1. The Rocks
Rocks are unimaginably old, and the same is true of rocks in the Panhandle of Texas. Those exposed along the Canadian River in Lake Meredith National Recreation Area are no exception. These rocks are the upper Permian beds and were put down in shallow tropical seas about 230 million years ago. Three rock sequences from the Permian are found in our area. These are the San Andreas formation, a series of red clays and shales interspersed with heavy beds of red sandstone and gray clays. They were formed at a time when the seas were moving onto the land, and then retreating; the sandstone being a near coastal environment and the clays and shales being deeper water sequences. The presence of the beds of gray clay tells of near catastrophes when due to floods on the nearby land, the ocean sediments were overlain by flood deposits caused by heavy rains onshore, and the life in the sea was temporarily set back. Above the San Andreas beds we find the Alibates dolomite and flint, which we will get to in a short while, as this is the subject of this volume. Above the Alibates, several other formations occur including the Dewey Lake Formation, formerly known as the Whitehorse Formation. This bed, like the San Andreas Formation continues to be a heavy red clay with sandstone ledges, indicating that after the Alibates beds were laid down, the environment returned to one similar to that in the San Andreas time. During the Permian Period, the first Conifers were present on land and the First Shark-like Fishes in the seas. Trilobites become extinct at the end of this period. Mammal-like Reptiles were abundant.
In the Lake Meredith - Alibates area, the most prominent beds are those of the Alibates Formation. In most areas, these form a dolostone outcrop similar to Limestone, but of a harder mineral known as dolomite which is a calcium-magnesium carbonate. Typical limestone is calcium carbonate and is much softer. Because of the hardness and the texture of the dolostone, it tends to be at the top of cliffs throughout the area. In many ways, it makes the scenery in the Canadian River Breaks - those rolling hills and steep cliff faces so typical of Lake Meredith and Alibates. Where the caprock has eroded away, the softer Permian clays are exposed to the elements and wash away at a rapid rate forming low hills, which in turn are set off from the flat area in the bed of the Canadian River.
Associated with the dolomite we find the Alibates Flint. As a matter of fact, both often occupy the same rock. The flint may range from small inclusions in the dolomite to a complete replacement product which has taken over and dominates the section. Wherever the dolomite is found, it is likely to have small amounts of flint within the stone. Only in the Bates Canyon area on the south side of the lake and in the Devil’s Canyon and Plum Creek areas on the north side of the lake has the entire dolomite layer been replaced by flint. Indeed, these hills on the north side were known long before those where the national monument is located, and were noted as the "Agate Bluffs" on maps of the Civil War period.
Flint is somewhat of a mystery. In some places silica - which is what flint is made from - is known to be formed by the shells of microscopic single-celled animals, but by no means is it always formed in this way. The mystery deepens when we realize that dolomite is likewise not well understood. We know it is formed in shallow tropical seas, much like those of the Bahamas of today, and that limestone must be formed first and either replaced by dolomite, or formed at the same time as the dolomite. It may all depend on what minerals are present in the water where the rocks form.
Another possibility is that the flint only formed after the rock had been thrust from the ocean bed and left on the hills in what is now the Texas Panhandle. Once the flint was in place, it was covered with other rocks, among them large deposits of sandstone - formed of quartz which could easily be the source of the silica for the flint.
Another mystery is why this particular rock should be called "flint" at all. Technically Alibates "flint" is a form of silica known as chert or agate. Agate is in turn a banded chalcedony. These rocks, all being quartz family minerals intergrade. True flint is a very dark rock which is translucent - that is it can let a small amount of light through if it is in thin sections. It is typical of Europe, but is not common in North America. Chert, on the other hand, is a lighter gray rock, which is opaque - no light can pass through, even in thin sections. The term "chalcedony" refers more to a crystal form with fibrous crystals and to a rock with white or gray coloration. Much of Alibates "flint" has some of these colors, but it appears to be unique in its many colors, bands, crystal forms, and distribution. It was originally called flint because of its use by native peoples in making tools and weapons. Perhaps it will retain the name, or in the future someone will resolve its true nature and it will be renamed. Many volumes already refer to it as "Alibates agate" or "Alibates chert."
Flint is a unique mineral. Being a quartz-family mineral, it breaks just like glass, but is harder than steel. These properties give it the necessary requirements to make it a good source of rock for making tools and weapons.
2. The Canadian River
The Lake Meredith National Recreation Area is located approximately 21 miles North of Amarillo near the center of the Panhandle of Texas. The park itself extends approximately 22 miles across portions of Potter, Moore, and Hutchinson counties. Physiographically, it is located on the High Plains north of the Llano Estacado, specifically along the Breaks created by the Canadian River as it meanders west-east across the Texas Panhandle. Lake Meredith National Recreation Area is located in the Canadian River Basin in the high plains of Texas. It is also in the Texas Panhandle, with Amarillo as the economic center of this region. Other nearby prominent towns include Borger, Dumas, Pampa, and Panhandle.
Lake Meredith has nearly 45,000 acres and Alibates about 1080 for a total of 46056.
The dominant Canadian River channel carries water eastward from headwaters in northeastern New Mexico supplemented by contributions from numerous spring-fed tributaries. Some of these streams maintain their flow undiminished through long seasons of drought, but in most places, as at Lake Meredith, dry seasons cause water in the uppermost courses to disappear in the sand before reaching the mouth of the river.
In the vicinity of Lake Meredith, springs supply most of the available water; shallow playas are present near the creek valley on the west side. Whatever large basins may once have extended were dissected by the river channel which maintains control of drainage locally. Lake Meredith is a man-made impoundment of the south fork of the Canadian River. The Canadian, with its main tributaries (the North Canadian, the Conchas, and the Ute Rivers) is the only continuous drainage which crosses the southern High Plains. The Canadian Valley thus must have provided the major prehistoric access route between the tall grass prairie-woodlands of Texas and Oklahoma and the Pecos and Rio Grande drainage systems of New Mexico.
The Canadian River Valley which runs west to east across the Texas Panhandle, separates the southern extension of the High Plains, known as the Llano Estacado, from the remaining portion of the High Plains to the north. The stratigraphic sequence in parts of the Canadian breaks is similar to and can be traced to the stratigraphic sequence along the Caprock Escarpment on the east edge of the Llano Estacado.
Though the Canadian River flows across the Texas Panhandle, it is not a satisfactory source of water. First of all, it doesn’t flow all year, and second, the quality is poor. The Kiowas called it the "Big Salt River" and would not drink out of it.
In contrast, there are a number of perennial springs which feed creeks all along the Canadian River. It is often at these springs or along the spring-fed creeks that we find the Plains Village Indians habitations. One of the most important is Big Blue Creek, named to separate it from Little Blue Creek to the north. Other important creeks in the central Texas Panhandle include Amarillo Creek, Tincup Creek, Bonita Creek, Chicken Creek, Coetas Creek, Mullinaw Creek, Mc Bride Creek, Bugbee Creek, Spring Canyon, and Big Creek. Creeks which are dry for most of the year include Plum Creek, Big Canyon, Devil’s Canyon, and Saddlehorse Canyon.
More about Creeks at Panhandle Nation Canyons and Creeks
3. Plants and Animals
What you see is not always what you get. The flora and fauna of the Texas Panhandle has changed drastically since prehistoric times. The decimation of the buffalo in the late 1800s followed by the introduction of cattle and barbed wire and the elimination of fire has allowed many exotic species both animal and plant to come into our area. Another drastic change has been the creation of Lake Meredith which drowned the Canadian River Valley in this area.
Plants and Plant Uses - Though we think of the Plains Indians, both historic and prehistoric as buffalo hunters, they also depended on many native plants for food stuffs. One item of food noted in some of the archeological reports is acorns. Oaks now exist both east and west from the central Panhandle, but are no longer extant in our area. The common oak is often called scrub oak, and is a low growing bush rather than a tree. Other plants which were used by indigenous peoples include sunflower, cattail, mesquite, yucca, juniper, wild onion, cottonwood, willows, hackberry, dock, smartweed, four-wing saltbush, currents, wild plum, chokecherry, doveweed, sumac, grape, prickly pear cactus, bush morning glory, horsemint, devil’s claw, buffalo gourd, sand sagebrush, thistle, coneflower, and broomweed.
Animals and Prehistoric Peoples
At Alibates ruins, bison, deer, and pronghorn were the most common food items. The Plains Village Indians were very selective in their meat, killing mostly female bison two to three years old. In addition to food items, tools were made out of the bones. Digging stick tips were made from the bison leg bone, and finer tools from the antelope and deer. In making bone awls from deer and/or antelope metatarsals and metacarpals, the procedure was to split the bone lengthwise, with four awls made from one bone, two from each end. They concentrated most of their hunting on bison. In terms of their meat diet, bison is so overwhelming (93.7%) that all the rest of the meat sources seem almost insignificant. Deer and antelope, nonetheless, provide considerably more meat to the diet than any of the other animals except bison.(Duffield)
The people who lived at Alibates ruins consumed a variety of animals, including water birds and turtles, though little use of fish is indicated from the remains. However, if they did like many modern fishermen and filleted their catch at the river, few bones would show up in the site.
Ducks were exploited, as were turtles. In some ruins in the area box turtles had numbers equivalent to bison, indicating easy access to this species.
4. Archeological Remains
Archeological objects have been found in many places in the Texas Panhandle and range in age from perhaps 13,000 years before present (BP) to historical cabins less than 100 years old. Of these, those which interest us most are the Plains Village Ruins and the Alibates Flint Quarries.
A Sequence of Cultures
Recent revisions in Radiocarbon dates have indicated that the earliest peoples in North America may go back at least 30,000 years, and that even the well-established Clovis Culture may have begun as early at 13,000 years ago. Two early excavations in our area tell of the Clovis Mammoth Hunters. The well-known Blackwater Draw site near Clovis New Mexico had at least 40% of the worked lithic material which resembled Alibates Flint. Closer, the Miami site in The Texas Panhandle was likely also to have had Alibates points.
Around 11,000 years ago, the Clovis People gave way to the Folsom Bison Hunters. These are likely the same people, just different prey species at a different time. The Giant Bison continued in existence until about 6500 years ago, when it too became extinct. Thus, the early Archaic Hunters had little to hunt, and their campsites are seldom located in our area.
By Middle and Late Archaic times, the hunters were back, but the giant fauna was gone; perhaps a result of the Altithermal or great drought. Archaic peoples used corner-notched dart points from one to three inches long, and remained in our area for two thousand years or more, hunting a number of animals which appear very nearly modern.
The NeoIndian period begins with the arrival of new technologies in the Texas Panhandle. These are the Bow and Arrow and Pottery. The Palo Duro Cultures appear to have come in from the American Southwest, and include thick brownware pottery and arrowpoints with deep corner notches. The Woodland Culture, from which developed the later Plains Village people had cord-roughened pottery and shallow corner-notched arrowpoints.
The Ruins - The ruins of the Plains Villagers range in age from 500 to 1000 years old. The people who built them were innovative in their design, and not hidebound by tradition. Some of the structures were built with rock slabs set on edge, others used vertical slabs in upper wall construction, and yet others used upright logs to form the walls. As houses are strictly women’s province, and usually belong to the female line, it is likely that the women designed these unique structures. Not only the form of the houses varied, but the size as well. Some houses were little more than five by five feet in size, or if oval, then six feet in diameter. The oval structures were often in "figure 8" design with two intersecting circles. Larger houses ranged up to 30 by 30 in size and often had attached or detached rooms associated with them. In some cases it seems that the houses were connected apartment-style in a line or a building block. These seemingly apartment complexes may in reality be cumulative buildings, beginning with a single unit, and either growing in size, or as one unit was worn out, building another either on top of the original or beside it. In a "typical" house - if such exists - there were walls of five or six feet in height, with a channel going from a crawlway entry through the house. In the channel there is usually a hearth or firepit about a foot in diameter composed of hardened clay or rock-lined. The channel was curbed along the edge, and the area above is referred to as a sleeping bench, making two benches in each dwelling. In the curbing we find support posts for the roof. Houses with the roof intact have not been found, but in the early stages of excavation, the roof fall complete with a smoke hole is often encountered. What is found is mud with impressions of sticks and bluestem grass and some roof timbers.
Near the rear of the house is a slightly elevated area which functioned as an altar. On an altar on the footprint site in Big Canyon there was a slab of dolomite on this altar and someone had pecked out two footprints on the slab. The Quarries - Seven Hundred and thirty four quarry pits have been counted within the boundaries of Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. Others are present on nearby land and still others across the river on private land above Plum Creek. Well over 1000 quarries have been discovered.
These were usually small excavations, five or six feet across, though some seem to have reached much larger sizes. Digging tools have not been found, but it is likely that tools similar to gardening tools were used to expose the flint, and then heavy hammerstones of Potter Chert were used to break off blades to fashion into knives and other tools. In other localities, deer antlers have been discovered in excavated flint quarries, probably used to pry loose fractured pieces of flint.
As in many sources of raw material, the finished product was not made at the quarry site. The final product of quarrying was a "trade blank" biface, shaped much like a chopper, but of economic importance in itself as it could be carried off and traded with other peoples. Caches of trade blanks have been recovered from localities around 100 miles from the quarries, indicating a large trade area for the bifaces alone.
Trade items included turquoise and obsidian from New Mexico, as well as painted pottery, sea shells from the gulf of Mexico and the sea of Cortez, and Catlinite or pipestone from Minnesota.
5. Historic Peoples: The Indians
Sometime before 1500, the Plains Village Indians left the Texas Panhandle, and became ancestors to some of the Pawnee or Wichita tribes to the east. The reason these people left our area, is unknown, but we can speculate. Archeological investigations reveal that there was conflicts along the Canadian River in prehistoric times. A site known as the Footprint Site in Big Canyon, located up the river and on the opposite bank shows evidence of disaster. Many people were killed here, and the remains strewn around the floor of one of the houses.
It would appear that the Apaches are the most likely adversaries at this time. The clues for this come from early Spanish records. When Coronado’s entrada came through the area in 1541, the tribes he encountered were likely the Apache. Later Spanish expeditions describe the Apaches as the most numerous nation in all the world. They were at the time of first contact, still on foot, but they did have a beast of burden - the dog. It has been estimated that a small dog could carry about fifty pounds and a larger dog up to seventy five pounds. In the Spring of 1598, they were loaded with a valuable product - yuccas. It is not clear what part of the "datil" was loaded on the dogs, but the flowers, fruit, and seeds are all edible, as are the roots, if properly prepared. Their movable houses were styled "tents" by the early Spanish travelers, but today we call them tipis. Much of their livelyhood came from the buffalo or bison, which the Spanish reported they shot at close range from trails near watering places along the Canadian River.
The Comanches were a Ute or Shoshoni people and before 1700 they were closely connected to the groups later called Bannocks and Snakes. In the early 1700s, The Comanches were living near the headwaters of the Arkansas River. They were known in New Mexico at this time as Koh-mahts and were allied with the Utes who were living between the Comanche and the Pueblos. The Lipan Apaches were on the headwaters of the Canadian, Colorado, Brazos, and Red Rivers. The Comanches weapons at this time consisted of the bow and arrow and a light lance which they threw with great skill in attacks.
In the New Mexico area, Apaches from the Texas Panhandle area were depopulating the area. By the late 1670s, the Piro towns, Senecu, and the Salinas district had been destroyed. (Hyde) The most important event took place when the Pueblos joined forces with the Apaches for the GREAT PUEBLO REVOLT of 1680. Thousands of horses were taken in this war, and the Apaches began distributing them Northward and Eastward from New Mexico.(Hyde)
The Comanches aquired horses from the Pueblo and Apache Indians, and from the French, guns of a better quality than the Spanish produced. They soon became the lords of the plains.
Coronado was the first of many Spanish explorers to come through the Texas Panhandle. Perhaps the most important was Juan de Onate, governor of New Mexico. This man is still hated by the Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona for his cruel treatment of their ancestors 400 years ago! Conquistadors were used to getting their way. They were members of the Spanish aristocracy and as such were commanders of men and often armies. The average Spanish settler, on the other hand was a peace-loving person who would just as soon not fight, unless attacked.
In 1836, Texas won its independence from Mexico and for ten years was a separate country. In truth, Texas never owned the Texas Panhandle while it was a nation, but only claimed it shortly prior to the Mexican War of 1846 as a power ploy. The Governor of New Mexico considered the present Texas Panhandle as part of his dominions, but the fact of the matter is that first the Apaches and then the Comanches owned the land, and the Spanish only claimed it. In 1840, in a battle called "The Council House Fight, the Comanches were betrayed by the Texans under Mirabeau B. Lamar, and many important leaders were killed virtually in cold blood in San Antonio. Forever after, Texas were soundly hated by the Comanches, and the feeling was mutual. Retaliatory expeditions were mounted by both sides in a 35 year war which cost many lives on each side, but never really settled things. Even after Texas became a state in the United States, the Comanches and their allies, the Kiowas attacked sites in Texas.
In 1846, Texas joined the United States. The United States inherited the Texan conflict with the Native Peoples. The United States had a unique solution to all Indian problems - put the Indians on reservations. Unfortunately, though tracts of land were set aside, few provisions were provided, and hunting was restricted. The various Indian tribes suffered, sometimes greatly, from this practice. In 1874, a series of battles, today called "The Red River Wars" broke out, mostly in response to poor relations with the Indians on the reservations in Oklahoma. Hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people fled the reservations in the hope of finding herds of bison on the plains in Northern Texas. Bison were very scarce by this time, and the Indians became disturbed by the lack of their food source. They attacked a hide camp near the walls of the old Fort Adobe built by the Bent-St. Verain trading company in the 1840s. This hide camp, known as "Adobe Walls" was poorly defended, but had thick walls which deflected the Indian gunfire and few died here, or in the ensuing "war" but this ended with the Indians confined to the reservation again, and once again poorly fed and clothed.
6. Your Visit to Alibates Today
From Amarillo, come north on Highway 136 past the Turkey Creek Gas Plant and turn left from the highway onto the Alibates/Cas Johnson Road. In about three miles, you will come to a Y intersection where you will take the right hand fork to the Alibates Contact Station where tours begin. If coming in from Borger or Sanford, take highway 136 at Fritch and go south six miles from the Fritch City Limits to the Alibates Cas Johnson Road. Toursare available by reservation only. Superintendent Lake Meredith National Recreation Area
P.O. Box 1460 Fritch, Texas 79036 Phone inquiries are made at (806) 857-3151 or (Fax) (806) 857- 2319
to the Alibates Flint Quarries:
Quarries in the modern world are often large open pits with heavy machinery to move the dirt. Visitors to Alibates Flint Quarries are amazed at the small size of the 734 pits within the monument boundaries. These pits range from five feet to as much as 20 or more feet in size and may have at times been between four and six feet deep. The flint or chert outcrops at the top of the ridges, but exposed flint is too weathered for tool-making, so the prehistoric peoples had to move up the bluff from the exposed outcrops to dig for better material. Quarrying may have begun near the points above the valley and worked upwards, like stair-steps to the upper layers. What sorts of digging implements the people used here is unknown, but large hammerstones of a heavy chert called Potter Chert have been found in the quarry area, some the size of bowling balls.
What remains of the walls in the Alibates Ruin area are very fragile. Much has already been destroyed due to excavation and erosion over the last 80 years. For these reasons, tours into the ruins are discouraged. Little is left to see, and many people are disappointed when they actually view the former living sites. Tours of the dwelling sites are no longer available.
to McBride Canyon:
McBride Canyon is available for tour groups, but these must be arranged in advance. Wildflower walks in the spring, bird walks in the summer, visits to the historic McBride half-dugout, and visits to prehistoric sites may all be scheduled.