White Sands Missile Range > Public Affairs > What´s Up at White Sands > Archaeology and historical sites


Included within the White Sands Missile Range boundaries are many prehistoric (Indian) archaeological sites and historical sites from the ranching and mining activities which preceded the military acquisition of the land in 1942. In addition, White Sands maintains two national historic landmarks: Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945 and Launch Complex 33 where America´s early missile and space developments began with German V-2 rocket launches.

All archaeological and historical sites (any physical remains of man´s activities up to 1950) are protected on the missile range. Federal law prohibits the collection of artifacts or disturbing sites in any way without a permit.

The National Historic Preservation Act requires White Sands to identify and protect these resources and to consult with historic preservation authorities before impacting any site.

Experts estimate there are about 100,000 prehistoric sites on the range, dating from 12,000 years ago to the 1800s. These sites include Paleoindian (the oldest), archaic hunters and gatherers, Jornada Mogollon agricultural villages and Apache sites. In addition, the Chiricahua Apache sacred mountain, Salinas Peak, is in the heart of the San Andres Mountains on the west boundary of White Sands.

The sites vary in size from small overnight camps in the sand dunes to large towns with adobe room blocks. Prehistoric picture galleries are found in the San Andres and Oscura mountain ranges.

The most common artifacts found are pottery and chipped stone. The pottery is generally a plain brown type and is always broken and fragmented. These pieces are all that remain of bowls, ollas and jars made by the Indians from 400 to 1400 AD.

The chipped stone pieces are the remnants from the manufacture of stone tools. They consist of pieces of sharp edged flint which come in a large variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Chipped stone was used in all prehistoric periods, beginning 12,000 years ago.

Other common indications of prehistoric sites on the missile range are clusters of burnt rock, grinding stones and mortar holes (conical holes ground into stone by generations of pounding).

In addition to the prehistoric sites, there are approximately 300 historic sites on White Sands Missile Range, ranging from Trinity Site National Landmark to the Spanish Salt Trail and salt gathering sites.

Although most of the Spanish settlement followed the Rio Grande, various military expeditions traveled through the Tularosa Valley. In addition, caravans of carretas, or ox carts, traveled the salt trail to gather salt which was important for the table and also to extract gold and silver and preserve foods. Remains of the trail and gathering sites can still be found on WSMR.

Most settlement of the valley took place between 1860 and 1900, mostly by ranchers and miners. Among the famous inhabitants of what is now WSMR was Pat Garrett who shot Billy the Kid and was later shot to death on the road to Las Cruces on Feb. 29, 1906. He was also involved with the investigation into the disappearance of Col. Albert Fountain and his son on Feb. 1, 1896. Their wagon was found near Chalk Hill, a small rise on the Las Cruces/Tularosa road. Although presumed murdered, their bodies were never found.

Miners combed the mountains looking for valuable metals including gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, as well as other minerals such as fluorite, talc and turquoise. Estey City, a copper mining town that flourished from 1904 to 1910, is one of the few ghost towns on the range. Investors poured money into the development only to discover there wasn´t enough ore to keep it going.

Eugene Rhodes, a famous Western writer, grew up in Rhodes Canyon. Most of his novels and stories are drawn from his experiences in the Tularosa Basin. He is buried in Rhodes Pass in the San Andres Mountains.

Because of the missile range´s military mission, access to archaeological and historic sites has been limited. The result of this protection is a unique national resource.

Many other areas on both public and private land have suffered from "pothunting," the uncontrolled collection and destruction of archaeological sites. Areas on public land next to the missile range´s boundary have actually been bladed and trenched with heavy equipment in an attempt to obtain saleable artifacts. In so doing, these looters probably destroyed more material than they recovered and they completely obliterated the evidence which might have told scientists how people lived in the desert a thousand years ago.

Although White Sands has not completely escaped some intrusion, most of the sites are in excellent condition and contain unmatched information about the past.

To comply with public law to protect and identify artifacts and sites, White Sands has a number of policies in place which must be followed by all range organizations and customers. Prior to any construction on range, training exercises or changes in use of land, a survey is required for cultural resources unless the area has already been surveyed to modern standards. In addition, every employee is charged with protecting these structures and artifacts which are part of our national heritage.

This page was last updated on 10/26/2018 2:23 PM