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Hispanic and Basque sheepherders on Haycamp Mesa left artistic legacy in aspens

The Haycamp Mesa Cultural Historic Landscape includes artwork by early Spanish and Basque sheepherders. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)
Cultural Historic Landscape on San Juan National Forest wins state archaeology award

Hispanic and Basque sheepherder culture is etched in the vast aspen forests of Haycamp Mesa in the San Juan National Forest.

An archaeology survey required for a 2018 logging project revealed artistic carvings and writings on older aspen trees, some dating back 120 years.

The discovery led to a 2020 report that documented the carvings, called arborglyphs, and other pioneer sheepherder sites, such as trails, roads and camps.

The area, designated Haycamp Mesa Cultural Historic Landscape, will protect sites worked from 1880 to 1970. Trees with the images and names cannot be logged, must be avoided in prescribed burns and are not allowed to be disturbed.

In April, the San Juan National Forest and Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants received the 2022 Stephen H. Hart State Archaeologist Award for the historic cultural project.

Michelle Stevens, San Juan National Forest Heritage Program manager, said in a History Colorado video that Haycamp Mesa has a history of grazing, sheepherding, cattle ranching and transportation networks.

“A lot of the sheepherder history is not written down, it is written down on these aspen trees,” she said.

According to the archaeology study, the area 20 miles northeast of Dolores was home to Hispanic and Basque shepherds in the 19th and 20th centuries. The shepherds left their mark on the landscape through stock trails, travel routes, campsites and arborglyphs.

A woman’s head in profile drawn by an early Spanish or Basque sheepherder in the Haycamp Mesa area. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)

The study identified 78 sites and 1,300 arborglyphs in the Haycamp project area. The earliest are from 1901 and 1903.

The study reminds visitors that historic arborglyphs are fragile resources that help to document the lives of herders on Haycamp Mesa. The trees should not be defaced. Modern graffiti on aspen trees is illegal and damages these trees.

The historic travel routes of Haycamp Mesa were vital to the development of ranching and mining in the area and converge just above the confluence of Bear Creek and the Dolores River.

The roads are among the earliest in Southwest Colorado and have provided transportation links for agricultural products out of the Montezuma Valley region. Additionally, the roads allowed for supplies and goods to arrive at mining camps in Rico.

“The routes are lined with historic arborglyphs that document decades of use beginning in around 1880 and continuing into contemporary times,” according to the Forest Service study.

The arborglyphs depict animals and people. Some of the writing served as a message board left as a “comment to other aspen glyphs,” said Jason Chuipka, principal investigator for Woods Canyon. “The history touches on all the key economic drivers of this part of the state.”

The earlier glyphs are often cursive, and some take on elaborate art forms, Stevens said.

According to a study summary by Stevens, sheep were introduced on the range in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah in the middle 1880s by cattle operations as a diversification measure.

During those years, Hispanics and Basques were hired as sheepherders. Many of the Hispanic families that arrived to work as sheepherders from the 1910s to 1930s still live in the area.

A drawing of a woman in a dress next to a man with a cowboy hat, circa 1923. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)

The sheepherder arborglyphs include Hispanic surnames in “exquisite penmanship,” the study says.

Some of the glyphs are drawings, often of females, and others are names in consistently sized, tidy, block letters. The most common surname documented was “Vigil” or “Vijil,” appearing on more than 70 aspen trees.

Gaby Vigil is from New Mexico, while Anastacio Vigil is from Blanco, New Mexico, and Cortez. It is likely that Anastacio Vigil is the father or a relative of Gaby Vigil.

Other common surnames documented during the project include Muniz, Archibeke/Archiveque/Archibeque, Lopez, Garcia and Martinez, the study says.

Many arborglyphs also contain artwork.

“Design and workmanship are evident in the spatial planning and organization of the text and artwork,” the study says. “They usually reflect the vernacular nature of these glyphs and vary depending on the skill of individuals carving them.”

An animal carving from a historic sheepherder site. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)

Documenting and archiving the sites was critical, the researchers said, because the aspens have a limited life span and will eventually fall and erode away.

The Haycamp sheepherder sites were the early segments of the first pioneer roads in Southwest Colorado, including the Lost Canyon Stock Driveway, Highline Stock Driveway, Mancos and Rico Wagon Road, and Morrison Trail.

According to the research, the historic Morrison Trail is associated with early 1900s to 1970 livestock grazing and ranching. John Luna Morrison (1871-1953) served as Dolores mayor, Colorado state representative and Colorado state senator.

Southwest Colorado is famous for its Ancestral Puebloan sites at Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients Monument, but this project sheds light on another phase of the region’s history.

“It’s nice that this project for historic sheepherding and transportation networks and the mining industry could be recognized,” Stevens said. “That story and how the West changed is really important because it adds historical depth and understanding of what this area means for people today and also in the past.”