The Tolar Petroglyphs site (48SW13775) is located east of Rock Springs, Wyoming. This Plains Biographic and Plains Ceremonial style site contains 33 petroglyph panels, of which 11 are recent Euro-American graffiti. Through comparison and study of the Tolar rock art motifs, in this paper we offer information as to who made the Tolar petroglyphs and when were they made. Regarding the authorship of the petroglyphs, they are sufficiently different to suggest that more than one cultural group is responsible for them. At the same time several images are likely contemporary and the work of a single cultural group, perhaps a single individual.

The Tolar site is located on a prominent land feature, a rock outcrop that is visible for a long distance (Figure 1). Petroglyphs in Wyoming and Montana are frequently found on unusual landmarks. This may be because these points of land serve as horizon markers for travelers who are moving across a large open and treeless area like the terrain to the east of the Tolar site. Or the rock outcrop of the Tolar site may reflect the recognition that prominent geological formations are special places where“the powers of the spirit world were manifested in the landscape itself, which acted as potent inspiration for sacred rituals and ceremonies” (Keyser and Klassen 2001:36).

The Tolar site images display a remarkable mastery of varied techniques of rock art manufacture including abrading, incising, pecking and painting. The petroglyphs represent a long tradition of panel manufacture beginning with turtle and shield figure motifs continuing into the horse period. While the Tolar Petroglyphs site contains varied petroglyph panels, for the purposes of this paper we will focus on three related sets of figures—round-headed figures, horses and riders and bears. The extremely fine workmanship, especially in the horses and riders, is uncommon in the region. The subject matter is also unusual. While horses and riders are found at many other sites, there are no other recorded sites with large headed figures. Large headed anthropomorphs with tear streaked eyes, horned headdresses, situated adjacent to bears strongly imply a spiritual connotation for the figures.

The Tolar anthropomorphs are not engaged in recognizable action and seem too elaborate for the typical narrative scenes like the outcome of a battle that are commonly depicted in the Plains Biographic style. The large heads also make some figures appear to be non-realistic and related to supernatural experience rather than an everyday incident. The ladder-like design of their bodies enhances this spiritual connotation.

Thus we can probably conclude that the Tolar site served a ceremonial purpose. Positioned appropriately for a traveling war party, the site location has water, grazing for horses, and a vantage to watch for others that might be approaching. Plains Indian war parties frequently established rendezvous points where they met in advance of a raid, a place to wait while a small group of scouts went out to inspect the surroundings and locate Euro American travelers or villages of Indians to raid. A medicine man commonly remained at the rendezvous to seek spiritual guidance and support for the mission. The Tolar site location is a good location for such a rendezvous and the petroglyphs may reflect this use of the site.

Estimating the age of the Tolar petroglyphs

The sandstone outcrop of the Tolar site is highly friable with many broken and eroded surfaces. The soft rock erodes so rapidly that petroglyphs cannot survive long except in protected circumstances. This suggests that most of the petroglyphs were made in the past 500 years or since AD 1500. Other factors support this estimate and actually help refine the age of some panels. Some of the petroglyphs may be 500 years old, but those with horses and riders were made after AD 1690 when the first horses reached the region.

This offers a good beginning point in establishing the age of the site. Some figures may be older than the horses, but most were likely made after between AD 1690 and 1862. Two factors further indicate that the site may date to the earlier part of this time frame: the presence of shield-bearing warriors that visibly match the horses in age and the absence of guns. The shield-bearing warrior motif was primarily made in pre-horse times. Their presence in the scenes at Tolar suggests they are still in use indicating a time early in the post-horse era or circa AD 1720. Guns were in fairly widespread use on the northern Plains by AD 1820. Their absence at Tolar suggests an age for the horse scenes that pre-dates this time. These factors suggest an age between circa AD 1720 to 1820 for the main panels at the site.

When trying to establish a terminal age for the site, we consider the increased Euro-American use of the trails through the region. The Overland Trail, which passes within a few hundred meters of the Tolar site, was established during the Civil War. The trail was the preferred route to the Oregon Territory after AD 1862 (Figure 2). The Tolar site would have been less desirable for camping in the post-Overland Trail years, because the stage stop keepers and the emigrants using the trail and would have used up the available water and grass.

Considerable evidence of former historic Euro-American use of the Tolar site still exists. Initials and dates left on or near the petroglyphs, dated to the late 1800's with a few examples from the 1900's, coincide with the period that the nearby Almond Stage station was in operation on the Overland Trail in the 1860s. The signatures and dates are likely from the stage workers or travelers (Figure 3).

While some of the non-EuroAmerican petroglyphs may post date the Overland Trail, the location was not a popular place for Indians to camp after the building of the stage stop. Note, for example, in 1862, the Bannock and Shoshone were at war with the Americans when they:


Went on the warpath by striking simultaneously at every station between Platte and Bear rivers. In a swift, well-planned stroke, they paralyzed all communication on the Overland Trail. The Overland Stage drivers, station attendants, and guards—caught completely by surprise—allowed them to capture every horse and mule belonging to the company through their country. Stages, with their passengers, and wagons, heavily loaded, were left standing on the road where the Indians took their toll in horses and mules [Trenholm and Carley 1964:190].


It is doubtful that Indians would camp near Tolar, while they were engaged in this kind of raiding.

To summarize, the petroglyphs at Tolar site postdate AD 1500 and those associated with the horses, the figures riding the horses, or similar figures associated with the horses, were certainly made after AD 1690. Extensive use of the region by Euro-Americans suggests, although not conclusively, that the petroglyphs predate AD 1862.

Indian groups in the Tolar region

Throughout the post horse period the Tolar site, with a major trail adjacent to it, was witness to no less than twelve or fourteen different Indian nations. Of these, the Shoshone, Ute and Comanche, allied at times and related through a common language, were the most frequent in the area. Before the horse as well as after the horse, the Tolar region was recognized as Shoshone territory. This did not keep others out, however, and Crow, Bannock, Blackfeet, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lakota, Flathead, Pend Oreille, and possibly Nez Perce and Navajo traveled through the region.

Trade was well established in prehistoric western America, carried out along well-established trails and through trading networks that had operated for centuries. In northern America the major trade markets were between the villages along the Missouri River to the east (Mandan and Hidatsa) and the villages at the Dalles on the Columbia River to the west (Wishram and Washoe). Peripheral trade for goods to supply these major markets was essential.

One important secondary trade center, hosted by the Shoshone, took place in May or June in western Wyoming. Known as the Shoshone rendezvous, the event took place on the Green River, where there was good access for the traveling traders (Ewers 1954; Wood 1980). Items in the trade pattern included garden products and Knife River Flint from the east; dried salmon, fish oil, dentalium shells from the north west; buckskin, buckskin clothing, elk hides, Navajo blankets, and olivella shells from the southwest. The Shoshone themselves supplied obsidian, horn bows, dried camas and other dried root vegetables to the rendezvous. Horses and Euro-American trade goods rapidly became an important part of this exchange network.

Horses in the Tolar region

Horses offered a tremendous advantage for hunting large ungulates especially buffalo, in open areas. Horses were so popular that some Shoshone groups moved south, shortly after they obtained their first horses, positioning themselves closer to the Spanish colonies in New Mexico that had ample numbers of horses. By the early 1700s these Shoshone were so common in the south the Spanish were identifying them by a new name, Comanche. The origin of this name is obscure, but the reality of the Comanche on the southern Plains is not. Population estimates indicate in the early 1700s as many as 10,000 Shoshone left Wyoming to become Comanche and this number may have doubled by the end of the 18th century.

Throughout the first three decades of the 18th century these Comanche were allied with the Utes (Kavanagh 1996:68, 2001). In this alliance the Ute and Comanche fought with the Plains Apache to gain control of the southern Plains. From this new territory they staged raids into Mexico and New Mexico where they found ample horses to take to Wyoming to trade to their former relatives.

After 1700 when horses were introduced to the Tolar region, they rapidly became a popular rock art motif. Early examples of horses and riders show the shield-bearing warrior, a typical pedestrian figure, sitting askance on the horses back. In some of these early examples it is clear that the person doing the drawings was struggling to identify and adequately depict the horse, an unfamiliar animal. Some of these early horses were protected by rawhide armor and this added to the confusion about what the horse looked like. Also, an apparent problem existed with placing the early shield-bearing warrior on the horse's back as his shield was too large to fit the proportions of the drawing. The drawings end up as a quadrupeds that looks as much like a cow moose with a large circular shield somewhere above its back, as it does a horse, (see Francis and Loendorf 2002:182).

The Tolar horses

A masterful petroglyph of horses and riders at the Tolar site offers the best evidence for the date of manufacture and authorship (Figure 4.). The maker of this skilled masterpiece probably lived after 1720, and most likely was a Comanche.

The Tolar horses appear too stylish for the early examples described above but in time, the depictions of horses improved. By the end of the 19th century very realistic rock art horses were made in Wyoming and Montana both by incising and by painting. Keyser and Klassen (2001:19) use drawings of horses on robes and ledger books to follow the evolutionary path of Plains Indian depictions of horses. Between 1720 and 1820, when it is suspected the Tolar petroglyph horses might have been made, the horses have rectangular bodies with long necks, sometimes arching with the mane showing, and small heads with ears. The horses have straight legs and hooked hooves. Riders are often shown full-view with their feet to either the back or front of the horse's body. They sometimes carry smaller shields and hold reins, but the horses do not have elaborate bridals, saddles or other equestrian gear that is common in the detailed drawings of horses after 1850.

There are ample numbers of rock art horses in Wyoming and elsewhere to compare with the two at the Tolar site, but a single drawing of a horse and rider is so strikingly similar it surpasses the others. Helen Schuster (1987:39) reached this conclusion after comparing the Tolar figures to horses and riders in Wyoming and Montana rock art sites and after reviewing the horses on painted buffalo robes and hides now housed in museums around the world. The similar horse is in a "Drawing made by a Comanche Indian" (Figure 5). Dr Edward Palmer collected it in Oklahoma Territory in 1868 (Greene 1997:45-47).

Both the horses and the warriors riding them have a distinct resemblance. The headdresses with thin, long horns oriented upward are similar on both figures. The paper drawing wears a trailing feather horned bonnet while the Tolar petroglyph appears to have fringe or hair around the base of its bonnet. This could indicate the hair on a buffalo horn headdress. The fringe or decoration is also found at the horn tips of the Tolar headdress. Both figures carry circular shields with radiating feathers. The shield of the paper figure is more prominent and displayed to the front of the rider while the Tolar one is to the rear of the rider (Figure 6.).

The paper example wears a long breechclout that flares away from his legs. The Tolar rider has short and apparently unfinished legs, although they could be hidden behind a cape or cloth armor. Long breechclouts with the trailing ends on the sides of the human figure are also found on another Comanche drawing done for Dr. Palmer (Greene 1997:49). The figure on paper holds a club or tomahawk in his left hand while the Tolar rider appears to hold a long thrusting lance. These Spanish-made lances were made of wood, fit together in segments to reach 10 to 12 foot lengths (Compare Figures 5, 7 and 9.).

The horses also share characteristics. Both have elongated bodies with relatively long necks and proportionally defined heads. The necks extend forward of the front shoulders rather than up as they often are on other Plains Indian drawings of horses. Both horses have hooked hooves. Although the legs on the Tolar example suggest movement both horses show the muscles of the upper legs. Both also have pinnate or feathered tails.

The trailing horse at Tolar is not as detailed, but its body shape resembles the front horse (Figure 7). The rider on the rear horse is quite different. It has a rectangular body that is correctly proportioned for the size of the horse. The upraised arms and hands are oversized but the striking attribute is the figure's large head with oversized horns protruding from it. This figure may represent some kind of medicine rather than a traditional biographic rock art warrior. The fact that it has no weapons and is associated with one of the bears supports this idea.

The Tolar bears

Petroglyph bears are found with the large head anthropomorphs at the Tolar site, but one is also associated with the trailing horse and rider. Because bears are so popular among the Ute, there is the possibility that they have a Ute connection at Tolar. Ute pictographs and petroglyphs of bears are more commonly shown in or near trees (McNeil ) and none of the Tolar examples is shown in trees nor are they executed in the typical pecking style of the Ute examples.

The bears at Tolar could represent the historical time when the Comanche and the Ute were allied, but bears are generally found in Plains Indian petroglyphs and pictographs. Grizzly bears and bear tracks are common on Sioux and Crow shields, where they represent the guardian spirits acquired in vision quests. The Kiowa, a Southern Plains tribe after 1825, had many associations with bears. A review of the ethnographic literature reveals a significant number of Kiowa were named after bears and they used bear images on shields, and painted tipis (Ewers 1978). Evidence regarding the popularity of bear images among the Comanche is not as readily found, but a more exhaustive review of the literature needs to be completed.

Grizzly bear power was prevalent among the Shoshone, but personal names like Standing Bear were not as common as among the Kiowa or the Sioux. This may reflect the Shoshone practice of naming children, about the time they could laugh, and not changing names throughout their lifetime (Shimkin 1947). Other Plains tribes were more inclined to change a person's name as it related to an event like an encounter with a bear or as the result of a vision. In any case, it is probably not unusual that a Comanche warrior would have had bear power and left the image near his petroglyph at the Tolar site.

The Tolar large, round head figures

Some of the human figures at the Tolar site share a number of attributes with each other and Comanche depictions of humans. The large round-headed figures, impressive human figures at Tolar, are the most notable among these. Even though most of the figures are pedestrian, the position of one on the trailing Tolar horse suggests that these anthropomorphs are contemporary with each other and with the horses. This idea is strengthened by the position of a bear near the horse-riding example and the bears adjacent to other anthropomorphs.

The figures have round heads with circular tear-streaked eyes and flat mouths. Bulbous ears made as half circles are found on three of them. Distinct horned headdresses occur on two; less well-defined horned headdresses are found three; and one appear to have no head gear. All have bent, upraised arms and hands with digits. The figure riding the horse has a rectangular abraded body, although its legs and feet are not displayed in its portion on the horse. Four have ladder-like bars across their bodies. Interestingly, one of the bears also has ladder-like bars across its body. The figures legs are bent slightly backward at the knees, and this allows them to look in profile from the waist down.


The lead rider in the Tolar site, carrying lances and a shield, is apparently outfitted for war. If the scene is not a narrative account of a battle, then perhaps the warrior visited the site to prepare for a battle. He may have fasted at the site and prayed for guidance and the success of his war party before they left on a raiding expedition.

Several factors suggest the individual was a Comanche male warrior. Foremost is the Comanche drawing Dr. E. B. Palmer collected in Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1868. A second drawing made by the Comanche, Yellow Wolf between 1852 and 1859, which contains not only a similar horse figure, but also a round-headed figure strengthens the case (Greene 1997:50). This figure has a diminutive rectangular-bodied horse depicted beneath the standing representation of Yellow Wolf (Figure 9.). The horse has zigzag reins like the horses at Tolar. The representation of Yellow Wolf wears a buffalo-horn headdress on an oversize head. Facial features are shown with tear-streaked eyes, in much the same fashion as the trailing Tolar figure. A long lance, with segments and weights like those in the Tolar panel, is thrust from Yellow Wolf to his adversary. There are guns in this Yellow Wolf drawing but as it is more recent, they should be expected.

The similarity between the drawings and the rock art figures is unmistakable. The drawings serve as strong support for the belief that a Comanche made the Tolar figures. There is other evidence as well. Horned and long trailing-feather war bonnets were worn by Plains Indians, as emblems of membership in warrior societies, but the Comanche were especially noted for horned headdresses made from the buffalo's head. Rollings writes:


“some warriors war a headdress made from the scalp of a buffalo's head. Comanche warriors cut away most of the hides from the buffalo head and scraped away most of the flesh, leaving only a portion of the wooly hair and horns. This wooly, horned buffalo hat was only worn when raiding and was only worn by the Comanche” [Rollings 1989:41-42].

The horned headdress worn by the lead rider at the Tolar site retains the wooly hair of a Comanche warrior's hat. If only Comanche wore these buffalo head war hats, the depiction of it at Tolar is strong supporting evidence for the warrior as a Comanche.

The long lances carried by the Tolar figure are another identifying attribute for a Comanche affiliation. Several different Plains tribes used long lances, but they were especially popular among the Comanche. The design of the Tolar lances suggest they may be actual Spanish lances that were made of hard wood, put together in segments, and weighted for balance. While any tribe could have traded to obtain Spanish lances, the Comanche were best positioned to trade for them through their New Mexico contacts. Apparently feathered shields with the feathers radiating away from the outer perimeter of the shield represent another Comanche signature. The lead rider at the Tolar site carries such a shield, as does the rider in the Palmer drawing.

The viewer who makes a tribal identification for the lead horse and rider at Tolar would have seen the feathered shield, the lance and the buffalo horn headdress as distinctive Comanche attributes that coalesce into tribal identity. Not all of the attributes need to be present to make the identification. In the Palmer paper drawing, the rider carries a tomahawk and wears a long trailing feather war bonnet. Rollings (1989:41) indicates that the Comanche adopted the wearing of long trailing feather bonnets after moving onto the reservation. Feathers had no special meaning to them in pre-reservation times and were not used for special decoration.

To sum up, the Tolar site is located in a strategic position for travelers attending the southwestern Wyoming's centuries old Shoshone trading rendezvous. Indians from many different locations attended the Shoshone rendezvous. By the mid-1700's the Comanche were bringing horses from the Southern Plains to the rendezvous. As with other Indian trade fairs, the Shoshone rendezvous was a time when different Indian tribes were friends during the trading but foes both before and after the trading fair. The main petroglyphs at the Tolar site are believed to represent Comanche warriors. Several of the figures may have been executed by a single warrior and related to seeking supernatural guidance in an impending raid.



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