The Stampede Circle of Stones: Someone had a dream
The oldest known man-made archaeological structure in the Truckee region is the Stampede Valley Circle of Stones. What it was used for is a mystery in our modern times. The Circle of Stones is currently located in the Truckee Regional Park. A very detailed paper was done years ago by researcher Richard Schwartz of Berkeley. The circle was moved from the Stampede Valley just before the construction of the Stampede Dam flooded the valley. The circle was built by the Washoe or their predecessors, the Martis people, at an unknown date, but most likely between 500 and 1,000 years ago.Several scientific studies were done on the circle before it was relocated by a variety of experts. No conclusion was ever proven. The original site was on the north side of the Little Truckee River in a flat area of the Stampede Valley. It is 65 feet in diameter and has a 6-foot-wide entrance on the southwest side. It has five larger stones set in the middle.The early emigrants who passed through the area noted its presence while on their way west. The local ranchers who first settled the valleys of the Little Truckee River also were curious of its origins.Few cluesNo artifacts of modern man were found in the circle during archaeological excavations in the late 1960s. Local pioneer ranchers didn’t build it to corral cattle, as it was too short to contain any stock.A few artifacts related to the Martis culture that occupied the Truckee River Basin from about 4,000 to 1,500 years ago were found in or around the circle. They were made of local basalt and imported obsidian. They included points, knives, scrapers and choppers. Other similar artifacts have been located in the various small valleys of the Truckee River Basin.
The other areas of habitation are clearly marked by scattered fields of debris and rock chips, not found at the circle.One possibility that was explored was whether it was a fort. The Washoe had small villages, but were mostly a nomadic group traveling seasonally to wherever the food supply was best at each time of the year. They did have skirmishes with the neighboring Piute. The Washoe were a defensive group whereas the Piute was a more aggressive people.Mostly the issues surrounding conflicts were personal ones, not whole tribal warfare as western lore has us believe. The Washoe were reported to have built stone walls in other places to defend their villages from hostile tribes of Nevada and California. However, those were built on knolls or knobs on high ground, not in the bottom of a flat valley. The lack of evidence of habitation in and around the circle further indicates that the circle being a fort wasn’t a compelling explanation.Another theory investigated was the possibility of it being a ceremonial, dance or burial enclosure. The Washoe camped in a circle and held ball games in a circular space. These activities usually occurred in places that were heavily used and still have hundreds of artifacts surrounding them. But that wasn’t the case with the Stampede Circle. No other circles have been found in the Martis culture region matching this mysterious edifice.Washoe or Martis occupation A third possibility was that the circle was a house or dwelling of the Washoe or Martis peoples. The seasonal migrations probably would have led the groups to move to the Stampede Valley in the late summer or fall, after the fish migration in Truckee River had stopped. Hunting game, gathering pine nuts, grass seeds, roots and berries would have provided a reason for large gatherings of people to congregate for several weeks.
Many of these camps were used for generations and petroglyphs, or rock art, are very common surrounding these sites. A few petroglyphs were found in the Stampede Valley, but not in any great number. Evidence of fire within other campsites is also common, but lacking in the Stampede circle site. Little evidence of any wooden or brush cover for the circle was found, suggesting that another use was intended.Many of the assumptions that researchers of the 1960s made were based on their beliefs that the climate was fairly continuos. But we now know that climate fluctuations occurred that could have brought California Indians up to higher elevations for a period, displacing the Nevada cultures. So another culture on the move could have built the circle.The hunt for answers The fall hunt to provide meat for the long cold winters was a very important part of both cultures. Communal and individual hunts for mountain sheep, antelope, mule deer, rabbit and hare, were very common in the Truckee River Basin. One researcher felt that the strongest theory for the use of the circle was as a corral to trap antelope in a hunt. By adding a brush extension above the stone wall, antelope could have been lured or driven into the circle and speared. The spearing was needed as the bow and arrow was not available to the Martis.Local Washoe were reported to have said that it was for religious purposes, which would explain the lack of artifacts. They said it had always been there, indicating that it was far older than the Washoe. Other Western tribes had sacred circles that represented peace, birth and life. The five interior rocks represented the major planets. All major decisions were made in the circle. This has been the common theory in Truckee for the last several decades.Pioneer ranchers came to the Sardine and Stampede valleys in the late 1850s as the Henness Pass Road was in heavy use through the area from Nevada City to Virginia City. Jay Parsons, John Flickstien, John Woodward, Lou Hoke, the Perazzo brothers and others all saw the circle but left no record of their thoughts.
Later ranchers of the Payne family were very familiar with the Circle and had been interested in seeing it relocated from their private ranch land a decade before the construction of Stampede Reservoir. They had theories, similar to those above, but no hard answers.Relocation of the circle With the imminent flooding of Stampede Valley approaching, Truckee community members, with the leadership of the Truckee Donner Historical Society, asked for and received permission from the Bureau of Reclamation to relocate the circle. The Truckee Donner Recreation & Park District agreed to provide a location in regional park. In October of 1969, the circle was carefully documented and each stone was removed and replaced in the same orientation as the original. More than 60 Truckee volunteers participated in the relocation of more than 400 tons of rock.The current location of the historical circle is in the middle of the disc golf course (14th hole) overlooking the Truckee River in the northeast corner of Truckee River Regional Park.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com for more Truckee History. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You may leave a message at 530-582-0893. Previous “Echoes From The Past” columns are available in the archive at sierrasun.com.