South Park’s first residents probably arrived 12,000 years ago, as suggested by the presence of typologically distinct Clovis points. This date coincides with the earliest human occupation of the Plains. Later Paleoindian occupations, lasting until about 7,500 years ago, are also present in South Park, again identified almost entirely by the discovery of distinctive projectile point styles on the surface of exposed archaeological sites. Throughout the Paleoindian period, South Park’s climate would have been cooler and wetter than today and the area’s fauna would have contained a number of now extinct species, including mammoth and a very large form of bison. It is likely that South Park’s first occupants focused much of their subsistence activity on hunting and that the area’s population density would have been relatively low.
Beginning about 7,500 years ago, as the area’s climate began to warm, new aboriginal life ways, projectile point styles, and migration patterns were introduced into South Park. These changes mark the beginning of the Archaic period, a long and relatively stable era of Native presence in South Park, lasting until about 150 CE (roughly 1,850 years ago). Though direct evidence of seasonality is lacking, there are indications that Archaic hunters and gatherers made their way to the Park in late summer/early fall and remained there for a few weeks at a time. Some favored locales were reoccupied as camp sites repeatedly, and both radiocarbon dates and diagnostic projectile point styles tell us that these repeated occupations occurred over several thousands of years. Archaic people made use of local quarries to make their stone tools and differences in these technologies within the Park suggest that groups with different sociocultural identities probably lived in South Park at the same time. It appears that one group migrated into the eastern reaches from the adjacent foothills of the Front Range, while another probably came to the southwestern reaches of the South Park out of the Arkansas River drainage, likely traveling through Trout Creek Pass.
Scholars place the arrival of Numic speakers on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains around 1000 CE. However, Ute oral tradition asserts a much older and deeper association with territory in today’s Colorado. The Ute, historically, were not highly organized but lived in loosely affiliated bands. The band that regularly occupied and hunted in South Park was the Taveewach, referred to today as Taviwach or Tabeguache, and is now a part of the Northern or Uintah Ute. Ute camps were primarily concentrated on the western edge of South Park, particularly along the forest drainages of the Mosquito Range, the edges of the grasslands, high mountain passes, and in the Buffalo Peaks area. In addition to being a fertile hunting ground for the Ute, South Park was an important “gathering” location for chert, used for arrowheads/spear points, and mica, used primarily for making signal mirrors.
The Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne are also known to have frequented South Park. The Spanish, in about 1630, were the first Europeans to have contact with the Ute, who soon acquired horses through trade or capture. Adoption of the horse significantly changed Ute culture because the tribe gained added mobility and increased contact with Plains Indians. Horses became an integral part of tribal status, wealth, and power. In 1863, the United States government began to forcibly push the Ute out of their ancestral land and onto reservations in Colorado and Utah. The final removal occurred in 1881, leaving no American Indian population in South Park. To hasten removal, the slaughter of bison was encouraged and in 1897 South Park’s last wild bison were killed. Over the last century, bison have been gradually reintroduced to Colorado. During the mid-1980s, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve reintroduced bison and, more recently, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge reintroduced a small, genetically pure herd. Several ranches within South Park are also successfully raising bison in response to the growing demand for bison steak and burgers.