Rob Bozell Receives the William Duncan Strong Award

The Nebraska Association of Professional Archeologists is pleased to announce that Rob Bozell has been presented with the William Duncan Strong Memorial Award in honor of his significant contributions to Nebraska Archaeology. The Award was presented to Rob on November 5, 2021 at an early Retirement Party thrown in his honor in Lincoln, NE.

Rob Bozell and John Ludwickson in the field in 1984.

From the award nomination:
Several years ago, former Nebraska State Historical Society Director Mike Smith referred to Rob Bozell as “the Empire Builder,” in reference to the then rapidly growing Archeology team. Minus any negative connotations of self-aggrandizement, this is an apt description of Rob – a person who adds to or strengthens an organization. Nebraska Archeology has indeed been immeasurably strengthened by Rob’s contributions over his forty-year career.

Rob began his life-long interest in archeology growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. After high school, he completed his undergraduate degree in Anthropology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, followed by his Master’s degree in 1981. He began his career working on archeological projects with several universities and the National Park Service before landing at the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1984. Besides a brief stint at Augustana College, this is where Rob has been ever since.

Rob Bozell, Gayle Carlson, and Bob Pepperl at Engineer Cantonment.

As Highway Archeologist, and later as Program Manager and then State Archeologist, Rob has led investigations across the entire state, developing an exceptional understanding of Nebraska’s past across time and space. From sites along the Missouri and Platte River Bluffs in Eastern Nebraska, through the Sandhills, up along the Niobrara to the Buttes of the High Plains, down to the Wildcat Hills and everywhere in between, he continues to share with us all the lives and stories of those who lived in and experienced Nebraska before us.

The W. D. Strong Award is intended to recognize persons who, over the span of their professional careers or private lives, have made substantial contributions of lasting value to the knowledge, appreciation, and or preservation of Nebraska’s archeological heritage. Rob has added to the field in so many ways – through his research, outreach, education, service – that it is difficult to highlight just one of these. He has really contributed to Nebraska Archeology in every measure, both professionally and privately – if the hours spent analyzing faunal remains in his spare time is any indication.

Sharing his passion and knowledge with the public.

Rob’s publication record is long, and his list of technical reports considerably longer. Sites like Patterson, Eagle Ridge, Big Village, and Engineer Cantonment will always be associated with Rob’s work. A “go-to” for Great Plains faunal analysis, Rob’s other specialties include Late Prehistoric-Post Contact Culture Change, Subsistence Strategies, Paleoecological Reconstruction, and Cultural Resource Management. He has also been instrumental in working with Indigenous groups with regards to repatriation, as well as in supporting their greater involvement in archeology as a whole.

Active as a long-time member of numerous organizations including the Plains Anthropological Society and the Nebraska Association of Professional Archeologists, he has served on many committees and boards, including a couple of terms as President. He has worked to increase archeology’s relevance and to support the exchange of ideas and information both in and out of the profession through conferences, journals, and general outreach.

Filming a couple videos about Nebraska Archeology at the Humphrey Site.

Whether he likes it or not, Rob is the “face” of Nebraska Archeology – as his appearances on History Detectives and the recent Sandhills YouTube Videos attest! He makes it a point to share archeology with the public through exhibits, media, public lectures, and many one-on-one conversations. He has served as a teacher and mentor to many in the classroom, the field, and on the job, looking to provide individuals opportunities to gain hands-on experience and always approachable with questions.

All of these incredible contributions aside, when trying to pinpoint what encompasses Rob’s career, it really comes down to relationships. In his description of the role of a State Archeologist, Charles McGimsey III wrote that a State Archeologist “must be able to work well and communicate effectively with others on all levels from local landowners to college presidents and legislators” (1974:6). Rob has epitomized this, building a foundation for the Nebraska State Archeology Office with his personal and professional relationships. The public, landowners, tribal members, students, agency officials, and colleagues all appreciate Rob’s knowledge, sense of humor, kindness, and friendly demeanor. He has used his relationships to bring differing perspectives together to solve problems and to find common ground. He is an example of what productive collaboration can look like and the benefits of partnerships. As Nebraska Archeology looks ahead to a changing and uncertain future, his contributions in this regard are absolutely worthy of recognition.

Submitted by:
Courtney Ziska and Karen Steinauer, History Nebraska

Charles McGimsey III
1974 The Office of the State Archeologist. Available on the National Association of State Archaeologists website:


Message on a Bottle

On a recent project for the Nebraska Department of Transportation a History Nebraska archeologist came across an interesting bottle. The bottle was found eroding out of a gulley. The bottle along with a host of other fairly recent trash had been dumped into the gulley in an attempt to stop further erosion.

The bottle and the other items do not hold much value archeologically. They are neither very old nor unique and are not in their original context. There is a farmhouse across the road. The 1968 topographic map shows nine out-buildings at the location. On a 1988 air photo from Google Earth all the out-buildings have been removed. The debris from those buildings could have been the source of material dumped into the gulley.

The bottle stood out amongst the debris because it was unbroken. The bottle dates from the 1900s as it is fully machine made. Its age is identifiable by the uniformity of the glass, lack of imperfections, and the pattern of the mold lines. While not of great age, it was the writing on the bottle that caught the archeologist’s eye. Embossed on one side are the words “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Medicine.”

Embossed labels are common on bottles of this age, but the archeologist who found the bottle was intrigued as to what Lydia E. Pinkham’s Medicine was. Some research on the internet and on Walmart’s website of all places, tuned up an interesting tale of entrepreneurial spirit.

Lydia Pinkham was a well-educated wife and mother. After the financial Panic of 1873 left her husband destitute she found a way to support her family. Mrs. Pinkham had for many years brewed a home remedy for friends and neighbors. Her concoction was the cure for all manner of “Female Complaints.”

Patent medicines of various qualities and proofs were very common in the late 1800s. Lydia Pinkham set hers apart by marketing it directly to women. Lydia Pinkham’s direct involvement with the manufacture of the medicine was highlighted and users were encouraged to write to Mrs. Pinkham with health questions.

Lydia Pinkham died in 1883, but the company was carried on by her son and daughter-in-law and consumers still wrote to Mrs. Pinkham, now the daughter-in-law. The recipe remained unchanged until the 1920s when the federal government began to clamp down on the unsubstantiated claims and high alcohol content of many mass produced patent medicines. However, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Medicine survived these changes and remained a family owned company until 1968 when the Pinkham family sold the company.

The medicine lives on today as Lydia Pinkham Herbal Tablet Supplement which can be purchased online. The author bought a box of 72 tablets as shown in the photo below.


Nolan Johnson, History Nebraska

Possible Spanish Artifacts Found during E.E. Blackman’s Expedition To the Genoa, Nebraska Area in 1924

In 1921, a manuscript titled “Massacre of the Spanish Expedition of the Missouri (August 11, 1720)” was discovered in Paris; the diary was written by a Spanish officer and describes the events of a Spanish expedition up to the date of Aug. 10, 1720. Now known as the “Villasur Expedition,” the contingent had been dispatched from Santa Fe to check the French activities in the area of modern-day Nebraska. The day after the diary’s last entry, most of the Spaniards were killed during an early-morning attack by Pawnee and Otoe. After the diary’s publication, it was quickly determined that the most likely location for the massacre was at the confluence of the Platte and Loup rivers in what is now Nebraska. 

Influenced by the manuscript’s publication, E.E. Blackman, curator for the state historical society, headed west to Nance County in the summer of 1924 to study prehistoric village sites along the Loup and to look for artifacts from the Spanish expedition. According to the article “Exploration of Aboriginal Remains in the Loup Valley” published in the journal Nebraska History and Record of Pioneer Days, Vol. VII, No. 1, Blackman made an extensive study of the Burkett site west of Genoa. Blackman stated that “A number of Spanish trinkets which might have belonged to the expedition of 1720 were found . . .” No real descriptions of the objects are given in the in the account, but the accompanying photo features two artifacts; a length of “Bronze chain, possibly Spanish” and a piece of “Bronze plate, probably of quilted armor”.

Fortunately, the article “Finds Show Spanish Expedition Visited Loup Valley in 1720,” published in the Columbus Daily Telegram on Aug. 2, 1924, gave a fairly accurate description of the two bronze artifacts found by Blackman. The artifacts were said to be plate armor and brass horse trappings.

The Telegram stated: “The plate armor was made of small brass pieces about three inches long and an inch and a half wide and about the thickness of an ordinary piece of thin cardboard. In each corner was a small hole. Through these holes the wire thread was drawn then held the pieces together so that they formed a solid piece of armor for a coat and covering for the arms and legs. The pieces were bent and hammered to fit the body”. 

Concerning the horse trappings: “Such pieces as these have been unearthed by Mr. Blackman, who has also found a little brass chain on which are fastened, about a third of an inch apart, a number of little balls of brass about the size of the heads of the old-fashioned hatpin…This little chain was used under the chin, or jaw of the horse to hold the bridle in place.” 

Although Blackman’s explanation of the use of the items may not be entirely accurate, his description of the two Spanish artifacts is still valuable. The whereabouts of the artifacts has been lost to time.

The use of metallic armor by the Spanish had been discontinued long before the 18th century, but it’s possible that some pieces could have been in possession of the Plains Indians. On July 24, 1924, the Telegram published an interview with Luther North, a former captain in the Pawnee Scouts. He described a certain Cheyenne warrior who was feared by the Pawnee “because Pawnee arrows were turned away when they stuck the body of this Cheyenne warrior; the Pawnees came to believe he was protected by the Great Spirit.” The warrior was finally killed in a battle on the Republican River in 1852. Captain North continued: “Upon examination the Pawnees found that the Cheyenne warrior was protected by a chain mail vest. The Pawnees cut up the armor in small bits and divided it up among themselves, and it may have been one of those pieces that was found near Genoa, though I hope Mr. Blackman’s investigations up there will prove otherwise.” Captain North didn’t enter military service until 1862, so there is a chance he didn’t actually see the pieces of mail and had heard about the incident during his time spent with the Pawnee.

For more information on the Villasur Expedition you can check out a reproduction hide painting of the battle at the Nebraska History Museum or visit the expedition webpage at


Columbus Daily Telegram July 24, August 2, 1924

Luther North biography The History of Platte County, Nebraska by Margaret Curry, 1950

“New Chapter in Nebraska History” NEGenWeb Project Resource Center, On-line Library, Journals NE History & Record of Pioneer Days Vol. VI, No. 1 

“Exploration of Aboriginal Remains in Loup Valley” NEGenWeb Project Resource Center, On-Line Library, Journals NE History & Record of Pioneer Days Vol. VII, No. 1

“Ambushed at Dawn:  An Archaeological Analysis of the Catastropic Defeat of the 1720 Villasur Expedition” Thesis by Benjamin Bilgri, Dec., 2011

Submitted by, Tom Bryan Nebraska Archaeological Society

Archeology on the Lincoln South Beltway

The Lincoln South Beltway Project is currently being constructed from US Highway 77 to Nebraska Highway 2 south and southeast of Lincoln. The 300+ million dollar project is a massive undertaking and required considerable work from History Nebraska (HN) archeologists and preservation associates. The project was investigated as part of HN’s and the Nebraska Department of Transportation’s (NDOT) on going partnership to comply with federal and state historic preservation laws. Considerable survey work had been done on the project in the late 90’s before it went dormant. HN archeologists began work on the project in the summer of 2015 with much of the field work being completed nearly 5 years before construction began.

Between 2015 and 2019 changes and refinements were made to the design of the project. HN archeologists and preservation associates along with their counterparts at NDOT diligently reviewed all the changes as they happened. One such change involving large overhead signs required additional work in the fall of 2019. The large signs have a small but deep footprint. With the help of NDOT, HN archeologists were able to test for deeply buried archeological deposits at the location of the signs. Using a coring machine two soil cores were taken to a depth of ten feet.

The four inch diameter cores were taken back to lab and profiles of the soil layers recorded. The cores were then water screened through 1/16 inch mesh to check for artifacts. Mechanically coring creates rock hard rubes of dirt. The dirt did not want to come out of the tubes, that problem was solved with a hand saw. The water screening was more hands on than usual. Meaning that even after soaking the dirt in buckets the tubes had to be broken up by hand and the clay squished through the screen while it was blasted a hose. No artifacts or anything of interest was found in the cores.

Nolan Johnson, History Nebraska

Mechanical Coring Machine at Work

Five Foot Soil Core Encased in Plastic

Core after it was Cut Out of Plastic with a Saw

Soil Core prior to Soaking

Core Soaking in Buckets

Robert Gilder and the Nebraska Phase Archaeology of Fontenelle Forest

[September is Nebraska Archaeology Month! To celebrate, join Fontenelle Forest as it explores Nebraska Phase archaeology and the life of archaeologist Robert Gilder through a series of programs and an archaeological exhibit on display through December 2018!]

gilder nebraska phase pot

Nebraska Phase Pot (in Gilder Catalogue 1907-1912)

People have long been drawn to the Missouri River Bluffs in Nebraska. Access to timber, stone, and arable land, as well as water ways for transportation, makes the area ideal for settlement. As a result, the hills of eastern Nebraska are densely populated with evidence of human occupation, both past and present. From today’s urban development to the stone tools and shallow depressions marking the locations of habitations past, thousands of years of history can be found along this stretch of the Missouri River.

Nebraska archeology sites

Archaeological Sites (pink) recorded along the Missouri River in Eastern Nebraska [Nebraska Cultural Resources GIS, History Nebraska]

Besides providing life’s necessities, the Missouri River bluffs are also a destination for recreational opportunities such as hiking and birdwatching, and their natural beauty has inspired many writers and artists over time. This is in part what attracted Robert F. Gilder to the area in the late 1880s. With a background in art and journalism, Gilder came to the Omaha area to work in the newspaper industry, but pursued an active hobby in art in his spare time. The work he produced is still featured in museums across the state today.

Gilder Art at the Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney

Robert F. Gilder, Untitled (forest), oil on board, n.d. Accession No. 2009.33, Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA), Kearney, NE.

It was during his frequent trips to paint in the woods along these bluffs that he became interested in the shallow depressions found dotting the bluff tops.

”I turned my attention to locating a large number of saucer-like depressions in the earth, known locally as “buffalo wallows,” in reality sites of aboriginal earth lodges. Almost every circle had been dug into, although in each instance the excavation had been confined to its center…wherever excavation had been recent I found small sherds, and flint chips, ashes, and charcoal.” – Robert Gilder, 1907

“Archeology of the Ponca Creek District, Eastern Nebraska” in American Antiquity, p.702

This interest developed into his second hobby, and a later career in, archaeology. Despite no formal training in the field, his background in writing and art provided him a keen attention to detail and observation which he used to record his findings as he dug into these depressions, first north of Omaha, and later south in Sarpy County. He then would share this information with the public by publishing accounts and illustrations of his finds in the newspaper he worked for, and later in academic journals. This in turn led to more formal archaeological work and collaboration with other researchers.

Artifacts from the Gilder Collection

Bone tools, shell pendants, bone fishhooks, and stone projectile points from the Gilder collection. [University of Nebraska State Museum Newsletter, Vol. 55, No.11, October 20, 1975]

While some interpretations of the “wallows” have changed over the years since Gilder made his initial observations, his understanding of these house depressions led to the establishment of the “Nebraska Culture,” or the Nebraska Phase, a regional group of the broader Central Plains Tradition (CPT). These village farmers, who occupied the area 700-1,000 years ago, continued to hunt and gather wild plants as they practiced horticulture. Their houses, square to rectangular in shape, were timber-framed and covered with a mixture of branches, grass, and mud, and often contained a number of pits where food and tools were stored below the house floor.

Nebraska Phase Lodges

Examples of Nebraska Phase Lodges. [Figure 3a. in Blakeslee and Caldwell, 1979].

Since the early 1900s, additional surveys and investigations have taken place at Nebraska Phase sites along the Missouri River Bluffs, including within Fontenelle Forest, a 1400 acre forest, where Gilder resided until he passed away in 1940. Listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the area is home to approximately 70 probable CPT-related features, in addition to earlier prehistoric occupations, as well as more recent sites – a fur trading post, a ferry crossing, and wagon roads. New technology continues to provide improved methods of documenting these sites, such as with LiDAR and the clearer view it provides of what lies under the forest canopy. However, it is still the early work of avocational archaeologist Robert Gilder that provides the foundation for much of what we know about this area today.

LiDAR archeology Nebraska Phase House Features

LiDAR imagery of house features within Fontenelle Forest.


Blakeslee, Donald J. and Warren W. Caldwell
1979     The Nebraska Phase: An Appraisal. Reprints in Anthropology, Vol. 18: 37.

Gilder, Robert F.
1907    Archeology of the Ponca Creek District, Eastern Nebraska. American Antiquity9(4): 702-719.
n.d.   Catalogue of Objects Used by a Prehistoric People in What is Now Douglas and Sarpy Counties, Nebraska, 1907 to 1912. C. N. Dietz, Omaha Library Board, Omaha: p.10.

Haack, Martha, Arthur H. Wolf, and Harvey L. Gunderson
1975   “Robert Fletcher Gilder: Archeologist for the Museum.” Programs Information: Nebraska State Museum, 55(11).

National Register of Historic Places, Fontenelle Forest Historic District, Bellevue, Sarpy County, Nebraska. National Register #74001139.

Interest in Robert Gilder’s work and the Nebraska Phase Culture has recently been renewed, as Fontenelle Forest has put together a series of upcoming programs about Gilder’s life and the area’s archeology, funded in part by Humanities Nebraska and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. An exhibit on Nebraska Phase Archaeology is on display daily at the Nature Center’s Baright Gallery through December. Visitors can also take guided or self-guided hikes along the area’s trails, which follow alongside the house depressions that the Nebraska Phase people left behind, as explored by Gilder. In addition, an archaeology lecture series is planned, with the first presentation planned for this Saturday, September 8 at 2:00 PM – “So….What Became of the Nebraska Phase People?” by State Archeologist Rob Bozell.

For more information on this and upcoming programs, visit

Fontenelle Forest Exhibit and Programs

Archaeology of Nebraska’s African American Pioneers

[The following blog post is the fifth (and final) in a series of posts highlighting archaeological sites that relate to Nebraska’s Statehood or date to the period around 1867! This series will run through September in celebration of Nebraska Archaeology Month and our state’s Sesquicentennial!]

Archaeological investigation of the early African American experience in Nebraska has been overshadowed by exploration of Native American villages and select Euroamerican sites such as forts, fur trade posts, and territorial townsites. Archaeological investigation of slavery and the plantation system in the southeastern United States extends back to the 1960s (Singleton 1985) but archaeological investigation of the African American experience on the Great Plains is more limited. A notable exception is archaeological and archival investigation of Nicodemus, Kansas (Hamilton 1986; Wood et al. 2007). Nicodemus was a town and associated farms established in the late 1870s by black families escaping persecution, racism, and poverty following the close of post-Civil Reconstruction in the South and the withdrawal of federal troops. Another project in southeast Colorado is documenting African American homesteads (

Although small numbers of African Americans were living and working in Nebraska in the 1850s and 1860s, the population was quite sparse. The numbers of African Americans in Nebraska began to increase following the Kansas Fever Exodus of 1879. The migration was due in part to the encouragement and efforts of Benton Aldrich and other prominent southeast Nebraska settlers who were sympathetic to the plight of black people fleeing the South. Archaeological consideration of early African American settlement in Nebraska is limited to a few projects, none of which have been long term. Two of these, one completed and one proposed, are summarized below.

The Aldrich Site (Nemaha County):

Aldrich site excavations nebraska archeology african american

Aldrich site excavation plan showing foundation remnants of African American dwelling and later intrusive post-1900 ice house.

In the late 1990s, Omaha Benson High School history teacher Pat Kennedy developed a project to engage and immerse his inner-city students into the history of African Americans in Nebraska (Kennedy 2001). His research focused on Nemaha County and Brownville and the students used archival materials (newspaper accounts, public records, maps, and photographs) to identify specific African American sites. In 1997, Kennedy approached the Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology Division about documenting some of these places archaeologically. The project developed and several sites in the town of Brownville were mapped and recorded but primary attention was focused on a rural site associated with Benton Aldrich who is mentioned above. The site became the focus of 1997 test excavations using over 50 volunteers including Kennedy and 16 of his students (Bozell and Boeka 2001).

In 1880, Aldrich invited several former slaves living in Kansas to settle on his farm and work for him until they were able to purchase property. Based on Kennedy’s research and family oral accounts by Aldrich’s great-grandson Robert Stoddard, an ice house was constructed after 1900 at or near the location of the dwelling occupied by black residents. Several surface features were archaeologically investigated and based on recovered artifacts and architectural remnants, the location of the dwelling was confirmed. More than 3000 artifacts were recovered including nails, ceramics, window glass, bottle glass, building hardware, animal bone and personal items such as buttons, bullets, knife handles, pins, and buckles. An abundance of limestone blocks indicates the dwelling was certainly more substantial than a dugout or shack. The location of all the material in a depression suggests a cellar may be present under the structural ruins.

Aldrich site excavation nebraska archeology

Pat Kennedy (right rear in blue t-shirt) with Omaha Benson High School students and teachers at the Aldrich site excavations.

The people living in the structure subsisted on pork and chicken but were also hunting rabbits and canning vegetables. A wide assortment of bottle glass, table ware, and crockery were recovered. While none are ‘high status’ items, the collection’s diversity suggests the occupants enjoyed some measure of material culture choices.

Only a small portion of the structure was excavated. However, clearly it retains significant potential for understanding the subsistence methods, architecture, technology, and material culture of some of Nebraska’s early African American residents.

DeWitty Community (Cherry County):

            Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in a community of black farmers who homesteaded in Cherry County along the North Loup River. This interest in African American homesteading in Nebraska was demonstrated when a GoFundMe account raised funds to place a Nebraska State Historical Society historical marker about DeWitty on US Highway 83. The unveiling of the marker in 2016 was attended by descendants of DeWitty homesteaders from across the nation as well as by local white ranchers and townfolk.

The story of DeWitty begins as African American homesteaders came west to start a new life and to escape the egregious Jim Crow laws passed throughout the South after 1877 when Reconstruction was ended. Many black colonies on the plains, however, continued to suffer the effects of racism in their new homes. A distinguishing characteristic of DeWitty was a distinct lack of racist attacks from the community’s white neighbors. Historian Joyceann Gray, a descendant of a DeWitty homesteader, has noted that “What is so important about this community is the bond between African American homesteaders of DeWitty and their white counterparts in Brownlee. The two communities were very isolated back then and despite differences of heritage and beginnings, they enjoyed a civil and caring relationship that continues up to this day.”

The trigger for the establishment of DeWitty was passage of the Kinkaid Act in 1904. The act functioned as an amendment to the 1862 Homestead Act. It recognized that arid lands west of the 100th meridian required more than 160 acres to support a family by allowing a homesteader to claim up to 640 acres in western Nebraska. Kinkaid specifically applied to the Sandhills region of Nebraska, with only non-irrigable lands open for entry.

Meehan Nebraska Sandhills African American Archeology

Charles M. and Hester Meehan after their journey from Ontario, Canada to the Nebraska Sandhills.

The overwhelming majority of African Americans who came west to homestead were former slaves or children of former slaves from the South and the people in the DeWitty community were no different. However, DeWitty citizens had one characteristic that distinguished it from other black colonies on the plains: many, if not most, of the settlers arrived in western Nebraska via a circuitous route through Buxton, Ontario, Canada. This province was the terminus of the Underground Railroad, with Buxton (1849-1877) having been established by the Elgin Association for resettlement of the black American refugees to give them a new start. Some of the homesteaders took an even more circuitous route to DeWitty; i.e., homesteading in Dawson County, Nebraska, then moving on to DeWitty, or Dawson County to Empire on the Wyoming-Nebraska border then to DeWitty. But African American settlers at Empire and in Dawson County found that the racism they had hoped to escape was waiting for them at these new homes. Only DeWitty offered the freedom from the fear and violence they were seeking.

A new non-profit organization, Descendants of DeWitty LLC, was established about a year ago with the mission of informing the citizens of Nebraska and beyond about the people and history of this unique community. This year, two of its board members, Chair Artes Johnson and Secretary Denise Scales, and blog co-author, William Hunt, were able to undertake a quick tour of a few DeWitty-related sites, guided by Don “Sonny” Hanna, a Cherry County rancher born during the final years of DeWitty’s existence. During the course of this visit, the group visited eleven of the many sites in the area. These included 6 homestead sites, 2 former river crossing sites, and a possible church/cemetery site.

Riley homestead Nebraska African American Archeology

Sod house of Albert and Lee Ann Riley on their Sandhills homestead.

Among its various outreach goals, Descendants of DeWitty is proposing an archaeological project that is hoped to include archaeologists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Nebraska State Historical Society. This project is dependent, of course, on finding a small amount of funding and getting landowner permissions to survey their properties. Project objectives will be:

  1. Continue historical research seeking out oral histories and primary documents in Nebraska and elsewhere to broaden our knowledge about the community and its citizens;
  2. Conduct an inventory of DeWitty sites, documenting as many of the 53 or more homesteads as possible along with other associated locations such as schools, post offices, bridges, etc.;
  3. Undertake geophysical inventories at select sites.;
  4. Prepare a nomination of DeWitty for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places as a district of related sites;
  5. Since outreach is the ultimate goal of Descendants of DeWitty, will aim to include black and white high school students and teachers in the work; and
  6. Inform community descendants, school children around the state, and the general Nebraska citizenry about DeWitty and why it is so important.


Boeka, Molly
1998    Archeological Investigations at the Aldrich Site, Nemaha County, Nebraska. On file, Nebraska State Historical Society, State Archeology Office. Lincoln.

Bozell, Rob and Molly Boeka
2001    Archeology and the Search for African American Pioneer Sites in Southeastern Nebraska. Nebraska History 82(1): 25.

Hamilton, Kenneth
1986    The Settlement of Nicodemus: Its Origins and Early Promotion in Promised Land on the Solomon: Black Settlement in Nicodemus, Kansas. National Park Service. Washington, DC.

Kennedy, Patrick
2001    Nemaha County’s African American Community. Nebraska History 82(1):11-23.

Singleton, Teresa (editor)
1985    The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life. Academic Press. New York.

Wood, Margaret, Dan Morrow, and Deborah Rumans
2007    Explorations of the Struggles and Promise of African American Settlement on the Great Plains: Archaeological Survey and Testing of Sites Related to the Settlement Period and Early History of Nicodemus, Kansas. National Park Service.

About the Authors – 

Rob Bozell is the Nebraska State Archeologist at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Dr. William J. Hunt, Jr. is a historical archaeologist assisting the Descendants of DeWitty LLC with historical research and development of various outreach efforts. This presently includes a photograph exhibit about DeWitty and its citizens this fall and a short documentary video to be completed in 2018 portraying the exodus from Canada to the Sandhills of Nebraska.

Want to learn more about the Archaeology of African American Pioneers and Homesteaders in Nebraska?

Listen to the NETNebraska Story on “The Exodusters Who Came to Brownville.”

Read Pat Kennedy’s article on “Nemaha County’s African American Community” in Nebraska History Magazine.

Watch “The DeWitty SettlementNebraska Stories segment produced by NETNebraska.

Visit the DeWitty Historical Marker in Cherry County!

Archaeology of Nebraska’s Territorial Period (1854-1867)

This post was originally produced for the Nebraska State Historical Society Blog at Content reproduced with permission.


[The following blog post is the fourth in a series of posts highlighting archaeological sites that relate to Nebraska’s Statehood or date to the period around 1867! This series will run through September in celebration of Nebraska Archaeology Month and our state’s Sesquicentennial!]

In the spring of 1854, the United States Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act organizing the two future states as territories. The purpose of the act was to open the region for rural agricultural and urban settlement paving the way for a planned transcontinental railway. At about that time, most native lands in eastern Nebraska were ceded to the US government. Prior to the act, Euroamericans in what is now Nebraska included only traders, fur trappers, missionaries, military units, those passing along the emigrant trails, and occasional squatters. With the notable exception of a few fur trading posts, stage stations, and forts, Euroamericans had left a very sparse archaeological record prior to the mid-1850s.

Almost immediately after Territorial designation, fledgling towns, ferries, farms, and small rural businesses such as flour and saw mills began to spring up. These were mostly along the Missouri River and the lower reaches of its tributaries. The only ‘town’ which was already established was Bellevue which began as a fur trade post in the 1820s. Soon other communities sprang up such as Plattsmouth, Omaha, Nebraska City. The first territorial legislature granted charters to seventeen of these would-be cities. Many of these are considered ‘paper towns.’  Paper towns are those which were chartered and platted but other than a few cabins and businesses, they never really materialized. The territorial period lasted for slightly less than thirteen years until Nebraska became a state in March of 1867. After statehood, the archival record of early Nebraska increases dramatically with an abundance of newspapers, journals, photographs, public records, and maps.

Archaeological data can provide a more robust and accurate understanding of the lives of these pre-1867 Nebraskans, enhancing the scant archival record. Beginning in the early 1970s, the Nebraska State Historical Society (State Archeology Office) and the Nebraska Department of Transportation teamed up to investigate the buried ruins of five Territorial-era towns and one rural mill that were discovered buried in the path of planned transportation improvements. Most exist entirely as archaeological sites with no extant architecture.

Solving archaeological problems is a process that often involves evaluating data from a ‘suite’ of related sites studied over a period of years. The Territorial period archaeology program is a wonderful example of that reality. Taken together, the artifacts, bones, and other field observations gathered at these six sites now allow for a productive understanding of material culture, subsistence, technology, socioeconomic levels, and architecture that simply cannot be gleaned from the archival record alone.  The investigations have also resulted in important baseline information for identifying collections of tableware, bottles, window glass, and smoking pipe forms from future Territorial Period and early Statehood excavations. Below is a brief summary of these archaeological investigations.

Cuming City

Cuming City Nebraska - Cellar Plan View Map

Plan view map of an archaeological excavation of a buried Cuming City cellar.

In 1855, a town company was formed and plans for Cuming City were drawn up. The original plan called for 180 blocks. It is not known how many blocks were actually developed but within several years there existed several stores, hotels, saloons and over 50 homes (Bell 1876:43). When the railroad was built through neighboring Blair, Cuming City population quickly dwindled. By the 1880s only several buildings remained extant and none remained by 1900.

Widening of US-73/75 in 1974 required archaeological investigations in old Cuming City under the direction of Gayle Carlson and Terry Steinacher (Steinacher and Carlson 1984:87-114). The field work focused on a deep subfloor cellar that had been beneath a house or commercial building. A diverse assortment of glass, metal, and ceramic artifacts suggested a period of occupation in the mid -1860s. The collection was the first of its age to be recovered from a territorial period site in Nebraska and formed a useful comparative basis for subsequent territorial period research.

De Soto

De Soto Nebraska GLO Map 1856

1856 General Land Office Survey (GLO) plat map depicting the town of De Soto.

While Cuming City was being developed north of what would become Blair, the town of De Soto also began to see construction in 1855. Within a few years, De Soto consisted of 30 log buildings including homes, a hotel, two general stores, several banks, a school, and at least a dozen saloons! The town began to decline by 1859, partially in response to the discovery of gold in Colorado. By 1870, it was completely abandoned and all buildings had been removed and many were re-located to prospering Blair (Bell 1876: 37-39).

Archaeological investigations were conducted by Steinacher and Carlson in 1975 in response to relocation of US-73. Even more archaeological features and artifacts were recovered than at Cuming City. Over twenty features were found during mechanical topsoil stripping and eleven became the focus of controlled excavations including: five building cellars, a deep outhouse pit, four refuse trenches, and a large post mold. The recovered collection is extensive and includes a diverse assortment of animal bone, ceramics, glass, metal and other materials (Bozell and Ludwickson 1990:17). The collection has not been formally studied but select samples have been the subject of several University of Nebraska-Lincoln student laboratory projects and papers.


Brownville Nebraska Archaeology

Floor of hotel basement excavation at Brownville.

Brownville also known as the ‘City of Seven Hills’ was founded by Richard Brown in 1854. It soon developed into an important center for milling and overland and steamboat traffic. While the town saw some rough economic times, it remained viable due the local fruit industry, steady barge traffic, and construction of a Missouri River bridge in 1930. Today Brownville is a locally vibrant center for art, culture, and history. It is the only territorial-era townsite to be the subject of archaeological investigations that remains occupied and much of the town is a National Register of Historic Places District.

Proposed reconstruction of US-136 and Brownville’s Main Street triggered systematic excavations in 1982 to mitigate adverse effect to the archaeological component of the historic district designation. The work was under the direction of John Ludwickson and Steve Holen (Bozell and Ludwickson 1990:23-25). Highway construction plans were carefully reviewed in relation to historic photographs and maps and it became apparent the construction had the potential to impact up to eleven former structures related to the territorial and early statehood period. Field investigations ultimately focused on excavations at the buried ruins of a hotel, a bakery, two stores, and trash-filled outhouse pits and a cistern. In addition to a very large artifact collection, these investigations resulted in recovering important architectural information.


Platteford, Nebraska Archaeology Excavation Foundation

Platteford foundation, view to the north.

A former town on the Platte River, Platteford was platted in 1857. Construction began the same year. A hotel was built and Platteford became the location of a ferry across the Platte. Archival records are scant but imply that the town never consisted or more than a few buildings and homes. It was occupied for only several years in the late 1850s.

Highway N-31 east of Louisville was programmed for widening and reconstruction in 1995 and the Nebraska State Historical Society contracted with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to bring an archaeology fieldschool to search for and excavate any remains associated with Platteford (Bleed et al. 2008). A limestone foundation was discovered which clearly related to the 1850s based on the type of ceramics, bottles, and tools recovered. Based on its size and the rather abundant collection of animal bone and domestic refuse recovered, the buried foundation was almost certainly a cellar below a small home and probably one of the very residences actually built in this town.


Rockport Nebraska Archaeology Artifacts

Two blacksmithing tools (countersink bit [top] and a tapered punch) recovered during Rockport excavations.

            Rockport is located directly on the Douglas – Washington county line and was settled in 1857 but only remained inhabited for a few years. The town never really consisted of much more than a steamboat landing, a hotel, a lime kiln, and some saw and shingle mills. These business provided wood for steamboats and material for rural building construction. According to Missouri River maps, the small town was located on the floodplain, nestled below the bluffs immediately adjacent to the Missouri River. Archaeological survey has failed to locate any remains associated with this floodplain town although any features are probably deeply buried in silt or have been washed away by the shifting river. However, archival accounts do refer to scattered rural settlements in the bluffs above the town during the Territorial period. These were likely small farms or acreages and loosely related to Rockport.

Planned improvement of the county “river road’ above Rockport triggered an archaeological search for several early Euroamerican sites including any evidence of features related to Rockport.  Excavations were completed under the direction of the author in 2001 and 2002 with the assistance of University of Nebraska-Lincoln archaeological field schools (Bozell and Parks 2010). Several deep depressions were tested and proved to be cellars containing 1850s and 1860s trash. They are likely related to some of the rural cabins and farms associated with Rockport. Data collected from this project provides important information on the rural aspect of territorial settlement.

Cowles Mill

Cowles Mill Foundation, Nebraska City, Nebraska

Foundation of the primary Cowles Mill building eroding from a creek bank.

This site is the only Territorial period archaeological resource which is not a townsite. Henry Clinton Cowles, a cabinet maker and miller from Genesee County, New York moved to the Nebraska City area in 1853. He soon built a saw and grist mill operation along Walnut Creek a couple of miles northwest of Nebraska City. By 1860, Cowles had relocated to Colorado. His mill however remained in operation until the 1920s and throughout its history was the subject of various technological improvements. No buildings remain.

A substandard bridge spans Walnut Creek in the immediate vicinity of the Cowles Mill and is in need of replacement. Between 2014 and 2017, archaeological documentation was carried out which discovered the buried ruins of the primary mill buildings and surface and buried remnants of dams, the mill race, ponds and other features (Bozell and Mandel 2017). Limited test excavations and mapping were completed. Ultimately the main portions of the mill were avoided by construction eliminating the need for extensive excavations, but the testing and mapping has provided important baseline data for the understanding the evolution of milling from the Territorial period to the 1920s.


Bell, John T.
​1876    History of Washington County, Nebraska. Herald Steam Book and Job               Printing House. Omaha.

Bleed, Peter, Amy Koch, John Swigart, and Mary J. Adair
2008    The Archeology of Plattford, Sarpy County, Nebraska. On file, Nebraska State    Historical Society, State Archeology Office. Lincoln.

Bozell, John R. and John Ludwickson
1990    A Summary of the Nebraska Highway Archeology Program for the Years 1976- 1985. On file, Nebraska State Historical Society, State Archeology Office. Lincoln.

Bozell, John R. and Rolfe D. Mandel
2017    Archeological and Geomorphic Investigations at the Cowles Mill Complex        (25OT505/513), Otoe County, Nebraska. On file, Nebraska State Historical Society, State Archeology Office. Lincoln.

Bozell, John R. and Stanley M. Parks
2010    Data Recovery at 25WN50 and 25WN46 in the Vicinity of the Territorial Town of Rockport. On file, Nebraska State Historical Society, State Archeology Office. Lincoln.

Steinacher, Terry L. and Gayle F. Carlson
1984    Nebraska Highway Archeological and Historical Salvage Investigations, 1969-  1975. Nebraska State Historical Society Publications in Anthropology 10. Lincoln.

About the Author –

Rob Bozell is the Nebraska State Archeologist at the Nebraska State Historical Society – State Archeology Office, and the Manager of the Highway Cultural Resources Program.

Want to learn more about the Archaeology of Territorial Nebraska?

Read Gayle F. Carlson’s chapter on “Europeans and Americans,” from the Cellars of Time and Nebraska History series, covering how archaeology can fill many of the gaps in historical records from this time period – available online from the Nebraska State Historical Society! 

Visit Neligh Mill State Historic Site and explore the history of milling in Nebraska! Although constructed several decades later than Cowles Mill, this mill is open for tours with its original 1880s equipment still intact!

Learn more about the agreement between the Nebraska Department of Transportation and the Nebraska State Historical Society that has provided the funding for the projects covered above, and much archaeological research and compliance across the state!

Archaeology at the Beaver Creek Trail Crossing Site

This post was originally featured on the Nebraska State Historical Society Blog at Content reproduced with permission.

[The following blog post is the third in a series of posts highlighting archaeological sites that relate to Nebraska’s Statehood or date to the period around 1867! This series will run through September in celebration of Nebraska Archaeology Month and our state’s Sesquicentennial!]

A number of early Nebraska settlements and townsites were relocated or abandoned over the years as transportation routes changed in response to the construction of new trails, railroads, and highways. The town of Beaver Crossing, located today three miles south of Interstate 80 along the Blue River, is one such town no longer found in its original location.

Roland Reed Ranch, Beaver Crossing, Nebraska

Roland Reed Ranch, Beaver Crossing, Nebraska 1866 (Nebraska State Historical Society Collections)

In 1862, entrepreneurs established a road ranch at the ford of Beaver Creek along the Nebraska City Cut-Off, one of many branches of the Oregon-California Trail. This cut-off, established in 1846, ran from Old Fort Kearny (Nebraska City) to New Fort Kearny (Kearney). Travel on the trail increased after Nebraska became a territory in 1854 and continued on through the early 1870s. Encouraged by the prosperity at the road ranch during the 1860s, several additional businesses, including a post office and general store were established, and the town of Beaver Crossing was born. Within a decade, however, travel along the trail had declined making business no longer economically feasible. The construction of a gristmill on the Blue River roughly four miles to the southeast of town, as well as the placement of a nearby railroad spelled the end of the original Beaver Crossing townsite in 1871.

Nebraska Archeology Site 25SW49, Beaver Crossing

Overview of Archeological Site 25SW49, including Trail Ruts along the West Side of Beaver Creek.

The original site of Beaver Crossing became the focus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Archaeological Field School in 2005 and 2006. Local informants had contacted the Nebraska State Historical Society and UNL regarding the site, designated archaeological site 25SW49, in 2004. Depressions, low mounds, and trail rut segments, were visible on the present ground surface. Prior to excavations, magnetic, resistance, and ground penetrating radar geophysical surveys were conducted on portions of the site to identify areas likely to yield important archaeological information. Several features related to early Beaver Crossing buildings as well as the original trail ruts were visible in the data. Based on these results, 72 square meters were excavated at the site during the 2005-2006 field school seasons, with over 16,000 artifacts recovered.

Conductivity Data at Beaver Crossing Nebraska

Geophysical Conductivity Data showing the Trail Ruts (bottom, linear), Well (circular feature), and Features associated with a ranch building (top, blue).

During the excavation, it became apparent that the original site of Beaver Crossing had not simply been abandoned and left to decay. Instead, it had been entirely relocated to its current location. The excavation results indicated that the occupants had dismantled the structures at the site and took all usable material with them, including logs and foundation stones. Evidence for this was found in the numerous tiny brick fragments and mortar smears identified at the site, with no larger pieces or complete bricks and stones present. Daub with wood grain impressions was recovered, but there was no indication of logs or boards of any kind left in place. The number of bent and broken nails was also much fewer than was to be expected had the building had been left to decay naturally. In addition, the mortar concentrations in the soil seemed to show the tracks of stones being pulled up and out of the ground. It appears that anything that could be reused at the new town site was taken.

The archaeological record found at the Beaver Creek Trail Crossing Site demonstrates that the idea of making do with what was available was a lesson learned by the inhabitants from years of living a self reliant lifestyle on the open plains.

About the Author –

Nolan Johnson is an archeologist at the Nebraska State Historical Society – State Archeology Office.

Interested in learning more about the Beaver Crossing Site or the archaeology of other Nebraska trails sites?

View a recorded presentation on the Archaeology of the Beaver Creek Trail Crossing Site by the author on YouTube!

Read the article “You Can Take It with You: Archaeology at the Beaver Creek Trail Crossing” as published in Nebraska Anthropology Vol. 21 (2006) – available for free via UNL Digital Commons.

Visit Rock Creek Station State Historic Park, another road ranch/trail site in Nebraska, featuring intact Oregon-California Trail Ruts and period buildings reconstructed based on excavations completed by NSHS archaeologists in 1980-81.

Check out the “Digging In: The Historic Trails of Nebraska” website, which highlights archaeological and historical research on Nebraska’s immigrant trails, produced by Dr. Paul Demers in conjunction with the UNL Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.

Archaeology at the Thomas P. Kennard State Historic Site

[The following blog post is the second in a series of posts highlighting archaeological sites that relate to Nebraska’s Statehood or date to the period around 1867! This series will run through September in celebration of Nebraska Archaeology Month and our state’s Sesquicentennial!]

Kennard - Lincoln 360

Thomas P. Kennard House seen from first Nebraska State Capitol Building (c. 1871) – note the rear wing. Nebraska State Historical Society, SFN5293.

In 1869, Nebraska’s first Secretary of State Thomas P. Kennard joined Governor David Butler and Auditor John Gillespie in constructing large personal residences in Lincoln. These impressive structures, designed by Chicago Architect John K. Winchell, were intended as a demonstration of confidence in the state’s new capital city, and to encourage others to invest in Lincoln. Located on the north half of Block 153 along H Street between 16th and 17th Streets, the Italianate style Kennard house is the only one of these structures that remains standing today. Believed to be the oldest house within the original plat of Lincoln, the house was designated as the Nebraska Statehood Memorial in 1968.

1968 Archeological Excavations

1968 Archaeological Excavation at the Kennard House – Ron Kivett at work. Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology 25LC15-13.

That same year, ahead of the official dedication open house on October 5, the Nebraska State Historical Society conducted some preliminary archaeological excavations in the backyard of the Kennard House to explore what remained of the original rear wing of the house, seen in early photos of the residence but demolished in 1923. The 5’x5’ test units, dug in advance of possible rear wing reconstruction, revealed an intact foundation along with architectural materials and household items such as medicine bottles and ceramics. Despite the findings, 25 years passed until further exploration of the rear wing and Kennard House back yard continued.

1968 Excavation - sewer pipe, foundation

1968 Excavation – Foundation (foreground) and 1888 Sewer Line (background). Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology 25LC15-49.

1968 Excavation - Foundation, Bottle

1968 Excavation – Foundation, Zehrung and Dunn Medicine Bottle (1880s). Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology 25LC15-31.

In 1992, renewed discussion of reconstruction led to additional archaeological investigations at the Kennard House. With the primary aim of identifying original construction materials and methods to guide future reconstruction efforts, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Anthropology Department held an archaeology field school at the site, led by Dr. Peter Bleed. The excavations also sought to uncover artifacts that could yield information on the lifestyle of the Kennard family and their servants, as well as subsequent occupants of the house, which went on to function as a boarding house, a fraternity house, and a single-family residence at various times.

1992 Excavation

1992 UNL Archaeology Field School Excavation – Dr. Peter Bleed (left). 25LC15 Site File.

Between May 18-July 9, 1992, a group of 17 undergraduate students and a number of volunteers excavated 82 square meters of the back and side yards of the Kennard House. The location of the units was based on remote sensing data produced by UNL physicist John Weymouth as a guide to possible buried features at the site. Structural remains uncovered during excavation include the foundation wall of the rear wing, a hand dug well, a cistern, a ‘Hooker and Orr’ plumbing feature (dating to July 1888), and a number of clay tile and ferrous metal pipes related to various plumbing episodes over the years.

kennard cistern

Cistern at Kennard House, 1992 Excavation. Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology, 25LC15 Site File.

In addition to the buried structural features found at the site, architectural remains such as portions of painted wall, window panes, hinges and other hardware, linoleum fragments, roofing materials, and light fixture components were recovered. These materials can be used to determine original design details of the Kennard House, as well as style changes made during more recent renovations. Although the plans for rear wing reconstruction never came to fruition, these details would prove invaluable in the event that reconstruction is ever again pursued.

As intended, the archaeological excavation also uncovered a large amount of household artifacts related to the residents of 1627 H Street. Information about food consumption (cut animal bones, food/beverage bottles), food preparation/service (platters, bowls, cups), health (medical and personal care bottles and jars), and recreation (toys) can all be gathered from the material culture identified from the Kennard House excavations. While a number of the best preserved artifacts appear to post-date the Kennard occupation of the house (1869-1887), many of these were likely deposited prior to or circa 1923, when the rear-wing was demolished during renovations. As a result, these materials still provide an important record of life in Lincoln at the turn of the nineteenth century. In addition, despite the later dates of materials in deposits held by features like the cistern, a portion of the collection does appear to date to the earlier occupation of the house by the Kennard Family, and could provide greater insight into the lifestyle of ‘the father of Lincoln’ and his family, with the completion of additional (and much-needed) analysis.

Today, the Kennard House interior is open by appointment, with features from the 1992 excavations marked in the backyard for visitors wishing to take a self-guided tour. Just as restoration of the house is a continuous process, so too is the archaeological investigation. While UNL students continued their experience into the fall of 1992 with artifact cleaning and processing in the lab, much of the analysis on these materials remains to be completed. In addition, with approximately only 25% of the site tested, other portions of the property may warrant future archaeological investigation, should the circumstances arise. For the time being, however, the site continues to be well-preserved under NSHS-ownership, faring better than much of the original plat of Lincoln, which has been paved over or built up in the 150 years since Nebraska became a state. This allows the archaeology of the Kennard House to remain safe underground, providing us a continued window into the past of the earliest days of Lincoln and Nebraska’s Statehood – a perspective only the archaeological record can provide.



Bleed, Peter and Stanley Parks. “A Preliminary Report on the 1992 Archeological Excavations at the Kennard House – the Nebraska Statehood Memorial 25LC15.” July 29, 1992.

Buecker, Thomas R. “The Father of Lincoln, Nebraska: The Life and Times of Thomas P. Kennard.” Nebraska History, Volume 95, Number 2 (pgs. 78-93), Summer 2014.

About the Author – 

Courtney Ziska is an archeologist at the Nebraska State Historical Society – State Archeology Office.

Interested in learning more about the Thomas P. Kennard Historic Site?

Attend the Archaeology Free Family Fun Day at the Kennard House on Saturday, September 9 from 1:00-3:00 p.m.! See artifacts from the 1992 excavation and learn more about what historical archaeology can tell us about our recent past, including Nebraska Statehood. Take a tour of the interior and play period games, celebrating the Sesquicentennial. Depending on current renovation work being completed at the house, visitors may also get to examine open archaeological excavations in the backyard for the first time in 25 years!

Take a tour of the Thomas P. Kennard State Historic Site, including the self-guided tour of the archaeological features exposed in the backyard. Visit for more information.

Share the ‘Teaching with Historic Places’ lesson plan on the Thomas P. Kennard House: Building a Prairie Capital with a teacher or a student you know, and help others learn about how Lincoln became the state capital and what it looked like in its earliest days!

Read “The Father of Lincoln, Nebraska: The Life and Times of Thomas P. Kennard” by Thomas R. Buecker, published in Nebraska History, Volume 95, Number 2 (Summer 2014)

The Bertrand – Nebraska on the Frontier of Shipwreck Archaeology

[The following blog post is the first of a series of posts highlighting archaeological sites that relate to Nebraska’s Statehood or date to the period around 1867! This series will run through September in celebration of Nebraska Archaeology Month and our state’s Sesquicentennial!]

Steamboat Bertrand Excavation

Bertrand excavation with two-thirds of the cargo removed. (Photo courtesy of Woodman of the World Magazine. Omaha, Nebraska.)

Terms like ‘shipwreck archaeology’ and ‘maritime preservation’ don’t often elicit thoughts of Nebraska.  But therein extend some of the deepest roots of maritime archaeology in the Americas—30 feet deep to be exact-—in a cornfield in the Desoto Wildlife Refuge, a mile or so from the present bed of the Missouri River.  In 1968, two salvors, Jesse Pursell and Sam Corbino used a magnetometer to find the wreck of the steamboat Bertrand.  The vessel had, 103 years earlier, hit a ‘snag’ (part of a sunken tree) and sank on April 1st, 1865—just a few days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Before sinking, Bertrand was run into the river’s bank, allowing most passengers to step off without getting their feet wet.  This was in sharp contrast to the horrific demise 26 days later, of Sultana, another river steamboat near Memphis. Sultana sank due a boiler explosion resulting in more fatalities than did RMS Titanic in 1912.


The Steamboat Bertrand’s intended destination was Deer Lodge, Montana. (Photo Credit: United States Department of the Interior. Cecil W. Stoughton, 1969.)

Traditionally, we refer to vessels made for riverways and the Great Lakes as ‘boats.’  Riverboats are built for shallow water navigation.  Their capacity tends to be concentrated above the water surface rather than in a deep hull.  They carried cargo and passengers equal to seagoing vessels, while maintaining a shallow draft.  The inherent problem with river travel is overcoming the current on the upstream leg of any two-way journey.  Before the steam engine, downriver travel was often on raft-like craft that could be recycled as cut timber at journey’s end.  The physics of steam expansion enabled huge pistons to churn paddlewheels against the current, propelling large vessels upstream.  The wheels could be mounted on each side of the hull or, like the Bertrand, a single large wheel at the stern.  This application of steam technology was particularly important to the nation’s eastern states rich in rivers where steamboats greatly accelerated the nation’s growth.

The remains of Bertrand were lost to memory after early salvage attempts but came back to public attention in the mid-20th Century when found again by Pursell and Corbino.  Rivers aren’t passive waterbodies; the Missouri reshaped itself during 103 intervening years, which explains the overlying cornfield and thirty feet of silt and gravel.  Philosophical questions regarding ownership of antiquities, our physical touchstones to the past, were also being redefined. The Antiquities Act of 1906 offered protection for them on federal lands; then a 1916 organic act created the National Park Service, now the nation’s lead agency in historic preservation.  Petsche cited compliance with the1935 Historic Sites Act’ in dealing with Bertrand.  But just two years before Bertrand’s discovery came the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act that created a National Register and State Historic Preservation Officers with significant authority over treatment of the past.

Aerial View of Bertrand Excavation

Aerial view of the Bertrand Excavation. (Photo Credit: United States Department of the Interior. Cecil W. Stoughton, 1969.)

Treasure hunters had already begun tearing up Spanish maritime heritage sites in offshore Florida.  But the salvage of antiquities from this wreck in Nebraska lacked the overtones of the grand hustle by salvors backed by slick magazines that became a decades long spectacle in Florida.  Bertrand salvors were also motivated by the potential of treasure, including mercury used for refining gold.  But they were apparently straightforward and open to cooperation with preservationists.  Law and policy was in this case clearly on the side of salvage.

The Nebraska State Historical Society represented the interests of citizens devoted to preserving remnants of local history and archaeology. The agreement reached by all the principles was that nothing of historical value was to be lost to the public.  Salvers could be reimbursed in a 60/40 % split by the government but no historic fabric forfeited.  The details of how this played out in the final analysis are not clear to me from Petsche’s book.

Bertrand Excavation

Bertrand Excavation. (Photo Credit: United States Department of the Interior. Cecil W. Stoughton, 1969.)

The conundrum presented by salvage to archaeology is understandable.  People are motivated to find lost things and hope to profit from them.  Federal agencies represent the public at large, and protect vestiges of the past for the public of the future. American archaeologists as represented by the Society for American Archaeology in 1968, considered themselves prehistorians. They were not adept at speaking out for historical shipwrecks nor post-Columbus sites in general. The Society for Historical Archaeology was created in 1967, the year before Bertrand was found.  It included an Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology. But if non-agency archaeologists were involved in advocating against disturbance it was not evident to me.

The Midwest Archaeological Center of the NPS in Lincoln was given archaeological control of the excavation of Bertrand but the principal investigator was an historical architect Jerome Petsche, from the NPS Washington Office.  Bertrand, over a hundred years old, was being excavated through GSA contract with the US Bureau of sport Fisheries a (predecessor of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). They followed no precedents for shipwreck excavation because, well, there weren’t any.  This is clearly not the way it would happen now.  The individuals involved were dealing with glitches in law and practice concerning the historical value of shipwrecks in the US—most of which were corrected by later legislation. It would be two decades before law caught up to this problem with the Abandoned Shipwreck Act.

Bertrand Excavation

Bertrand Excavation. (Photo Credit: United States Department of the Interior. Cecil W. Stoughton, 1969.)

There were no models for shipwreck excavation in the U.S. and the disastrous consequences of that reality were already unfolding a few hundred miles away.  Namely, with the Civil War gunboat Cairo on the Yazoo River near Vicksburg. Cairo was literally pulled apart by a combination of salvers and civil war historians before NPS was given control. This is a different but related story. Put aside for a moment any thoughts of ‘underwater archaeology’ as it  would be done today.  What was remarkable, in the case of Bertrand, was how expeditiously the problem was addressed without a specialized infrastructure to handle it.

Bertrand lay so far beneath the land surface that water flooded any newly opened cavity. To avoid flooding while heavy machinery, including bulldozers, removed soil overburden, a system of well points (more than 200) were drilled around the hull.  Water was sucked out and away before it hampered excavation.  As long as the well points kept pumping, you were more likely to be run over by an historical architect on a bulldozer than see an archaeologist swim by.  Petsche, under the archaeological oversight of Wil Husted and the Midwest Archeological Center, led the excavation and delivered a complete report in 1974.  It was all in keeping with the unfit mélange of inappropriate legislation they operated under.  But within that context the salvers acted lawfully and the professionals acted…professionally.

Removing Bertrand Cargo

Careful removal of Bertrand Cargo. (Photo Credit: United States Department of the Interior. Cecil W. Stoughton, 1969.)

The Bertrand excavation marked a turning point for archaeology in a maritime context.  The principal investigator was an historical architect working on a comparatively intact shipwreck, but he stayed in communication with competent land archaeologists at MWAC.  Petsche also acknowledged contacts given him by George Fischer, an NPS archaeologist then beginning to specialize in shipwreck work.  Petsche remarks that Fischer also “…spent several days with us in the mud and 100 degree temperatures…”

From my perspective a half century later, it seems Petsche understood how to care for historic fabric; was equipped to map historic structures; was motivated to study what he didn’t know and had the energy and savvy to put together a timely project and write a useful report. — The Steamboat Bertrand: History, Excavation and Architecture by Jerome E. Petsche has become a fundamental reference for all western riverboat investigations since.  Almost equally important, the Foreword and Preface of the Bertrand report were written by Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton and Director of the National Park Service, Ron Walker.  That is important.  Key figures in historic preservation on an international level wrote of the importance of a shipwreck lying in the muck-filled former channel of the Missouri river in Nebraska.

Archaeologists, including the author, are inclined to turn red at the thought of salvors and architects excavating shipwrecks.  Antiquities are usually not “saved” by an act of salvage.  That someone wants to salvage something it is not enough reason for a society to let them do so. Particularly since the public must care for it in perpetuity.  But how Nebraska and NPS and USFW dealt with it is not a simple issue.  It wouldn’t be done that way now, but—it wasn’t now, it was then—and the project’s results in that context, are hard to argue with.  And the story didn’t stop there. In June 2011, the Bertrand remains and exhibits, then residing in a US Fish and Wildlife visitor center, were threatened by a flooding event.  The USFW Service helped by many citizen volunteers, rolled up their sleeves and quickly packed and removed the salvaged cargo to safer quarters.

Cargo - Bottles

Intact bottles from the Bertrand Cargo. (Photo Credit: United States Department of the Interior. Cecil W. Stoughton, 1969.)

When excavated, shipwrecks like any material remains, never end up in truly stable environments—just different ones. Taking antiquities from a context in which they have reached a level of equilibrium, means they were taken someplace else judged temporarily secure—it’s always a gamble; consider the wealth of ruins and museums destroyed by Isis in Syria.  But history came alive to the USFW, NPS and citizen volunteers who moved the threatened Bertrand remains before the floodwaters arrived.  When the Nebraskan public buys into shipwreck archaeology with their sweat, it should be of note to agencies and archaeologists alike.

Cargo - Clothing

Example of the degree of preservation found at the Steamboat Bertrand site. (Photo Credit: United States Department of the Interior. Cecil W. Stoughton, 1969.)

About the Author –

Dan Lenihan was the founding chief of the NPS Submerged Resources Center (SRC).

He ran the National Reservoir Inundation from 1975 to 1980 and the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit (SCRU) 1980 thru 1999.  When he retired, Larry Murphy became Chief and the name was changed to Submerged Resources Center (SRC).  Dan worked for SRC as a rehired annuitant off and on, from 1999 to 2009 on various projects.  He also published several books including Submerged (a popular book about the SRC) Underwater Wonders of the National Parks and co-authored three novels.

Interested in learning more about the Steamboat Bertrand?

Read The Steamboat Bertrand: History, Excavation, and Architecture by Jerome E. Petsche (as referenced above) at

View the collections uncovered during excavation at the Steamboat Bertrand museum located inside the visitor center at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. For more information, visit

Learn about the efforts undertaken by the Gerald. R. Ford Conservation Center in Omaha to conserve the metal found during the Steamboat Bertrand excavations –