Dr. James Aton

January 17, 2019
The Great Hall

Reflection | Podcast | VideoPhotos

The Crimson Cowboys: The Remarkable Odyssey of the 1931 Clafin-Emerson Expedition

James M. Aton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1949 and was educated there in Catholic schools. He received a B.A. in English from Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL, in 1971; an M.A. in English from the University of Kentucky in 1977; and a Ph.D. in American Literature from Ohio University in 1981. He has taught in the Department of English at SUU since 1980, where he is Professor of English. He teaches classes in Writing, Mythology, American Studies, and Continental European Literature.

Aton has twice been a Visiting Fulbright Scholar in American Studies, first in 1989-90 at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and second in 1997-98 at Sichuan University in Chengdu, Peoples Republic of China.

Aton has published articles on environmental history in Utah Historical Quarterly, Western American Literature, South Dakota Review, and Southwest Art. He has presented the SUU Distinguished Faculty Lecture three times, most recently in September 2009. His monograph, John Wesley Powell, appeared as part of the Boise State University's Western Writers Series. His book with Robert S. McPherson, River Flowing from the Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan, was finalist for the 2000 Utah Book Award in non-fiction and was awarded the 2000 Norris and Carol Hundley Award for "best book on any historical subject" from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association. His book with photographer Dan Miller, The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green, appeared in May 2009; it was a finalist for the 2009 Utah Book Award in non fiction. In January 2010 the University of Utah Press published his book, John Wesley Powell: His Life and Legacy. He has produced two films, Jimmie Jones: Redrock Painter (with Jon M. Smith) and Voices of Desolation Canyon (with Jennifer Little). He has received two N E H Summer Seminar Grants. His book, Jim Jones: The San Blas Years, was published by SUU Press in 2013. His biography, The Art and Life of Jimmie Jones: Landscape Artist of the Canyon Country, appeared in fall 2015 from Gibbs Smith Books. It has won two awards: "The 2015 Evans Handcart Award" for biography and "The 2016 15 Bytes Book Award for Art."

Aton is married to Carrie Trenholm, a fused glass artist and formerly the Beverly Taylor Sorensen Endowed Chair of Art Education at SUU. He is the father of Jennifer Aton Parietti, a registered dietitian at Seattle Children's Hospital. He is an avid river runner, skier, hiker, and backpacker.



Kicking off the spring 2019 season of A.P.E.X. Events, Professor James M. Aton delivered the Distinguished Faculty Honors Lecture, a tradition at SUU since 1983. This is the fourth time Aton has received this honor.

For his lecture, Aton relayed the story of the The 1931 Claflin-Emerson Expedition in northeastern Utah. This was the longest archaeological expedition in U.S. history, and it explored Tavaputs Plateau, located between modern-day Green River and Vernal.

The expedition lasted from July to September, and although hundreds of pages of notes, photos, and artifacts were collected from the journey, a report was never written. Aton had to sort through all of this information, stored at the Peabody Museum on Harvard's campus to write the report.

Aton detailed the perilous journey, including how few of the sites in Chandler Creek were investigated because the priority was analyzing Hill Creek. Along the way, the cowboys discovered a number of towers which were likely used for defense; the largest of which stood at 20 feet tall.

Seventeen sites were discovered, and although Aton said there are likely hundreds more, the area has never been re-explored because the land is now part of a Native American reservation.

Although the team discovered hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of rock art, artifacts, and petroglyphs, they noticed that many of the sites had been previously looted. That being said, they still were able to excavate burial grounds and dwellings.

The 1931 expedition was perhaps the end of what Aton described as "adventure archaeology," or archaeology for the sake of discovery. Currently, experts in the field try to piece together the lives of those who left behind artifacts of their cultures.

In addition to the lecture, Aton co-authored a book about the expedition, titled "The Crimson Cowboys," and it is available for sale online. The 384-page book was awarded the Don D. and Catherine S. Fowler Prize.

The A.P.E.X. season will continue on Thursday, January 24, with a live performance from Cedar City's own improv group, Off the Cuff Comedy. The event will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Gilbert Great Hall of the Hunter Conference Center, located on SUU's campus.