Class found significant historical sites along Oregon Trail
Heavy rain and "incapacitating mud" didn't stop a group of students and two Central Wyoming College archaeology instructors from digging up some Wyoming history and pre-history during the summer of 2009.
Todd Guenther, who has been developing CWC's fledgling program in Western American Studies, and Jim Stewart, an adjunct teacher for the college who is one of the nation's leading experts on Rocky Mountain rock art, led a group of CWC students and a few from the University of Wyoming on a three-week field study of the middle Sweetwater River area in Fremont County in May and June.
"We got a tremendous amount of field work done," said Guenther, who was awarded a National Park Service grant to support the summer research project. The group excavated lands near Jeffrey City to Sweetwater Canyon, "because that stretch of the Oregon Trail is virtually undocumented," Guenther explained.
"There is national attention focused on the lower Sweetwater with Independence Rock and Devil's Gate, but the middle Sweetwater is sadly neglected," he said. Besides, the middle Sweetwater is "in our backyard" making it accessible for CWC students to study.
Conducting this type of extensive study of the Middle Sweetwater has been the dream of Guenther, Stewart and Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Craig Bromley. "It's too big of a project to do on a volunteer basis," Guenther said. "With the grant, we can make a significant contribution to Wyoming history and pre-history."
He anticipates the archaeology work will take another ten years to complete, providing students access to experience in analyzing and interpreting material culture. Guenther plans to seek additional grant funding to continue the project.
"These are not arcane, useless skills," Guenther emphasized. "This is stuff that can get the students jobs in the field."
The field studies class recorded 31 new sites that range in age from 10,000 years to material remains from the 1890s. They found prehistoric camp sites in the Oregon Trail ruts, stage stations, a site where it appeared one or more wagons crashed going down a steep hill (see picture below) and two old army forts. Guenther was particularly excited about the discovery of three Oregon Trail "road ranches," completely undocumented facilities that had provided hotel, saloon, and livery stable and blacksmith services during the westward expansion of this nation.
The discovery of the road ranches, he said are "very important to Oregon Trail migration, but no one has done any research on these sites."
The group found camp sites that contained 10,000-year-old projectile or spear points of the Paleo-Indian. They also discovered a big complex of what appeared to be vision quest circles where young Plains Indians would go to fast as part of their entry into the adult world.
Working in cooperation with the BLM and the Wyoming State Preservation Office, Stewart and Guenther are preparing to complete the site reports. "For every person hour in the field, you spend about three hours in the lab and writing the reports," said Guenther, who plans to take some of the students who participated in the summer field course to Washington, D.C. in November to conduct further research at the national archives.
"They were exuberant in the worst of conditions," he said of the students who were enrolled in the field study course. "It rained every day they were there and the mud was almost incapacitating. They worked like dervishes and laughed their heads off while doing it."
They camped for the length of the course in less than ideal conditions, but were able to make their meals in a cabin offered by the Nature Conservancy.
A room in the CWC Classroom Wing has been designated as a lab so that the students may analyze and catalog the artifacts they found during the course. Eventually, the items will go back to the private landowners or to the state repository in Laramie. The students are working to develop an exhibit of their finds for the Intertribal Education and Community Center that opens in the fall of 2010 on the CWC campus.