Sioux Indian Burial Mounds in Nebraska


Particular attention was paid to conditions a mile north of Rulo, where it is reported that human skeletons were found in the Kansan drift. It was not the intention of the discoverer to have it [understood that these remains were in undisturbed drift, but such is the impression that has gained credence.
At the settlement of the country by whites the road constructed across a ravine here, on the section line nearest the river about three-eighths of a mile away, followed the natural contour and the crossing was made without difficulty. Since then a deep washout has worked its way to some distance above this point, making a long bridge necessary. From the head of the washout to the Missouri River the banks are vertical, or nearly so, on each side of the little stream. It was in the bank on the south side that the bones were found. It is stated they were 7 feet under the surface; if so there must have been a mound above them, for the lowest excavation does not reach over 5 feet below the present level of the ground, and at that extends slightly below the bottom of the grave.
Sioux Indian Photo Gallery
Within 40 years the Missouri River, which is now more than a mile away toward the Missouri shore, flowed at the foot of a slight bluff terminating the slope from the high land toward the west; there was formerly a steamboat landing on the upper side of the ravine. On the lower side is a triangular area of about an acre, bounded by the bluff, the river bank, and the ravine. This was an excellent location for an Indian village or camp. A narrow level strip extends from the mouth of the ravine to a point near the bridge, some distance above where the remains were found. It is quite clear that the skeletons were the remains of individuals who had died at the camp on the river's bank and had been carried here for burial. This may have occurred within the last hundred years or in fact at any time while the Indians were still living in this vicinity.
The flood level of the Missouri is not more than 15 feet lower than the level space along the sides of the ravine. The little intermittent stream has cut down this depth through a deposit which is composed of river sediment, wash from the hills on each side, and material carried from higher levels by the brook itself in rainy seasons. At only one point is there a real glacial deposit, and this does not extend for more than 50 feet horizontally, and does not reach to the top of the bank. It is at some distance from the graves, and may be due to a lobe of the ice or to an iceberg. However formed or deposited here it has no relation whatever to the skeletons. In a sense, the material in which they were buried is "Kansan drift"; but it is drift which has been redistributed and has come into its present position within a few centuries at the most.


Mr. Sam P. Hughes, who lives near Howe, has done considerable excavating in that vicinity. He is an intelligent man and an ardent student, but his ideas in regard to the age of his discoveries need much revision downward. His chief work has been done north of Howe at a place 9 miles from the nearest point on the Missouri River. Here is a small level area at the end of a ridge sloping away in every direction except at the narrow isthmus connecting it with the fields beyond, which are at a level only slightly higher. Thus there is no chance for any accumulation from the adjacent surface. On this ridge are a few lodge sites which Hughes has excavated. In every respect they are similar to lodge sites reported from other localities in this region. The walls, the depression, the floor, the fireplace, are all the same. The depressions are filled with earth to a depth of 18 to 22 inches above the level of the old floor; and Hughes reports that wherever he has dug on this ridge he has found flint chips, charcoal, fragments of pottery, and scraps of bone to about the same depth. Next below the soil is the Kansan glacial drift; but the assertion that objects found at this depth are of the same age as the drift is not necessarily or even presumably correct.


On various hills in the vicinity of Peru are lodge sites, some of them circular, some rectangular, some with straight sides and rounded corners. Most of them have been dug in at random; in every case after a certain depth of accumulated earth and trash is passed through, there is a layer of clay which formed the roof, and beneath this the hard earth floor with fireplace usually in the center but sometimes a little toward one side.


At the time of my visit, Dr. Frederick H. Sterns, of the Peabody Museum, was working near here. He described himself as "the man who is extremely anxious to find a glacial or other very ancient man, but so far has not succeeded in getting track of him." Dr. Sterns did not claim a period antedating the Indian for anything he had then unearthed—meaning the known Indian tribes.


To the southward of Omaha are many lodge sites of varying depths and diameters. The deepest one reported had a depth of 9 feet below the surrounding surface, and at the bottom of this was a pit (or "cache," as they are locally known) with an additional depth of 4 feet, or 13 feet of excavation in all. This was near the so-called "cannibal house," where 14 human frontal bones were found under conditions which indicate they had belonged to individuals who were eaten by other inmates of the lodge.
[A short distance from these sites, across a ravine, is a bare, narrow ridge, very steep on each side, so that erosion would readily act. On the sloping summit of this are three small mounds which cover communal burials. From one of these, the one farthest from the summit of the hill, more than 80 skulls were taken and boys in the neighborhood have since taken many more. They are all of the ordinary Indian type, and can not have been buried more than a few generations ago; but this fact has not prevented an age of "twenty thousand years" being assigned to them. There is absolutely no reason for fixing this or any other date. There is nothing whatever to indicate the age, but 200 years would probably not be far from the mark, because erosion has been slight since the mounds were piled up.
This ridge has attained some notoriety as the site of Gilder's discovery of the "Nebraska Man." The claim is made that human bones were found at a depth of 14 feet in absolutely undisturbed loess. The hill is a narrow ridge, facing the river on one side and a deep ravine on the other. It is somewhat winding in its course and is connected with the more level land in the rear at about half a mile from its end. A wagon road up the point, from the river bottom to the hilltop, shows undisturbed loess the entire distance. There is no possibility of accumulation by wash or in any other manner except decaying vegetation on any part of this ridge.
Along the crest are several small mounds. Some of these, as shown by excavation, cover graves, and the presumption is that all of them mark burial places.
It is needless to make any résumé of Gilder's report, as it is so well known, further than to say that he found burials and fragmentary human bones at various levels from 2½ to 14 feet. At 4½ feet were burned bones lying upon burned earth and mingled with it. This layer, burned hard as a brick, served to prevent water from penetrating the earth immediately below; and it is in this earth that the deepest remains were found.
There are three ways, and only three, in which they could get there:
1. They were washed in when the loess was deposited, as claimed by the discoverers and by some of the Nebraska geologists.
In support of this view is the assertion that the bones were water-worn. On this point I can not venture any opinion, as I have not seen them. But I have found bones in mounds and in other situations where such wear was impossible and yet having the smoothed and rounded appearance characteristic of such action by water or the elements.
8]In support of this theory, too, is the positive statement of Nebraska geologists who have had ample opportunity to become familiar with loess in all its phases; and they claim the deposit is the original and has not been disturbed.
It is necessary for these advocates, however, to tell where such fragments of bones could have come from and how they could have been washed to the place where found, when all these bluffs were covered with water, as they had to be at that time.
2. The bones could have been carried by rodents into their burrows or runways, as Hrdli[vc]ka suggests. In this case the material in contact with the bones would have to be somewhat different in appearance and consistency from that which lay a few inches, or perhaps only an inch, away. The Nebraska men say this was not the case.
3. There may have been an excavation or pit similar to that in which the Hurons buried their dead. But as no such burial pits have been discovered in this part of the country, this supposition must be excluded.
A corollary to the last is that a deep but small pit similar to the so-called "caches" in the lodge sites may have been dug here and the bones thrown in. There is no indication whatever of a lodge site or any other form of habitation at this point, but I have found such pits in the vicinity of Indian houses, though not just on their site. The deepest one I have ever found was 10½ feet and less than 6 feet in diameter. There would be no difficulty in digging into this loose material as far as an excavator cared to go, until he had reached a depth at which he could no longer get the loosened earth to the surface of the ground. As mentioned above, a pit south of Omaha had a depth of 13 feet, or only 1 foot less than is claimed for this—or rather for the greatest depth at which it is claimed fragments of bone were found.
The objection made to this theory is that the earth thrown out of the hole was unmixed, presenting throughout the appearance and consistency of loess as it occurs where exposed in ravines or on slopes in the vicinity. It is contended that if any previous excavation had been made here and filled up afterwards the mixed earth would be easily distinguished from that which was not removed, and that the line of demarcation would be easily discernible.
As a rule, this is true; but when dry loose earth of homogeneous consistency is thrown out of a pit and then thrown in again without becoming mixed with any other it is sometimes impossible to distinguish it at a later excavation. This is especially true of earth free from vegetable matter, as ordinary sand; or composed largely of vegetable mold, as the soil in overflow lands which have built up [mainly from floods carrying uniform soil sediment. The line of demarcation between the dug and the undug earth in such conditions may become indistinguishable except when a vertical face is made which shall show a clear section of both in contact.
It is now too late to learn anything about the matter from the site itself. So many persons have been digging that it would be impossible to know when the limit is reached between the original excavation—assuming it to have been made—when the bodies were interred, and that resulting from the modern researches. The question of age hinges upon the appearance of the earth in which the bones were found; and the only way in which we can now learn anything about it is to trench across the hill at some of the other burial places, in the hope of finding bones at a similar level, and determining from the conditions in which these are found how they came there.
It is beyond question that any soil, humus, or other discolored matter thrown into an excavation with ordinary soil or subsoil will be apparent for an indefinite time afterwards. But on some of these high points and ridges there is even now not a trace of soil. Frost and wind have worn bare spots where nothing grows or has grown for a long time. As this region was a prairie devoid of even brush when the whites settled here, it is evident that such slight protection as grass or weeds afford would not be sufficient to hold the earth in place in winter, and when the ground is once swept bare such humble forms of growth may not get a foothold in future. Anyone who has studied surface geology knows these facts.
So at present the whole question of the age of these bones resolves itself into a statement of one party that they were found in undisturbed loess, as reported; and of the inability of another party to show that there may have been an error of observation or a mistaken interpretation.
There need be no such doubt in regard to the age of the mounds or the lodge sites. It would not take many centuries for mounds upon these sharp, exposed ridges to be entirely washed away, in spite of the fact that the fine loess is almost impermeable. Rain may not reduce them to an appreciable extent, but frost and wind will gradually wear them down. As to the lodge sites, their similarity to modern Indian houses is so pronounced that we are fully justified in attributing them to the same degree of culture as that of the Indians of a century ago. The only point of difference is that the latter dwellings have not such deep excavations, but the incursion of war-like tribes, or the restlessness that impels a primitive community to be frequently on the move, seems a simpler explanation of the difference than to suppose that identical types are separated by a great period of time.
[160]Three points must be taken into consideration in fixing a definite age for these remains:
1. The relics found in and around the lodge sites, except for the markings on some of the pottery, are in no wise different from those picked up on the sites of villages which were occupied when Lewis and Clark came through here.
2. Fairly solid bones of animals, and occasionally of humans, are found in the bottoms of the lodge sites, even where these are damp most of the year. In the pits, where such remains are preserved by ashes, this would not mean much; but where they are found in clayey earth it is evident that "thousands of years" is a meaningless term to apply to them.
3. Persons who claim these "thousands of years" for pretty much everything they find in the ground must explain why it is that while the bones and implements of these assumed "ancients" are found in such quantities and in such good preservation, those of later Indians should have entirely disappeared.
The only tenable theory of age is the amount of accumulation in the depressions of the lodge sites. Above the clay which formed the roof, and is next to the floor now, is a depth of material sometimes (it is said) as much as 20 or even 22 inches of mingled silt, decayed vegetation, and soil from the surrounding wall. It is used as an argument of age that as these sites are on hilltops where there can be no inwash, this depth must indicate a very remote period for their construction. But a large amount of the earth thrown out into the surrounding ring or wall will find its way back into the depression. The water will stand in them a good part of the year, and the soil remain damp even in prolonged drought; vegetation is thus more luxuriant than on the outside, and its decay will fill up rather rapidly. In addition, much sand blows from the prairies as well as from the bottom lands, and whatever finds its way into the pit will stay there; it will not blow away again as it would in open ground. The weeds, also, will catch and retain much of this dust which would pass over a dry surface. Consequently the allowance of an inch in a century, which is the most that advocates of great age will allow for accumulation, is much too small.
The topography of the region was essentially the same when these remains were constructed as it is now. The hills and valleys were as they now exist; the erosion has been very slight as compared with what has taken place since the loess was brought above the water, to which it owes its origin. This statement is fully proven by the position of the mounds and lodge sites. Any estimate of age must be only a guess at the best, but it is a safe guess that no earthwork, mound, lodge site, or human bone along this part of the Missouri River has been here as long as 10 centuries.