History Opinions & Features December 08, 2020 at 10:30 am

The overlooked Black cowboy whose discovery changed the field of archaeology

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor December 08, 2020 at 10:30 am

December 08, 2020 at 10:30 am | History, Opinions & Features

George McJunkin. Photo courtesy of Georgia and Bill Lockridge, former owners of the Crowfoot Ranch. Accessed at www.blm.gov.

Before the 1920s, there was no general agreement on how long humans had been in the Americas. Many historians believed that humans had been in the region for only about 4,000 years but thanks to a game-changing discovery in 1908 by Black cowboy George McJunkin, scholars were able to place mankind in North America almost 7,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Indeed, McJunkin made one of the most important finds in American archaeology — the discovery of ancient bones that eventually helped establish the presence of man in the New World. However, it was not until fifty years after his death that he was recognized. Even while alive, his efforts to bring the attention of the scientific community to his incredible find did not materialize.

Described as “naturally inquisitive”, McJunkin was famed for being deeply interested in science and was often seen with a telescope on his saddle. He was a “bronco busting cowboy” and a bi-lingual ranch foreman who loved to learn about the world. Thus, he often collected rocks, crystals and fossils, while studying the night sky with his telescope, the NPS reported. All these factors and more would lead him to make that significant discovery.

A former slave, McJunkin was born on a ranch near Midway, Texas in 1851. His father was a blacksmith. Growing up around horses, McJunkin learned to ride and rope, taking on the duties of local white cowboys who had then left to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War. When the war ended, he became a freedman and left Texas for northern New Mexico to find work as a cowboy. There, he would become highly respected as one of the best horse breakers.

Gradually, he started giving lessons on how to break a horse in exchange for lessons on how to read. His love for science was noticed by all, so was the fact that he could speak Spanish, and this made him serve as a bridge between Anglo and Hispanic communities, a report noted. By the early 1900s, he had become the foreman of the Crowfoot Ranch near Folsom, New Mexico. It was during this period — on August 27, 1908 — that a thunderstorm wreaked havoc in the town of Folsom, killing about 17 people.

The day after the flash flood, McJunkin took his horse out to survey the damage. As he rode down an arroyo, which he called Wild Horse Arroyo due to the horses he broke there, he found some animal bones exposed out of the soil. Getting closer, he realized they were bison bones but they were much bigger than any bison or cattle bones he had ever seen before. There and then, he sensed that this discovery would be significant, and from that moment until his death, he made attempts to get others interested in his find or to even come and look at the site of the discovery, which he called the Bone Pit. He even wrote to a man in Las Vegas who was interested in bones but no one came over to look at the site before McJunkin died in 1922 in his early 70s, TexasMontly reported.

Interestingly, just seven months after his death, Carl Schwacheim, one of the people whom McJunkin had told of his discovery, and Fred Howarth, a banker as well as a group including a taxidermist paid a visit to the Bone Pit or what archaeologists later dubbed the Folsom Site. They removed some bones from the site and took them to Raton, where the bones remained until 1926. That same year, a member of Schwacheim’s team showed some of the bones to J. D. Figgins of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Being his first time seeing bones like those, Figgins decided to go and look at the site. Together with Harold Cook, the team at the Colorado Museum started formal excavations at the site in 1926 and found several bones from at least 30 extinct bison which scientists had not yet described in written works, Archaeology Southwest said. And among the bones were also the discovery of spear points which would along the way give further evidence of the antiquity of man.

In other words, scientists came to a consensus that humans had lived in the Americas since at least the end of the last Ice Age.

“That brought decades of bitter controversy and dispute to an end,” said David Meltzer, a professor of archaeology at Southern Methodist University. “Most cowboys probably would have kept riding, but to his ever-lasting credit, George got off his horse and went down into the arroyo to get a closer look.”

Although McJunkin’s discovery changed the field of archaeology, he was never recognized. Howarth and Schwacheim got the full credit until almost 50 years after McJunkin’s death when George Agogino of Eastern New Mexico University heard stories about him and decided to document his life and his role in the discovery.

In 2019, the Black cowboy’s legacy was honored with an induction into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

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