Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The Red Elephant Mine, Crystal Peak Area, Colorado

Steven Wade Veatch

For as long as I can recall, I wanted to experience what it would be like to find the legendary crystals and gemstones that Pikes Peak is famous for. In some places Pikes Peak Granite contains an incredible suite of minerals that formed magnificent crystals in cavities at least a billion years ago. Large crystals of white microcline or feldspar are common. Amazonite, a variety of microcline, is present in well-formed crystal groups in varying shades of blue, ranging from a faint pale-blue to a brilliant blue-green color. The distinctive color is thought to be derived from varying levels of lead present in the amazonite when it formed, although this is still debated by mineralogists. 

Microcline feldspar variety Amazonite with smoky quartz
from the Halpern Mineral Collection, Colorado, USA
This file is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Photo Date 2006 by Eric Hunt.

The amazonite from the Lake George area is distinctive because of its large, well-formed crystals, and its large size, and its intense blue color. Amazonite, named after the Amazon River where unusual rounded pebbles of this gemstone were found, was part of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen's ring and was described as the third stone in Moses' breastplate. 

Smoky quartz crystals are associated with the amazonite crystal groups, and most of the smoky quartz crystals are flawless—ranging from pale brown to midnight black, all with a stunning gem clarity. The smoky color is caused by radioactive elements in the granite. Slowly, over the millennia, the quartz darkens in response to the radiation. Purple, greenish, and light blue fluorite crystals also occur in this suite of minerals. These magnificent gemstones eluded me for over four decades.

One summer day, I asked my rock hounding friend, Dave Jackson, to go with me to the Crystal Creek area, which is noted for deposits of these gems, and to look around. The area is reached by following a two-track Pike National Forest road that begins at Lake George, Colorado then branches off at a towering raw granite formation known as Sheep’s Head, fords Crystal Creek, and then follows a steep grade to a ridge. 

On our first trip there, I noticed the hillsides were perforated by numerous holes dug by previous prospectors. I thought that was a good sign that others searched here before us.  After parking Dave’s truck, we manhauled our gear in five-gallon buckets the rest of the way. We each carried two buckets: one in each hand; one bucket was empty; the other bucket had our tools. The empty bucket was for the gems we might find. 

We began our hike up the steep hill. It was a beautiful climb: granite boulders were spotted with various species of lichen; mountain mahogany dotted the landscape; and kinnikinnick grew near the top of the ridge, where a cool mountain breeze passed through the pines. Dave and I decided to go to where the pine trees edged a small opening in the ground and to dig under the dumps of several small abandoned prospects. 

My old friend Rich, a first-rate prospector, ran into us on that sunny summer day and showed us an old gem mine next to where we were: he knew this site would be a good one for us to work. Rich said, “I worked the area next to this spot with good results. I’m telling you this is a good place to dig.” Rich is one of the rare people in life whom you run into who are doing exactly what they were meant to do. Rich is an exemplar in the mineral world, and spends most days outdoors working at his mines. His face and hands are weather-beaten—almost like leather—from a lifetime of mining, both as a profession and a hobby.

Discussions with Rich that day brought back to me a number of pick and shovel moments of chipping crystals out of a cave together six years before in the mining town of Ouray, Colorado and being run out by the property owner. Rich and I did not know it was private property. Four years earlier we had collected blood-red agates on a hill of volcanic ash near CaƱon City, Colorado. Exposure to the weather turned the ash into bentonite clay, and recent rains made it swell up with a surface slippery as ice. While trying to pluck red agates out of the bentonite with Rich, I tripped and slid down the hill on my back, getting covered with wet bentonite clay. It took forever to get the clay out of my clothes and inside of the car. Rich laughed for hours. 

I was glad we ran into Rich that day and got his help finding a good place to dig for gems. Dave and I followed his advice and began the arduous work of digging with picks, shovels, pry bars, old screw drivers, and rock hammers. When the pick struck the granite, it would vibrate in our hands, sometimes sparks would fly, and always the thud of the pick against the granite filled the forest. The granite would break up from the relentless pounding with the pick—leaving piles of crumbled granite. We shoveled the granite gravel into a bucket and then hauled it to the surface and dumped the gravel on the ground, forming a “tailings pile.”

In the Crystal Peak area, the gemstones and crystals occur inside of what is called a “pocket” or ancient bubble in the Pikes Peak Granite. This granite was formed just over a billion years ago as a melting, monstrous blossom of red magma pulled off the Earth’s mantle in a stately phenomenon forming a magma plume in that hostile and hellacious inferno. This molten plume made an unrelenting climb through the beleaguered crust, mixing the mantle and crustal material together and forming the Pikes Peak Granite. 

Amazonite and Smoky quartz diorama,
located in the First-Level Rocks & Minerals Exhibit
at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Representing an unspecified 'Crystal Peak' location in Colorado.
This file is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
4.0 International license.

A view of Crystal Peak near Florissant, Colorado.
The area is known for its gem mining sites. Most are under claim.
Photo date 2006 by S. W. Veatch.

Parts of the Pikes Peak Granite became pegmatite, a coarse granite that sometimes yields precious gems. The granite pegmatite is derived from magma in the Pikes Peak Granite that formed during the last stages of its cooling. At this point volatile components trying to escape the magma, were trapped in the granite as bubbles. As the granite cooled and contracted, the bubbles or open cavities provided a space for crystals to grow to unusually large sizes and line the interiors of the voids. Our prospect hole was in just such a granite pegmatite.

Rich’s directions paid off; after digging a few hours, Dave and I made a-six-foot-deep excavation that we could both fit in. We took turns with the pick and shovel work. The pick would break up the granite. When the disintegrated granite became deep, one of us would shovel it into a plastic bucket and haul it to the surface to dump. It was cool and damp in our excavation pit, and the scent of fresh dirt and moist gravel was strong. 

There is an abrupt change in the pegmatite as one approaches a gem cavity. The feldspar and, quartz that form the pegmatite change in appearance near a pocket. The component minerals become elongated or contorted, revealing what look like small swimming tadpoles or cuneiform writing—a mysterious script with an important, yet coded message declaring gemstones are near for those who are clever enough to follow the clues and find them. This is known as graphic granite.

Suddenly Dave yelled, “Look at the granite, it is changing—it is graphic granite for sure! See that old pine tree-root? It has worked its way through granite cracks and disappears straight into the rock. There must be a pocket behind the root.”

“Let me take a look,” and I yanked out the root, and then took my glove off and carefully put my finger into the hole. I said to Dave, “Holy God, I can feel the crystal faces!” My throat tightened, my heart almost beat out of my chest, and Dave’s eyes were open wider than an owl’s at night. 

The root sought out moisture in a small cavity, leading us to that discovery. We immediately switched to wooden tools: tree branches, wooden skewering sticks, and wooden mallets, to open up the cavity slowly, carefully, and methodically. Metal tools can nick or fracture the valuable crystals and gems. Once we enlarged the hole to the cavity, our flashlight revealed shining smoky quartz crystals; a gemmy, sky-blue amazonite- crystal group; and sparkling deep purple and light blue cubic fluorite crystals. One group of fluorite crystals clustered around the base of a gleaming smoky quartz crystal. 

Our next step was to empty the pocket, about the size of a grapefruit, of its gem hoard. Each crystal and gem had to be carefully wrapped in newspaper for carrying it down to Dave’s old truck. This pocket was the sign we needed to continue working the gem mine. If there is one crystal pocket, there will be others. 

Our digging and removing crystals from the pocket burned up most of that first day. The shadows were shifting in the forest, and the sky was filled with pastel colors. I took one last look to the west and watched the setting sun redden the clouds over the boundless, tree-covered ridges; it was time to leave. Soon the dark blue of evening would spread, and it would be hard to travel the old road in the dark. The moon was beginning its rise over Crystal Creek, and it was time to leave. 


We came back the following weekend working the claim for a few hours and then having lunch near some fallen pine trees blown down by a violent summer storm. But on this day, the logs were our seats for lunch under a thick canopy of towering aspen trees. We each had a can of Red Elephant, an imported beer that has a great flavor and comes in giant cans and has a punch—it even made my lips numb. We decided to name our mining claim after the beer.

While relaxing and finishing my Red Elephant beer, I noticed a nearby decaying stump was full of life and realized that one day the forest would consume it. The stump was actually a dwarfed ecosystem. Many types of insects lived in the stump. A beetle stuck its head out from a hole it had bored in the bark. It left a pile of frass just below on a blanket of pine needles. I spotted a pill bug and a centipede, and noticed the different colors of moss and lichen that covered the stump. During the stump’s decomposition, new niches for life opened and old ones closed as the stump evolved from fresh-cut wood leaking resin to rotting wood dripping nutrients into the soil. The stump will eventually become crumbled fragments and mold, invaded by roots of plants and covered by dead twigs and leaf litter fallen from the canopy of the trees above. It was time to stop thinking about a stump and return to the hard pick and shovel work of the afternoon.

After several hours of moving rock and gravel, we had a hole that was ten feet deep—straight down. I found out just how hard this work is: breaking through granite by dint of force and muscle with a pick is not easy at this depth, the gravel and rocks have to be hauled to the surface in a bucket on the end of a rope. The deeper the excavation, the harder the work is—gravity is constantly working against us. In our deep hole, we opened up a pocket larger than a watermelon. 

        A treasure trove of mineral specimens lined the pocket. Some crystals had detached from the pocket ceiling due to local vibrations from earthquakes and freezing and thawing cycles over many winters and fell flat on the pocket floor. The pocket floor was filled with flawlessly formed amazonite crystal groups—most over nine inches across—on sections of pegmatite granite. There were clusters of 12-inch-long smoky quartz crystals radiating out in various directions. Most of the crystals were as black as midnight. 

        I took my jacket off and covered the crystals on the floor of the pocket so they would be protected as we removed the ceiling crystals and as we broke away more of the granite rocks above. Removing the crystals and gems requires care. Any rush to extract them could make an ugly chip or fracture. All of the crystals were carefully removed by hand and then wrapped in newspaper to protect them. I carefully cleaned the pocket out with a wooden chop stick and whisk broom, and then sprayed the interior with water for a good view. At this point, the world’s problems melted away and we are focused on protecting these gems. We were the first ones on the planet to see these primordial, unique, and quite valuable crystals. 

On the way out, the buckets full of wrapped gems in one hand and the buckets of tools in the other hand balanced us as we walked down the hill. Crystal Creek was flowing with a murmuring joy within its banks. Willows lined the creek until the road crossing where we drove through it. Some little birds were dipping at some of the pools of Crystal Creek. Deer were keeping an eye on our activities. Dave and I glanced at each other, and I said, “We sure hit it big, Dave; we made a big strike today.” Our excitement filled the gem fields.

* * *

On our last trip to the Red Elephant that summer, Dave’s truck was being repaired, and I was willing to risk my brand new Jeep on the forest roads and all of its hazards to get to our mine. I drove my new Jeep Cherokee up the road and got stuck. Dave and I pushed, pulled, swore, and sweated, but remained stuck on the old 2-track road in the middle of Pike National Forest. My biggest concern was what my wife would do to me if I banged up our new Jeep. Cell phones did not exist yet, so I could not call out for help. 

Soon we heard the sound of another car, and it was headed in our direction. I could not believe we would run into anyone on this road on a weekday. It was Ray Berry, a member of the local rock club (Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society) I belonged to. Ray is another mineral exemplar. On his way to work his claim, he pulled us out in seconds with his winch. 

Dave and I began to work the Red Elephant, and soon we were down to 14 feet when our pick shattered the typical granite and revealed graphic granite—a sure sign we were close to a pocket of gemstones. We discovered several more pockets ranging in size from a softball to a basketball. Some of the pockets we found were located by following quartz veins to the crystal-lined pockets. The color of the granite also provides a clue that a pocket is nearby—reddish granite tends to bear more pockets. Other pockets that day were located by pure luck. 

* * *

The entire Crystal Creek area has been yielding amazing gemstones for centuries, providing material for an expanding gem market and yielding specimens that provide clues to help scientists understand the nature of the Pikes Peak Granite. Today there is still gemstone mining activity over the entire Crystal Creek landscape.

This land also has meaning beyond the valuable gems and as a gateway to scientific understanding. I noticed an old cabin and a few outbuildings in the forest. The cabin is deeply weathered. Parts of the buildings are gone or caved in. The chicken coop, always an important homestead structure, is still in good shape, built as strong as Fort Knox. Eggs and skillet fried chicken were important to a family that eked out a living in this remote forest a century ago. 

Before homesteaders, this quiet land once belonged to the Ute people. Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, camped in tepees during the summer, and Ute braves hunted in the area. When they were not hunting, the men climbed hilltops with good views and made arrow and spear heads from stone. The women made clothing from deer and bison hides and attended to other duties. Children played games in the aspen trees.

* * *

Currently, the area is an active gem mining site, and the place where I finally experienced the excitement of making a rich strike. On weekends, countless hobbyists work their claims. Some people work their claims all summer long. 

It was the last day of our mining season. Leaning back on a ponderosa pine on the surface near the Red Elephant, I reflected on the season. After hunting the elusive Pikes Peak amazonite for decades, I finally found it. I learned from this experience to never give up on something you want to accomplish. If you give up, you will never know what could have been. This is an important lesson for many aspects of life. 

Then there is the hard work—the digging; digging deep into the ground that yielded the elusive gems. The digging that put me into direct contact with the nature of the granite gave me a deeper insight to the geology of the site and the architecture of Pikes Peak Granite over wider areas. I realized that I could physically keep up with the hard digging. I learned about people:  that Dave was fair and split the specimens we found evenly, and that Rich was a good friend to direct us to a site that he knew contained valuable gemstones. Rich did not have to provide that information. I also experienced nature on a deeper level. When I took a break from the digging, I saw the cycle of life at the decaying stump. It was truly a season with nature, one without the technology that has invaded every dimension of our lives. I knew there was more to learn out there in the forest, and that means to continue digging, always deeper.


It was getting late on our last day of the mining season. We packed up our gear and headed down the trail, crisscrossed by deer tracks, to my jeep. With darkness fast approaching, we drove down the old forest-service road. As the Jeep forded Crystal Creek, a small herd of deer—waiting to get a drink—watched us from the trees. A hawk silently flew overhead, towards the setting sun.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

A Glacial Erratic in the Krumwiede Forest Preserve

 By Steven Wade Veatch

The immense limestone rock (in figure 1) looks out of place, sitting on a prominent ridge in the Krumwiede Forest Reserve in Leelanau County, Michigan. That's because it is—during the Ice Age an advancing ice sheet plucked this rock from the bedrock it was moving over and absorbed it into its base. The stony mass slowly rode along, inch by inch, in the glacial ice that had grabbed it. When the climate warmed, some 12,000 years ago, the ice began to melt and recede (Hooker, 2014). Finally, the glacier ice released this boulder from its icy grip and dropped it on this spot in the Krumwiede Forest Reserve. 

Figure 1. This weathered erratic, about midway on the Ridgeline Trail, most likely came from Canada. Moving ice transported this large boulder during the Wisconsin glaciation around 12,000 years ago. Photo date October 2022 by Shelly Veatch.

Geoscientists call this rock a “glacial erratic.” These erratic rocks, whose compositions don’t match the local bedrock where they are found, range in size from cobbles to enormous boulders. Melting ice also dropped till, an unsorted and unlayered mixture of sand, gravel, and rocks of varying size and shape, that is scattered throughout the local landscape. Early settlers gathered boulders left by the glacier to build foundations for their homes.  

Figure 2. An ice sheet, about one mile thick, once covered Michigan. Image Credit: Alexandria R. Baszler. Courtesy of the Institute of Water Research at Michigan State University.

The Krumwiede Reserve, part of the Leelanau Conservancy, is in the western part of Cleveland Township. A trailhead is located on Wheeler Road, south of M-22 (figure 3). The 1.6-mile Forestry Loop climbs and crosses a hill (a moraine left behind by a retreating glacier nearly 12,000 years ago) and then descends into a beautiful valley on the other side. The Forestry Loop trail then climbs back up onto the moraine to create a loop. There is evidence of glacial till scattered along the old forest road that now serves as the trail. Wheeler Road occupies a valley where a river of melting ice flowed between two high moraines (DuFresne, 2021). 

Figure 3. Tail map of the Krumwiede Forest Reserve. The property is in its natural, forested condition. Courtesy of the Leelanau Conservancy. 

To see the erratic, start on the Forestry Loop trail in the parking area (figure 3). Head south. Near a ridge (after 0.4 miles), take the narrow Ridgeline Trail footpath north (or turn left) to reach the erratic, which is situated halfway along the trail. This rustic path follows the top of the ridge for about .03 miles before reconnecting to the Forestry Loop trail. Turn left at the Forestry Loop trail to return to the parking lot.

Ice sheets from the last Ice Age left their calling cards in the form of boulders on Michigan’s landscapes. Today, these rocks engender wonder when they are encountered.

References and further reading:

DuFresne, J., 2021, The Trails of M-22: Clarkston, Michigan Trail Maps.

Hooker, T.S., 2014, The Last Ice Age and the Leelanau Peninsula: Indianapolis, Dogear Publishing.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Gowganda Tillite: Evidence for Early Proterozoic Continental Glaciation

 By Steven Wade Veatch

Gowganda tillite (figure 1) is lithified glacial till (sediment deposited by glacial ice) from a Precambrian glaciation event that occurred over two billion years ago. Glacial till was buried, and over time, it lithified or turned into rock (tillite). 

Figure 1. The Gowganda tillite is composed of sediment that was deposited by a glacier and later cemented to form a rock. Its pink clasts make it distinctive. Gowganda tillite is among the oldest rocks on Earth—about 2.3 billion years old. This specimen is from the outer limits of the city of Gaylord in Otsego County, Michigan. From the collection of S. W. Veatch. Photo by S. W. Veatch. 

Billions of years later, glaciers from the last Ice Age moved fragments of Gowganda tillite from their source location in Canada and dropped them onto the Michigan landscape as the climate warmed and the ice melted. Their pink clasts make them distinctive. This is only one of several Precambrian tillites found in the glacial drift of Michigan. The Gowganda and other tillite deposits in North America provide a rock record of the continental glaciation that occurred during the Early Proterozoic (Lindsey, 1969; Young and Nesbit, 1985, Crowell, 1999).

Geologists are now convinced that widespread glaciation occurred throughout the Early Proterozoic Era, based on at least 300 Precambrian sites, including Finland, South Africa, India, and Australia, that have tillite or deposits that resemble tillite (Wicander and Monroe, 2016). Five more major periods of widespread glaciation followed the Early Proterozoic (see table 1).

Table. 1. When Glaciers Covered Parts of the Earth (Crowell, 1999)


Late Cenozoic glaciation: began 33.9 million years ago at the Eocene-Oligocene Boundary and is ongoing


Late Paleozoic ice ages 338 to 256 million years ago


Late Devonian-Early Carboniferous ice ages, two short episodes between 353 to 363 million years ago


Ordovician-Silurian ice ages 429 million years ago to 445 million years ago


Late Proterozoic ice ages ~ 520 million years ago to 950 million years ago


Early Proterozoic ice ages ~ 2.2 to 2.4 billion years ago


Archean glaciation ~ 2.91 to 2.99 billion years ago

The source of Gowganda tillite is the Gowganda Formation which forms part of the Huronian Supergroup of Precambrian sedimentary rocks exposed in central Ontario, stretching from Lake Superior to Quebec (Lindsay, 1969; Elyes and Young, 1994). Radiometric dating places the age of the Huronian Supergroup from 2.1 to 2.5 billion years old (Van Schmus, 1965, p. 769).

Geologists have interpreted rock fragments in the Gowganda tillite to be the outwash associated with the Early Proterozoic Gowganda glaciers centered southwest of Hudson Bay. Melting ice rafts (calved from ice sheets) dropped these pink granite fragments—from tiny particles to boulder-sized debris—into open water. These pink pebbles fell through the water and settled into fine-grained sediments (Kurtz, 1980). Those sediments likely originated around a glacier's margins (Kesler, 2019). Over time, these sediments were lithified or turned to rock.

After these sediments were lithified, they were carried away, at least two billion years later, by Pleistocene glaciers. After the ice of these last Ice Age glaciers melted, the ancient conglomerates were released onto the landscape, later to be found on beaches and in farmers’ fields in Michigan. Scientists have also found Gowganda tillites in Wyoming and Quebec, Canada.

Gowganda tillite (figure 2) is a conglomerate composed of well-rounded to sub-angular, to angular, poorly sorted clasts (granitic and gneissic pebbles dominate) scattered in a tough, massive matrix of coarse to very fine sand and chloritic[1] material ( Kurtz 1980). Rounding suggests some history of water transport prior to incorporation into the tillite. 

Figure 2. A sawed section of Gowganda tillite shows dropstones of various sizes. Sorting is completely lacking in most Gowganda tillite. From the collection of S. W. Veatch Photo by S. W. Veatch.

 The Gowganda tillite is one of the most well-known ancient glaciogenic deposits in the world because of its characteristic pink, granite clasts (pebbles) held in a fine-grained gray matrix (Kesler, 2019). Today, the Gowganda tillite—among some of the oldest rocks on Earth—continues to be studied by geoscientists. Samples are also sought after by rock and mineral collectors for their unique combination of unsorted pink pebbles, age, and interesting formation.

References and further reading:

Crowell, J. C., 1999, Pre-Mesozoic ice ages: their bearing on understanding the climate system (Memoir 192). Geological Society of America.

Eyles, N. and G. M. Young, 1994, Geodynamic controls on glaciation in Earth history, in, The Earth’s Glacial Record, eds. M. Deynoux, et al, eds: Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 1-28.

Kesler, S. E., 2019, Great Lakes Rocks: 4 Billion Years of Geologic History in the Great lakes Region: Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

Kurtz, D. D., 1980, Stratigraphy and Genesis of Early Proterozoic Diamictites: North America: PhD Thesis, Huston, TX, Rice University.

Lindsey, D. A., 1969, Glacial sedimentology of the Precambrian Gowganda Formation, Ontario, Canada: Geol. Soc. America Bull., v. 80, p. 1685-1702.

Young, G. M., and H. W. Nesbitt, 1985, The Gowganda Formation in the southern part of the Huronian outcrop belt, Ontario, Canada: Stratigraphy, depositional environments and regional tectonic significance: Precambrian Research, v. 29, p. 265-301.

Van Schmus, R., 1965, The geochronology of the Blind River-Bruce Mines area, Ontario, Canada: Jour. Geology, v. 73, no. 5, p. 755-780.

Wicander, R. and J S. Monroe, 2016, Historical Geology: Evolution of Earth and Life Through Time: Boston, Cengage Learning.


[1]Chlorite is a group of silicate clay minerals occurring in both macroscopic and clay particle sizes; they are hydrous aluminum silicates, usually of magnesium and iron. Chlorites have a silicate layer structure similar to that in micas. Source: Britannica.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

A Ute Youth and His Dog

By Steven Wade Veatch

John Hillers, an early American photographer, took this remarkable photograph known as the “Indian Boy and His Dog,” in 1874. The youth in the tea-colored photograph belonged to the Uintah, one of 12 bands of the Ute tribe, and lived in Utah's Unita (no “h” at the end) Valley (Simmons, 2000). “Uintah Utes” refers to western Ute bands who were relocated after 1863, by the federal government, from central Utah to the Uintah Reservation (Jones, 2019). This band lived in the Unita Basin to the area around the Green River and the Tavaputs Plateau (Cuch, 2000).

"Indian Boy and His Dog" (1874). A male Ute teenager poses with his dog. Dogs were an important part of Uintah Ute culture. His bow and arrows are across his lap. This photograph, though posed, provides an important glimpse into the youth’s way of life. From part of a series: U.S. Topographical and Geological Survey of the Valley of the Colorado River of the West, by J.W. Powell and A.H. Thompson. From the Library of Congress, Call Number: LOT 13577, no. 9.

This young man is in his late teens, perhaps 17. This is the age when Chief Ouray joined his father’s warriors (C. Kaelin, personal communication, August 28, 2022). Warriors were highly respected because they offered their lives to protect their people. This teen spent much of his time hunting, fishing, and making weapons to hunt with and for protection (Pettit, 1990). Although his name is not recorded, he too may have joined a warrior band.

The young Ute is not wearing his everyday outfit. He is undoubtedly attired for the photographer, who asked him to don all his regalia. The teenage Ute is wearing his hair in traditional Ute style with two braids hung over his chest. The Utes never cut their hair (Rockwell, 1998). Ethnographer Ann Smith reports: “Men wore their hair parted in the middle and arranged in two braids, with otter or weasel skin braided in towards the ends for decoration” (Smith, 1974, p. 78). The cylinders covering his braids are likely made of buckskin decorated with colored porcupine quills. A length of fur from an animal—possibly otter, mink, or the summer fur of a weasel—is attached.

He parted his hair in the middle, and put decorations in his part, doubtless disks of dentalium shells, as they have a consistent size and shape (C. Kaelin, personal communication, August 10, 2022). These shells were cherished trade commodities and are still worn on regalia. The large shell that crests the three disks in his part is an olivella shell (a medium-sized to large marine snail), also a coveted trade item that is found in abundance in Ute territory.

The young man is wearing what appears to a necklace made of bone or shell beads strung together with a sinew string. According to Celinda Kaelin, noted historian, “The pendent is quillwork in the shape of the Four Directions symbol. This symbol is sacred to the Ute and is represented in their Medicine Wheels” (C. Kaelin, personal communication, August 10, 2022).

A sinew-wrapped bow and several arrows are spread out across the Ute teen’s lap. Arrows shot from bows were lethal up to 70 yards (Rockwell, 1998). One arrow point might be obsidian, making him a person with sacred abilities. Other points were made of metal. The Utes were practical. They would utilize metal for tips if it could be easily found. If not, they would resort to using stone points. Smith (1974. P. 111) reports:

Arrow points were described as being from ¾ inch long from point to beginning of the tang up to 2 ½ or 3 inches long. The end of the arrow was split, the tang inserted, and that section of the arrow was wrapped with sinew. No glue was used. Old arrow points, discovered when the people were roaming, were picked up, sharpened and used. Some hunters fashioned their own arrow points; others had them made by skilled old men.

The young Ute is in common men’s wear of leggings and a breech cloth. He is also barefoot, which is common in the summer and depends on personal preference.

Dogs were important to Ute culture, and they were often large. According to Pettit (1990), “This well-bred dog may have been obtained through trade or was a gift.” Utes denied ever eating dogs (Pettit, 1990). Dogs barked whenever an enemy approached and provided an alarm for the Ute warriors. Dogs also guarded against wolves. Since dogs were never fed, they cleaned up all waste around a village (Pettit, 1990). Each family owned between one and twelve dogs. Other animals, such as hawks and fawns, were kept by children (Pettit, 1990). This photo shows how much the Utes loved their pets. All animals were considered relatives in their cosmology.

John Hillers (1843 - 1925), who took this photograph, began making photographs in 1871 while part of Major John Wesley Powell’s second expedition of the Colorado River (Fowler, 1972). Hillers was nine years old when he emigrated from Hanover, Germany with his family to the United States in the 1850s (Fowler, 1972). He spent several years in the army and saw some action during the Civil War (Pitt Rivers Museum). At the end of the war, he re-enlisted and was posted to several Western forts (Fowler, 1972). Following his discharge from the army, Hillers worked a variety of jobs. In 1871, the 28-year-old veteran army sergeant worked as a boatman on John Wesley Powell’s expedition to map the Colorado River. While on Powell’s boat, the Emma Dean (named after Powell’s wife), he entertained the crew with rollicking stories and spirited songs (Flemming and Luskey, 1988). He quickly became interested in the survey’s photography and was soon the photographer’s assistant (Fowler, 1989). By 1872, Hillers was the expedition photographer (Getty Museum Collection).

Hillers at work with his negatives at a campsite on the Aquarius Plateau, Utah Territory, July 1875. Photograph by Almon Thompson or Grove Karl Gilbert. National Archives photo no. 57-PS-805 (U. S. Geological Survey Collection).

After Hillers saved Powell from drowning in a stretch of rough rapids, they formed a friendship that was to last over three decades (Fleming and Luskey, 1986). He was one of the first to photograph the Grand Canyon.

Hillers worked for the entirety of his extraordinary 29-year career as a photographer for the federal government and made more than two thousand negatives of anthropological and geological subjects (Fowler, 1972). He left behind possibly the most spectacular visual record of the 19th century West. His work contributed to transforming American photography from being strictly utilitarian into an art form (Foresta 1996).

References and further reading

Cuch, F.S. (ed), 2000, A History of Utah’s American Indians: Salt Lake City, Utah State Division of Indian Affairs and the Utah State Division of History.

Flemming, P. R., and J. Luskey, 1988, The North American Indians in Early Photographs: New York, Dorset Press.

Fowler, D. D., 1972, Photographed All the Best Scenery: Jack Hiller’s Diary of the Powell Expedition, 1871-1875, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Fowler, D. D. 1989, The Western Photographs of John K Hillers: Myself in the Water: Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press.

Foresta, M. A., 1996, American Photographs: The First Century: Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press.

Getty Museum Collection: John K. Hillers. Retrieved from on August 8, 2020.

Jones, S. G., 2019, Being and Becoming Ute: The Story of an American Indian People: Salt Lake City, The University of Utah Press.

Pettit, J., 1990, Utes: The Mountain People: Boulder, Johnson Printing Company.

Pitt Rivers Museum: Among the Pueblos, John K. Hillers. Retrieved from on August 8, 2020.

Rockwell, W., 1998, The Utes: A Forgotten People: Ouray, Colorado, Western Reflections.

Simmons, V. M., 2000, The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico: Boulder, University of Colorado Press.

Smith, A. M., 1974, Ethnography of the Northern Utes: Papers in Anthropology (Museum of New Mexico), no. 17: Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.



Friday, September 30, 2022


By Steven Wade Veatch

Mammoth bones,
petrified trees,
insects trapped in amber,
pine pollen, a moss spore,
impressions in paper-thin shale,
stony steps of a dinosaur trail.

Just fragments of time,
puzzling pieces, vestiges
in layered ground:
A kingdom come,
a realm now gone,
past worlds in stone.

Fossil branches of the Florissant redwood, Sequoia affinis
Specimen FLFO-4858 from the collection
of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. 
Image date Oct 2003 by S. Veatch.

October 12th is National Fossil Day! 

Thursday, September 29, 2022

A Tree through Time

 By  Steven Wade Veatch

Thirty-four million years ago on a dismal Eocene afternoon near present-day Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in central Colorado, woodland creatures fled as the ground shook from a fiery power held deep within the Earth. This dark force manifested on the surface, where toxic gases, ash, and molten rock shot through open vents —filling the air. A red glow painted the sky as cinders rained down through the smoky, sulfurous air onto the landscape. Flows of searing lava, which can reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, oozed from volcanic vents, burning everything in their path. 

Following this concentrated chaos, hot ash and mud raced down the slopes of several volcanoes. Swirling mudflows pulled in surface materials, knocked down and carried small trees with their root wads, and then surrounded the bases of towering redwood trees. 

After frequent periods of active eruptions, the volcanic complex ultimately quieted down to dormancy and peaceable extinction. The mud that encased the bases of the redwoods enabled the slow petrification process to begin. The wayward mudflow also dammed a prehistoric stream and quickly formed a lake. Plants, insects, and other organisms were trapped in the lake sediments. As time passed, the lake sediments turned into shale containing fossils of these organisms.

Today, enormous redwoods grow at their ecological limit in a narrow zone along the California and Oregon coasts. Redwoods still exist at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, but only as fossil leaves, cones, or petrified stumps. It would be impossible for redwoods to grow today in Florissant’s cool, temperate highland climate. Redwoods reached towering heights in Florissant’s Eocene past, when the climate was warm and temperate.

* * *

There is a remarkable site at the monument where a singular fossil redwood stump endures despite the unavoidable and inexorable power of erosion and weathering. This petrified redwood base is unique among the others: It has a ponderosa pine tree growing from its stone center. I have always been spellbound by this juxtaposed image—the prehistoric stone stump with a living ponderosa tree growing out of it. I wanted to look at it again and make a deeper connection with this geological marvel. 

A living ponderosa pine tree grows
 from an ancient redwood that has turned
to stone. Photo date 2013 by S. S. Veatch.

As I walked on a trail to its location, Pikes Peak loomed in the distance. I passed a long, low, grass-covered meadow bounded by treed hills.  A green swath of lichen-capped rocks fringed the trail. As I neared the scene I sensed a weight to the afternoon: windy weather brought a grey, clouded sky that rolled over the land. The warm, heavy smell of rain soon rose from the wet and glistening forest floor. Glittering drops of water rested on leaves. The wind began to whistle through the trees while flowers of sky-blue flax nodded. As the rain clouds broke up, an elk wandered this high stretch of land while a coyote trotted by. 

A blue flax blossom at the Florissant Fossil Beds
National Monument. Photo date 2003 by S. W. Veatch.

When I reached the fossil redwood, I sat down on a bench to soak in the experience.  As I looked at this remarkable remnant of a primeval redwood I noticed patches of soft, velvety, emerald green moss gripping sections of the petrified stump. There are small forest sounds: a bird chirps in the distance while a chickadee croons a love song from a place deeper than daydreams. A jay scolds me from the safety of a high branch overhead. There are little rustlings in a tree behind me where a black, tufted eared Abert’s squirrel worries a pinecone. These sights, sounds, and smells make me content, and mark this natural place as special. 

* * *

Fossils are the letters that form words in a geologic story.  Together, these words complete the pages of the area’s paleontological record: messages from a distant time telling a story of plants and animals that once lived here and are now gone. The pages document the broader climate and the ecosystem it supported. Most importantly, these intimate histories—written in stone— yield a narrative of how an ecosystem responds to climate change. The Eocene marks the start of a gradual global cooling.

The secrets of deep time are exposed in fossils on pine covered hills and grassy meadows of Florissant.  At the Florissant Fossil Beds lie some of the world’s richest fossil deposits, remnants of life ranging in size from a tiny grain of pollen to massive redwood trees. Time is no longer the trickster under Florissant’s vast summer sky; instead, time is captured as a memory in each fossil and is brought forward to the present, where these vital fossils reveal a primeval Eocene ecosystem. I immersed myself in its story.  

Big Stump at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.
Photo date 2020 by S. W. Veatch.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A Communion of Discovery

Dedicated to Estella Leopold, conservationist

Melting ice washed gravels down,
burying the mammoth—hiding it through the ages.
And I found a rock at its grave,
with secrets deep inside.
I broke it, crushed it, sifted it;
dissolved it in a beaker,
spun it by a centrifuge,
and peeled back layers of time.
Now only hidden fossils remain:
Pollen grains and mossy spores—
once floating on an Ice Age breeze.
Now in that communion of discovery
these small fossils yield
the deepest glimpse through time
to the world before we came, and warn
of a future we must face—
while just outside forests change,
species die,
and life recedes.

Spruce (Picea) palynomorph from the
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument,
image by David Jarzen.

Estella Leopold assisted me in the actual research of Pleistocene pollen from Florissant. A layer associated with the burial site of a Columbian Mammoth at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was found to contain Ice Age pollen and spores. This research resulted in a paper presented at the Geological Society of America in Denver in 2013. Estella was one of the original “Defenders of Florissant” and was instrumental in the Florissant Fossil Beds in becoming a national monument. Estella is the daughter of Aldo Leopold, who wrote the Sand County Almanac.