Dismal River Culture

The Dismal River Aspect (or Culture) is the name applied to a cultural grouping of archaeological sites spread from southern Colorado across Kansas and Nebraska into South Dakota. The name comes from a first discovery with a cultural definition from the Dismal River area of Nebraska. Artifacts found there led to a distillation of a people of mostly Athabascan descent, related primarily to the peoples now known as Navajo and Apache. For centuries, their people had been walking east from the Bering Sea around the northern end of the Rocky Mountain Cordillera and then south through an inland gap between the glaciers. Previous migrants from Asia had crossed the Bering Land Bridge when sea levels were a bit lower. That way, they could travel along the Pacific coast and go south. Then there was a hiccup in the weather and the land bridge was closed off. A thousand years later the land bridge opened again before closing as sea levels rose in the melt-off at the end of the last Great Ice Age.

That river of hunter-gatherers flowed slowly south, groups dropping off the trail to explore other areas as they went. 10,000 years ago, there was megafauna all over North America still. It has been speculated that it was those incoming migrants who pushed most of that megafauna to extinction, and left no large creatures to domesticate as draft animals. The largest land animals left were bison, elk and moose. None of those domesticate. However, the people adapted and the Plains tribes grew strong and prospered. The Dismal River people were Plains people, living in the heart of the bison wonderland. Their weapons didn't amount to much against a herd of stampeding bison but when they directed that stampeding herd over a cliff... then the weapons did just fine and they wasted nothing.

The Dismal River Culture has been broken down further into Eastern and Western Aspects, the Western Aspect running from around 1300 CE to about 1625 CE and the Eastern Aspect from about 1630 CE to about 1750 CE.

Those of the Eastern Aspect traveled to the Black Hills and took up residence for several decades, having to fight to hold their ground nearly the entire time. Toward the end of that time they merged with the survivors of some nearby Apache villages and became the Kiowa-Apache. As Kiowa-Apache they quickly migrated west again and camped along the north banks of the Arkansas River (the Cuartelejo area).

The Western Dismal River Aspect was likely composed mostly of incoming Athabaskans migrating south along the western edge of the plains and eastern foothills of the mountains. They were used to life in the cooler highlands. They flowed south until they could flow west into unoccupied lands in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. They became the Jicarilla Apaches of today.

Others stayed east of the foothills on the edge of the Plains and overran tribes they met along the way. They became the Mescalero and Lipan Apache tribes. Others went south around the Manzano Mountains and then west across the Rio Grande. There they spread out across western New Mexico and southeastern and eastern Arizona, over time becoming the Chiricahua and Western Apache tribes.

The Navajos seem to have traveled westward from the Sangre de Cristo Pass area, beneath Blanca Peak (one of their sacred mountains), across the San Luis Valley, over Wolf Creek Pass(?) to Pagosa Springs, then down the San Juan River to where they are now. It was at Pagosa Springs where they came into head-to-head contact with the Utes and the results of those confrontations pushed them south down the San Juan. As they traveled, they came across more and more of the empty constructions left behind in the Ancestral Puebloan abandonment of the area in the late 1200s. It was the Diné who coined the term "Anasazi," meaning: hated ancestors of my enemies.

The Jicarilla seem to have inhabited two main areas in northern New Mexico for a long time: the mountains and hills around Taos and Picuris Pueblos and the river valleys on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. To the north, around the Purgatoire River Valley was the Sopris Phase culture, dated to between 1000 and 1250 CE. Northeast of there was the Apishapa Culture, centered around the canyons of the Apishapa River and the Chaquaqua Plateau and dated to between 1000 and 1400 CE. In the ruins of both, archaeologists have found pieces of both locally produced cord-wrapped pottery and micaceous pieces made in the Taos area.

Among their ruins were found several pieces of micaceous Jicarilla Apache pottery, attesting to trade routes extending at least as far west as the area of Taos, NM. The Dismal River people themselves made a distinctly grey-black pottery, bowls and jars stamped with simple designs and often with incised or notched lips. They seem to have made it locally, wherever they were. Other artifacts point to some Dismal River people (proto-Kiowa among them) migrating to the Black Hills before being pushed out by the Sioux and Cheyenne. Then they were pushed west and south by advancing Comanches, who were armed by the French and charged with raiding the Spanish to keep them busy.

The Dismal River Culture comes into my story because of their connections with the Jicarilla Apaches and the Navajo through their shared Athabaskan language and heritage. Also because of the Jicarilla micacous pottery found at some Dismal River sites. However, the established timeline for the Eastern Dismal River Culture runs between about 1630 and 1750 CE. The Spanish authorities first mention the Xicarilla in the northern Rio Grande in 1698 but archaeological evidence points to Jicarilla clans being present before the end of Pot Creek Pueblo, in the 1200s. Those clans were also part of the merger into the pre-existing Taos Pueblo after the abandonment of Pot Creek. It's part of why there was allowed to be a Jicarilla Apache tribal government enclave at Taos from 1873 until 1887 when they were finally granted their own reservation: the people of Taos and the Jicarilla Apache have had their fates intertwined for a very long time.

After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, many Tiwas and Jicarillas from Taos and Picuris ran north to the Cuartelejo area. That flow only increased over the next couple decades. At other times of trouble during the Spanish occupation, that happened, too, until about 1820.

The Cuartelejo Kiowa-Apaches were members of the Eastern Dismal River Culture. A Spanish expeditionary force traveled to Cuartelejo country in 1719, finding a settlement on the Arkansas River in eastern Colorado, just beyond the edge of Spanish dominion. They complained to the Spaniards of increasingly frequent attacks from the Pawnees and Wichitas to their east, egged on by French traders and trappers. The Kiowa-Apaches there had very few horses, they were using dogs for transportation purposes.

In 1724 a French traveler wrote of meeting Dismal River people (he called them the Padoucahs) in central Kansas. They had horses and a very few European knives but no knowledge of guns. He, being a good Frenchman, made sure to give them a few and show them how to use them before he moved on. The horses and European goods the people had they'd gotten through trade with Taos and Picuris. Within a very few years they had many more horses, were better armed and were at war with the extremely war-like Comanche with their masses of French guns and Spanish horses. At the conclusion of that fighting, the two tribes made a pact and then turned to attacking everyone else around them. Eventually the US Cavalry located and destroyed virtually their entire horse herd in Palo Duro Canyon and they were forced to surrender and settle down.

Prehistoric Cultures