Best Secret Keeper

Waldo Wilcox guarded the ruins of a lost civilization for more than 50 years. Now the secret is out.

By Robert F. Howe from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2005

Native American Culture

For nearly half a century, he kept quiet about the riches, telling hardly anyone outside his immediate family what was hidden in the isolated valley 160 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. When he discovered a new site, Wilcox would note its location — then just let things be. “I never dug nothing up,” he says. “Would you want someone digging up your mom and dad and throwing their bones around, just so they could see what they got with them in the grave?”

Now the secret of Range Creek is finally out. Ten years ago, forced by time to give up ranching, Wilcox, 81, sold his beef-cattle property in a deal that ultimately put the land in state hands. Thanks to Wilcox’s vigilance — and dogged silence — the 4,200-acre ranch is one huge, pristine archeological site, mostly untouched by the looters and treasure hunters who destroyed so much Native American history in the last 100 years.

In 2005, archeologists from Utah’s Division of State History and the University of Utah began to busily catalogue magnificent, previously unknown ruins on the property. What the scientists learned at Range Creek began to shed light on one of the greatest mysteries of Native American history — the fate of the Fremont culture, which had thrived in Utah for almost 1,000 years, then vanished virtually over-night in the 1300s.

The very existence of the Fremont did not come to light until the late 1920s, when a Harvard University expedition discovered evidence of an ancient people who settled along the Fremont River in southern Utah. Farmers and hunter-gatherers who arrived in the region at about 400 A.D., the Fremont lived in one-room homes dug into the earth and finished off with stacked-stone walls and roofs made of reeds and mud. Their distinctive granaries — mud-mortar structures in which they stored corn and grass seed — were tucked on ledges far above the valley floor, out of reach of marauders from other cultures. Carbon dating of corncobs found on the Wilcox ranch hint that Range Creek was buzzing with activity from roughly 900 to 1100 A.D.

But right around the beginning of the 14th century, some great shift occurred. The drawings, pottery and structures particular to the Fremont culture ceased to be made — anywhere. Some experts guess that other peoples pushed out the Fremont. Others speculate that some cataclysmic geological or climatic event forced the Fremont to move south, where they may have integrated with other tribes. “There are lots of theories, but we don’t really know what happened,” Jones says. “This property may help us piece all that together.”

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