Seven centuries before Columbus went to sea, an American woman wove an elegant basket of grass and willow for her stone-walled house in this majestic canyon. In the early 1940s, a young cowboy named Waldo Wilcox found the basket, and the stone walls, in nearly perfect condition. "And I thought, this stuff has got to be protected," Wilcox recalled Wednesday.
For six decades, Wilcox and his family kept tight control over public access to a 12-mile stretch of Range Creek that had been the site of a bustling Fremont tribe community in the first millennium A.D. Few knew of its existence and Wilcox closely controlled the archaeologists and researchers he did permit to visit.
But now the aging rancher has turned over his 4,000-acre spread to the government -- and handed public land managers a significant dilemma along with it.
"A piece of ancient America like this, that has not been looted or vandalized, is almost unique -- an absolute treasure of our national history," said Kevin Jones, the Utah state archaeologist. "So the stupidest thing we could do is just open the gate.
"But this is public land now, and we owe it to the American public to let them see this fantastic collection of historic sites, so they can appreciate it and learn from it. The problem is how to balance public access with preservation."
On Wednesday, Wilcox, with the state and federal officials who now manage the site, offered the first public tour of the Wilcox Ranch ruins to a group of reporters. It is a string of 1,000-year-old villages so pristine that the ancient neighborhoods, cemeteries and granaries are still covered with beads and tools and pottery abandoned when the Fremont people left the canyon about 800 years ago.
"I don't think I've ever seen or heard of a collection of artifact scatters like we find here," said Shelley Smith, an archaeologist with the federal Bureau of Land Management. "My head gets all banged up when I'm in this canyon because every step I take my head is down and I'm finding ancient tools, just lying there."
As she said those words, Smith bent over and picked up a hand-chipped piece of red chert that had been cut to a sharp point. "That's a pretty nice awl somebody made a thousand years ago or so," she said. "That point was for sewing pieces of leather."
The Range Creek community, in Utah's high-desert Book Cliffs region about 130 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, was not as advanced as the famous cliff dwellings south of here at Mesa Verde, Colo., or Chaco Canyon, N.M. But the site is richer in many ways for archaeologists because its unsullied state teaches significant lessons about Fremont daily life.
In a rugged, wind-swept valley laced with the perfume of juniper and sage, the ancient Indians proved to be extremely efficient farmers and hunters, historians say. "They managed to provide for maybe 200, 250 people along this creek," Jones noted. "In modern times, the same stretch of land hasn't ever supported more than three families."
The Fremont built homes of round stone with pine bough roofs that were cool in the summer and warm and dry all winter. They carved and painted intricate designs on the towering cliff walls, sometimes erecting adobe awnings to protect their artwork from the elements. They built stone silos for corn and beans on the same high cliffs, presumably to protect their food supply from raiders.
Other ancient Indian villages in the Southwest have been ravaged by tourists, collectors and sometimes outright vandals over the centuries.
"Some of the Fremont people lived north of here in Nine Mile Canyon at about the same time of these Range Creek settlements," said Steven Burge, a Carbon County commissioner. "But we just don't have anything like the tools and artifacts up there we have found here. Up there, all the good stuff was hauled away to somebody's basement a long time ago. They're selling arrowheads on eBay."
Two factors preserved the community here. For one, the tall, narrow canyon -- studded with so many dramatic rock formations and natural arches that it would be a national park in many countries -- is difficult to traverse, which limited traffic until the rugged dirt road along the creek was built in 1947. Then, four years later, the Wilcox family erected gates at the north and south ends of the canyon, partly to keep their cattle from straying, but largely to keep out strangers.
"I was cussed all my life for locking those gates," the 74-year-old Wilcox said Wednesday. "Now the archaeologists tell me we were heroes for doing that. Otherwise the hippies would have come in here and destroyed the place."
Wearing a huge silver W on his belt buckle and the family cattle brand -- the Walking X -- on his pearl-buttoned shirt, the leather-faced rancher proudly pointed out ancient Fremont graves and the colorful cliff paintings he had discovered while herding cattle decades earlier. "I think the public should see this. I just don't want them digging it up and knocking things down."
Wilcox said he finally agreed to sell the ranch when he turned 70 and realized that he couldn't manage the work anymore. He now lives in what he calls "the big city" -- Green River, population 4,000 -- but clearly has second thoughts about leaving this canyon. "I made a deal and I'm stuck with it now, right or wrong," Wilcox said, his eyes rising wistfully to a stone arch on the clifftop that was named half a century ago for his father, Budge.
The ranch was purchased for $2.5 million by the Trust for Public Land, which held it until the state of Utah and the federal government appropriated the money to buy the 4,208-acre property. State and federal officials are now working together on a management plan that will protect the site's inestimable archaeological value and allow public visits at the same time.
"The public owns this site now," said Jones, the state archaeologist. "I wouldn't want to lock it up just for a few scientists."
But Wilcox is worried. "If you don't lock it up the way our family did," he grumbled, "the looters are going to come in here and destroy it."