Sacred Texts  Americana  Index  Previous  Next 

Coffee in the Gourd, ed. J. Frank Dobie [1923], at



    A pictograph is the graphical expression of thought without the use of words. Remains of crude picture writings by primitive man have been found all over the world. In the study of the Indian pictograph of North America, archeologists generally concede that little information of value regarding important points of aboriginal history can be obtained from rock carvings or paintings; that is, few such records preserve the story of ancient migrations or similar matters of real scientific importance. Although many records of great value exist, there is no likelihood of satisfactory interpretation of any save a few inscriptions concerning which tradition has kept the significance alive. It should not be supposed, however, that such pictographs as are described in this paper are mere idle scrawls. As a rule, the significance of such drawings applies to some event of temporary local importance, the full meaning of which was known only to those who had some knowledge of the thoughts portrayed. Nevertheless, as new records and investigations are continually being made, and as deeper studies of symbolism are developed, it is apparent that a careful record of all existing inscriptions is of great importance to this branch of archeology. In a recent letter to the writer, Mr. W. A. Dorsey, of the Smithsonian Institution, says: "It is desirable that further work be done in your region since many of the drawings in Southwest Texas are of deep import and have religious symbolism."

    In the search for evidences of Indian occupation in the Big Bend I have made forty-six successful trips, resulting in the location of sixty-five camp sites, shelter caves, fortifications, graves, etc. Inscriptions of some nature have been observed at fourteen of these locations. The usual position of the drawings found is about four feet from the ground on the walls of caves and on the faces of cliffs. A majority of the paintings are found on white "chalk" cliffs; yet many drawings have been found elsewhere. As is usually the case with known locations of former Indian habitation, there is water within a reasonable distance of each site. A few places that seem to show maps or directions are isolated; the others are near former camps or villages. All of the fourteen locations mentioned are situated along the Rio Grande in what is called the Big Bend Country of Texas. The character of this section is mountainous with accompanying valleys, mesas, peaks, canyons, and semi-arid plains. The many springs, caves, and rock shelters, the temperate climate, and the abundant wild life of this area made an ideal place for Indian habitation in limited numbers. To this day it abounds in game.

    The portion of Texas under discussion is placed by anthropologists in the Southwestern division, though there is evidence that the section was occupied by tribes of both the Southwestern and the Plains areas. For our immediate purpose it may be said that the Big Bend was an Apache country and was occupied for hundreds of years by that branch of the tribe known as the Mescaleros. 1 It is then to the Mescalero Apache that the drawings discussed in this paper are accredited, though research may in time reveal that some of the rock inscriptions antedate the Apache. Inroads were often made into the Apache territory by the Comanches from the east of the Pecos River. As Texas became settled by the whites these inroads on the more peaceful Apaches became more frequent, until the Davis and Chisos Mountains finally became the scene of the last stand of the remaining tribes on Texas soil. It was in 1870 that the last Indian tribe of any numerical importance was driven out of Texas.  2

    The state of preservation of all pictographs depends largely upon the material on which the drawings were made and upon their exposure to the weather. In the pictographs of the Big Bend country the colors vary from a dim, unintelligible smear to a tone of deep color value. Assuming that the brightest of these paintings could not have been drawn less than 100 years ago, it seems safe to conclude that the dim outlines (where exposure Is the same) are of much greater age. In some places the rock has weathered away in small flakes; in others a part of the cliff has broken off in huge chunks. Although these are conditions which have resulted in damage to the drawings, yet they indicate the advanced age of many of the pictographs. In places vandals have so multilated the specimens as to make the original of little value. It is inconceivable to me how a person can deliberately paint over these last remaining works of the aboriginal artist.

    As has been said, the date of the last Indian occupation of the Big Bend was 1870. The period between 1800  3 and 1870, however, was one of turbulent contest between the whites and the Indians. It is, therefore, my opinion that all the drawings observed were made prior to 1800. Since there is some evidence to show that there was a warlike tribe in the south of the Big Bend until 1660, my belief is that most of the drawings described were made during the fairly peaceful period between 1670 and 1780, though there is much evidence to show that a much earlier date than 1670 might be estimated if the permanence of the pigments is admitted or the possibility of renewal (on important drawings of religious significance) is granted. Again, no early date could be set for the rock inscriptions.  4

    A better index to the probable age of the pictographs is to be found in the internal evidence. Within the pictures themselves are several things that are of assistance to the investigator in determining the period of time to which the drawings belong. In all of the crude pictures there is an entire absence of firearms, all the weapons illustrated being stones, clubs, and spears. Guns could not have been in common use by the Indians prior to 1800 and our date here is upheld. In fact, if one cared to argue great antiquity, there is the distinct outline of a man in combat with a wild beast in which the only weapon appears to be a large rock. This drawing was found on the bottom of a boulder which required considerable effort to turn over and clean. There is a similar figure of a man fighting a beast with only a club (Fig. 1). These drawings indicate weapons of a most primitive nature unless the artist failed to record more modern weapons in his desire to picture great personal achievement.

    At only one location have figures been found which resemble a horse and rider (Fig. 2). The horse, however, was used by the Indian at a much earlier period than were firearms, as these animals were more easily stolen or traded for from the Spanish missions. In fact, history records missionary expeditions into the Southwest as early as 1542 and 1545. Regarding a similar project by Antonio De Espego in 1582, the record tells of many horses and mules being lost or stolen. This exploration of the Rio Grande country is said to have marked the beginning of the use of the horse by the Indian. The presence of the horse would, therefore, give a fairly accurate indication of the earliest possible date of these particular drawings.

Click to enlarge

    Another result of the early missionary expeditions may have been the introduction of the cross as a part of the drawings. Several forms of the cross have been found. The use of this design may have been pre-Columbian, however, as this figure had been in use for countless years before any Christian influence could have introduced it. In such cases the origin is found in the cardinal points of the compass, which were of much importance to the savage. Stars and other forms in nature may have been conventionalized into simple cross designs and have found their way into the decoration of pottery, weaving, and bead work with both symbolic and decorative intent. Figure 3 represents one of two drawings observed which have a distinct likeness to records elsewhere which experts have claimed show the influence of the early Catholic missions. This influence could easily have been felt in the Big Bend, as missions were established in Texas in 1717 and even before that missionary work had been done intermittently from 1544. In fact, history records a missionary journey down the Rio Grande from El Paso del Norte in 1683.

Click to enlarge

    Few, if any, additional influences of white civilization have been noticed. In the numerous drawings of the Dakota Winter Counts, Mallory records many such figures as the United States flag, forts, log huts, bearded men, soldiers, guns, hats, dogs, etc. As no such figures have been found in the Big Bend, the indication is again that the drawings are quite old.

    The drawings observed range in size from a spot that might have been made with the end of a man's finger to a full-sized drawing of the human figure. In general, however, the average size for the figure representing a man is about five by nine inches, and for that representing an animal five by eight inches. Geometrical figures often occupy larger areas according to the complexity of the drawing.

    About eighty per cent of the drawings found have been painted in a dull red color approaching maroon. Other colors found are black and orange, but these are rare.

    No chemical analysis of these color pigments has been made, but it is generally conceded by miners in the district that the Indians used cinnabar as the base for their paints. This mineral is found in many places in the West Texas mountains and is mined extensively today in Brewster County. The Indians are known to have used small stone mortars in the preparation of their paints. There is a good specimen of a small pestle in my own collection, and Professor Pearce, of the University of Texas, has several paint mortars in the University museum. Although no movable mortars have been found, many small pot holes have been observed which are suitable in size for the mixing of paints. Charcoal mixed with some fixative material was probably used for the black pigment, and some mineral, unknown to myself, was used for the orange and orange-yellow. Old settlers say that the Indians treasured paint minerals very highly and that a high rate of exchange was received for pigments traded.

    The permanence of mineral pigments, as well as the character of the drawings, assists in determining the genuineness of the work; a wet handkerchief will immediately detect any modern effort. Most of the paintings are located in isolated spots, which are difficult to find even by people familiar with the country and with directions for locating. The country is difficult to travel over and is thinly settled, houses often being from thirty to sixty miles apart. Moreover, a comparative study of genuine Indian work elsewhere leaves little doubt in my mind as to the genuineness of the Indian drawings here described.

    The only available means of interpreting these drawings has been by reference to the illustrated works of authorities who have made a study of such material. To this end I have examined several volumes in which pictographs are discussed and interpretations partially made. Many forms similar to those found in West Texas have also been found in New Mexico, Idaho, and California, though parallel figures might be cited from the neolithic drawings of any country on the globe. Interpretations of a symbolic nature are, therefore, uncertain except where a series of pictures may recount the story of a hunt or single event of interest to the artist.

Click to enlarge

    The American Indian developed an elaborate system of color symbolism. Little or no use of this system has been observed in the Big Bend. This omission is probably due to a lack of variety of colors and to the abundance of cinnabar. Elsewhere the Apache has used blue, white, black, and yellow to indicate north, south, east, and west.

    More prominent than the use of several colors is the conventionalized geometrical form. These forms are sometimes easily interpreted by reference to authorities and sometimes by the likeness of the symbol to the thing which it represents. Several such conventions which have been recorded are of the sun, the snake, lightning, water, a village, an enclosure, weapons, enumeration spots, etc. All such picture writing originated in the reproduction of articles just as the artist saw them. Certain objects, after use many times, grew somewhat standardized and became conventionalized. Other symbolic graphs which I have observed seem to represent men, birds, and a variety of quadrupeds. Figure 4 illustrates one group of geometrical forms.

    Among the two hundred odd drawings and inscriptions which I have examined, there is only one group which seems to tell a connected story. P. E. Goddard, in his interesting little book, The Indians of the Southwest, says that the Indians of the Southwest made expeditions north into the buffalo country and returned with dried buffalo meat wrapped in skins, thus providing meat for the winter. The group of pictures to which I have just referred, in a series of symbolic and pictorial drawings (See examples of these in Figs 5 to 10.) apparently recounts the story of such a hunting expedition. The first drawings which illustrate the story are a totem (the chief in charge of the hunting party), weapons, an enumeration of dots (the warriors), and symbols which indicate provisions. These illustrate the preparation for the hunt. The second chapter illustrates vividly the fight between the warriors and the buffaloes. Figure 7 shows the Indian with spear drawn back and the buffalo with head lowered and tail erect. Next comes a long enumeration of dots, one hundred and forty-eight, which might well represent the number of animals killed by twelve warriors during the hunting season. Trophies of the chase follow. These are a large pair of horns (measured with the extended arms of a man in much the same manner as we indicate the size of a fish caught), skins of animals, hams, and a conventionalization of dried meat. Next comes eight or nine feet of typical skyline which has been interpreted elsewhere in similar drawings to indicate a distance traveled over. The last drawings of the series are an interesting group and provide a suitable climax for the story. The central figure of this group is evidently a woman with her arms raised in supplication. She is attacked by a man with a huge club. Luckily the aboriginal artist did not leave the "damsel in distress" situation a hopeless one, for another figure (whose long hair indicates a chief) is hastening to the rescue and he, I trust, settled the difficulty in a manner satisfactory to all. It has been impossible to reproduce here but a few of the figures referred to and, of course, the relative spacing has not been preserved.

Click to enlarge

    Goddard also tells something of the myths by which the Southwestern Indian explained the creation of the world. He says in part:

    ... With these he killed a monster elk and many other evil things.

    "These myths vary in details according to the tribe and the individual who tells them."

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

    Among the Big Bend pictographs there is what may be a series of pictures illustrating this myth, though the details do not agree entirely with Goddard's account. There are life-sized figures with arms raised as if "supporting the sky"; there are several drawings of people and animals; there is the sketch of a human figure with the sun near his head; there is the "monster elk" if the size of the men near is compared with the size of the elk; and there are several contests with animals. It is especially probable that the rock inscriptions were inspired by religious zeal. for much time and laborious effort were required in their production.

Click to enlarge

    Some of the rock carvings and paintings are evidently maps intended to show the location of camp sites, trails, water, etc. There is in the Big Bend country an occasional indication of the direction taken by some passing tribe or hunting party. Ranchmen report piled and pointed stones used for this purpose. The well known device of the cross to indicate the cardinal points has already been mentioned.

    While I admit that such drawings as I have described will not yield information of great value, yet I think that careful records of such work are worth while because it represents a typical stage in the development of primitive people toward a higher culture. The step between barbarism and civilization is admittedly the invention of alphabetic writing. The first step in the invention of an alphabet was the drawing of objects and events as the artist actually saw them. Next came symbolic figures and drawings which represented syllable sounds, a series of which might make up a complex word. The final development was that of a symbol representing a yet smaller sound division-the letter.  5 Hence, as an indication of the Indian's progress toward a higher civilization, the study of his effort to express his thoughts in picture-writing is of value.

Click to enlarge

    Aside from the degree of culture represented by the pictographs, there are other values in such a study. For instance, the things illustrated were those which held the greatest interest to their authors. Again, since similar drawings are found in all parts of America and Europe, experts may, through comparison, accumulate enough data to throw light on important scientific matters not yet discovered. There is the possibility of determining the direction of migration through comparisons and the discovery of similar characters along a given route. It is further hoped that additional graphic evidence of the religious beliefs of the Southwestern Indian may grow out of further investigation in Texas. Should all of these conclusions regarding the ethnological value of the pictograph be false, there is still a great personal satisfaction in the examination and record of these crude beginnings of pictorial art.


1 "Mescal People" (Spanish), so-called from their custom of eating the mescal plant.

2 For the sake of brevity several footnotes referring to bibliography and history have been omitted. Reference is here made to any good history of colonial Texas and to the Ethnology Reports of the Smithsonian Institution.

3 The date of Nolan's expedition into Texas. This marked the beginning of interest in the real settlement of Texas by whites. Spanish missions prior to 1800 had little trouble with the Indians.

4 This paper deals primarily with paintings. Further investigations will be made of the rock inscriptions at a later date.

5 Tayler, Isaac. The History of the Alphabet.

Next: The Cowboy Dance By J. R. Craddock