Protohistory and the Wichita

By Perkins, Stephen M.; Baugh, Timothy G. | Plains Anthropologist, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Protohistory and the Wichita


Perkins, Stephen M., Baugh, Timothy G., Plains Anthropologist


In the 1960s scholars from across Oklahoma and Texas submitted an extensive final report to the National Science Foundation (Bell et al. Newcomb 1967). Labeling it a pilot study, they summarized archaeological and ethnohistorical investigations of protohistoric Wichita villages on either side of the Red River. Artifact specialists analyzed site assemblages to provide detailed descriptions of indigenous and European material culture. William W. Newcomb and W. T. Field, for their part, catalogued the known historical documents from A.D. 1541 to 1867 to create an annotated index of the documented interaction between Wichita and European or Euroamerican parties. They also developed an extensive chronology of Wichita demography (Newcomb and Field 1967:240-396).

This unusual collaboration of archaeologists, material specialists, and ethnohistorians established the Wichita peoples as significant actors during the southern Plains protohistoric era. Newcomb and Field's compendium anticipated the research of later ethnohistorians such as Mildred Mott Wedel (1971, 1972, 1973, 1981) and Elizabeth Harper John (1975), whose studies we now regard as seminal contributions to southern Plains indigenous history.1 Similarly, Robert Bell's excavations at the Longest site (34JF 1) in south central Oklahoma (Bell and Bastian 1967:54-128), together with the work by archaeologists at the Upper Tucker (4 IMU 17), Coyote (41MU28), Glass (41MU24), and similar sites in north central Texas, stimulated new interest in contact period archaeology. Their work also complemented Waldo Wedel's (1959, 1961) important investigations of Wichita villages in the Arkansas River drainage in Kansas, sites that Wedel used to establish the Little River and Lower Walnut foci of his Great Bend aspect.

Despite these achievements, over forty years later the southern Plains protohistoric remains understudied relative to prehistoric investigations, a lacunae not unlike other regions of North America (Hudson and Tesser 1994; Wilcox and Masse 1981). Protohistoric years fall into something of a vacuum due to the differences in theoretical approaches, methodologies, and data employed by prehistoric archaeologists versus historians. Christine Williamson (2004:185), working in Australia, has identified a similar schism.

The time period before the arrival of Europeans and the creation of written documentary records is generally thought to be the domain of archaeologists and not a subject for historical research. However, Aboriginal societies in later time periods have received scant attention from historians because, as Reece (1979:259) states, "there is almost no documentary evidence of the Aboriginal experience of early contact and conflict, and where there is no documentation, historians are still fearful to tread." The exploration of contact interactions has therefore tended to fall between the cracks of the two disciplines.

However, over the past ten years or so divisions separating prehistory from history, or contact from colonization, have come under renewed scrutiny (Cusick 1998; Lightfoot 1995; Lightfoot and Simmons 1998; Silliman 2001, 2005; Wesson and Rees 2002). We believe that the empirical data associated with the protohistoric Wichita provide an excellent opportunity to address many of these contemporary issues. As outlined below, the affiliated groups historically glossed as the "Wichita" lived on the brink of recorded history, or protohistory, for almost 400 years (A.D. 1450 to 1846). They left behind a wealth of material culture, a sporadic paper trail generated by European or Euro- American visitors, and many unanswered questions.

In assembling this memoir, our goal was to achieve a representative collection of recent investigations. We solicited articles from archaeologists, historians, and linguists working on fifteenth century to twentieth century Wichita studies. Not all invitees could participate, but we believe we have a collection of important studies addressing a variety of protohistoric issues. …

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