The Towers of Hovenweep
The canyon and mesa country north of the San Juan River holds many archeological sites where ancestors of today's Pueblo Indian tribes lived. Round, square, and D-shaped towers grouped at canyon heads most visibly mark once-thriving communities. No one has lived in them for over 700 years, but they are still inspiring. As today's visitors explore Hovenweep, they often wonder why these towers were built and what sort of communities their builders created.
Many dwellings stood right on the canyon rim, and some structures were built atop isolated or irregular bouldersnot practical sites for safety and access. Most are associated with springs and seeps near canyon heads. Such locations suggest that the ancestral Pueblo people were protecting something, if not themselves then perhaps the waterextremely valuable to desert-dwelling agriculturalists. By the 1200s the population had grown dramatically, and pollen studies show that much of the tree cover had been removed. Perhaps drought and depleted resources figured prominently in the ancestral Pueblo peoples' sudden departure in the late 1200s. While many questions remain unanswered, continuing archeological studies improve our understanding of ancestral Pueblo culture.
W.D. Huntington first reported these structures after he led an 18S4 Mormon expedition into southeastern Utah. Pioneering photographer William Henry Jackson in 1874 first used the name "Hovenweep," which is Ute/Paiute for "deserted valley." When J.W. Fewkes surveyed the area for the Smithsonian Institution in 1917-18 he recommended the structures be protected. Finally, in 1923 President Warren C. Harding proclaimed Hovenweep a national monument.
Today tall towers, outlines of multi-room pueblos, tumbled piles of shaped stone, small cliff dwellings, pottery sherds, and rock art lie scattered across the canyon landscape leaving little doubt that a sizeable population once lived in this ruggedly beautiful. high desert setting. Despite seven centuries of weathering, many large structures and tall tower walls still stand as tributes to their builders. The intricate stonework crafted by these ancestral Pueblo masons is also revealed in the finely hewn stones, sharp corners, and smooth curves of Hovenweep's architecture. Rubble mounds show that even more structures were once significant parts of these villages.
Visitors can walk along quiet, primitive trails and imagine what these communities must have been like long ago when hundreds if not thousands of people lived on this mesa. Hovenweep is truly a place to ponder the past.
The People of Hovenweep
Archeological studies across the Four Corners region have produced intriguing information about past cultures inhabiting this part of the Southwest. Over 13,000 years ago nomadic Paleo-Indian hunters roamed the plateaus and canyons hunting wild animals. Drier climate conditions displaced these peopleas larger animals moved elsewhereand ushered in Archaic hunter-gatherers from the west about 11,000 years ago.
These peopleeventually to be known as the ancestral Pueblo peoplewere initially mobile, taking temporary shelter beneath canyon overhangs and in shallow alcoves as they traveled in search of food. As they began to cultivate corn, life became more structured, and beginning around the year 200, they built pit houses closer to their crops in valleys and on mesa tops.
Climate changes sometimes dictated that the people relocate to higher or lower elevations to ensure optimal growing conditions. The Hovenweep area was still relatively uninhabited for many centuries then. About the year 700, as the surrounding populations grew, people began to filter onto Cajon Mesa, which contains Hovenweep.
Larger numbers of people did not come to the area until after 1100. The final wave of building that created the Hovenweep towers began around 1230 as people began moving away from mesa-top homes. Instead of small, scattered clusters of dwellings, larger villages were built around canyon heads that contained water sources.
Despite marginal growing conditions, ancestral Pueblo people raised corn, beans, squash, and other crops in small fields and terraces, often using check dams for irrigation They used solar calendars and astronomy to calculate growing seasons. They developed many other natural resources to improve their lives. Examples of well-made pottery, jewelry, and clothing clearly suggest that these villages were part of a well-developed society. Non-native materials like macaw feathers point to active trading with cultures to the south in Mexico.
By the late 1200s, prolonged drought, overuse of natural resources, and, possibly, internal strife led to the eventual abandonment of the region. The people settled in what are now the pueblos of the Rio Grande valley in New Mexico and the Hopi mesas of Arizona.
About Your Visit
Source: NPS Brochure (2018)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
2003 Invasive Non-Native Plant Inventory, Hovenweep National Monument: Final Report (Steen Dewey and Kimberly Andersen, April 2005)
A Lower Cretaceous Flora in Colorado (T.D.A. Cockerell, 1916; scanned by Biodiversity Heritage Library)
A Vibration Study of the Archeological Ruins, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah-Colorado USGS Open-File Report 87-181 (K.W. King and S.T. Algermissen, 1987)
Annotated Checklist of Vascular Flora, Hovenweep National Monument NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NCPN/NRTR-2009-207 (Walter Fertig, May 2009)
Circular Relating to Historic and Prehistoric Ruins of the Southwest and Their Preservation (Edgar L. Hewitt, 1904)
Clean Water Act: Water quality designated uses and impairments: Hovenweep National Monument NPS Technical Report NPS/NRWRD/NRTR-2003/3009 (March 2003)
Drinking water source protection plan: Hovenweep national Monument (Larry Martin, December 2000)
General Management Plan/Environmental Assessment, Hovenweep National Monument Draft (August 2011)
Geologic Map of Hovenweep National Monument (September 2018)
Geologic Resource Evaluation Report, Hovenweep National Monument NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2004/002 (T.L. Thornberry-Ehrlich, September 2004)
Geologic Site Assessment: Square Tower Unit, Hovenweep National Monument (Gannett Fleming Engineers and Architects, July 2001)
Hovenweep 1974 Archeological Report No. 1 (Joseph C. Winter, San Jose State University, May 1975)
Hovenweep 1975 Archeological Report No. 2 (Joseph C. Winter, San Jose State University, May 1976)
Hovenweep 1976 Archeological Report No. 3 (Joseph C. Winter, San Jose State University, July 1977)
Hovenweep 1977 Archeological Report No. 4 (Joseph C. Winter, San Jose State University, August 1984)
Inventory of Amphibians and Reptiles at Hovenweep National Monument, 2001-2003 Final Report (Trevor B. Persons and Erika M. Nowak, May 2004)
Junior Ranger Activity Book, Hovenweep National Monument (Date Unknown)
Palynology, Flora and Vegetation of Hovenweep National Monument: Implications for Aboriginal Plant Use on Cajon Mesa, Colorado and Utah (Glendon Hoge Weir, PhD Dissertation Texas A&M University, August 1976)
Prehistoric Villages, Castles, and Towers of Southwestern Colorado (J. Walter Fewkes, 1919)
The Archeology of McElmo Canyon, Colorado (Sylvanus Griswold Morley and Alfred Vincent Kidder, extract from El Palacio, Vol. 4 No. 4, November 1917, Museum of New Mexico)
The Hovenweep National Monument (J. Walter Fewkes, extract from Annual Report Smithsonian Institution, 1923)
Vascular Plant Species Discoveries in the Northern Colorado Plateau Network: Update for 2008-2011 NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NCPN/NRTR-2012/582 (Walter Fertig, Sarah Topp, Mary Moran, Terri Hildebrand, Jeff Ott and Derrick Zobell, May 2012)
Vegetation Classification and Mapping Project Report, Hovenweep National Monument NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NCPN/NRTR-2008/092 (Jim Von Loh, Gery Wakefield, Aneth Wight, Angie Evenden and Janet Coles, April 2008)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 10-Mar-2022