Signal Butte – Nebraska’s Lost Archeological Treasure

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The North Platte River basin is often considered one of the last western frontiers to tourist and visitors arriving in western Nebraska as they visit the Oregon, California and Mormon trails and take in the deep western heritage found in the valley and surrounding areas of Wyobraska. Considerations are not given to the prehistoric occupants of the Great Plains. But, they were here and they were the first peoples to occupy the Platte River Valley 5,000 years BCE in the Middle Lithic Period, the earliest period of human occupation in the Americas.

In 1931, a local amateur archaeologist, Thomas L. Green (1884-1954), notified William Duncan Strong (1899–1962) of the University of Nebraska Archaeological Survey of the discovery of points, tools and hammer-stones he found near a butte west of Gering, Nebraska while exploring the area.

Thomas L. Green – Scottsbluff, NE – Photographer Unknown
Thomas L. Green – Scottsbluff, NE – Photographer Unknown

Green, the President of Platte Valley State Bank at the time, was a successful businessman and community leader in Scotts Bluff County, had taken up archaeology as a hobby, spending weekends scouting the countryside for Native American artifacts.

As a public figure, Green was active in civic organizations, including the Scottsbluff Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, but he devoted most of his energies to promoting local history. He took charge of the Nebraska Chapter of the American Pioneer Trails Association and served on the board of the Nebraska State Historical Society. An amateur historian, he wrote a handful of articles on forts, trading posts and buffalo hunting for the society’s quarterly magazine.

Green’s fascination with the frontier led him farther back in time. According to his own account, he launched his self-directed study of Nebraska’s history with nineteenth-century pioneer farmers, moved next to fur-trappers, then continued on to sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors. But what came before recorded history, he wondered. Looking for an answer, he took up archaeology as a hobby and spent weekends scouting the countryside around Scottsbluff.

After notifying Strong about his findings, Green made all the local arrangements for Strong’s brief expedition in 1931. Green, Strong, Waldo Rudolph Wedel (1908-1996), and Asa A.T. Hill, formed the inner circle of the Nebraska State Archaeological Survey. they and others from the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology, founded by John Wesley Powell in 1879, began excavations in 1931 at what became known as Signal Butte, the oldest American Indian archaeological site on the Great Plains.

Arriving in western Nebraska in 1931, Strong met with Green in Gering and began their journey toward the dig site to the west of Robidoux Pass. After arriving at the site, Strong must have began to understand the colossal effort that would have to be undertaken to excavate the top of the butte. Being an adventurous man who enjoyed reading adventure books and western tales, he was not daunted by the 125-foot climb necessary to ascend the promontory as its circumference was blocked by 20 to 50 foot escarpments consisting of sand, silt, ash and limestone on all sides.

William Duncan Strong was born on January 30, 1899 in Portland, Oregon. He received his B.A. degree in 1923, and his Ph.D. in 1926 from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Strong’s interest in anthropology developed under the influence of Dr. A.L. Kroeber, a student of Dr. Franz Boas. Photographer Unknown
William Duncan Strong was born on January 30, 1899 in Portland, Oregon. He received his B.A. degree in 1923, and his Ph.D. in 1926 from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Strong’s interest in anthropology developed under the influence of Dr. A.L. Kroeber, a student of Dr. Franz Boas. Photographer Unknown

Ropes and ladders were used to transport hand tools, screen frames and essentials for labor which had to be carried to the top on the backs of the work crews. Water was hand-delivered to the top for digging purposes and to keep the crews hydrated. After a long day of digging, the crews were resupplied. They ate and camped at a flat encampment area at the bottom of the butte near a field road leading to the base of the promontory.

Strong led the investigations of the butte in 1931 and briefly in 1932 on a return visit to close out his research from the previous year. While digging in the heat of the Nebraska day using screens, shovels, hand tools and brushes, artifacts were unearthed. After cutting a 13-foot vertical cross section in the west side of the top of the butte, three separate levels of artifacts were revealed, including signs of repeated habitation. Before leaving to return to Lincoln, Strong, a confident and driven man, was inclined to leave his work tools, shovels and screens on top of the butte believing another company would return to the promontory and continue further excavations. It wasn’t until after the end of WWII that a Smithsonian Institute Archaeological Survey crew returned to the butte and found the tools Strong had left behind. The tools, screens, shovels, brushes and other accompaniments brought by the first expedition to the butte are still there today.

Strong was known for comparing an archaeological site to a document, which is how he treated the dig site at Single Butte. In his article “Signal Butte, a Prehistoric Narrative on the High Plains,” he described stratigraphie layers as “chapters in a book” relating the “story of early man in the western plains,” in each deepening layer of matrix.

Materials and artifacts collected at Signal Butte were some of the first to be radiocarbon dated.

Along with these verbal images, Strong portrayed archaeology as historical scholarship in three dimensions through visual images. In a photograph of Signal Butte, he said, “The clean, straight walls of the excavation trench recalled an aisle in a library.” Later, in “Nebraska Archaeology,” he carefully detailed the stratigraphie techniques used to excavate the site, layer by layer, square by square.

After extensive excavation on the site using these techniques as a guide, Strong’s crew discovered the first three- to six-inch layer of artifacts (Ceramic Period) of the Dismal River and Upper Republican cultures. This six-inch layer showed fire pits, storage pits, scrapers, knives, drills, projectile points, animal bones, pottery shards and mussel shells.

Digging further, Strong’s crews arrived at the second level, the Pre-Woodland, Intermediate Lithic Period about 1500 BCE, where many delicate and beautifully made points, including quartz crystal points, were discovered.

The lowest level, about 2 ½ feet, showed evidence of an organized hunting complex during the early Lithic Period (the earliest period of human occupation in the Americas), 5,000 to 3,000 years BCE. The artifacts were found in a layer 12-32 inches thick, resting on a gravel bed.

Single Butte represents an area used repeatedly, passed down, across multiple traditions and cultures over the course of 5,000 years. Evidence shows Palio-Indians, the Dismal River Culture (forefathers of the plains Apache) and tribes, including the Arapahoe, Pawnee, Cheyenne and Sioux used the area as a hunting ground, hunting camp and work shops where meat and plants were processed.

If not for Thomas Green, who contributed a great deal of information, time, money and energy to discovering Palio and Modern American Indian history in Wyobraska, Signal Butte would simply be another obscure, yet picturesque, butte rising out of the Great Plains. Green remained an influential figure in the community until his death in 1954.

After Thomas Green assisted W.D. Strong with the excavation(s) of Signal Butte he gave a speech to the Scottsbluff Chapter of the Nebraska Historical Society in which he eloquently explained the deep appeal of local history. He said in contrast to the remoteness of world history, local history was, “very real and personal and living.”

It offered a sense of connectedness, he told his Scottsbluff neighbors, because it showed “you are dwelling where others have dwelt before you back through long ages. And where others will dwell after you are gone through ages to come.” Then, with the realization “you yourself are a tiny link,” the story became “really and truly your own.” Green’s legacy is often forgotten, or not even known, but his contributions has paved the way for a better understanding of Wyobraska’s history and its future.

Article & Photography by: Hawk Buckman

The information in this article has been compiled from:

Smithsonian Institute Archives

North Platte Valley Museum now Legacy of the Plains Museum, including the Paul Henderson collection.
The History of Scotts Bluff Nebraska (Archeology), and Nebraska State Historical Society’s “Exploring Nebraska Archeology: High Plains Archeology.”

Photograph of Signal Butte (1934) : Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 12-492 [SIA2012-6561], Created by United States National Museum, “Signal Butte, Nebraska, the Oldest Indian Site on the Great Plains”, SIA2012-6561

Frontier Stories: Reading and Writing Plains Archaeology by Melody Herr

University of Nebraska Archaeology Dept.

Legacy of the Plains Museum, Gering, Nebraska | E. S. Wood collection of Indian projectile points, and other artifacts, found in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

 

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