The first thing you notice about working ranch sites in the arid west is their visibility, at a variety of levels. The sheer openness of western space can be daunting to an easterner’s eye: weather you can see coming for an hour before it arrives; lines of sight distances that stretch to the horizon. What this means for archaeologists is a constant, pervasive stretching of the relevant scale of analysis. Even if you weren’t inclined toward landscape approaches to begin with, you’d be inexorably drawn that way, just to make sense of what you were seeing and digging. For example, you can be excavating a trash pit at one ranch, and raise your eyes to see not just the neighboring house site a mile away, but the entire settlement system of a twelve x twenty-mile valley floor, at a glance.
Visibility in western ranching sites is also an archaeological visibility: preservation here is dramatic, and it pushes excavators to radically expand what counts as material data. For instance, you can see the entire valley settlement system because, in the arid environment, the presence of trees means the presence of people, at least at some point in the past. So the cottonwoods and imported Italian poplars that ring old homestead sites are artifacts, as are the relic fence posts, the trampled bare ground of abandoned corrals, the rutted scars of old wagon roads, and the myriad ditches, gates, dams, and flumes that channeled the western rancher’s most prized possession: water. Trash from a camp tossed into the brush over a hundred years ago looks like it could have come from last week’s meal. Even in the fire-prone areas, standing structures of a wide variety of functions can still be present, at least as scattered spars of lumber, crumbling stone walls, or dusty mounds of old adobe melting slowly into the sagebrush. So although the archaeological record of ranching can often be sparse, it is equally often marked by radically wide ranges of artifact types, and equally broad spatial scales.
While this plethora of artifact types and spatial scales can challenge our analytical approaches, it can also beguile us into a sense that the material record here is self-evident: that it is all visible, and what you see is what you get. But reality is far different, and it can take much longer to read from this wealth of data the complex systems of environmental manipulation, economic demand, and social networks that created this peculiarly diverse but attenuated material record. Perhaps the most useful strategy is to keep reminding yourself that what appears as fragmentary patches scattered ephemerally across this landscape were really articulated elements in an elaborate system.
Western ranching, for all its evocative romanticism in today’s world, was as much a feature of nineteenth-century expanding industrial capitalism as its eastern, urban counterparts. In much the same way that Don Hardesty has defined western mining sites in terms of “feature systems,” the ranching complex worked to sustain high levels of production in places that were often both environmentally marginal and economically isolated. The key to the system is in its grand spatial scale, and the key to archaeological analysis is to keep looking ever farther away from the initial test pit: the ranch’s water may come from four miles away through a series of ditches, and the house sited where it is because that location was optimum for the gravity flow. The property around a given ranch house may be relatively small, but the “ranch,” as a productive unit, included summer grazing lands miles away in the mountains, and hay lands for winter feed leased on the other side of the valley, where the water was better. Linking all these elements was a crazy-quilt of property relations, from squatting to tenancy to leasing to homesteading, and ultimately to large-scale corporate industrial cattle and sheep ranching, financed by speculation out of places like New York and London.
In much the same manner, consumption patterns on ranches have to be seen in terms of economic supply and individual choice that were structured more like what one might find at a lunar colony: sophisticated technology, fashionable, but oddly assorted goods and sporadic access to the market. Ever since William Adam’s work at Silcott, Washington, in the 1970s, this mosaic of choice and availability of goods has been the source of curiosity. Brand name bottles, labels on empty tin cans, and ceramics maker’s marks testify to access to markets by western ranchers in the nineteenth century, but the real connections to distant manufacturing centers ran through complex and ever-changing networks. Small towns and commercial outposts brokered the availability of mass-produced goods through an economy that was highly seasonal and chronically cash-poor. The differences between family- and corporate-owned ranches in this regard can very much mirror the differences between individual and other corporate living contexts of the industrializing nineteenth century: corporate ranch bunk houses can look a lot like the tenement residences of their eastern cousins, or the company-run camps of their western neighbors in the mining and timber industries. Understanding how these complex economic and inherently social networks defined western communities, and tied them into broader national networks, is an aspect of western sites study that is still largely in its infancy.