Chimney Rock: Pueblo History Within the Southern Ute Landscape
Text and Photographs: Jeremy Wade Shockley
Southern Ute Drum Vol.XLII No.17
Piercing the summer sky, two stone formations known as Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, define the ridge where Ancestral Puebloans built Kivas and erected ceremonial sites for religious and astronomical purposes. The rock formations have served as geographical markers for centuries, guiding the Spaniards north from Mexico, as well as the miners who later sought silver and gold in the region. Early bands of nomadic Utes also looked to the twin towers as landmarks, ancestors of the Southern Ute Indians, who’s land surrounds present day Chimney Rock.
The Chimney Rock Archaeological Area sits on 4,100 acres of San Juan National Forest land surrounded by the Southern Ute Reservation. The land was proclaimed National Forest Reserve by President Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the century and designated an Archaeological Area and National Historic Site in 1970.
The Chimney Rock prehistoric structures were constructed roughly between AD 1000 and 1100, according to Elizabeth Ann Morris, Professor Emerita, Colorado State University. Morris also states that the inhabitants of the site were ancestors of one or more of the modern Puebloan tribes such as: Hopi, Zuni, Jemez, Acoma, Taos, Picuris, or another of the Rio Grande Pueblo Tribes.
An annual cultural gathering is held at the Chimney Rock site each summer, where tribes with ancestral roots to the Chimney Rock inhabitants return to dance in the traditional way. Kivas are opened up for these ceremonies and access given to dancers and singers participating in the cultural gathering. The gatherings are held each year and open to the public as well as other indigenous dancers who perform just out side of the restricted archaeological sites.
Here there is a strong connection with the peoples and architecture of Chaco Canyon, a major trade center, located over the border and ninety-five miles to the southwest in what is now the State of New Mexico. Chaco is thought to have been a site designed as an astrological center, perhaps for observing the sun’s patterns and for recording, understanding, and interpreting the growing seasons and calendar cycles. It is also thought that perhaps Chimney Rock served a similar purpose in regards to the moon and its rising patterns. During what is known as the Major Lunar Standstill, the full moon can be seen by the naked eye, rising directly between the two pinnacles of stone that define Chimney Rock.
The natural rock formations can easily be seen from modern day reservation lands, as one is fishing at lake Capote to the East, or travelling past on Highway 160. The twin towers stand above the horizon line, a geographic marker throughout history, now a monument to the past. There is no doubt that the early Ute bands that frequented this region would have used the spires as a landmark.
Other involvements between the early Utes and the Chimney Rock site, or its ancient people, remain a mystery. “My understanding is that the arrival of the Utes in this region occurred almost 200 to 400 years after the Ancestral Puebloans left,” said Les Linton, a longstanding staff member at the archaeological site. Morris agrees, early in the 1100’s the Ancestral Puebloans moved away from Chimney Rock Cuesta and the immediate surrounding valleys.
As geographical fate would have it, this historic site now borders the sovereign nation of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. It is clear that the land on which we live has seen great cultural and geographical shifts throughout the ages. We may never completely understand the complex history of this landscape or those who lived on it before us, but we can appreciate the significance of the site and the role it has played in shaping this region.
The Historic Fire Lookout, which sits at 7, 600 feet, is set for removal by the end of this season, in hopes of returning the site to its original state.