Reproduction of Middle Terrace Pictographs from Falls Creek Cave (Ignacio 7-2A). Adapted from Daniels (1940).

by Dr. Bernard K. Means

One of the lesser known programs that funded archaeological excavations during the Great Depression was the National Youth Administration (NYA). NYA archaeology has been overshadowed by projects funded by its more prominent “cousin,” the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and its older “sibling” the Works Progress Administration (WPA). NYA was targeted to younger Americans, aged 16 to 24, because young workers were especially hard-hit by the Great Depression.  The larger WPA favored men with families, which was not the case for most of the young.  The young also were less likely to have much work experience, and thus were less attractive to employers.  The CCC was also targeted to the youths of America, but only allowed men to participate, required those men to live in camps that were usually far from home, and had a poor record with participation by non-whites.  The NYA was specifically formed, initially as part of the WPA, to address these issues, and gave young men and women the chance to work while staying at home—often making it possible for them to stay in or return to school.

Helen Sloan Daniels, who lived all but four years of her life in Durango, Colorado, made both minor and major contributions to the archaeology and ethnology of the area around her home town (  Here, I want to focus on her work from 1936 to 1940 with the Durango Public Library Museum Project, which employed shifting—and small—numbers of young men and women provided by the NYA.  As I have seen with others who conducted archaeology funded by New Deal programs, Daniels had a somewhat dry sense of humor that permeates her writing and reflects some of her frustrations.  Writing September 14, 1940, Daniels (1940) noted that only the typist was consistent on the project from payroll to payroll:

““This irregularity complicated the planning of the work, as I would plan for six and have only two report for work.  Ten boys were the allotment for the project written in August 1936, but ten were never assigned until I received that number in August 1936, but by summer time the usual four remained with the project…. I always grieved to lose each one [as new workers came on], for they left about the time I could begin to depend upon them.”

The young men and women that worked on the Durango Public Library Museum Project began their NYA work clearing and preparing a room in the library to serve as a museum of regional American Indian culture, both contemporary and that preserved in the archaeological record.

However, Daniels also began to survey archaeological sites in La Plata County, which includes Durango, and to excavate and document a few of these as well. Daniels ascribed to traditional field gender roles and only worked with young boys on the field projects:

“Labor for excavating the site [Ignacio 12:23] was secured through the co-operation of the Works Progress Administration, and the National Youth Administration.  Boys between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five whose families have been on relief, who are unemployed, and not attending school are eligible.  They are paid thirty-seven cents an hour from these funds and are allowed forty-four hours time each month” (Daniels 1940).

Only those sites actively threatened with development were excavated—and too few of those given the limited amount of time the NYA workers were available to her.  They also tried to save material recovered by the many New Deal-funded construction projects that took place in and around Durango:

“Had we ten boys assigned to us constantly we might have saved some of the material which was destroyed at Animas city as trenches were dug through mounds during the construction of the WPA Sewer Project or as they leveled the playground east of the PWA building of the new Emory Smiley Junior High School where the steam shovel leveled and destroyed another ruin.  Archaeology is an expensive occupation for they usually seek out of the way places with expensive transportation and difficult problems while doing the work.  Here we see sites destroyed daily by our attempts to make a modern city.  We could not stop the gravel pit, the highway crews, or the CCC Camps occupancy of prehistoric sites, and we salvaged what we could with the facilities at hand, compiling a generous record of the house forms, skeletal material and tools of early residents of the San Juan Basin.  With the newly discovered and constantly refined methods of wood reading [e.g. dendrochronology] we have more material that is definitely dated within this area than can be found in any comparative area of the southwestern United States.  Our responsibility remains now to develop in a scientific manner what remains before it also is destroyed in modern progress” (Daniels 1940).

Daniels actively worked with professionals on her project, consulting with them as she could.  She and her technical advisor, I. F. Flora, made a particular effort to recover material suitable for the then relatively new technique of dendrochronology (e.g. “tree-ring dating”).  Samples recovered by the NYA workers extended the local tree ring chronology back to 253 A.D.

Although her writings are a bit challenging to follow at times, and assumes a bit of knowledge upon the reader, I plan to highlight more of Helen Sloan Daniel’s work with NYA archaeology in the Durango area at a future date.


My greatest thanks go out to Donna Arment, Technical Services Librarian at the Durango Public Library, who quickly sent me a copy of Daniels (1940) shortly after I inquired about it.

Reference cited:

Daniels, Helen Sloan (1940)  Durango Public Library Museum Project of the Archaeology Department. Compiled by Helen Sloan Daniels.  Drawings by James G. Allen.  Drawings and Stencils by Mary Marquez and Pearl Oliver.  Typing by Mary Nestora Sena.  Durango Public Library Museum Project, National Youth Administration, Durango, Colorado.