National Spanish Trails Symposium
Southern Utah University, October 2007
Cedar City, Utah
Writing along the Trail
By Carolynne Merrell
Early Euro American pioneers traveling across this country often marked their passage by leaving
their names and dates written or incised on rocks at prominent places along the trail. In similar
fashion the Indians recorded images of what they saw of the “newcomers” (Figure 1). At many of
these sites, Euro American writings were superimposed over earlier rock art left by the Native
Americans who first established many of the early trails used by pioneers during the great
American Westward Expansion. At some sites such as at Names Hill, Wyoming, both the Euro
Americans and Native Americans were creating work simultaneously (Merrell 2006). There are
several sites with this distinction found within the corridors of the Old Spanish Trail. Although
still in the discovery stages, the documentation of these sites can benefit from the research
techniques described in this paper.
The preservation, protection and documentation of historic and prehistoric Indian sites have
become a major issue for those concerned with the management of these valued cultural
resources. Recording is the essential first step in the management process because the tangible
records generated through photographs and detailed illustrations provide a baseline against
which all future damage to a site can be evaluated. One major cost effective advantage in this
process is that much of the recording work can be done with the help of trained volunteers under
the direction of a professional. Another benefit is that through the recording process, more can
be learned about the history and use of these trails.
Names Hill on the Green River in Wyoming, City of Rocks in southern Idaho, and Brand Rock
in south central Idaho provide three examples of the complexity of the graphics found along
historic trails and the steps taken to document them can be applied to other “signature” and rock
City of Rocks, Idaho
Long before the Euro Americans first saw City of Rocks country, Shoshone-Bannock Indians
hunted in the area and gathered pinion nuts. The acquisition of horses by the Shoshone in the
early 1700s and swelling European emigration disrupted the Shoshone-Bannock homelands and
way of life. Peter Skene Ogden and his Snake River Brigade of beaver trappers were the first
non-Indians to note the City of Rocks, in 1826. Starting in 1843, steady summer streams of
wagons carrying emigrant groups headed to Oregon's Willamette Valley and California. With
the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the overland wagon routes began to pass
into history. But signs of those early years of passage through the area remain in the many
signatures and dates written in wagon axle grease and carved into the interesting rock
formations. Recording and preserving this record of passage as well as the earlier underlying red
ochre Indian pictographs has become a challenge as the natural erosion and exfoliation of the
rock surfaces gradually destroy layers of rock bearing 150 year old signatures and pictographs.
Besides standard photographic techniques to record those remaining signatures newer more
innovative methods have been employed. One of those methods used at signature sites along the
Oregon and California trails is a technique developed by James Henderson (Henderson 2004). His
method uses cross-polarized lighting to photograph and then digitize the graphics in hope of visually
enhancing the illusive images. However, this specialized process is not the only method that works to
provide enhanced photos. Standard more cost effective readily available digital imaging techniques
can also provide increased visual data for reading the writing at these sites (Figure2).
One suggestion for recording signature sites is to write down as many signatures and dates that are
easily read while in the field. Then note locations on an overview sketch of any questionable or
unclear names, dates or letters. This will help with focusing the enhancement work to the trouble
spots. A return visit to the site to check work is always preferred.
Names Hill is located in the Green River Basin south of La Barge Wyoming near Sublette's crossing
on the Green River (Figure 3). The westward migration associated with the Oregon, California, and
Mormon trails all came through the area during the height of the emigrant migration between 1840 and
1865. Following shortly after the Oregon Trail, the Overland Trail became the major emigrant route
for westward migration between 1862 and 1868. This focal point of human activity put Indians and
non-Indians in intimate contact in the guise of social and economic relationships not common
elsewhere on the Northern Plains until several decades later. These events of passage played
significant roles in developing Indian cultures in and around the Green River Basin, and caused
consequences far beyond the commonly considered economic realm. This is clearly evident in the
layering and inter-mingling of Pioneer signatures and dates with the engravings of Native Americans
(Figures 4, 5).
J. Goldsborough Bruff, an emigrant explorer who kept a detailed diary of his travels over the
Oregon/California Trail in 1849 was the first person to record and sketch the Indian rock art at
Names Hill (Figure 6). Concerning the Names Hill images, Bruff reported 43 rifles, two horses and
four human figures, all arranged along two incised lines he interpreted as the confluence of streams.
He notes that the images are:
"on a vertical cliff of fine gray sandstone….where the trail runs into the valley
from the elevated land dividing it from La Fontenelle Creek….The markings when
first observed were almost entirely obscured with dust; but, with a small branch
of a tree, I dusted off the surface of the rock, and copied them in rough sketches in
my note-book." (Bruff 1873:412)
154 years later in 2003, I was working with James Keyser and a group of volunteers recording the
rock art at La Barge Cliffs and Names Hill when we re-recorded the same panel (Figure 7). While
Bruff's drawings were drawn in a caricatured western European art style with rounded bodies and
realistic facial details with some change in location of the horses, the comparison of his drawing and
elements in the recent tracing of the scene are evident. The addition of tipis and an underlying
human figure that would well post date Bruff's 1849 visit demonstrates the superimposition of rock
art styles which in many cases, at this location are mixed with names and dates of early Euro-
The significance of this example points out the need to consider all aspects of graphics at such a
complex site and to provide a thorough documentation for preserving not only the historical but also
the pre-historic graphics. Another tool that can be beneficial for providing a chronology of events is
the Harris Diagram (Figure 8). James Keyser and George Poetschat applied this technique to five
panels from Names Hill including the "Bruff" panel by separating the complex layers of names and
carvings (Keyser and Poetschat 2005:79-104).
Brand Rock is a new site, discovered while recording a prehistoric petroglyph site southeast of
Little City of Rocks, Idaho (Merrell and Rodman 2006). During the survey, a flat rock with some
light markings covering the surface caught my eye in an area away from the basalt rim rock that
contained the prehistoric petroglyphs. A closer examination revealed a surface covered with over
145 cattle brands (Figure 9). This discovery opened the records to a much different site
interpretation that included the new historic component. Researching early brand records,
studying local historic documents and obtaining oral histories from old timers in the area is
providing the outlines for the documentation of a forgotten piece of local trail history. Although
the fleshing of this story is not completed what we have learned so far is most interesting.
Interviews with an old brand inspector and the examination of historic brand records is helping
identify some of the brands and dates. An interview with a 90 year old horse rancher who grew up
in the area revealed the name of the first homesteader in the location, the identification of some of
the brands with dates and his recollection of a stage route through the site. This person first visited
the site in 1933 and commented that "brand rock" was a familiar landmark at that time. He also
commented that at one time there was a story of someone attempting to remove the rock or
portions of it. The point to this story is to show out how the discovery and documentation of these
graphic sites is essential to keeping the history of an area alive.
Recording methods used at used at the City of Rocks, Names Hill and Brand rock included: a
pedestrian survey to locate all name and rock art panels, photography, digital enhancement
techniques, detailed tracings of panels, mapping of individual panels (GPS), and historical research.
Although the subject of discussion has focused on writing on rock surfaces there are two other
locations where writing can be found. One of these is on buildings where names and dates have
been incised or written on the structures. The Alamo in Texas is an excellent example of an
historic building with a significant record of signatures and dates, several dating back to the fall of
the Alamo. Writing and graphic images are also found on trees. Frequently located on Aspen
trees, they are known as arborglyphs or dendroglyphs.
Learning how to safely record the writing and rock art requires training by an archaeologist or
specialist who understands the conditions of the art and the rocks on which it is placed. Over the
years some rock art has become difficult to see for a number of reasons. Graffiti added to the
panel is only one destructive example. Others include: a natural fading of colors from sunlight,
exfoliation or flaking of the rock's surface through natural weathering, the buildup of lichen and
mosses that obscure the art, the development of desert varnish or patination over the surface of
the rock or the leaching of minerals such as silica and calcium from the rocks which can create a
very cloudy whitish film or accretion deposit over the rock art. Two prime rules are: do not touch
the art or writing surface with bare fingers and do not trace faint images with chalk. Touching
can leave a residue that may negatively impact future chemical analysis of the pigment.
Chalking leaves a residue not always readily visible that becomes imbedded in the rock surface
over time and compromises any future chemical analysis.
The recorder is responsible for evaluating any detrimental forces affecting a site and choosing
the best method to document the site without causing further damage. Photography and
drawings are the safest way to record a site. For signature sites a separate listing of all the names
and associated dates is helpful. Along some trails people may have written their names at
several locations. Recording these names and comparing the lists with other sites can provide an
interesting tracking of individuals.
The photographer’s equipment should include the following: a neutral solid light colored
umbrella, a photographer's collapsible reflector, a hand mirror, a polarizer lens, a tripod, optional
"flash" assemblage and photo log forms. A reflector or umbrella can block uneven lighting over
a panel, while the combination of the sunlight block and mirror used to refocus the sunlight on a
carved surface creates a shading effect that can make the image more defined (Figure 10). Other
handy equipment includes a hand lens or magnifying glass, a centimeter tape, and a scale. My
personal preference is to shoot with both a digital and a standard 35mm film camera. CDs are
ordered at the time of the film processing.
Tracing should only be done with the permission from the site manager, and then, only after an
examination of the surface to determine the durability of the pictograph and petroglyph on the
base rock. Equipment for tracing would include large clear plastic similar to paint drop sheets,
permanent sharpie pens, scissors and blue masking tape.
One "safe" way to make a drawing of the art is to work from an enlarged photograph. A tracing
is made by placing a sheet of clear plastic (overhead transparency) over the photograph and then
carefully tracing the rock art using a permanent ink Sharpie . Many recorders like to trace the
figures by using tiny dots because dots close together make the area darker and easy to see
(Figures 11, 12). When dots are light and farther apart it means the detail is harder to see and
we are not quite sure of the pattern. Solid lines can represent cracks or edges in the rock. One
example using this procedure better identified the glyphs found on an iconographic panel outside
Cedar City, Utah. The natural rock was very rough with encroaching lichen. Enhancing the
photo did little to bring out the incised icons, however when they were traced on acetate placed
over an enlarged photograph the images become much easier to decipher (Figures 13, 14).
Photo Enhancement technology has great potential to clarify signatures or rock art that has
become obscure and difficult to identify (Figures 15, 16). Various computer programs such as
Adobe PhotoShop, are available to help with this process. Although available to many and fun
to use, it takes the eye and experience of a technician to balance an image for the best
information. The most common mistake made by a novice is to enhance the photo to such a
dramatic degree that subtle details are lost and the result looks “burned out”. In many cases this
results in loosing important data. For example, in an effort to enhance signatures at City of
Rocks, the superimposition of prehistoric red ochre painting under the names was in danger of
being no longer visible. This could change the way the panel was evaluated.
Some type of global positioning system (GPS) unit should be available for accurately pin
pointing the site locations. The information can then be applied to a site map. Prior to GPS old
site location information was often inaccurate or not pinpointed enough for easy relocation of the
One method for helping determine a legitimate signature from one created later in the late 1800s or
1900s is the application of Lead Profile Dating. This is useful in cases where writing has been
incised or pecked into the rock surface. It is based on the premise that 20th century lead pollution is
recorded in rock varnish, because the iron and manganese present in the varnish scavenges lead
(Dorn 2005). This leads to a “spike” in the very surface layer from 20th century pollution. For the
two samples shown in Figure 17, a “lead spike” is seen in the upper varnish layer but beneath that
surface the amount of lead dropped to “back ground” pre-industrial levels thereby demonstrating the
antiquity of the samples tested (Figure 17).
Once a complete documentation of the resource has taken place, an effective management and
monitoring plan can be put in place. This process includes considering any conservation measures
that may be beneficial to the site. This can be an area of serious concern.
Buckhorn Wash provides a significant management example from southern Utah, where a decision
was made to "restore" a pictograph panel to its pre-historic condition (Figure18). The restoration
included removing all painted writing, filling all incised names and dates, filling all bullet holes
and repainting original images. Before a restoration of this kind is undertaken it is imperative that
no information be lost. There should be a listing or directory of all names and dates for the agency
and state historic preservation archives.
Questions concerning preservation and conservation issues are in constant revision as new better
technology presents itself. Regarding the removal of recent graffiti and other conservation
measures, it is best left to the conservators to make the judgment calls as to what will or will not
work. Protection of sites is an ongoing concern. Two extremes currently in practice are to fence a
site restricting people and animal access and to leave one area where graffiti frequently occurs as a
“sacrificial” site for public visitation. While one site is available for general public access other site
locations remain confidential. With the increase in wild fires one measure that can help protect sites
is to remove all brush from the area of the art work, thus preventing intense, sustained heat that can
cause significant damage and destruction. (Tratebas, 2006).
Preservation and protection of sites such as Names Hill, City of Rocks, Brand Rock and signature
sites along the Old Spanish Trail can only be effective if the non renewable cultural resources at
these sites are identified, recorded, researched and archived. Doing so will ensure that, with the
passage of time and detrimental events, the vestiges marking the trails of the past will be secure in
the archival records for the benefit of future generations.
1873 Indian Engravings on the Face of the Rocks Along Green River Valley in the Sierra Nevada
(sic). Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents, 107: 409-412.
2005 Dating of Buffalo Eddy Petroglyphs. Report on file with the Nez Perce National Historic
Park. Spalding, Idaho.
2004 Digitizing the Past: An advanced Procedure for Faded Rock paintings and Other Painted
Artifacts. Paper presented at the 28th Great Basin Anthropological Conference, Elko, Nevada.
Keyser, James and George Poetschat
2005 Warrior Art of Wyoming’s Green River Basin, pp. 79-104. Oregon Archaeological Society,
2006 Writing Along the Trail. Paper presented at the National Historic Trails Conference.
Kansas City, Missouri.
Merrell, Carolynne and Julie Rodman
2005 Site Report for Brand Rock ... on file with the Bureau of Land Management. Shoshone
Tratebas, Alice and Ron Dorn
2006 Effects of Fire on Rock Art Dating. Paper presented at the 71st Society for American
Archaeology Annual Meeting. San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Thank goes to Col. Al Matheson for inviting me to present at the Old Spanish Trail Symposium. I
also appreciated his encouragement and help editing this paper for publication.
Note: This paper originated from a power point presentation made at the National Historic Trails
annual conference held in Kansas City, Missouri 2006.
List of Figure Captions:
Figure 1. A historic pictograph of a Spaniard on horseback.
Figure 2. Enhanced example of an historic “signature” panel from City of Rocks, Idaho.
Figure 3. Remains of the Oregon, California and Mormon trail near Sublett’s Crossing on the
Green River, Wyoming.
Figure 4. Historic name and date with Indian incised art at Names Hill, Wyoming.
Figure 5. Example of superimposed historic writing and Indian art.
Figure 6. Early sketch by J. Bruff of Indian rock art near Names Hill, Wyoming (Bruff 1873)
Figure 7. Tracing of “Bruff” panel in 2003, noting additions (Keyser and Poetschat 2005 p.74).
Figure 8. Harris Diagram (Keyser and Poetschat 2005:104).
Figure 9. Brands found on Brand rock, Idaho.
Figure 10. James Keyser examining the details of an incised panel using a sun block and mirror to
enhance an incised petroglyph.
Figure 11. Photograph of petroglyphs on a basalt boulder.
Figure 12. Tracing made over photograph of pecked elements.
Figure 13. Iconographic panel on rough surface with lichen.
Figure 14. A tracing of the enhanced icons.
Figure 15. Before. Standard photograph of “signature” panel near Escalante, Utah.
Figure 16. After. Enhanced detail of signatures for better viewing.
Figure 17. Example of Lead profiling (Dorn 2005) from Buffalo Eddy,Washington.
Figure 18. Panel at Buckhorn Wash before graffiti removal.