Southeast Wyoming: A mecca of unexplored historic record

Archaeologist shares lifetime summary of research

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HARTVILLE – Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, two million teepee rings, fire pits, burial grounds, mines, trading posts, pioneer trails, stage stations, and farming. Mix all that together, add a little research of the written historical record, and place it in one small corner of southeast Wyoming and you have the subject of last week’s public meeting with archaeologist George Zeimens.

“I wanted to give you an idea how rich in history this area is, and the variety of sites,” he said to a packed crowd at the Hartville Town Hall on Thursday evening.

Zeimens grew up in Torrington, spending his free time wandering around these hills, finding interesting objects and features along the way. “There are more gates and fences these days,” he said, and after a chuckle from the crowd, added how appreciative he has been of the cooperation of landowners with his research over the years.

He said he always knew this area was special, but didn’t realize how significant, from the historical and archaeological perspective, until he went to college.

Since that time, he worked for the State of Wyoming as an archaeologist and is currently the principal investor in the Powars II, Sunrise Historic and Prehistoric Preservation Society. He and his wife, Geri, have spent a lifetime dedicated to bringing fellow archaeologists and students together to learn and preserve what they can of our area’s history before it is erased by time and, all-too-often, storms and erosion.

Over the years he’s investigated “very interesting” sites uncovered by construction activities, one of which was a burial ground from 1,900 years ago just outside of Torrington. The men, women and children did not die of disease or battle, nothing dramatic, but in puzzling out why so many died all at the same time – and knowing the weather extremes in the region – he holds the theory they were killed from freezing to death in a blizzard.

Zeimens has been part of several teams uncovering historical evidence surrounding the many trading posts in the area, and solved one curiosity of why there are so many buttons found near them. Reading a record of a historic traveler’s disgust at the piles of clothes around one local trading post, Zeimens put two and two together.

“By the time people on the Oregon Trail had come this far, everything was worn out. Their animals, their shoes, their clothes, etc. The trading post offered these things, so people would discard their old stuff,” he said.

There were many trading posts throughout the area, and sometimes, every five miles along the Oregon Trail. The Indians tended to be near many of the trading posts, and there have been some burial sites of Indians, like those at Bordeaux’s trading post, where the Indians were in red cloth-lined caskets. Since the Indian tradition is to bury them with their possessions, there were many interesting discoveries – beads, women’s tools, etc. that were documented by the Smithsonian. Then, because the law in the State of Wyoming says any archaeological find belongs to the landowner, the items went back to the landowner, “which they should,” Zeimens said.

He explained the lined coffins most likely came from Fort Laramie. “In the 1860s, there was a sawmill that made caskets lined with red velvet… The Indians must have liked that,” Zeimens surmised.

He also shared some other pre-historic artifacts at that trading post also dated back more than 1,000 years, probably related to more eastern people groups.

Fort Bernard (5.5 miles southeast of Fort Laramie) was the site where goods from the U.S. Government were stored for the Indians under the treaty of 1851 in which the Indians were promised “gratuities” from the U.S. Government in exchange for safe travel on the Oregon Trail. “It was a real elaborate building,” Zeimens said.

It was here during 1854 when a sick cow from a Mormon wagon train wandered into the Indian’s camp as they were awaiting a delayed distribution of their gratuities. They killed the cow and butchered it. Per government policy, the offended party filed a claim with Fort Laramie, and with the post commander gone, the paperwork went to a Lt. Grattan who took soldiers to arrest the Indian who shot the cow.

“The soldiers went, all right, but they got liquored up at Fort Bernard. They argued with the Indians for a couple hours, then fired a warning shot from the cannon over the top of the camp. It hit the top of a teepee and killed a chief. The Indians fought back and wiped out all the soldiers. It is known as the Grattan Massacre,” Zeimens said. “One Indian boy saw the injustice that was done: Red Cloud … he never forgot what happened there.”

Then, Zeimens said, the Indians broke into Fort Bernard, took all their gratuities and left. In retaliation and from strong opinions of populations back east, the soldiers went to what is now the Wyoming state line near Blue Creek in Nebraska and found an Indian camp that was under a truce. “The men were out buffalo hunting, and only old men, women and children were there. The soldiers killed many of them, and arrested some of them and took them back to Fort Laramie where they hanged them. One young man saw what had happened at that camp: Crazy Horse,” Zeimens said.

“This is where the Indian war started in this part of the country, and it lasted 20 years,” Zeimens said. “There’s a lot of interesting information we can document with these sites.”

There has been evidence in some of the digs in the Hartville Uplift and Cottonwood Draw that have proven the Eastern Shoshone woodland Indians and the Plains Apache were both in this area, possibly trading, in more than one instance. “That is so evidence of the furthest east traveled by the Apache and the furthest west for the woodland tribes,” Zeimans shared.

Cottonwood draw is 10 miles north of Fort Laramie and has stratified Indian camps from prehistoric to 1,000 years ago. The draw, with all its trees, breaks and lush country with reliable water, is also where the Texas cattle trail headed north, the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage ran its line, settlers on the Oregon Trail traveled, trappers had a trail, and the river “floods regularly, and bad,” adding to the archaeological challenges of the area.

“For instance, in a flood in 1954 the water was 30 feet across the highway, so it eroded many sites,” Zeimens recalled.

Hell’s Gap is a Paleoindian archaeological site that over the years has had generous donations by landowners and interested parties, resulting in the University of Wyoming having possession of the property. The university does field schools and continues to learn much from the artifacts, some of which date from historic times to more than 14,000 years ago.

Additionally, there have been many different types of fire pits found in this part of the country, Zeimens said. With the differences, archaeologists have determined some of those pits were used during a period of climate change across the country, from 8,000 – 10,000 years ago. “There was more moisture, so there was a lot of vegetable processing fire pits that were designed to be streamlined in that process.”

“We’ve only scratched the surface, so much land has not been explored yet,” Zeimen said.

He said he is a big advocate of not only the history and science benefit, but also the economic benefits of the area. For instance, at one time the Spanish Diggings was significant enough nationally that it was on the list to become a National Park, but the world war put a stop to that. Zeimens said the Indians’ rock-mining site for premium stone-working material, checks all the boxes to be a great historical site. Not to mention the Native American red ochre mine and evidence of the early Clovis man at the Powers II site in Sunrise.

He said there are plans to have classes at the old Sunrise YMCA building, as well as it being a repository of artifacts and history in the region to educate and share with the public the many, many things that have been learned over the years. Even some pieces that have been lost. Zeimens once helped uncover a Bison Antiquus skull, and had a photograph of it, but hail destroyed it before it could be preserved. Several stratified digs have found archaeological material from the surface down to the water table, where they find artifacts from as far back as 14,000 years ago. Zeimens says he knows there is more, but the water table prohibits digging further.

“We can go back and learn more about some of these sites. Someday someone will. We need to have new, young blood, like Steve Howard,” Zeimens said.

Howard is professor of archaeology and anthropology at Eastern Wyoming Community College in Torrington. Howard said anyone with questions can contact him at EWC by phone or email; and the public is welcome to an “open archaeology lab” every Friday at room 208 in the Lab Science wing. “People can come visit, ask questions, volunteer, etc., as they watch lab workers process artifacts and get them ready for curation,” he said.

Among several other discoveries in his wandering around the Hartville uplift and the North Platte River country, Zeimens has seen an ancient butchered camel, mammoths, a murdered southern slave, a mysteriously murdered rider on horseback from England, a suspected Indian vision quest site, a high rock wall built to possibly protect against buffalo stampedes, 2,500-year old pit houses (dugouts with a roof of grass), huge pits that were lined with (possibly) hides and rocks to boil a large quantity of bones – and built-in drains for those pits, a suspected irrigation project that had evidence of corn and eastern woodland pottery.

“Maybe southeast Wyoming’s first irrigated farming project?” Zeimens posed.

The overview of history along the North Platte River was “great” according to Mark and Kay Walker. “I grew up here and knew there was a lot, but I never realized there was so much,” Mark said.

“It was a very nice presentation,” Hugh Hageman said. “There are a lot of archaeology sites on our place that George has excavated; he liked to come and walk through a lot.”

Hageman added he’s very interested at the archaeology that has been done in this area, and he’s glad Zeimens has been doing so much to preserve details before they are lost.

“There’s a lot of information there (in the region),” said Mary Houser of the historical society in Torrington. “I know George and heard a lot of his work with the historic society, but I find it all very fascinating.”

Perhaps Zeimens would appreciate this summary of his work: Archaeology and its untangling of mysteries satisfies the curiosity, then ubiquitously creates more questions than it answers.

Last week’s program highlighting archaeology along the North Platte River and Hartville uplift was arranged by Sunrise Historic and Prehistoric Preservation Society (SHAPPS). For more information about local history and archaeology, including oral histories, see their website: www.shapps.org or call 307-331-8810.