Ancient Antelope Run

 By Charles Kelly
Map by John Nansen
Reprinted from the March 1943 edition of The Desert Magazine

We were driving over some high, rolling hills at the base of BoulderMountain a few miles southeast of Bicknell, Utah, whenWallace Bransford brought the car to a sudden stop.  “What’s that?” he asked, pointing.  At first we couldn’t see anything unusual.  Then, as we looked more closely, we saw what appeared to be a row of black boulders extending along the brow of a hill almost in a straight line to the horizon.  The surface of the ground was sprinkled with boulders, but nature doesn’t often lay them in straight lines, so we decided it must be the work of men.  But for what purpose?  There were not enough for a wall; so it couldn’t be the ruins of an ancient Indian pueblo.

As we drove on we saw several similar lines of boulders, some running parallel with the road and others at right angles, but always along the brow of a hill. A few days later, at Fremont, Utah, we accidentally met a man who knew the answer to the puzzle.  “My father,” explained J. Worthen Jackson “was one of the early pioneers of Fremont valley.  When the settlers first arrived in 1880, a band of Pahutes was still living here. Among them was an old fellow called Tahgee, apparently about 85 years old, who became very friendly with father and told him many stories of Indian life before the arrival of white men. 

“Among other things this old Indian said that in early times, when he was a very small boy, this country was full of antelope which grazed in large numbers all over those hills at the base of BoulderMountain.

“Antelope are among the swiftest four footed animals in America and because of their keen sight and hearing and the open country in which they lived, it was impossible to hunt them as the Sioux hunted buffalo.  Nevertheless the Indians had plenty of antelope meat.  Instead of the hunters following the antelope, they made the animals come to them.  That was the purpose of those long lines of rocks you saw on the hills.

“An antelope has a large bump of curiosity.  Anything out of the ordinary attracts his attention and arouses his suspicion.  The Indians used this to their advantage.  They laid up those long lines of rocks across the hills and built small walls at intervals as blinds, stationing a hunter in each blind.  Men were sent to drive the animals toward the blinds: when the antelope came to the line of rocks they would not cross over, but ran parallel with the line.  This would bring them past the blinds where the Indians could shoot as many as they wanted with their short range bows and arrows.”

Since man’s bump of curiosity is even larger than an antelope’s we decided to go back next day and examine the country more thoroughly.  Near Bicknell, the FremontRiver flows along the north base of BoulderMountain through what is called Bicknell Bottoms.  In this valley, watered by the river, is a heavy growth of grass.  As we reconstructed the situation herds of antelope would come down off the hills to feed in the bottoms.  Upon the least alarm they would rush back to the safety of the hills.

Along the brow of the first line of hills above the valley, Indians placed these long lines of boulders, with larger piles at intervals behind which hunters were stationed.  Arriving at the brow of the hill, antelope would see the line and turn to run parallel with it rather than jump over it.  The lines were by no means a wall.  There were plenty of spaces through which they could have passed, or they easily could have stepped over any part of it, since the boulders used in its construction were no larger than a man could lift.  Yet for reasons known only to the antelope, such a simple line would turn the herds and bring them past the hidden hunters.

The scattered rocks on these hills are composed of black lava.  After lying in the soil for a long period, the under side of each rock becomes covered with a white encrustation of lime.  When the rocks are freshly turned over they make a distinct white line, contrasting with the undisturbed black rock.  No doubt this unfamiliar white coating was sufficient to make the animals suspicious and rather than cross the line they would attempt to circle it, thus passing close to the blinds.

The longest line of rocks we found ran for over a mile, with heaps of rocks every few hundred feet indicating old blinds.  But there were other lines paralleling it for part of the distance and some shorter ones running at right angles.  In one place lines had been built in the form of two V’s.  Where they converged three large blinds had been constructed which were still in a fair state of preservation.  This arrangement apparently had been more successful and had been used longer than the others.  Any one of the three was large enough to hide two or three hunters. Antelope rushing up the hill would be caught between the lines and rush past the blinds in such a closely packed group that hunters could scarcely miss.

Many hundreds of tons of rock had been moved to construct these runs, representing a great amount of labor, but the work probably was carried on over a long period of time.  The longest line, with its subsidiary wings, seems to have been built first and later abandoned in favor of the V-shaped run, where the blinds were still in good shape.  All the white lime covering the under side of these rocks when first overturned, long since had been removed by the elements.

“Have you any idea how old those antelope runs are?” we asked Jackson.  “Old Tahgee told my father ,” he explained, “that when he was a small boy, probably six or seven years old, the whole country was covered with snow one winter, so deep and remaining so long that all antelope and other game died.  For many years afterward there were no antelope in this country.  A few small bands drifted back after pioneer times, but they soon were exterminated.”

Knowing the age of Worthen Jackson’s father and estimating Tahgee’s age at 85, it seemed evident that the hard winter and deep snow which killed the game in Fremont valley occurred in 1833.  According to records of Rocky mountain trappers, the deep snows of that winter killed off all buffalo in Utah.  If this calculation is correct, the antelope runs on the hills above Bicknell Bottoms were not used after 1833 and may have been constructed a hundred years or more before that time.  Since the land is useless for agriculture, they probably will remain forever as a memorial to primitive hunters who learned to outwit America’s fleetest game.