Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah history for KSL.com's Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — In the summer of 1931, a group of Harvard researchers descended into eastern Utah to continue a study that first identified a new Native American group that once called the area home. They took to horseback and completed the longest archaeologist trip of its kind.
However, there’s little known about the trip or if it yielded any sort of results because — for no known reason — it was never published. The thousands of documents and hundreds of photos from the expedition were left in boxes in the basement of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University and have remained there for decades. The trip remains an archaeological mystery for that reason.
“It should have been one of the most important archaeological trips in American archaeological history and yet very few people know much about it because the report never got written,” said James Aton, board president of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance.
Aton, also an English professor at Southern Utah University, and Jerry Spangler, a Utah archaeologist and executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, released a new book — “The Crimson Cowboys” — in December that explores what this forgotten Harvard study was and what it found. They wanted to share the story of what they call an incredible adventure.
It tells the story of the wild final leg of a four-year expedition that toured eastern and southeastern Utah in search of learning more about the Fremont culture, a Native American group that lived in the area thousands of years before. It also includes photos from the 1931 trip.
For the book, Aton and Spangler toured the areas described in the expedition to confirm the work found during the study.
The entire Harvard project began in 1928 and was led by archaeologist Alfred Kidder. It was named the Claflin-Emerson Expedition after its two main Boston funders, William Claflin and Raymond Emerson.
Kidder wanted to explore more of what he called the “northern prolifery” — an area north of the Colorado River in Utah, Aton said. Over that summer and the ensuing three summers, the group gathered plenty of new information.
The four-year study did yield results helpful to this day. It was the first to identify the Fremont culture — Native Americans that lived in many of the modern-day Utah locations for thousands of years. An archaeologist a part of the study named the group after the Fremont River, which was named after explorer John C. Fremont.
“No one had known that these peoples were in any way different from ancestral Puebloans,” Aton said.
The final leg came in 1931. It went around the Green River area from the Tavaputs Plateau in toward Desolation Canyon in eastern Utah. Despite some inexperience with the area and the complexity of the venture, the group somehow made it through without a hitch because of detailed planning.
“They covered 400 miles of some of the roughest terrain in the American West in these six weeks and did it with basically no injuries, lost horses or with a scratch,” Aton said. “They were able to document hundreds of sites, excavate a few of them and collect a lot of materials and bring it back to the Peabody (Museum).”
However, there were some disappointments. They found they weren’t the first to the region and many of the sites they went to excavate had already been looted by amateur archaeologists or criminals.
Nevertheless, a report of the trip was supposed to be compiled — it just never happened.
When the group returned back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the person charged with the task never wrote it. Aton said there were a couple of ideas as to why. The researcher assigned to it had gotten another job and focused on other studies and the study may have run out of funds as the Great Depression struck the U.S. It’s also possible that they found nothing new from the first reports of the study, which identified the Fremont culture.
Aton hopes “The Crimson Cowboys” will help Utahns know a little more about the history of the people who lived in Utah thousands of years ago.
“We don’t know why the report wasn’t written, but that was one of the reasons for writing this book,” he said. “(We wanted) to unearth these records and tell the story.”