Earth Notes: Cowboy Alcoves

Mar 20, 2019

Throughout the Southwest, range riders camped in stone hollows for the same reason they wore broad-brimmed hats: to shelter from rain, wind, snow, and the sky’s fearsome glare.

Cowboy camp artifacts
Credit Michael Engelhard

Like lizards, humans seek rock shade in the heat of summer. When it’s a hundred degrees out, any crevice looks good. But in winter, south-facing chambers are better because they store warmth from a low sun.

An abundance of sedimentary rock, subjected to water’s undermining, accounts for these geological quirks—on the Colorado Plateau they even outnumber arches.

Way before cowboys, pueblo people on Mesa Verde in Colorado located entire settlements in the sweeping overhangs, protected from the elements.  Alcoves there hold tiered apartments, towers, and plazas that buzzed with daily activities while cathedrals were being built in Europe.

But when cowboys came to places like the Needles district in Canyonlands National Park, they found plenty of good rockshelters. In some, the materials of a herder’s domestic routine still remain—cupboards and tables, Dutch ovens, axle grease, cornmeal, molasses, maybe a dented washbasin, an axe handle mended with wire, or worn horseshoes with nails still attached … telling of hardship and reality.

Occasionally, incised initials or a name drawn with charcoal raise an alcove dweller from anonymity. Some bear dates—back to the post-Civil War heydays of open range cattle.

With soot on the ceilings, dust tracked by generations of mice, and rusty tin cans, these singles’ abodes differ drastically from the chuck wagon camps in John Ford Westerns.

But wherever they occur on public lands, they’re protected by federal law—evidence of times when a stone alcove was called home.