Reminiscences of Plains Archaeology, Pre- and Post-World War II

Article excerpt

In my three early field seasons in the Plains, I had worked only in Nebraska. The summer of 1939 was with Carlyle Shreve Smith, the summer of 1940 was with Robert Gumming, Jr., and in 19411 worked under Marvin (Gus) C. Kivett (Figures 1 and 2). I returned to the Plains for a season 11 years later in 1952, this time under the auspices of the Smithsonian's River Basin Surveys Program.

My introduction to Plains archaeology was foreordained through my Long Island friend Carlyle Smith. He was a student of William Duncan Strong, whose An Introduction to Nebraska Archaeology became the bible of pre-World War II Plains archaeologists. After World War II, when I enrolled in the graduate program at Columbia University, I had the pleasure of taking Dune's North American course, which naturally dealt heavily with the Plains in enthralling detail.

My first trip west in the summer of 1939 was a tremendous experience. I joined Carlyle Smith at Wauneta, Nebraska, stepping off a tired old red bus on the last leg of a non-stop trip from New York, changing vehicles on the way. Alighting from the bus early in the morning, tired and sleepy, I saw chickens dusting themselves on the street, dogs, and wide open streets. Carlyle was a welcome greeting sight. We went straight to Ash Hollow Cave on the North Platte River, where John Champe was excavating (Figure 3). This was my first cave excavation, something we did not have on Long Island, and nothing like Long Island archaeology. We excavated the archaeological deposits in 3-inch levels. I am not sure how the sequence of deposition was resolved because arbitrary sectioning produces headaches for the person researching the stratigraphy and trying to assemble the cultural material.

The full realization that I was out in the Real West came when we went to see the wagon wheel ruts cut into the sod on the Oregon Trail nearby. We visited the 100-year-old grave markers and Windlass Hill, where the wagons were let down into the valley. I learned that the Platte was very much unlike the Hudson. It was said to be a mile wide and a foot deep. We slept in the cave on cots in a complete silence new to me, punctuated by the nocturnal yaps of coyotes, another novelty.

The most impressive thing about the Plains is the vastness of the area. It was like looking over the sea, miles of wheat fields bowing under the wind. Coming from waterbound eastern Long Island, the Plains represented a marked contrast. One of the things that thrilled me was standing on one of the hills in Nebraska, looking downriver, and seeing the weather coming up the valley. Dark thunder clouds would come boiling up from a far distance, while there was clear blue sky above. At other times in the summer heat, there were dust devils dancing over the fields. The local farmers spoke about the dangers of tornadoes-also new to me.

At a site on Davis Creek near Genoa, Nebraska, I saw my first flash flood and what it could do. The creek, steeply banked in an erosional gully, was normally a moderate slow flowing stream. Since the trees growing along the stream provided some shade and it was considerably cooler by the stream bank, we had been using niches cut into the earth bank for food storage. On this particular day we had stored a couple dozen fresh eggs and other fresh produce, which had been brought to us by one of our local farmer neighbors. While the sky was serenely blue overhead, we noted some storm clouds upstream way off in the distance with a distant rumbling. We secured our tents as a precaution and went to bed for the night. We appeared to be out of the weather, however. In the morning we were called out to see what had happened to little Davis Creek. The banks were almost overflowing with an angry chocolate-colored rampaging flood, fully 10 feet in depth, yet we had no rain. Gone was any vestige of our egg cache and other things put away for cool storage.

It was at Ash Hollow that I met A. T. …