5 Spectacular Native American Ruins in Colorado You Can Visit Today
By Shelby Carr
While Colorado became a state on August 1, 1876, its life did not begin that day and its pre-statehood past was not erased — and these ruins prove it.
In prior decades, there was a common misconception that the American West was a barren, dark land ripe for the taking by those individuals who were brave enough to embark on their dream of traveling westward and starting a new life on the final frontier.
In reality, Native Americans had lived in the land that would come to be known as the state of Colorado for many years before the arrival of Europeans.
Colorado is fortunate to have such an ethnically diverse past, and the land is rich with the history of those who came before us. As Elliot West stated in his book Contested Plains, “places are defined in part when people infuse them with imagination” and as a result, places “are what they are because of the visions lived out there over the years.”
In Colorado, the land has been infused with the culture and vision of Native Americans for centuries, and we are fortunate enough that many of these historic sites have been preserved for us to visit today.
Here’s a look at five of the most well-known Native American ruins in Colorado, though countless others are still preserved across the state’s beautiful plains, canyons and mountains.
1. Mesa Verde National Park
The Ancestral Puebloans once lived in the Southwestern corner of Colorado. Mesa Verde National Park, the former cliff dwelling homes of the Ancestral Puebloans, is located near the four corners: the exact spot where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet. At the four corners monument you have the opportunity to be in four states at once.
Near the four corners and the town of Cortez in Montezuma County are the incredible cliff dwellings the Ancestral Puebloans once called home. The Puebloans lived in their cliff and cave dwellings for hundreds of years, from about 600 to 1200 AD. In the 1200s, the residents of Mesa Verde began moving away and in the span of a generation or two they were gone from the area.
Over the many years they resided at Mesa Verde, their culture and ways of life changed. The Ancestral Puebloans were nomadic hunters and gatherers but grew into a more settled population in Mesa Verde. Once they gave up their nomadic lifestyle, they relied heavily on agriculture and farming became their main source of sustenance.
Three of their main crops were corn, beans, and squash. When they hunted, they procured mainly rabbit and deer meat. The Puebloans kept turkeys on their farms as well, to use for their meat and feathers.
They were also talented pottery makers and basket weavers. Their weaving skills did not end with basket making; they also used materials from the yucca plant to make sandals.
Ancestral Puebloan Pit Houses
Before residing in the cliff dwellings they’re famous for, the Ancestral Puebloans lived in pit houses. These houses featured living spaces that were built a few feet into the ground. Later, pit houses evolved into what were known as kivas, a pit house with a ceremonial chamber built in the front room.
Though it was once a thriving community, by 1300 Mesa Verde was deserted.
It is unknown exactly why the Ancestral Puebloans chose to relocate. Historians have speculated that perhaps due to prior drought, crop failures, and hundreds of years of farming the land, resources in the area were simply exhausted. There also may have been other problems socially, politically or otherwise.
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By the 1700s, the Ute Indians were mostly in control of the lands in the region of Mesa Verde. When individuals began traveling west to explore the territory, the Utes and Navajo often acted as guides through the region. Mesa Verde was mentioned in an explorer’s diary for the first time in 1859.
In the late 1800s, a group of Colorado women banded together in support of preserving Mesa Verde and designating the land a historic site. In 1900, the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association was established.
The only goal of the organization was to preserve Mesa Verde. Led by Virginia McClurg and Lucy Peabody, the organization campaigned for Mesa Verde to be declared a national park through fundraising and other means, including providing tours of the cliff dwellings for the press.
The association’s dream became a reality on June 29, 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill declaring Mesa Verde a national park.
Today, there are 600 preserved cliff dwellings and about 5,000 documented archaeological sites on the property.
2. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Near Mesa Verde and the four corners in Dolores is the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The Canyons were once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans. Today, the site contains 176,000 acres of land with 6,000 ancient sites that include cliff dwellings, rock art and villages.
Today, there is a museum and visitor center where you can learn more about the Ancestral Puebloan people and their way of life. You can also explore the thousands of acres of land by hiking, biking or on horseback.
3. Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
Some of Colorado’s various historic sites do not have a pleasant past or simple historical interpretations. Though there is difficulty in conducting public history in the midst of contested history and collective memory, the pioneer state has had the opportunity to be a leader in interpreting/reinterpreting monuments and sites dedicated to impactful events in history such as the Sand Creek Massacre.
The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was developed by the National Park Service, in conjunction with members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, the descendants of those who were attacked during the Sand Creek Massacre.
The Sand Creek Massacre was an unprovoked attack by military forces on a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village. On November 29, 1864, a man named Colonel John Chivington instructed his 675 troops to attack the nearby village of about 500 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho.
Before the attack, Black Kettle, the chief of the Southern Cheyenne people, had signed a peace treaty with Colorado leaders that he thought would keep his people safe. This was not the case.
Black Kettle did his best to stop the oncoming attack by waving a flag to signify peace. That did not stop the attackers. Under orders of Chivington, the military proceeded to slaughter the men, women, and children camped at Sand Creek.
Roughly 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people perished in the massacre.
Some were fortunate enough to escape, including Black Kettle and George Bent, the son of William Bent of Bent’s Fort (the early 19th century trading post), and his wife, Owl Woman of the Southern Cheyenne tribe.
Bent was a former confederate soldier and had settled with Black Kettle’s band of Southern Cheyenne in 1863. Later, Bent’s first-person narrative of the events that occurred the day of the Sand Creek Massacre was published in a book about his life, Life of George Bent, developed from a series of letters he exchanged with author George E. Hyde from 1905-1918.
Battle vs. Massacre
Immediately after the massacre, and for many years afterwards, the events of that day were referred to as the Sand Creek Battle and listed as a Civil War battle. Two men and their companies of soldiers, Silas Soule and Joseph Cramer, ignored Chivington’s orders and refused to fire on the peaceful tribes that day.
Soule wrote letters detailing the gruesome events of the attack. In 1865, Congress ordered an official investigation into the attack. Silas Soule was one of the first people to testify against Chivington and his actions during the investigation.
Soule was murdered shortly after.
Over the years there were questionable monuments built in Colorado that included the “Sand Creek Battle” instead of referring to the event as a massacre. The narrative of Sand Creek as a battle rather than a massacre persisted through most of the 20th century.
Finally, in 1998, the US government passed the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Study Act of 1998. The act directed the Secretary of the Interior to work in conjunction with the State of Colorado and Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to locate the massacre site in order to officially designate the land a national historic site.
There were many grievances between the Native Americans and the NPS as they strived to tell a “complete story” of the massacre. Their disagreements opened old wounds and caused problems in the process of preserving the historic site. The historical narratives, memories, and beliefs of the descendants varied at times from what the government saw as factual evidence.
The National Park Service was in the arduous position of crafting the narrative of Sand Creek for civic usage based upon the evidence they discovered while still honoring the descendants and their traditions.
After the strife of opposing positions, the establishment of the Sand Creek National Historic Site was a triumphant victory due to the individuals involved in the memorialization process and their openness and willingness to accept the fact that there was more than one account of the massacre — and opposing stories at that.
Due to this realization and acceptance, the groups in charge of the process were able to eventually work through their discrepancies to produce a multifarious narrative of the events at Sand Creek to the community.
It is with the aid of those who are not afraid to view the past as imperfect and contested that we can continue to present the diverse history of Colorado to the public for generations to come.
4. Ute Indian Museum
The Ute people, or Nuuche, are Colorado’s longest standing residents.
Prior to white settlement in the west, the Ute Indians traversed vast areas of Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. The Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, Colorado is a unique place that showcases the rich history of the Ute people.
Chief Ouray and his second wife, Chipeta, were two important figures in Ute history. Ouray was one of the Utes’ greatest leaders. He supported peace between the white settlers and the Native tribes.
Ouray and Chipeta both traveled to Washington, D.C. where Ouray represented his people and took part in treaty negotiations. Chipeta, like her husband, supported peace and she was the only woman of her time afforded the opportunity to sit on Ute tribal councils.
The Ute Indian Museum opened in 1956, on the traditional Uncompahgre Ute lands in Montrose where Chipeta and Chief Ouray once lived. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a state historic site.
Though it opened in the 1950s, the transformation of the land into museum grounds began around 1924. Chipeta passed away in August of that year and was originally buried on the Utah reservation her people had been forced to after Ouray’s death.
In 1925, Chipeta’s remains were exhumed and moved to the land in Montrose where Ouray and Chipeta had once lived. In 1926, an obelisk commemorating the life of Chief Ouray was constructed on the site.
Today, History Colorado continues to work closely with representatives of the Southern Ute Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah to develop the museum’s content.
You can visit the Ute Indian Museum on the ancestral lands of the Ute people to learn about their rich history and culture.
5. Ute Council Tree
In Delta, Colorado, you can visit the remains of the Ute Council Tree, the historic gathering point of the Ute tribes. The cottonwood tree was over 85 feet tall and dated back to 1802. Originally, the tree was just one of several trees in a grove of cottonwoods.
According to historians, Chief Ouray would hold council and meet with white settlers at and near this particular tree. Historians have asserted that Ouray’s wife Chipeta was, at times, present during these meetings as well.
While this cannot necessarily be confirmed, the area was confirmed as a place where Utes camped and the tree holds great significance to the Ute people.
The tree was first recognized as a significant landmark in 1930 when the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a plaque on the tree explaining its significance. In 1952, the Ute Council Tree was nominated by the DAR for recognition in the Colorado Hall of Fame for trees and in the Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.
In 1962, it was listed in the registry of Famous and Historic Trees of the United States. In 2000, the Ute Council Tree was given the Millenium Landmark Tree award for the state of Colorado.
In 2017, the ancient tree was deemed a safety hazard and the owners of the tree since 1982, the Delta County Historical Society, said it was dying. That year, the historical society had the tree cut back to about a 20-foot stump.
Members of three Ute tribes gathered near the base of the tree to honor it once more before it was cut. Today, you can still visit the stump of the once towering ancient tree that holds such significance to the Ute people and their history.
Read more about Native American places, stories and people of the West:
- 10 Facts You May Not Know About Quanah Parker, the Last Chief of the Comanche
- The Complicated Legacy of Peacemaker Ute Chief Ouray
- 15 Native American Ruins in Arizona that Offer a Historic Glimpse into the Past
- 10 Native American Mythical Creatures, from Thunderbirds to Skinwalkers
- The Battle of Big Dry Wash: Last Fight of the Apache Wars
- Colorado Journey Guide: A Driving & Hiking Guide to Ruins, Rock Art, Fossils & Formations, Jon Kramer
- Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen: A Guide To 36 Sites Across The Southwest, Dave Wilson
- Ancient Ruins of the Southwest: An Archaeological Guide, David Grant Noble
- The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, Virginia McConnell Simmons
- Mesa Verde National Park: The First 100 Years, Mesa Verde Museum Association
by Shelby Carr
Shelby Carr is an American history PhD student at Temple University. She graduated from the University of Colorado with her Master of Arts in American history with a minor in public history and a certificate in historic preservation with high distinction. She also received her Bachelor of Arts in history, magna cum laude, from the same institution. She earned a certificate in genealogical research from Boston University and a certificate in antiques, collectibles, and appraising from Asheford Institute of Antiques. She is the author of The Queen of Denver: Louise Sneed Hill and the Emergence of Modern High Society.