New to this valley, I quickly became captivated with its first residents: Those people with the musical name, the Mountain Shoshone.
Elusive and misunderstood when they existed as a tribe, they’re now largely lost to oral history. (Some residents of the nearby Wind River Reservation may carry their blood, but their culture has vanished.)
Many people here treasure that heritage, because those nearly traceless migrant people who left no written records clearly loved this valley and knew how to use its scarce resources to live well.
The archaeologists have offered up a few relics that survive them: Bowls made of soft soapstone, flakes and points used to hunt, scant signs of their villages at treeline (of which I will tell much more later), and these: Their sheep traps, some of which are still remarkably intact.
They were sometimes known as “Sheepeaters,” because they hunted the bighorn sheep that still travel these hills. The first picture shows State of Wyoming archaeologist Dan Eakin walking along a drive line, one of the pincers of timber that the Shoshone laid over many of the high slopes to herd the sheep, passively, toward a high ridge.
Cresting the ridge, the sheep would find themselves wedged between lines of timber and driven with no escape route toward a pen. There by some means (I believe we still don’t know how), the hunters dispatched the sheep.
Today, with a dozen other hardy folks, I hiked a very steep slope toward a ridge to see the remains of some Shoshone sheep trap systems. “I don’t want to get personal,” Eakins called out as we were huffing our way up the slope this morning, “but I’m 57. Is anyone here younger than me?”
We called out our ages. Nobody was. The woman who organized the hike is 73.
The wood in the sheep traps has been dated to the 1760s–before the Revolutionary War, Eakins said, and well before Lewis and Clark explored this general territory in 1804-1805. He called them some of the oldest human structures in the American West. High and generally dry, they remain remarkably intact.
The second picture shows some of my friends at the end of another drive line, admiring a catch pen. The next picture shows the catch pen itself. A tree has grown up inside it, long after the last sheep was bludgeoned inside.
It’s sort of fallen in, but can you see the ramp that the animal had no choice but to climb?
Below you see the trap from the side. From a distance, it may look like a pile of rubble. But close up, it’s clear that this was built intentionally. But built by non-white people, long ago, almost certainly: There are no signs of ax marks, and certainly no nails. All of it was dead wood, put to very good use.
For years the purpose of these structures (and in fact the identity of the builders) was mere conjecture, because nobody ever found arrowheads, or bones, or any signs of butchery nearby. But a few years ago Eakin and others found a sheep processing center near Greybull, to the north, filled with artifacts identified with the Shoshone.
Why locate the processing center remote from the sheep trap? Makes sense, Eakin said. It was probably smelly. Might have spooked the sheep away from the drive lines somehow.
Anyhow, it probably wasn’t so far back in the day. Now it’s about a 4-hour drive around to Greybull, but the Mountain Shoshone didn’t drive around. They walked the ridgelines, which are much more direct.
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© Lois Wingerson 2015