For local historian Lee Nix, it all started with the arrowheads. That’s not surprising, because when he was a young boy in the early 1930s, the ancient projectile points littered the desert floor. Nix collected them along the creeks in North and South Willow Canyons, on trails, and even in his grandmother’s backyard in Grantsville. Growing up, herding duties on his father’s Tooele ranch provided ample opportunity to study the landscape and scour it for artifacts. Nix’s fascination with local indigenous cultures naturally progressed from there. Before long, the Tooele native was unearthing clay pots, coil-woven baskets, beads and other Native American relics.
“A lot of Indians roamed this part of the country,” Nix said, gazing across the vast collection of some 6,000 artifacts that he’s loaned to the Tooele Pioneer Museum.
Nix, 84, has a sharp wit, a firm handshake, and a curmudgeonly demeanor that melts away about a sentence into any conversation. A long-time member of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, he comes from rich pioneer stock. His great-grandfather, Thomas Nix, was one of Tooele’s earliest settlers. Relatives on his mother’s side settled Grantsville. But despite his pioneer heritage, Nix has always been most fascinated with Native American history, including Paleo-Indian and Desert Archaic cultures.
“These are the people I’m interested in,” he said, pointing to a display of clay pots that he and his wife, Delores, have discovered over the years.
Nix studied archaeology at the University of Utah in the 1940s with notable archaeologists Melvin Aikins and Jesse Jennings, both experts in the field of ancient Native American civilizations. But his aspirations for a professional career in archeology were trumped by practicality.
“I got married and started raising kids,” Nix said. “Going to school didn’t pay the bills.”
Nix ultimately left college for a job in the trucking industry, but the career change didn’t hinder his quest for knowledge. Nix continued exploring and hunting artifacts with Delores and their four children. He retired from the W.S. Hatch Trucking Company in 1995. Delores passed away in 2009.
Prior to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, which strictly regulated digging, Nix excavated numerous caves in the Tooele region. For sub-surface excavations, he employed a stratification method to document each site’s context. Nix has left the digging to professional archaeologists since 1979, but said he knows of many caves that remain unexcavated and even unknown.
Nix said his interest in Native American archaeology is driven by the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of what used to be.
“I find it incomprehensible in our present world that people could live in an era where they had to make their own livelihood from start to finish,” he said. “You take anybody — you, me, anybody today — and dump us in the desert without shoes and food and see how long we’d last. We’d be up a creek.”
The majority of the artifacts in the Nix collection are densely arranged in a small room on the museum’s main floor. They range from arrowhead displays to clothing fragments and primitive tools. A 10,000-year-old stone blade known as a clovis point is showcased on one end. On the opposite end there is a large buffalo skin robe, a large intact pot and an ancient bow drill used for making fire.
A personal tour of a historical collection by the collector himself is both rare and uniquely insightful. Nix can speak at length about each artifact in anthropological terms, but the backstories of how each item came into his possession makes the experience invaluable.
Nix is hesitant to give precise locations of his sites in the interest of protecting them.
The buffalo robe, which he discovered near Wendover, was a significant find. Rolled neatly inside the heavy skin were rolls of cordage made from local vegetation, a woven basket containing arrowhead preforms and a bundle of snares — a prehistoric survival kit. Archaeologists who have studied the bundle believe it was left by Desert Archaic peoples some five millennia ago.
The large pot displayed next to the robe was an accidental find. Nix discovered it during a pit stop along a highway near Kanab.
“I was tossing rocks at this boulder and it sounded hollow,” Nix said. “I went down there and kicked around it and it was that pot turned upside down. I rode with that pot down to Phoenix and back to Salt Lake.”
Nix discovered the ancient clovis points with mastodon and mammoth remains. He noted that all projectile points are not made equal. In fact, in Nix’s observation, the art did not improve over time.
“The Fremonts made a better arrowhead than the Goshutes or the Piutes,” he said.
Nix spends a good deal of time at the museum both as a caretaker and subject matter expert. And while federal and state laws now prohibit digging, surface hunting for arrowheads remains legal. Nix said he’s found around 100 within the last six months, though he admits they’re tougher to spot these days.
“A lot of people are hunting them,” he said. “I can go out where I used to find arrowheads and I find tracks all over.”
Nix said it’s difficult to choose which of his finds has been the most interesting.
“Each artifact is separate and different from every other artifact,” he said. “No two are ever alike. An arrowhead is as individual as your own penmanship or artwork.”
He found it equally difficult to choose a favorite artifact amongst the thousands, but eventually pointed to a display case containing woven basket fragments and an unassuming bundle of string.
“Here is a group of my favorites right here,” Nix said. “That’s a bundle of string. There must be a mile of string in there, and that’s all made out of milkweed.”
A bundle of string, an atlatl tip with intact sinew, a 10,000 year old spear blade — Nix considers each find to be significant. But significance, he stipulated, is in the eye of the beholder.
“Every time you find an artifact, it’s both interesting and surprising,” he said.