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This hike description focuses on the presence of two sets of rock wall fences that cross the width of New River Mesa from north to south. The mystery is who built these rock fences and for what purpose. One set of walls is along the eastern edge of Big Spring Canyon. The other set is along the east rim of Robbers Roost Canyon and also drops down into that canyon. Most of these walls are visible on Google Earth, which was used to trace them with red and blue lines (GPS tracks) and downloaded to a HAZ map shown here. The fences were mostly built in segments between rock outcroppings and cliffs along the canyon sides, incorporating those natural features with the human-built segments to make a continuous fence. The approximate length of these continuous fences is 1.2 miles in Big Spring Canyon and 1.5 miles in Robbers Roost Canyon. There are also several fence segments in the northern part of Robbers Roost Canyon, separated by some distance with no natural barrier type features between segments.
There are two leading theories on the origin and purpose of these fences. 1) Early ranchers built them to restrict cattle (or sheep?) to a specific area, or 2) The ancient Indians built them to channel game so the animals could be more easily killed.
The Case for Rancher Built
The first cattle ranch in the New River area was the Triangle-Bar started in the 1870s by Charles Morton Mullen. This ranch passed through several owners, including Hosea Cline in 1895, who called it the Flying Y. New owners later started absorbing other ranches, and it came to be called the T Ranch, the largest in the area. The ranch was headquartered near the intersection of present-day HW17 and Table Mesa Road. (information from “New River (Images of America)” by Marcy J Miller, copyright 2016). I have found no historical records or old-timer recollections that indicate any of these ranches built those rock fences. However, I put forth the following speculations.
Early day ranches in Arizona utilized public lands, including New River Mesa, for open range cattle grazing with no fences. Cattle from neighboring ranches would often mix on these open ranges. Roundups to gather up the cows with new (not yet branded) calves were conducted annually, and ownership of the calves would be based on the brand of the mother. Unbranded cattle whose ownership could not be determined might have been divided up between cooperating neighboring ranches but also were sometimes taken and branded by whoever caught them. There were sometimes conflicts between neighboring ranches over rights to grazing areas and accusations of cattle rustling. So, it’s conceivable that an early rancher built these fences to stake out a self-claimed boundary for his range and as an attempt to keep his cattle from straying onto a range claimed by another ranch. If so, why wasn’t barbed wire used for the fences? Perhaps it was before railroads brought cheap barbed wire to the area. Or, perhaps the difficulty of transporting heavy wire to this remote mesa top and the lack of trees for making fence posts made the overabundant rocks the better building material?
The Tonto National Forest which encompasses New River Mesa was established in 1905. Previously in 1897, the newly formed Forest Service was authorized by Congress to regulate grazing and permit it as long as it didn’t injure forest growth. This started to put an end to unrestricted grazing of these lands. So, when Tonto NF was established, it may have started regulating grazing on the New River Mesa. These regulating actions may have led to the building of fences to divide permit areas. Again, why rock fences and not barbed wire? Maybe because rocks were cheaper, and it was at a time when labor was abundant and cheap.
Evidence for Rancher Built
Hikes to sections of these rock fences have found wire fences integrated into the rock sections in a few places. The rock wall at the head of Big Spring Canyon had an opening wide enough to drive a truck through. The remains of an old barbed wire gate lay on the ground in front of the opening. Two sections of rock fence on each side of the top of a point on the northwest side of the mesa had the remains of an old woven wire fence, which at one time had spanned the 550 ft gap between the rock sections. The southernmost section of the rock fence in Robbers Roost canyon crosses the canyon's bottom and ends against a cliff on the west side. There is a 10 ft wide gap in the wall where it crosses the stream. A short section of wire fence with wooden supports spans the gap. A wire fence starts at the top of the cliff above the end of the wall and continues for 0.4 miles to the south edge of the mesa overlooking the Cline Creek area. This fence has had repair work done within the last year, including cement anchored steel posts at several areas, so it is still an active fence.
The Case for Ancient Indian Built
First, to address the physical evidence of historical era wire fences found integrated with the rock fence: It’s possible that ranchers simply re-purposed rock walls built by the Indians and added the wire sections.
The ancients may have built these rock fences to channel wild game to waiting hunters or drive them over a cliff. Even animals that could easily jump or climb over the fence might follow the fence if they weren’t being pushed hard. Pronghorn antelope are very reluctant jumpers, so it would have been easier to drive along a fence. The fences' layout along the rim of the canyons would have facilitated driving animals northwest out to the tip of high cliff-lined narrow points where hunters waited. Not all the rock fence sections seem to fit this scenario, but enough do to make this plausible.
Evidence for Indian Built: I have not yet found archaeology reports suggesting that these walls were built by the Indians for game channeling but suspect they may exist. However, there is an abundance of evidence that the ancients frequented the mesa. Petroglyphs, imbedded rock metates, and pottery sherds have been found in several areas of the mesa top by HAZ members, including myself. Areas directly below the mesa, including Cave Creek, Cline Creek, and New River, have an abundance of habitation sites indicating a large population of meat-hungry Indians existed here 650 to 1000 years ago. Who wants to eat corn, beans, squash, agave roots, and mesquite beans all the time? What’s missing is evidence of dwellings on top of the mesa, but this may reinforce the game channeling wall theory. Dwellings would tend to scare animals away from the mesa top. Without dwellings, it would have become a refuge where the abundance of dwellings below drove animals.
It’s still a mystery.
Update Mar 18, 2018, I just received information from a former TNF Ranger who worked for 23 years as the range conservationist on the Cave Creek Ranger District, which includes New River Mesa. She has seen these rock walls. The old rancher she rode with told her they were built for sheep by Charley Cook (who Cook's Mesa was named for). Quoting her: "I know they are not prehistoric."
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Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.