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Signal Butte

The North Platte River basin is often considered one of the last western frontiers to tourists and visitors arriving in western Nebraska to visit the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails and to 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 BP in the Middle Lithic Period, the earliest period of human occupation in the Americas.

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

Green, the President of Platte Valley State Bank at the time, and a successful businessman and community leader in Scotts Bluff County, had taken up archaeology as a hobby and spent his 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 further and further back in time. According to his own account, he had 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. Strong along with Waldo Rudolph Wedel (1908-1996), Asa A.T. Hill, Green (These four men formed the inner circle of the Nebraska State Archaeological Survey) and others from the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology founded by John Wesley Powell in 1879, began excavations in 1931 at what soon became known as Signal Butte, the oldest American Indian archeological site on the great plains.

Arriving in western Nebraska in 1931, Strong meet with Green in Gering, NE, and began their journey toward the dig site to the west of Robidoux Pass. After arriving at the site, Strong must have begun to understand the challenge that lay before him but was obviously not daunted by the 125-foot climb that had to be made to ascend the promontory as its circumference was blocked by 20 to 50-foot escarpments consisting of sand, silt, ash, and limestone.

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 had to be hand-delivered to the top of the promontory for digging purposes and to keep the crews hydrated. After a long day of digging, the crews were resupplied, take their meals, and camped at an encampment at the bottom of the butte where the land was flat near a field road that lead to the base of the promontory from a county road about a mile to the north.

Strong led the investigations of the butte in 1931 and briefly again 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 which revealed three separate levels of artifacts including signs of repeated habitation. Before leaving to return to Lincoln, NE after two weeks Strong, a confident and driven man, was inclined to leave his work tools, shovels, and screens on top of the butte believing that another company would return to the promontory and continue further excavations.

It wasn’t until after the end of WWII that a Smithsonian Institute Archeological Survey crew returned to the butte and found the tools that Strong had left behind. The tools, screens, shovels, brushes, and other accompaniments brought by the first expedition to the butte are still there.

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 stratigraphy layers as “chapters in a book” relating the “story of early man in the western plains.” in each deepening layer of matrix.

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

After extensive digging, screening, washing, and examination on the site using these techniques as a guide, Strong’s crew discovered that about six inches below the grassroots the first three- to a six-inch layer of artifacts (Ceramic Period) was found to contain artifacts of the Dismal River and Upper Republican cultures. This six-inch layer showed fire pits, storage pits, scrapers, knives, drills, projectile points as well as animal bones, pottery shards, and mussel shells.

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

The lowest level, about 2 1⁄2 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 BC. The artifacts were found in a layer 12 to 32 inches thick resting on a gravel bed.

It was determined that Single Butte represents an area used repeatedly, passed down, across multiple traditions and cultures over the course of 5000 years. First, by Palio-Indians and led to the Dismal River Culture (forefathers of the plains Apache) and tribes including the Arapahoe, Pawnee, Cheyenne, and Sioux.

Evidence shows that they all used the area as a hunting ground, hunting camp, and workshops where meat and plants were processed.

If not for the likes of 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 plans. Green remained an influential figure in the community until his death in 1954. It’s been noted that after Thomas Green assisted W.D. Strong with the excavation(s) of Signal Butte that he gave a speech to the Scottsbluff Chapter of the Nebraska Historical Society in which he eloquently explained the deep appeal of local history stating that 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 that “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 that 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 have paved the way for a better understanding of WyoBraska’s history and its future.

| Credits

Signal Butte: A Western Nebraska Archeological Treasure – Visit Nebraska 10/16/22, 6:38 AM
Smithsonian Institute Archives
North Platte Valley Museum now Legacy of the Plains Museum, including the Paul Henderson collection.
The History of Scotts Blu! 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 Archeology Dept.
Legacy of the Plains Museum, Gering, NE | E. S. Wood collection of Indian projectile points, and other artifacts, found in Scotts Blu! County, Nebraska.

Story by: Hawk Buckman

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