Sunday, November 11, 2012

Archaeological Investigation of the Battle of the Rosebud

In 2009, the University of Montana's Department of Anthropology was approached by Montana State Parks Heritage Resources Coordinator Sara Scott, to initiate intensive archaeological investigations of the Rosebud Battlefield State Park. Graduate Student Thomas Milter, working with his advisor Dr. Kelly J. Dixon, began working on plans to conduct fieldwork at the site.

UM Master's Student Tom Milter (right), and MSP Archaeologist Sara Scott (Left) investigate the Kobold Buffalo Jump. Photo by N. Boyless.
Between the 1950s and the 1980s, avocational and amatuer archaeologists and historians investigated the site themselves, finding hundreds of artifacts relating to the June 17, 1876 engagement (Such as J.W. Vaughn's "With Crook at the Rosebud"). Unfortunately, these investigators lacked the precise technology to accurately map the locations of these finds, which would have allowed a much better understanding of the battle. While the work of these early investigators proved that intact archaeological materials remained, their investigations damaged the site by removing these artifacts without exact positions. Without maintaining control of the exact location of artifacts it becomes impossible to know where they found the cartridge casings or impacted bullets, which destroys the potential for scholars to interpret movements of people and units during the course of the battle.

Modern technology like the highly accurate backpack Global Positioning System (GPS) pictured here, helps archaeologists to map all artifacts within 3-4 feet of where it was found. Photo by T. Milter.
Milter's first step in initiating the renewed archaeological investigation of the Rosebud Battle, was to attempt to locate the artifacts from the earlier investigations. Sadly, the passage of time has left the original collections in disarray, spread to several different historical societies, museums, private collections, or simply disappeared. Tom has spent years relocating as many of these artifacts as possible and analyzed them for inclusion in his Master's Thesis.

A second step, involved planning the fieldwork to be conducted by teams of archaeologists, students, and volunteers. This stage brought in the involvement of Chris Merritt, a Ph.D. Student at the University of Montana who was wrapping up his dissertation work on the Chinese in Montana, and faciliated several field projects throughout the state. Merritt, Milter, Scott and Dixon began preparations for the fieldwork that occurred in 2011.

The 2011 fieldwork was created to 1) provide college students an opportunity to learn archaeological method and theory, 2) determine if the Rosebud Battlefield State Park still contained significant subsurface archaeological remains associated with the engagement, and 3) increase public and agency awareness of the significance of the battle, park, and the potenital for partnerships.

Also in 2011, the University of Montana received a grant through the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) adminstered by the National Park Service. The grant is designed to not work solely on the State Park,  but to work with adjacent private landowners to increase protection of the entire battlefield, not only the portion managed by Montana State Parks (MSP). Thus, Milter and Dixon began to contact landowners around the park boundaries to touch base, negotiate potential fieldwork access, and to build bridges of cooperation that the MSP can use to better manage the park and battlefield.

Crew and students working with a private landowner to catalog and analyze artifacts from their land during the 2012 field school. Photo by K. Dixon.
The fieldwork accomplished by UM and MSP in 2011 and 2012 owes much to those individuals who cared and protected for the battlefield before creation of the State Park such as Slim Kobold and other families such as the Iekel, Huffman, Young, Kollmar, Lanham, and many others. In following posts I will describe the fieldwork and its results.