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Sheepherders’ history reveals itself in texts carved into aspens over generations

In this excerpt from "The Woolly West," author Andrew Gulliford examines the sheepherders' canvas: From simple names and dates to elaborate, signed artwork, these men literally left their mark on a fading chapter of Colorado history

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He teaches popular courses on wilderness, national parks, Western history, and environmental history. His book “The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes” (Texas A&M University Press, 2018) was chosen the Outstanding Nonfiction winner for the 2019 Western Heritage Awards sponsored by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

The following is an excerpt from “The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


2019 Colorado Book Awards winner for History

Carvings on aspen trees inspired me to research and write this book. At first I wanted to find the largest concentrations of aspens in Colorado national forests, go there, camp in the woods, and walk the trails to read the trees and understand messages left by generations of herders. But even with aspens aging and dying there are too many trees. History got in the way for me, as it always does. Digging deeper into the subject, I realized there was so much more to write about than just the arborglyphs.  I sought to become a voice for the voiceless, for those herders who spent years of their lives, almost always alone, with their sheep and their dogs and a horse or two. But also a voice for the land, how it was used, abused, restored, and how it is being utilized now primarily for recreation.

I started this book because the places I like to go best have always had sheep and sheepherders.  From the mountain high country in the summer, above the old mining roads and wagon roads into federally protected wilderness areas of meadows, peaks, and the beginnings of rivers, to stark, steep canyons in winter with rocky trails, Indian rice grass, and thin, green ribbons of riparian areas. 

For outdoor education or outdoor recreation programs, the apex of weeks outdoors is a few days’ solo experience—alone with one’s thoughts, fears, strengths, joys, and weaknesses. Yet think of the months and even years sheepherders not only spent time alone, but spent time faithfully guarding their flocks, knowing each ewe and their lambs, always alert for cunning coyotes that would steal a sheep or two or worse, a bear at night that could wade into a flock and kill a dozen ewes and lambs with the brute swipe of a paw. 

Author Andrew Gulliford.

Imagine that instant panic when dusky grouse explode off the ground and fly up into tall pines. One herder with grouse nearby his camp carved Mucho Gallinas Aqui or “many chickens here.”  Of course, the herders and camptenders would arrive once every five or seven days to bring supplies, but still those were hours and hours alone and sometimes ghosts in the forest. Certainly there are stories. Sheepherder lore drifts and settles like mist rising off a mountain stream at dawn. Tales on the Routt National Forest reverberate of a place named Dead Mexican Gulch where a herder paid the price of being too successful in a poker game and was killed by avenging losers who followed him back to camp. It’s marked on the forest map with the symbol of a grave.

How many sheepherder graves are out there? How many herders died struck by lightning or from a bad fall off a horse?  One mesa has a unique rock alignment that appears to be in the shape of a horse. Perhaps a horse died and the herder buried it and covered it with stones out of love and respect.

On Snow Mesa near Creede, Colorado lightning killed a herder. Another died up Cotton Creek near Henderson Gulch in the Sangre de Cristos. A wooden cross with a design of intricate nails marks the spot on Hermosa Mesa near Rambouillet Park on the Rio Grande National Forest where a herder died from lightning. Taken by a storm. 

Near Ouray stories still remain of herders killing each other over an argument. On the Flat Tops a persistent tale has a Greek sheepman waiting until herders have worked for him for three years and then killing the men rather than pay them and send them home. 

The mountains, parks, and canyons have stories that modern hikers and backpackers never hear. Too busy. They move too fast often wearing headsets playing modern music. They fail to listen to the land, to hear the stories told by the wind at twilight as it moves up canyon or across a ridgetop as the first stars light the heavens.

On narrow mountain trails covered with willows and overgrowth I’ve seen aspen carvings with the standard template of a herder’s name, the date, his hometown or village. I have come across the occasional folk drawing of a house, a cabin, always with smoke drifting out of a chimney, symbol of a herder longing for a real home with four solid walls and a door instead of his wind-blown canvas tent. Walking miles on the East Fork of Williams Fork as it drains the White River Plateau, I’ve turned to backtrack on a trail and then seen what wasn’t there before. As the sun dips low late in the afternoon it can shine like a spotlight. There high on a tree was a hauntingly beautiful woman’s face. How could I have missed it? Who was she?

There are fewer and fewer sheep grazing Colorado’s public lands. Maybe I am writing a eulogy, or rather, a ewelogy. I try to understand the world of sheepherders and sheepmen in an ancient lifeway that began the history of the American West and now diminishes each year. Sheepmen blame predators.

“Used to be you could have a day in the country. Now the bears are taking sheep right off the truck,” laughs Joe Sperry who then gets serious and adds, “The predator thing is about to get us. Out of a band of 2,800 I’m now losing 200 a year. I could buy a brand new truck with what the predators take. Bears scatter the sheep then the coyotes come in. And I’ve got three lions on my range, too.”

“Coyote. He sees you before you see him,” relates sheepman Wayne Brown from the San Luis Valley. “That’s why you need the herder to keep the predators away.”   There will never be public lands sheep grazing without herders. In the high country, in the canyons, they often utilized the same trails that Native Americans used, and just like Native Americans, their signs on the land are minimal, yet worth looking for.  

So I’ll write the stories and seek the hidden histories of sheep and sheepherding. I’ll spend time in the archives, locating historical documents, reading old newspapers, finding personal accounts, but I’ll also walk the land, hike the trails, look for carved messages on aspens, on the wooden canvas. I’ll read the trees.

One of my favorite places to do that is the Groundhog Stock Driveway where sheep moved from the high country near Lizard Head Pass west towards lower country and Utah winter range.

“The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes” by Andrew Gulliford.

Imagine being an artist working alone in a grove of shimmering white aspens carving a portrait that you will never see. A full decade will pass before the design will appear, subtle, serene. Like the quick stroke of a skilled calligrapher drawing on parchment, the Hispanic carver leaves the gentlest mark for the tree to embrace. As the aspen grows the bark expands and the art appears like magic, but the artist never sees his work. Now, half a century later, the sheepherders are gone and soon the trees will fall, too.

Deep in the forests, beneath barren ridges but above the sides of creeks, stand elder aspen groves with thousands of carvings etched by sheepherders who passed through beside their bleating sheep. Carving symbols on trees is a cultural tradition vanishing along with the trees themselves, lost to drought, blight, and other unknown impacts that are decimating the West’s aspen forests. The issue is acute for Colorado, which grows half of the aspen trees in the Rocky Mountains.

Aspen trees tell stories. When we read the trees we glean a new understanding about the lonely lives of Basque and Hispanic herders, some from the Pyrenees in Spain and others from northern New Mexican villages or more lately from Peru. Among thousands of square miles on the Colorado Plateau, certain sections of aspen groves are covered with aspen art. In special places, herders and cowboys left messages for their companeros and created a sense of community.

On the Pine Piedra Stock Driveway at Beaver Meadows and Moonlick Park in the San Juan National Forest, where the trail begins to climb at the ecotone boundary between aspen and fir trees, the carving becomes profuse. Names on the trees include Trujillo, Montoya, Bates, Isgar, Aragon, Archuleta, Gonzalez, Sanchez, Jacquez, and Valdez. Herders bringing sheep from one grazing area to another and back again as the seasons changed moved north from Ignacio, Colorado, along Spring Creek on the edge of the HD Mountains and up Yellow Jacket Pass to Moonlick Park. They spent a few days resting sheep in the park and as the light played upon the aspen groves they left their marks. Inscriptions include the poignant “Thanks to God” and the high country Haiku by cowboy Jim Bates: NO LUCK, DAMN HORSES GONE! SNOW WALKING OUT DAMN!

Calligraphy decades old, and inscriptions in flowing script nestle among the aspens clawed by bears and rubbed by elk antlers. Proud of their literacy and the ability to write their names, herders carved who they were, where they were from, and the date they carved the tree so that other herders would know of them. Some herders added a subsequent date each succeeding year they herded to explain to anyone who read the trees that they had returned. They were back. Think of that continuity over time. Year after year to come to the same grove with the daughters and granddaughters of the sheep you trailed before.

Rival herders occasionally vandalized each other’s name. Carving categories included inscriptions; portraits of males with heads in profile and females from a frontal view; religious art like crucifixes and churches; poems; political slogans, and artistic expressions of mermaids, rifles, burros, sheep, maps, a flying saucer, and even a lifelike Elvis. Women were depicted artistically. “Aspen porn” became a significant subset as “a cultural form of expression” set back in groves “almost like a private gallery” notes one archaeologist whose favorite glyph read: VIDA INFERNAL, MAL VITAS SEAN LAS BORREGAS, or in English, INFERNAL LIFE. CURSED BY THE FEMALE SHEEP. One memorable contemporary carving is of a female forest ranger complete with badge and braids. 

The key to locating aspen carvings is to know the route herders took through the forest. In the 1940s these traditional routes were marked with yellow signs stating “stock driveways” to help herders who may have varied from year to year. Some of those signs can still be found.

On the Groundhog Trail near Dunton, Colorado, carvers competed not only to leave their name and date but to do so in exquisitely fine penmanship as they carved the smooth skin of the aspens. The best carvers used a light touch, a lover’s touch, to caress the trees as they remembered caressing their women so many months ago and miles away. Now decades later, the herders’ flourishes stand out in vivid, beautiful detail. The best carvers never gouged or cut but rather made a gentle scratch, a pinprick with the sharp point of a knife, and their ephemeral art lingers upon trees beginning to age and die.

This technique is one of the primary distinctions between historic aspen art and contemporary graffiti which, because of brutal gouges, can damage and even destroy trees. The ethic now for all forest campers and hikers should be to “leave no trace” and leave the trees alone.

In the summer of 1955, New Mexican Joe R. Martinez was one of the best carvers. Folk art is generally anonymous and speaks to members of a select community or group, but Joe’s style was unique and can be seen in marvelously simple cowboys with hats, women with hats, nudes, and other tableau. He was good and he signed his work. On July 2, 1955, he carved one of the most amazing images in the forest. 

A woman in profile wears a fancy feathered hat and below her, at the level of her chin, another woman appears, this one a crone. Somewhere Martinez may have spied this drawing in which the viewer is challenged to see both the well-dressed woman and the witch simultaneously.  It’s a figure/ground trick to see which image appears first, but in a sheepherder tradition is the crone really La Llorona in an amazing double portrait? Is this a herder’s version of the beautiful Hispanic seductress who lures men with her body but who is really a witch?

Statistical analysis from one national forest reveals that 75% of the carvings were inscriptions with names or initials, hometowns and dates; 5% were phrases or comments; and 20% were drawings in the category of nature, buildings, portraits, guns, and symbols, including crosses and hands, and erotica such as images of “Venus of the Forest.”  

Who knows how many carvings are yet to be found? With a light touch and a sharp knife how many forest folk artists etched images as yet undiscovered? How many of those trees remain? Who will pass on stories from the sheep camps and share the sensory smells of sweet rosa de castilla (wild rose), paleo (wild mint), and meadows combed by wind just before a rain?

Now fewer and fewer bands of sheep munch on forest grasses and the herding tradition is declining as are stands of older aspens. Most of the men are gone now. They went back to their villages and small towns. On winter nights sitting in small kitchens, coffee in hand, they must have looked out their windows and thought of their trees—white in the moonlight, soft and silky to touch, silent except for the rhythmic rustling of leaves. They remembered the incessant bleating of their sheep and the way a herd moves through the forest slowly in a meadow and faster through the trees like a river flowing around rocks. Finally, the flock beds down for the night, circled by faithful herding dogs. 

Shepherds remembered their quiet evenings smoking, carving, dreaming of home. The trees remember. Now we must read the trees to glean and understand a Western tradition that’s almost gone. 

Buy “The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes” at BookBar.
Interview with “The Woolly West” author Andrew Gulliford.

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