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 Athapascan descent, related to the peoples now known as Navajos and Apaches. The Dismal River Aspect 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.

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

Others stayed east of the foothills 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, 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 they 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 mountains there. 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 migrating to the Black Hills and joining with the Kiowa there to become the Plains Apaches. Then they were pushed west and south by advancing Comanches, armed by the French and charged with raiding the Spanish and keeping them busy.

The Dismal River Culture comes into my story because of their connections with the Jicarilla Apaches and the Navajo through their shared Athapaskan 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.

The Cuartelejo 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 Apaches had no horses yet, they were still 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. Being a good Frenchman, he, of course, did give them a few before he left. The horses and European goods the people had they'd gotten through trade with the people of Taos and Picuris. Within a very few years they were pushed off the plains by the extremely war-like Comanche with their French guns and Spanish horses.

Prehistoric Cultures