Panamint City Pictograph Shelter (Death Valley National Park)

Panamint City Pictograph Shelter

Panamint City Pictograph Shelter


High in the Panamint Mountains (6,302 ft) there was once a city of over 2,000 people; Panamint City was it’s name. The city was founded after a silver and copper discovery in 1872, becoming another overnight boom town. As with most 1800’s boom towns, it’s boom was short lived. Many blame the flood of 1876, which destroyed a majority of the town site, however others believe that the boom had ended prior and the mines had actually began to play out.  Either way, there is a fantastic story to be told about Panamint City; however that is a different article. I gave you this brief history of Panamint City for a reason, which you will soon fully understand.

There are many peculiar issues surrounding the Panamint City Pictograph Shelter, first and foremost, there are no historic records of this rock art site during the Panamint City boom. This is unusual considering the shelter would have been situated in the middle of a city of 2,000 people. For it to go undocumented with so many people surrounding it, it doesn’t make sense.  Also of interest is that there are no “historic markings” on the boulder nor the panel containing the designs. Early Euroamerican settlers were notorious for leaving their marks alongside Native American rock art sites.


Panamint City Pictograph Shelter

Panamint City Pictograph Shelter


Panamint City Pictograph Shelter - The horned white figure is thought to represent a long horned cattle.

Panamint City Pictograph Shelter – The horned white figure is thought to represent a long horned cattle.


An archeological dig has provided additional details about the shelters use during the mining era. Remains of several butchered animal carcasses had been uncovered in the shelter, the methods of butchering, as well as the type of animals, clearly point to Euroamerican settlers. Several broken colored glass bottles and cans from the late 1800’s were also removed. All of this indicates that the shelter was clearly used by the people of Panamint City.

The pictograph designs themselves bring up several additional questions. While the designs are clearly Coso style, they are eclectic in terms of subject and era. The “classic” Coso sheep design is well represented here, as well as hunters utilizing both atlatls and bow and arrow. There are also designs that clearly depict horse and rider; rider wearing a brimmed hat. Archeologist, Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel has also speculated that the central motif may be a representation of long horned cattle. The two types of weaponry, as well as the subject matters are many years apart.

There is clearly controversy which surrounds this pictograph site, some believe the pictographs to pre-date Panamint City, while others believe that evidence points to post. I am in no way shape or form an expert on rock art, I am merely an observer, a student if you will. From my observation, and the evidence that has been presented by various sources, I do believe that the panel of pictographs were painted post-Panamint City. I’ll even go a step further, providing my theory as to who painted the pictographs…


Panamint City Pictograph Shelter - Hunter with bow and arrow

Panamint City Pictograph Shelter – Hunter with bow and arrow


Panamint City Pictograph Shelter

Panamint City Pictograph Shelter


A group of Swiss farmers had developed a ranch a few miles from Panamint City, their intentions to grow food for the miners living in the city, which they did until the flood of 1878. Later, a Shoshone Indian, who grew up in Death Valley by the name of Hungry Bill was given the ranch as payment for his services in the Modac War. Hungry Bill lived on the ranch until his death in 1920. While it is only speculation on my part, I believe that it is very likely that Hungry Bill or possibly his brother Panamint Tom (who also lived at Hungry Bill’s Ranch for several years), may be the painters of the panel. But again, there is no proof of this, and this theory is completely speculation on my part.

Either way the Panamint City Pictograph shelter is an amazing site, it is considered to be the largest known Coso style pictograph panel. With it’s soot backdrop, the multicolored panel remains vivid and eye catching; telling tales that baffle us to this day.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.