3.
2Lula Kirkland, quoted in W.W. Newcomb, The Rock Art of Texas Indians, page 9.
3W.W. Newcomb, The Rock Art of Texas Indians, pages 12-13.
4
 
 
Harry J. Shafer (with Jim Zintgraff), Ancient Texans: Rock Art and Lifeways Along the Lower Pecos, Texas Monthly Press [for the Witte Museum], 1986, page 228; A.T. Jackson, Picture-Writing of Texas Indians, University of Texas Publication, No. 3809: March 1, 1938 (Bureau of Research in the Social Sciences, Study No. 27), frontspiece, page 3.
5Shafer (with Zintgraff), Ancient Texans, pages 228-229.
6
 
Bess Carroll Woolford and Ellen Schulz Quillin, The Story of the Witte Memorial Museum, 1922-1960, San Antonio Museum Association, 1966, pages 20, 195-197; Rebecca Huffstutler to DLB, interview, July 9, 2004. The following is a list of the earliest expeditions:
 
the University of Texas studiedFate Bell Rockshelter in1932;
the Witte Museum studiedShumla caves in1933;
the Smithsonian studiedPecos River sites in1933;
the University of Texas studiedHorseshoe Cave in1936;
the Witte Museum studiedEagle Caves in1936;
and Texas Technological College studiedMurrah Cave in1937.
 LeRoy Johnson, Jr., The Devil's Mouth Site: A Stratified Campsite at Amistad Reservoir, Val Verde County, Texas, University of Texas, Dept. of Anthropology, Archaeology Series, Number 6, 1964, page 9. (The Witte history book features four photos of Val Verde sites in the archeology chapter.)
7Bess Carroll Woolford and Ellen Schulz Quillin, The Story of the Witte Memorial Museum, 1922-1960, San Antonio Museum Association, 1966, pages 200-203.
8Bess Carroll Woolford and Ellen Schulz Quillin, The Story of the Witte Memorial Museum, 1922-1960, San Antonio Museum Association, 1966, page 202.
9
 
LeRoy Johnson, Jr., The Devil's Mouth Site: A Stratified Campsite at Amistad Reservoir, Val Verde County, Texas, University of Texas, Dept. of Anthropology, Archaeology Series, Number 6, 1964, page 10.
10
 
 
LeRoy Johnson, Jr., The Devil's Mouth Site: A Stratified Campsite at Amistad Reservoir, Val Verde County, Texas, University of Texas, Dept. of Anthropology, Archaeology Series, Number 6, 1964, page 9. The second report is Mardith K. Schuetz, An Analysis of Val Verde County Cave Material: Part II, Reprinted from Bulletin of The Texas Archeological Society, Val. 31 (1960), 1961. The others share the same basic title.
11
 
Jim Zintgraff to DLB, interview, May 28, 2004. Articles such as Ralph Winingham, "S.A. group leads Pecos River tour of dated rock art," San Antonio Express-News, October 22, 1995, pages 1B, 4B. The dateline for the article is "Along the Pecos River."
12Shafer (with Zintgraff), Ancient Texans, pages 229-230.
13
 
LeRoy Johnson, Jr., The Devil's Mouth Site: A Stratified Campsite at Amistad Reservoir, Val Verde County, Texas, University of Texas, Dept. of Anthropology, Archaeology Series, Number 6, 1964, page 1.
14Shafer (with Zintgraff), Ancient Texans, page 231.
15Shafer (with Zintgraff), Ancient Texans, page 232.
16John Vaughn, "Hobby helps open new Seminole park," Del Rio News-Herald, October 20, 1980, [no page number].
17Turpin, "Seminole Canyon: The Art and the Archeology, Val Verde County, Texas," page 60.
18
 
Constance S. Silver, "The Rock Art of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park: Deterioration and Prospects for Conservation," Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, reprinted 1988, page 9.