Signal Butte – Wyobraska’s Forgotten Hidden Archeological Treasure

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| SCIENCE / HISTORY |

The North Platte River basin is often considered one of the last western frontiers to tourist 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 ares 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.

Article & Photography by: Hawk Buckman
Published February 22, 2020


In 1931 a local 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.

Thomas L. Green – Scottsbluff, NE - Photographer Unknown
Thomas L. Green – Scottsbluff, NE – Photographer Unknown

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 who 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.

William Duncan Strong was born on January 30, 1899 in Portland, Oregon. He received his B.A. degree in 1923, and his Ph.D. in 1926 from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Strong’s interest in anthropology developed under the influence of Dr. A.L. Kroeber, a student of Dr. Franz Boas. Photographer Unknown
William Duncan Strong was born on January 30, 1899 in Portland, Oregon. He received his B.A. degree in 1923, and his Ph.D. in 1926 from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Strong’s interest in anthropology developed under the influence of Dr. A.L. Kroeber, a student of Dr. Franz Boas. Photographer Unknown

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 began to understand the colossal effort that would have to be undertaken to excavate the top of the butte. Being an adventurous man who enjoyed reading adventure books and western tales he was 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 on all sides.

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 camp 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 2 miles to the north.

Strong lead 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 retuned 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.

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

Materials and artifacts collected at Signal Butte were some of the first to be radiocarbon dated.

South side of Signal Butte (1931) –  [Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology 25SF1-51].  PHOTOGRAPH BY C.L DOW
South side of Signal Butte (1931) – [Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology 25SF1-51]. Photograph by C.L. Dow

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 stratigraphie 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 grass roots the first three- to six-inch layer of artifacts (Ceramic Period) was found containing 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 ½ 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.

Signal Butte panorama. Photograph by ©2020 Hawk Buckman
Signal Butte panorama. Photograph by ©2020 Hawk Buckman

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 leading to the Dismal River Culture (fore-fathers 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 work shops where meat and plants were processed.

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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 a 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 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 has paved the way for a better understanding of Wyobraska’s history and its future.

Signal Butte – Wyobraska’s Archeological Hidden Treasure – Dr. W. D. Strong of the Smithsonian Institute reported that prehistoric people lived in Wyobraska before the Glacial Period formed the area valleys. The evidence for his findings were discovered at Signal Butte in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska. PHOTOGRAPH BY NATE CRAIG
Signal Butte – Wyobraska’s Archeological Hidden Treasure – Dr. W. D. Strong of the Smithsonian Institute reported that prehistoric people lived in Wyobraska before the Glacial Period formed the area valleys. The evidence for his findings were discovered at Signal Butte in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

Photograph by Nate Graig

||| OTHER ARCHEOLOGICAL FINDS IN SCOTTS BLUFF COUNTY

cottsbluff Point 10,000-8,000 B.P. – Transitional Paleo
Scottsbluff Point 10,000-8,000 B.P. – Transitional Paleo

Similar evidence of habitation is and around Signal Butte including The Scotts Bluff Bison Quarry Site found in 1933, which is a 200 yards from Signal Butte east on Spring Creek, near where it meets Kiowa Creek.

Archeologists from the University of Nebraska State Museum found projectile points. These points became known as Scotts Bluff points and closely resemble a Folsom point suggesting that megafauna hunters were living on the plans from 8 to 10 thousand years BP. The area has not be explored or excavated since the 1950’s.

Human burials have also been located east of Gering, NE and another on the east slope of Scotts Bluff. In 1932 Henry Bisterfeldt had hired workman to excavate a potato storage cellar on the northwest face an escarpment, about 10 feet high, on his land when they unearthed a wall of stones.

Behind the stones was the skeletal remains of a man sitting on a rock with his knees flexed bent towards his chin.

||| BISTERFELDT POTATO CELLAR SITE

The only known photograph of the Bisterfeldt Potato Cellar site. In the distance, Scotts Bluff National Monument landmarks: Saddle Rock to the right and Dome Rock to the left, gives a precise estimate of the location of the dig site in 1933.  The photograph hangs on the wall of the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, NE near the Palio-Indian exhibit and was made in 1933 most likely by either Al Moore of Scottsbluff, NE, David Breternitz of the Colorado Archaeological Society or John Wood. Used by permission.

Al Moore of Scottsbluff excavated what he could of the archeological material as work on the cellar continued. Little could be done to prevent onlookers from removing items. The excavation revealed that the site, situated on a ridge, contained the skeletons of 32 adults and 2 infants located in four pits. David Breternitz of the Colorado Archaeological Society and John Wood classified the site as Woodland and connected it to other Woodland burials on the High Plains. It’s now referred to as the Bisterfeldt Potato Cellar site.

A total of four burial pits and humans remains, some appeared to be charred, were found buried inside the wall escarpment. One infant burial was in a pit by itself and had been adorned with over 700 tubular bone beads from 12 to 24 mm long. One of the flexed adult skeletons was buried with a shell pendant and was found in a pit with 19 other individuals.

Recovered from the site were a scraper, projectile points, shell pendants, a bone awl and possible atlatl weights. Information about the site is frequently referenced when discussing Plains Indians, but little published research exists. However, evidence suggest that the site provides evidence for the westward extension of prehistoric mound cultures.

The sites location would place it just northeast of Monument Shadows Golf Course in Gering, NE. The location is now a housing subdivision.

The story of prehistoric man in Wyobraska region is still incomplete. Only a dim outline of the ancient past is beginning to emerge from the patient studies of archeologists.

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||| FINDING SIGNAL BUTTE

Signal Butte is a Smithsonian trinomial (25SF1) and is protected as a National Historic Landmark (1961).  The site is not open to the public.

Signal Butte promontory is on privately owned land, and is not accessible to the public. It can be viewed by taking a 25 minute drive from Scottsbluff/Gering, NE.  

Begin driving south on HWY 71 out of Gering, NE to Robidoux Road (about one mile and half south of Old Oregon Trail Road).  

Turn right onto Robidoux Road (dirt road) and drive west past CR 17.  

Continue west passing Fleming Dunn’s gravesite until you reach the top of Robidoux Pass.

Continue following the road to the left around the ridge line.

Once you’ve reached the top of the hill look to the right (west).  The promontory will rise out of the landscape about a mile to the south of the road in the distance.

To get closer continue to the cattle guard. Cross it and make an immediate right hand turn (you’re still on Robidoux Road).  

Drive about three miles. You will cross about 3 cattle guards so watch your speed.

 The promontory will continue to get larger on the horizon to the left.  Drive until you can see the north face of Signal Butte about 1 mile due south (left) on fenced ranch land.

Do not cross the fence. | Launch Map Window

| REFERENCES

The information in this article has been compiled from:

Special thanks :

  • Dave Wolf – Director – Legacy of the Plains Museum, Gering, NE
  • Barb Netherland – Nebraska Historical Society, Scottsbluff, NE
  • Gretchen Detter – Nebraska Historical Society, Scottsbluff, NE
  • Hod Kossman – Platte Valley Companies
  • Elanor Shimek – Vol Legacy of the Plains Museum, Gering, NE
wyobraska mag expeditions partner
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