The History of VEDAUWOO

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While it is believed that man was present in the southeastern quadrant of Wyoming for 15 to 20,000 years, fluted Clovis points (arrow heads) have been found in the general area of Laramie, indicating continuous, albeit scanty habitation about 11,000 years ago.  The presence of man in the region now known as the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest (including the Snowy Range, Sherman Mountains and Vedauwoo) stretches back about 8,000 years, based upon a few small archeological sites with unique stone knives and lanceolate points called "Cody Complexes".  These people were nomadic hunters, very dependent upon wandering large mammals for their existence.  As the weather trended towards more temperate conditions about 5,000 years ago, the plains and intermountain regions became more highly populated.  This seems to coincide with an upswing in short grass production on the high plains and consequently, influx of massive buffalo herds.

Despite rudimentary evidence indicating Spaniards may have been in the area earlier, French maps indicate trapping activities were occurring during the mid 1700's.  Euro-Americans began encroaching more heavily into the area in the early 1800's, primarily exploring for western passage through the mountains, and for exploiting natural resources. In 1843, Fremont (the pathfinder), proceeded up the South Platte to the eastern base of the Front Range in Colorado, turning north to Fort Laramie.  This route, known as the Overland Trail, was heavily used from about 1860 to 1880.  It followed modern Colorado Highway 287 straight north from LaPorte, Colorado to Laramie, bypassing Vedauwoo to the west.  While principal trade and migratory routes (like the Overland Trail) skirted Vedauwoo, the railroad did not.  The Union Pacific Railroad was the chief catalyst in opening the Medicine Bow region to exploration and settlement in the mid to late 1860's.  Fort Buford, Sherman, Laramie City and other small settlements sprang up as the line advanced westward.  Vedauwoo, then known by some as "Skull Rocks", was completely denuded of forestation by tiehacks, later to be reforested by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's.  The Ames Monument, which can be seen on the plains to the south from Vedauwoo, was built to commemorate the highest point on the line.  Despite indian attacks, bad weather, engineering problems and logistical setbacks, the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.

Following widespread tribal migrations in the eighteenth century, the major Indian tribes using the general area were the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux, Shoshone and Ute.  Territorial claims by these various tribes were often exaggerated, overlapping and never secured by sustained use or warfare.  Certainly up through the late 1800's, the Medicine Bow region was well known for hunting, raiding and trading and it was generally thought of as Arapaho and Cheyenne territory.  There is local belief that the 'Vedauwoo Rocks' were held as a sacred area by these Indians who thought that the 'sacred' was not abstract and distant, but alive in every facet of nature.  The 'sacred' could manifest itself through natural forces like thunder, wind, sun and moon, as well as through natural beings like the bear, antelope and eagle.  Vedauwoo may have been a site of "vision quests", spiritualistic rituals of coming manhood, by young braves of these tribes.

The first transcontinental highway was proposed in 1912 by Carl Fisher, President of Prest-O-Lite Corporation, more as a publicity scheme than anything else.  His company had just designed ingenious gas headlamps for automobiles.  The cause was taken up by Henry Joy, President of Packard Motor Company, who proposed the name "Lincoln Highway".  A road 3500 miles long was carved out from New York to San Francisco and in 1919, Dwight D. Eisenhower, fresh out of West Point, accompanied a makeshift caravan of adventurers on the first trip.  Obviously, the road bore no resemblance to the modern freeway, US Interstate 80, we know it as today.  In more remote and unsettled sections of the country, it dwindled down to almost nothing but a thread of bare dirt disappearing off into the sagebrush.  The road came right through southeastern Wyoming, its highest point being Sherman Hill near Vedauwoo.  [ The photo at right shows the highway near the 'summit' after considerable improvement over 15 years later.  The profile of Vedauwoo is clearly seen in the background. ]  This section of the road was the worst, wheels dropped off, tires disintegrated, radiators boiled over and axels cracked.  Strong arms had to drag vehicles out of deep mud and across unbridged rivers.  On the steepest grades near 'piles of strange rocks' (Vedauwoo?), gas tanks were so much lower than the carburetors, the whole caravan had to turn around and back up to get where they were going.  They camped right there, spent from physical exhaustion.  Despite 34 days of adversity, the enterprise was successful and the country began opening up to a new breed of adventuresome individuals.  Today there is a 48' high tower topped with a bust of Lincoln at 'The Summit' of Sherman Hill (5 miles west of Vedauwoo) commemorating the "Lincoln Memorial Highway".  Much more on the local history of this subject can be found HERE at this great resource .

Despite claims to the contrary, we DO KNOW where the name Vedauwoo comes from.  It is an anglicized version of the Arapahoe word "biito'o'wu".   The word came about through the interaction of Maybelle Land DeKay, (a Professor of English and Drama at the University of Wyoming in Laramie) and the Arapahoe Indians of the time - and it was used as the title of her play performed live at "Vedauwoo Glen"  three times between 1928 and 1931.  Ms. DeKay felt  strongly the Indians had first discovered the true spirit of the landscape and decided to give her play an Indian name.  She asked the Episcopal missionary John Roberts (an acquaintance who was living on the Wind River Reservation at the time) for an Indian word meaning 'earthborn'.  Roberts and Ms. DeKay thusly derived the word Vedauwoo from biito'o'wu.

According to Richard Moss, an authority on the Arapahoe language, "earth" is the denotative meaning of 'biito o wu', although it has the connotation of "earthborn" because Arapahoe cosmology dictates the earth is the source of all life.  Incidentally, some refer to Vedauwoo as meaning "earthborn spirit" - which is incorrect according to Moss.  Grammatically, this phrase is very different in Arapahoe: 'beniito'wuu betee'ouw ceebii'oot'.

More detail about Ms. Dekay's production is found HERE.  There are many hard references to the etymology of the word vedauwoo including past newspaper articles, playbills and books, 2 of which describe it in considerable detail (see for example Chapter 3, 'The Story of Vedauwoo -1924', in "History of Dramatics at the University of Wyoming", M. L. DeKay,  self-published, 1936 - now part of the Hebard Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming Archives).  Take a look at another such book covering the subject in the  MUSEUM.  It is also notable that railroad maps of the area relinquished the name Skull Rocks in favor of Vedauwoo Glen thereafter and maps and records of the Civilian Conservation Corps recorded the area as Vedauwoo Glenn in the 1930's.

By the mid 1930's, Vedauwoo had become a popular place for camping, picnics and other outdoor recreational activitiesWith the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, facilities were upgraded and campsites multiplied.  Following World War II, some (ex) members of the 10th Mountain Division registered for school at the University of Wyoming - for higher education and for the climbing available on the rocks at Vedauwoo and in the Snowy Range.  The 'Outing Club' was formed and members began pioneering assaults on the oddly shaped, yet challenging rock formations at vedauwoo and the shear rock faces near Medicine Bow Peak.  Records were kept starting in 1953(see the Summit Register in the 'Museum'), and names like Jerry Edwards, Rick Horn, Ray Jacquot, and Rich Baldwin became historic figureheads.  Peter Koedt's prescient development of the area called Fall Wall was remarkable.  The area still exists today as the single most popular climbing area at Vedauwoo.  As the number of routes continued to increase, Jim Halfpenny began keeping records of ascents and route topography.  Jim's first climbing guide entitled "Vedauwoo Climbing" (with co-author Jan Mathiesen) was self-published in 1966 and listed 33 climbs.  The second Halfpenny guidebook titled "A Climber's Guide to Southeastern Wyoming" (also with Mathiesen) came out in 1971.  It detailed 88 climbs in Vedauwoo and more in the surrounding areas.  Even at that time, Halfpenny indicated great difficulty in obtaining first ascent information, a problem that fires up continuous controversy even today.  [ The left photo is Jim Halfpenny in the late '60's, the right photo is Jim 'now' ('02). ]  Today, Jim resides in Gardiner, Montana, a teacher, businessman and avid outdoorsman.  Later, when the transition from aid climbing to free climbing was evolving, Layne Kopischka's series of guide books ('82, '87, '92) provided invaluable, up to date climbing information, although unfortunately, first ascent information was left out.  Kopishka (legendary 'Coach' and mentor of many young climbers) passed away in July of 1992 (an interesting short biography of Kopischka appeared in Outside Magazine, 12-'99).   At the time of Kopischka's last effort, there were approximately 220 climbs documented which were centered within Vedauwoo Glen, although considerable development had been taking place outside of the traditional area.  Recognizing this, as well as our combined 28 years of climbing experience at Vedauwoo, Rob Kelman and I dedicated (at least) the next year ('93) to writing a much more comprehensive guidebook, called Heel and Toe:  The Climbs of Greater Vedauwoo Wyoming.  Published in 1994, it was the first 'digitized' guidebook of it's kind and contained detailed information on over 500 climbs.  While primarily a climbing guide, it was also an informational resource for all recreational users of the area.

Today, Vedauwoo is under the jurisdiction of the National Forest Service and is part of the Medicine Bow - Routt National ForestIt is designated as a semiprimitive area and enjoyed by a broad array of recreational users.  It remains a place of inherent natural beauty and mystery, seemingly frozen in time, due in large part to its strange rock formations and pleasant, aesthetic valleys.  It is very near a principal transcontinental highway, I-80, and consequently, its pristine condition is becoming evermore threatened by the population explosion along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.



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