HISTORIC SITES INVESTIGATIONS IN THE BIG BEND AREA
In the Big Bend Reservoir area, archeological investigations have been made at several historic period sites used by both Indians and Whites. The excavations have produced an array of somewhat novel historical materials, the first of their kind for the area.
Though less numerous than prehistoric sites in the Big Bend area, the historic sites of the region have yielded fresh information on frontier uses of the region. Some of the sites have afforded material evidence not recorded in any of the usual documentary sources (libraries, archives, etc.), especially regarding the physical appearance, plan, and style of construction of buildings and other structures abandoned and forgotten long ago. A study of the archeological remains of such historic sites may help to correct, or to interpret more fully and accurately, collateral contemporary records and traditional accounts, inasmuch as those more familiar sources of history often preserve but scant evidence on physical and material matters, even for otherwise well remembered and important sites. Such archeological evidence from historic sites of the area has not been available previously and constitutes new information not found in the usual history. Furthermore: remains of this sort, from both prehistoric and historic sites, are non-renewable resources which are available in limited quantity like any other natural resources.
The post of Regis Loisel, dating from the early 19th century, was among the known historic sites of the Big Bend country for which special search was made: Loisel's post was of special interest because it was the earliest of which there is record in the area and because it had been visited by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804 while en route to the Pacific and again in 1806 during the return trip. This post had been established by Loisel, of St. Louis, late in 1802 (shortly before the Purchase of Louisiana from France) on what became known as Cedar Island, one of a group of three islands notable for their stands of junipers some 25 miles upstream from the Big Bend itself.
Though probably extant for several years after the visit of the famous American "Corps of Discovery," little was known of the physical structure of Loisel's post beyond what had been recorded in diaries of two sergeants of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Patrick Gass and John Ordway. Both of these men were carpenters who soon after their visit here, were to be placed in charge of building winter quarters for the expedition in central North Dakota. It is reasonable to suppose that they examined the Cedar Island post with special attention. Their notes, though brief, were made on the spotperhaps with a tapeand record the plan, dimensions, and type of construction.
Cedar Island in recent years was covered with a heavy stand of cedar and a luxuriant growth of underbrush and grasses. But a thorough search of the island by archeologists revealed no hint of the location of Loisel's post. It is thought that remains of the post in the past century and a half have been destroyed by erosion or completely hidden under silt deposits and the heavy vegetative cover. Thus the record made by sergeants Gass and Ordway remains the only source of knowledge of the physical nature of the lost trading post of Regis Loisel.
In the course of the search of Cedar Island for the site of Loisel's post, another historic site was found and partially excavated. These investigations exposed remains of a group of small timber buildings that had been provided with masonry chimneys made of field boulders, brought from the mainland and laid up in clay. Artifacts and occupational debris associated with these remains suggest a farmstead, perhaps maintained by land squatters and wood-hawks supplying fuel for the occasional steamboat on the Missouri during the 1860's and 1870's. Of special interest among the objects recovered was a datable fragment of marked stoneware which had been made in Nebraska Territory sometime prior to March, 1867, when the state was admitted to the union.
The site of another trading post, Fort George, in use briefly in the 1840's, was more easily located because the abandoned site had been used in 1890 as the starting point of a boundary survey of the Lower Brule (Sioux) Indian Reservation. Built and used by a group of traders who attempted to compete with the well-established Fort Pierre Chouteau, about 25 miles upstream, Fort George was probably a financial failure. It was visited in 1843 by a famous traveler and his party, the naturalist John James Audubon, but little was recorded concerning the fort itself or its use in the trade. Since the site was about to be destroyed by wave action on the reservoir, archeological study of the surviving physical remains was imperative.
Excavations at Fort George produced specific details of its plan, construction, and use in spite of the fact that the post was dismantled and the salvagable remains carried off. Supplementing the evidence on the arrangement and actual construction of Fort George were the varied artifacts and other objects discovered. This material, as well as the structural evidence, was of special interest in view of the paucity of excavated collections of this period from comparable trading sites elsewhere. These objects, sometimes fragmentary and quite commonplace in their own time, included samples of actual construction materials, among them hand-made, sun-dried, adobe-clay fireplace bricks, rare historical specimens for the region. The many smaller objects in the collectioncomplete or fragmentary household articles, tools and implements, weapons, personal articles, and items of merchandise once traded to the Indiansillustrate little-known aspects of the era of the fur trade.
Elsewhere in the reservoir, a search was made for the remains of another post, the trading establishment known as Fort Defiance or Fort Bouis. Despite virtually ideal conditions for the searchall timber had been stripped from the area near the mouth of Medicine Creekno trace of the post was found. Here also, it may be assumed that river silts had covered any physical remains or that they were long ago cut away by the river itself.
Test excavations were made at the site of the short-lived Red Cloud Indian Agency at the mouth of Medicine Creek. It was in use during the winter of 1877-78 for the numerous and powerful Oglala Teton (Sioux) under their famous Chief Red Cloud. The buildings of the agency are known to have been systematically removed to the Pine Ridge Agency, in southwestern South Dakota, and the original site afterwards subjected to years of cultivation. Nonetheless, the location and certain structural details of former buildings were established by the excavations, verifying the scant historical record. In addition, a small but revealing collection of objects was recovered representative of a winter's use of the site by representatives of the Indian Office.
These examples of archeological investigations at historic sites in the Big Bend area illustrate one part of the Inter-Agency Archeological Salvage Program. Americans may take pride in the fact that scientific investigations of this kind are being carried out in reservoir areas and that such cultural resources are not being heedlessly destroyed without regard for their significance to history.
Last Updated: 08-Sep-2008