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The First Peoples here

Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has two premier archaeological sites, both on the eastern side.  One is Mummy Cave located between Cody and Yellowstone; the other is Dead Indian Campground, located along Chief Joseph Scenic Highway north of Cody.  Mummy Cave is a well-preserved site showing evidence up to 9000 years old.  It is well-known and much talked about.

On the other hand, Dead Indian site is difficult to find much information about.  The site butts up against the road, near the Dead Indian Campground.  It was discovered when someone noticed bones and artifacts slumping into the creek and a dig was lead by George Frison of The University of Wyoming beginning in 1969 and continuing through 1971. According to Frison’s Survival by Hunting, the Dead Indian site is around 4000 years old and probably a large winter campsite.

Another premier site nearby is the Bugas-Holding site.  The area is meadow, aspens, and next to the creek.  This site also was a large winter campsite where both Bighorn Sheep and Buffalo were taken.  Bugas-Holding site

In order to find out more about the Dead Indian site, I went to the Cody library and was lucky enough that they had a copy of the Wyoming Archaeologist from the 70’s when the site was excavated.  The local chapter had done the dig with help from Frison.  The frayed paperbound copy was the technical report of the findings.

Walking around the site now, my untrained eye would never know there had been a dig.  The teepee rings are no longer visible.  The only evidence I saw was a single small 1/8″ size obsidian chip.  The area though, is a perfect campsite.  It has a fairly large and flat meadow right near the creek.  It is east enough of the Absarokas that the snow accumulation is less than farther up Dead Indian drainage.  It is protected from wind and has areas for lookouts.  And it is along a major route through the Park and into the desert below.

In the dig they found antlers of mule deer laid out in ceremonial fashion.  A skeleton of a small child was uncovered.  Over 500 projectile points and hundreds of stone tools were unearthed.  It seems that mostly what these people killed and ate were mule deer and mountain sheep.  Even though they lived here during the winter, few elk were uncovered which suggests the populations of  large mammals was very different then.  George Frison thinks hunting was done singly or in a group, rather than using large scale trapping.

Just around the corner over at Bugas-Holding, mostly Buffalo and sheep were found.  The sheep were probably taken in traps right near the site.  The site is on private property but a short jaunt over the hills and there are numerous sheep traps, close enough to bring back kill to the campground.  An easy walk above the site and you can view the entire valley, east to west; a perfect place for a lookout.  Looking up the valley from the siteLarge obsidian flaking sites are around these hillsides.  It seems that this site was later than the Dead Indian and they did use large scale trapping.

George Frison wonders, and so do I, why these peoples would overwinter in and around 7,000′, when they could have easily gone down to the Big Horn Basin at around 5000′ where there is less snow cover.  He suggests the abundance of winter hunting.  You also have to wonder if the climate was different then as well.The creek in winterAs I find out more about what went on in this area east of Yellowstone, I’ll let you know.  To imagine this was a major route through the Park, and a large scale occupation area–well, its very quiet here now.  Few people live here year round; most choose to live in the lower elevations nearby.   People hunt here now, but the people who hunted here in the past also did ceremony to their prey.  When I happen to find a small piece of evidence, like a sheep trap or a piece of obsidian, there is a bit of wonder and mystery about it–and sadness.  Some principal piece that went on here for thousands of years is gone forever.

2 Responses

  1. Leslie,
    The Horner site is the premier site in this country for giving up historical record and artifacts. So far. It is where Sage creek flows into the Shoshone river. There have been some exciting sheep eater (Shoshoni “little people”) finds recently due to the wildland fires burning off feet of pine needle duff and exposing surface historical layers. IE: Boulder Basin and upper Greybull river. More to come soon in Sunlight/Crandall, no doubt.
    George F. is spending much of his time, mainly summer and fall, in Tensleep– where he grew up. He is getting pretty long in the tooth. Go visit him. Minutes can turn into hours and can turn quickly into days when listening to that man talk history. He is great! You should also look into Medicine Lodge State Park on your way to Tensleep and see the history there and pictographs and petrogliphs.


  2. Thanks, will do. DIdn’t know I could actually visit with George Frison. Awesome.


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