Culture and Place Along the Continental Divide

The American Continental Divide is a both a notable geographic feature and a distinctly cultural construct. Students in this Honors Research Institute are studying (field work completed in Summer, analysis and write-up continuing through the Fall semester) first-hand the ways in which people—from prehistoric Native American big game hunters to early American explorers to modern trail hikers and tourists—have traveled, used, physically shaped, and intellectually defined the continent's spine.

In the summer of 2017, Dr. Troy Lovata and four students spent a week backpacking the National Scenic Continental Divide Trail to record first-hand the cultural overlay of the remains of prehistoric Native Americans, waves of explorers, the Divide's first tourist railroad, and today's long-distance through hikers. Their research focused on how people, from prehistory through present, travel and mark their place on the landscape. For this project, they recorded different types of trail use, examined arborglyphs, and studied how recreational trails overlay paths used by Native Americans and early American explorers and settlers. Research focused on Central Colorado, but students also spent time studying the trail outside Cuba, New Mexico—designated by the Continental Divide Trail Alliance as a Gateway City—in order to compare findings across the Rocky Mountains.

For the past 8 years the Center for Mountain and Plains Archaeology at Colorado State University under the auspices of Professor Jason Labelle has been studying the prehistoric archaeology-especially features related to game drives and high altitude occupation by big game hunters going back to Paleoindian times—of Rollins Pass, Colorado. They have also uncovered numerous historic era sites, including the remains of the first tourist train to the Divide, and noted that the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail overlays their research site. But they have not previously been able to fully study this more recent use of the landscape.

Dr. Lovata and his students were invited to do research at Rollins Pass that incorporated Dr. Lovata’s expertise in studying contemporary archaeology, exploring syncretic trails, and examining how the past is used by people today. This project provided Honors students the opportunity to learn not only about these topics, but also to study the remains of prehistoric Native Americans and learn about mapping and survey skills.