Wednesday, June 3, 2009


"Don't Deface" - the bear, pictograph
Picketwire Canyon, Las Animas
County, Colorado.

At the time of his death Charles Darwin had in his correspondence files a letter that had accompanied a photograph of a Colorado pictograph. According to the on-line database of the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge, England, they were sent on May 24, 1874, by Lieut. George J. Anderson, of Fort Lyon, Colorado, The database entry refers to the letter, which describes the image as a “photograph of a ‘natural curiosity’, a bear apparently ‘painted’ with red iron on the face of a soft rock”. The letter itself forms part of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library, but the photograph has not been found.

I had found mention of this a number of years ago and was interested enough to pursue a search in an attempt to identify which bear image from southern Colorado this might be. During a subsequent conversation with Larry Loendorf we agreed that it might be the large Picketwire bear. This figure was prominent, had been discovered and publicized early on - its photograph had been printed in newspapers. Loendorf also pointed out that it was originally known as the “cinnamon bear” because rain runoff from the canyon rim had dyed it red with the red dust of the soil. This seems to match the description of it being “apparently ‘painted’ with red iron on the face of a soft rock”.

On May 13, 2009, I received from the Darwin Correspondence Project a transcription of the letter, which described the picture and its location. “The image is painted – as it were – on a perpendicular face of a very soft grey sandstone rock, about 40 feet from its base & 38 feet from its top, but may be easily reached – to the level of the bottom of the picture – by climbing over the dèbris at the foot of the bluff. . . . The coloring matter appears to be iron (probably Fe3O4) and penetrates the rock to a depth of more than ½ inch. . . . The image is in length, from nose to tail, about 8½ feet”. (This preliminary transcription has yet to be published in the Correspondence of Charles Darwin.)

Anderson’s description of the image size seems to fit that of the large Picketwire Bear and I know of no other bear pictograph in southeastern Colorado of that size, but its location is nothing like that described in the letter. The location of the large Picketwire Bear is basically just a little above the present ground surface on a slight slope. Unless we can be assured by a geomorphologist that the canyon bottom has been raised by nearly 40 feet (unlikely since the canyon bottom can be demonstrated to have been eroding deeper) since the creation of the pictograph, then I see no way to reconcile the present location of this bear with the described location. If we are lucky the original picture may some day be located in the Darwin archives: meanwhile the identity of the southeast Colorado bear pictograph sent to Charles Darwin remains a mystery.

I wish to extend an extra thank you to Rosemary Clarkson of the Darwin Correspondence Project for her generous assistance with my inquiry.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful mystery indeed! A stunning image.