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By Jeb A. Taylor


Figure 1. George McJunkin, discoverer of the Folsom site.
(Rights Reserved, Image Archives, Denver Museum of Nature and Science) 

The Folsom site is located in Colfax County, New Mexico, and it is one of the most famous archaeological sites in North America. There are a number of versions of how the site was discovered, but credit for its discovery is generally given to George McJunkin (Fig. 1), a black cowboy and foreman of the Crowfoot Ranch near where the site was located.


Figure 2. Wild Horse arroyo. (Rights Reserved, Image Archives, Denver  Museum of Nature and Science)

The presently accepted version regarding the discovery of the site is as follows: In September 1908, a torrential rainfall on Johnson Mesa sent torrents of water running down and cutting deeply into the banks of Wild Horse Arroyo (Fig. 2), a tributary of the Dry Cimarron River. Soon after the flood, McJunkin and a companion were riding along the arroyo where McJunkin noticed very large white bones eroding out of it.

Having worked with cattle most of his life, McJunkin was familiar with cow bones, and as a young man, he had crossed the Staked Plains of Texas during the days of buffalo hunting and was familiar with modern bison bones. Consequently, he was able to determine that the bones in Wild Horse Arroyo were neither, and deduced correctly that they belonged to an extinct variety of bison (Folsom 1974:35).

By all accounts, McJunkin realized the significance of the site, and through the years attempted, but failed, to solicit much interest in it. However, in 1912 he related the story of the giant bones and location of the site to Carl Schawachheim in Raton, New Mexico.  Schwachheim was interested in the site, and would eventually become its chief investigator, but at the time, he did not own a car and was not inclined to make the sixty mile long round trip journey to examine it by horse drawn wagon.

Sometime later, probablyh in 1918 or 1919, McIunkin met another amateur naturalist and a friend of Schwachheim named Fred Howarth, and once again related the story of his discovery to an interesting listener who would also eventually play a key role in the recognition of the site.

On December 10, 1992, Schwachheim, Howarthm, and three other associates made the trip to Wild Horse Arroyo.  Sadly, McIunkin, who had promoted the site for more than ten years, was believed to have died the previous spring, so he was not aware that anyone had finally taken interest in it, or just how important it was.  In any event, after his visit, Schwachheim wrote in his diary:

Went to Folsom and out to the Crowfoot Ranch looking for a fossil skeleton – found the bones in arroyo north of ranch & dug out nearly a sackfull which look like the buffalo & elk – we only got a few near the surface they are about 10 feet down in the ground (Folsom 1974).

The bones excavated that day were initially studied by the men, but otherwise sat untouched for another three years.

During that time, Jesse D. Figgins and Harold J. Cook from the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) were excavating a site near Colorado City, Texas where three projectile points were found underneath a block of eath that contained an unidentified variety of extinct bison.  Unfortunately, the excavator did not realize the significance of this association, and allowed the points to become dislodged from their in situ postions.  This find was extremely exciting because it demonstrated that man had lived alongside, and presumably hunted, Pleistocene bison thousands of years before he was believed to have been in North America.  But it was also extremely frustrating because once the points had become dislodged, they could no longer be used as positive proof of their association with the Pleistocene bison bones.

It is not clear here whether Figgins announced this discovery or not. Folsom (1974:36) states “Without photographs or eyewitness testimony of some authority, Figgins felt he could not announce the find.” However, Figgins exhibits a very defensive reaction to this find in his later correspondences with Barnum Brown (see below) so he may have announced it.

Accounts vary considerably regarding how Schwachheim and Howarth connected with Figgins and Cook; however, they all agree that in February 1926, Figgins and Cook had the opportunity to study samples of the bones from Wild Horse Arroyo and that they were identified as belonging to an extinct variety of bison. There is also agreement that on March 7, 1926, they all visited the site, and that by early May, initial fieldwork there had begun. At that time, Figgins hired Schwachheim to begin removing the overburden above from the site and on May 26, wrote to Barnum Brown at the American Museum of Natural History, “We have located another deposit of bison material in New Mexico and have something rather unusual.”

In June 1926, Frank Figgins, Jesse’s son, was sent down to help with the removal of the overburden and to supervise the removal of the bones. At this point in time, the goal was apparently to excavate a mountable bison; consequently, the focus was paleontological rather than archaeological (Meltzer et al. 2002:8)

On July 14, 1926, the distal portion of a fluted point was recovered (Fig. 5A), but not in situ (Meltzer 2002:8). After Figgins examined it, he wrote once again to Barnum Brown:

Last week I had the shocking news that an arrowhead had been found associated with a bunch of dorsal vertebrae of the New Mexico bison, and on Monday it arrived. Not unexpectedly, it proves to be very similar to those found with the Texas bison, but more pointed and of superior workmanship, due, possibly, to a difference in material. Unfortunately, the shaft end is missing, but seemingly, only a small portion of it. Now, doesn’t that beat the devil? And I wonder who will be the first to accuse me of finding too many arrowheads with Bison . . . ? I am having the boys scan every particle of dirt they remove—first with the prospect of finding the missing part, and to discover any other artifacts (Folsom 1974:37).

Figgins (1927:232-233) then states:

Not until nearly the close of the season was additional evidence uncovered, this proving to be a second arrowhead almost identical with the first in form, and like the first, having the proximal end missing (Fig. 5B). The material from which it was fashioned is distinctive, being a very pale gray background, through which run narrow, diagonal streaks of red. This artifact, too, had been dislodged before its presence was suspected, but at the spot from which it came, the tool struck a hard substance, which upon being exposed, proved to be a wedge-shaped fragment of flint, approximately one-quarter of an inch in width by three quarters of an inch in length, lying in a fixed position adjacent to a bison rib. This was removed without being disturbed, in the form of a small block, and in addition to the flint and rib in close contact, there are also in the block two toe bones and an atlas. Upon its arrival at the laboratory, immediate attention was given to cleaning the fragment of flint, which proved to be of the same material as that of the larger portion of arrowhead, and suggested that it might be part of the missing proximal end. When a test was made, a perfect contact resulted. The perfection of this contact, together with the peculiar markings and color of the material from which the artifact was fashioned, prohibits any conclusion other than that they are parts of one and the same artifact.


Figure 3. Carl Schwachheim at the Folsom
site. (Rights Reserved, Image Archives, Denver
Museum of Nature and Science)

This then was actually the first documented Folsom to be found in a positive association with Pleistocene bison, but it was insufficient to quell the doubt that surrounded such a radical and unprecedented finding. In 1927, the excavation continued with Floyd Blair in charge (Folsom 1974:39). Due to a discussion Figgins had with Ales Hrdlicka the previous year, workers were instructed to leave any artifact that they discovered untouched and in situ to be photographed and witnessed by independent observers. On August 29, 1927 Schwachheim wrote in his diary:

I found an arrow point (Fig. 6 and 5C) this morning, it is a clear colored agate or jasper. It is not exposed the full length, but it is hollow on the sides and looks something like this (inserted drawing). The point was near the rib in the matrix. One barb is broken off . . . sent a letter to the boss today.

When Figgins received word of the find, he sent telegrams to Barnum Brown, major museums, and to a group of archaeologists who were conveniently assembled at a conference in Pecos, New Mexico. As soon as was possible, Barnum Brown, A.V. Kidder, and Frank H.H.  Roberts, Jr. arrived to examine the find and all concluded that there was no doubt about the association between the bison bones and the projectile point.  Interestingly, the most prominent man in the field of physical anthropology in the 1920s, Ales Hrdlicka of the United States National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution), steadfastly refused to accept that man was in North America during the late Pleistocene. In regard to the artifacts recovered with the bison bones at the Folsom site, he stated they “. . .,cannot be linked with Paleolithic culture or with geological antiquity”.  To challenge Hrdlicka at any time for any reason was not a wise career move. To do so without absolute and positive corroborative evidence was professional suicide.  To most archaeologists, however, this discovery opened the door to new and exciting discoveries on the Plains and elsewhere in the New World.