Battle grounds inspire him.
Douglas D.Scott,former Great Plains team leader for the National Park Service’s Midwest Archaeological Center, has dug into the battlefields at the Little Bighorn,Sand Creek and the Nez Perce Big Hole, uncovering evidence of 19th-century conflict. Working with tribal leaders, fellow archaeologists and historians, he has sought to identify actual battle sites and to bolster the historical record with scientific evidence of what occurred at a site.
Scott has co-authored several books, including Archaeological Insights Into the Custer Battle,Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn and They Died With Custer: The Soldiers’ Skeletons From the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In November 2006, the University of Oklahoma Press published Finding Sand Creek: History and Archeology of the 1864 Massacre,which Scott co-wrote with historian Jerome A.Greene.Scott has also written Custer’s Heroes: The Little Bighorn Medals of Honor, which will be published in spring 2007 by AST Press of Wake Forest, N.C.
Scott now works as an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology and Geography at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and in the forensic science master’s program at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He also does private archaeological consulting for Connor Consulting in Lincoln.He recently took time to answer questions about his excavations for Wild West.
How often are important historical sites surveyed from an archaeological standpoint?
Scott: Archaeology, as practiced in the United States, has two areas—one academically driven research usually conducted by university-based scholars, and a second one driven by compliance with various local, state and federal historical preservation laws and policy. Both are ultimately driven by available funding. Pure research is rare. Perhaps the most visible and current example is the work at Jamestown, Va., the 1607 site. For years the site was believed lost, but diligent reevaluation of historic records, study of the landscape and terrain led William Kelso to the position that the site, or most of it, still existed. His work there has been nothing short of spectacular in the recovery of this important part of our heritage. However, most archaeological investigations on historic sites are done as a result of legal compliance work. Most important sites are avoided by new highways or other activities that require compliance related archaeology. This is not to say that valuable and interesting results are not forthcoming from surveys and excavations of these less visible but still significant historic sites, but they do not often catch the public imagination like the Jamestown work.
Should such investigation happen more often?
Scott: The easy answer is yes, but from an archaeological point of view, there are far fewer Jamestowns than slave quarters or frontier saloons to research. The point is that preservation of resources is first on our minds and is a major element of the profession’s ethical principles. We do not go blithely about digging things up. Rather, any archaeological investigation is preceded by documentary research, consideration of the appropriate methods, what will become of the collections, etc., and then and only then do we decide whether or not excavation is the best way to gather the information we seek.
What Plains Indian wars sites have you surveyed?
Scott: I have worked on Little Bighorn, the 1873 Custer fight on the Yellowstone, the 1874 Baker fight near Billings, Mont., the 1877 Nez Perce sites of Big Hole, Canyon Creek and Bear Paw. I have also worked on the 1868 Washita fight [Okla.], the 1867 encounter on Pawnee Fork in Kansas (Custer again), the 1865 fight at Mud Springs, Neb. and Sand Creek [Colorado]. I assisted others on four of the 1874 Red River war sites in Texas including identifying the Buffalo Wallow site.
What other sites have you studied?
Scott: I have also worked on several trans-Mississippi Civil War sites: Wilsons Creek, Mo.; Pea Ridge, Ark.; Glorieta, N.M.; Mine Creek, Kan.; and Honey Springs, Okla. I have also assisted others on work on San Jacinto, Palo Alto and Palmito, Texas. I am currently working on the 1856 Black Jack fight (a John Brown issue in Bleeding Kansas) and the Centralia Battle in Missouri.
It took a national park designation for such work to be done at Sand Creek, correct?
Scott: There has been a longterm interest in finding the Sand Creek site among historians, avocational archaeologists and others, but the site was on private land with limited access. And to top that off, even veterans of the 1864 site could not quite agree on its precise location within 30 years of the fight. It took the combined political weight of the Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who have a very strong connection to the site today, to push to have the site recognized at a national level. The park designation did not occur until after we had found the location. The funding, and that is what drove the project, came from Colorado gaming funds, Colorado State Historical Society preservation grants in 1997 and congressional funding from 1999 on. This was designated the Sand Creek relocation study. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a senator from Colorado with American Indian ancestry, was the driving force in Congress behind the Sand Creek study and designation as a National Historic Site.
Given its national significance, why wasn’t that site surveyed earlier?
Scott: There was no lack of interest, but resources and landowner permissions were not easy to come by. From a resource management point of view, the site was not threatened, and with so many other historic and archaeological sites being threatened by development or other activities in Colorado, it was not on the high-priority list until the political clout of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people was brought to bear.
Was there any resistance to the survey at Sand Creek?
Scott: Not really. There was some individual reluctance to overcome on the part of landowners and some Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members, but it was the grounds well of support on the part of both of those stakeholders that changed individual minds.
What kind of cooperation, if any, did you have from local landowners?
Scott: Most landowners had negative experiences with trespassers and illegal metal detecting, so they were pretty jaded about a bunch of folks trampling over their lands. However, once professional historians, archaeologists and tribal representatives, as a team, approached them, all but one was willing to have the assessment done. In all fairness to the landowners, they were concerned that if something was found, the government would take their grazing land and affect their livelihood. This is a common perception among the public, but by law no land can be taken by the government for historic preservation purposes without a willing seller and without fair compensation.
This was a multidisciplinary approach. Is that usual?
Scott:Multidisciplinary teams are common when government agencies are involved. I do not believe the team approach is as common or accepted in academic endeavors.
How important is it to involve multiple disciplines in such surveys?
Scott: The multidisciplinary team approach was critical to the Sand Creek work, as well as several others I have been involved in. No one person has the knowledge or professional credentials to do it all today. The success of Sand Creek and other projects is due to as much to the people involved as anything, and to the overall quality of the project management team who worked very hard to listen to all points of view and lines of evidence.
You did a similar survey at Little Bighorn, correct?
Scott: The Little Bighorn project was the foundation for battlefield archaeology as it is practiced today. I have had a long interest in military history and the study of its physical evidence. From an archaeological and anthropological perspective, my interest focused on studying the U.S. frontier army and how it adapted, in a social and material culture sense, to being placed in remote areas for the furtherance of U.S. government policy. A natural outgrowth of that interest was how the Frontier Army and its protagonists, the American Indian, chose to fight or coexist. The catalyst for my focusing on battlefield archaeological studies was a range fire at Little Bighorn Battlefield, a situation that allowed us to form a multidisciplinary team and study the site using a variety of new field and analytical methods. Since 1984, I have been fortunate to work on more than 30 different battlefields ranging in date from the 15th through the 20th centuries.
Did the work there differ in any way from what you did at Sand Creek?
Scott: Sand Creek was the culmination of 15 years experience working on battlefield sites, so yes there were differences, essentially refinement of methods of data recovery and analysis. Both were multidisciplinary, but Sand Creek much more refined and better funded.
How are the tribes involved?
Scott: Routinely, in archaeological studies, but especially those that are carried out on federal lands or with federal funding, consultation with the appropriate tribal authorities is carried out to ensure that the concerns of tribes are taken into account. This is a legal requirement for federal and many state-level projects.
Is there any resistance from American Indians when you do such surveys and particularly if they lead to excavations?
Scott: Like any endeavor, there are enthusiastic supporters and those who have concerns. As groups I have found most tribes I have been involved with to be supportive of recovering the physical evidence of their past, especially when they believe that only the white side is being told—a perception that historians only use documents from the white point of view.
Does archaeological investigation help support or refute oral Indian history?
Scott: Any oral history is a line of evidence that can be compared to the historical documents and the physical evidence, and—to use an analogy—just like detectives, we use a variety of witness statements, victim statements and lines of evidence to build a case. In my personal experience, American Indian oral history has proven accurate if not always precise about past events. I want it to be clear that I rarely rely on oral history handed down more than two generations as there are too many problems with misunderstanding of what grandfather or great-grandmother said or did with later generations. I use all sources to build working hypotheses to test against the physical evidence I recover from a site and the context in which it is found. I then go about finding the best fit with the sources. Some sources fit better than others, as I am sure you can appreciate. Overall I have found that good first-generation oral history fits pretty well with the story. With our Little Bighorn and Nez Perce work, Indian oral history and archaeology fit together better than the archaeology and the historic documentation of the battle from the soldier side. At Sand Creek the only part of the oral history that did not mesh were a few accounts of the precise site location, and unfortunately, that was what has gotten the media play—not the real content.
In the case of Sand Creek,the first survey failed to pinpoint the village site. Your survey seems to have accomplished that, although the book Finding Sand Creek doesn’t unequivocally say so. Why are you hesitant to claim you have found the village site?
Scott: The first Sand Creek inventory used the available historic documents and was conducted on the traditional site, located on the south bend or Dawson bend of Sand Creek. So little physical evidence was found that it made us believe the site was either destroyed or we were in the wrong location. Those results, done under a grant to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., were the impetus for the Cheyenne and Arapaho people to go to Congress and seek support for the site recognition. Federal funding allowed expansion in depth of the original team. Our question of whether the site was gone or we were in the wrong location allowed us to pull geomorphologists into the picture to settle the site destruction question. There has been very little change to the site in several thousand years. It was historians delving far into previously unstudied historic records that gave us the needed information to reassess all the records and led to suggesting that the actual site was about one-half to three-quarters of a mile north of the traditional [reckoned] location. We found the physical evidence of the camp in that area and somewhat beyond. Jerome Greene and I believe the main campsite was found. We do acknowledge that a few traditional cultural leaders in the Cheyenne tribe think the Dawson bend area is the correct site. This is a difference in opinion—a culturally based one versus a preponderance of scientific evidence. I go with the scientific evidence, but I respect that the Cheyenne have a culturally different view of the world and the site location. We all agree, regardless, that the site is located within the boundaries of the Sand Creek National Historic Site.
Which sites would you like to explore/ study?
Scott: I find almost anything interesting, as there is always something new to learn. I would like to conduct work on Spanish-Cuban-American War sites in Cuba. I have been there under authority of an academic visa, and several battlefields are well preserved and monumented. The Cubans are anxious to work together on such a study as well as some Spanish scholars. All we need to do is find the resources and get the permission to do the work.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.