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Black Ranch Manager Makes Stunning Archaeological Find

A former slave who became a well-regarded ranch manager and amateur naturalist deserves credit for recognizing a significant archaeological find. George McJunkin noticed over-sized bison bones in a washed-out arroyo on a ranch he managed near Folsom, New Mexico.

Though it took years to get experts out to evaluate the area (now known as the Folsom site), scientists say that the discovery definitively proved that human beings were in North America at least 9000 years earlier than formerly believed. 

Ranch manager and naturalist George McJunkin
George McJunkin, ranch manager and naturalist

For his accomplishments as a range boss in New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma, George McJunkin was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 2019.

His self-taught knowledge about history and the natural world make him worthy of additional recognition.

Early Life

George McJunkin was born into slavery on a ranch near Midway, Texas, about two hours southeast of Dallas. His father was a blacksmith. The family’s master, John Sanders McJunkin, permitted his slaves to keep any extra money they earned. George’s father eventually bought himself out of slavery. His son, George, was freed when the Civil War ended. He continued to work with his father in the blacksmith shop for a time.  

Since many of the white men from the area left for the Civil War and were slow to come back, McJunkin found extra ranch work with the vaqueros. They taught him Spanish and gave him the skills to be an excellent horseback rider.

When a cattle drive was leaving a ranch near Midway, McJunkin decided to ride with the cattlemen and start a new life. He worked several cattle drives before taking a job at a ranch in Northeast New Mexico.

Learned To Read

There are various stories about how George McJunkin learned to read. Some say he was self-taught; others say that once he settled into ranch life, he gave bronco-breaking lessons in return for reading help. (This one is repeated several times but it is hard to imagine that it is true.) A third story places him on a ranch with children who were being taught at home. He could well have learned from the children or sat in on their lessons.

Once he acquired the gift of reading, he never stopped. He was by nature very observant. This is probably a key quality for a ranch manager, but it also made his lifelong reading about the natural world very meaningful.

In that part of the West, it was common for people to find shards of pottery and unusual bones. Like others, McJunkin would collect those he found special and then tried to read about them.

Dry Cimarron Valley

like Dry Cimarron Valley, istock photo

George McJunkin had several jobs around the Dry Cimarron Valley in northeast New Mexico. He felt the valley, along with the Capulin Volcano in the area, were among the most beautiful parts of the country he had ever seen.

When he was working in that area, he met ranch owner Gideon Roberts. Roberts and several other cowboys were driving 700 horses across Comanche-held territory to sell to travelers along the Santa Fe Trail. Roberts witnessed McJunkin’s horsebreaking skill and hired him to come along as part of the posse.

Unfortunately, a run-in with the Comanches resulted in the loss of their horses. Roberts, McJunkin, and the other men wasted no time gathering a new herd of horses. This time, Roberts decided to take the horses over the Trinchera Pass into Colorado.

The men then established the first horse ranch east of Trinidad, Colorado. The land was along the Purgatoire (also spelled Purgatory) River near the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail.

McJunkin Becomes Well-Known

George McJunkin soon became sought after. Working for Roberts, he broke horse after horse. People in the area soon learned that if a horse was broken by George McJunkin, that horse was going to be a very good ride and a good investment. The horses sold as quickly as he could break them.

From there, McJunkin got a job offer from the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch to help with their next roundup. The 101 was a 110,000 acre ranch in the north central part of what is now Oklahoma—one of the biggest and best-known ranches in the West. Bulldogger Bill Pickett was among the more famous cowboys that worked there. (The 101 also runs the 101 Wild West Rodeo, which continues.)

After the roundup with the 101, one of the ranch partners, Dr. Thomas Owen hired McJunkin to work for him. This was a perfect opportunity for McJunkin. Owen was known for maintaining some of the best horses in the area. His ranch, Hereford Park, was located in the Dry Cimarron area that McJunkin loved.

Horses in desert area being ridden

Owen traveled a great deal, so he relied heavily on George McJunkin to run the property. The Owen family’s children were still young. McJunkin was an important figure in their lives.

In the early 1890s, Dr. Thomas Owen died. He had not been well. He discussed with George that he wanted him to continue to operate the ranch until the Owen boys were old enough to manage on their own.

McJunkin fulfilled that promise.

Archaeological Find

When McJunkin saw that the Owen boys were going to do well on their own, he took a job with Bill Jack to manage the XYZ Ranch. This was where he made his surprising find. 

Map showing location of Folsom, New Mexico in the northeast part of the state

On August 27, 1908, a thunderstorm dropped almost 14 inches of rain in the area. A massive flash flood tore through the arroyos.  When the rain subsided, McJunkin went out on horseback to survey the damage and to mend fences. 

In Wild Horse Arroyo, he came upon something that attracted his attention. The flooding caused massive erosion along the arroyo. McJunkin could see tree branches and animal bones jutting out from the embankment.  He was particularly taken by what he recognized as bison bones. As an occasional hunter, he knew these bones were much larger than any bison of the current day. 

He dug out a couple of them to take home. McJunkin thought if he had them to show to experts, he could find someone who would come to the site with him.

No Response From The Scientific Community

For 14 years, George McJunkin tried to get someone to pay attention to his find. He wrote letters, and he talked constantly about what he thought he found. While the trip down the arroyo meant a two-day ride by horseback, McJunkin knew this was something special.  

One of his friends from Raton, Carl Schwachheim (1878-1930), a blacksmith and amateur naturalist, was interested enough to come with him to see what we now know is the Folsom site.

Schwachheim agreed with McJunkin. But until a scientist would come with them, nothing could happen.

George McJunkin's tombstone.
There is a discrepancy as to his year of birth. It may have been 1851.

By 1922, George McJunkin was quite ill. He died that year. He was in his seventies.

McJunkin died knowing without a doubt that he had come upon something important. He never had the satisfaction of having it verified.

Slow Progress

Carl Schwachheim finally persuaded his friend Fred Howarth to drive as close as they could to the site. From there, they went down into the arroyo. They saw that McJunkin was right. This was something unusual.

The two men set up a meeting with Jesse Dade Figgins, the director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History in Denver. They took along one of the bones.

Several weeks later, one of their curators, Harold J. Cook, confirmed that the bones were those of Bison antiquus, a bison that had been extinct for thousands of years.

Date For Dig Set

The Carnegie Museum has on display a Bison antiquus of the type that would have been found near Folsom.
A museum display of a Bison antiquus from the Ice Age.

Figgins put together a team for a paleontological dig at the site. In the spring of 1926, the scientists began. Their hope was for a reasonably complete skeleton of a mammal. This would be an asset for the museum.

It was hard to bring in a big team for this sort of thing, so Fred Howarth and Carl Schwachheim were given permission to help with the work. Figgins suggested that they keep their eyes open for stone age tools—just in case.

Spear Point Found

On July 14, 1926, the team found a stone spear point. It was unlike any the experts had ever seen. 

Unfortunately, the spear point was found in dirt that had already been excavated. No one could make a definitive case for the fact that the spear tip had anything to do with the ice age bison.

The allotted excavation time was almost over.  Another excavation would have to be planned.

Folsom Point

Next Excavation: 1927

The following summer in 1927, a team returned to Folsom site. This time they were rewarded: a stone spear point was found still embedded in the ribs of a bison. This was the evidence they needed.

A discovery of this type must be verified in the field, so telegrams were sent to prominent archaeologists from places like the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Natural History in New York.

Scientists came and verified. Previously, experts fought fiercely over the date that man arrived in North America. The top experts felt that man had only been in North America for 3000 years.

The spear tip in the bison was definitive proof that man had been around during the Ice Age. This meant that man must have been here for at least 12,000 years. (Subsequent finds now extend human history in North America back even further.)

But Who Discovered The Site?

In the years following the discovery, no one thought to look back to the person who had first located the site. The finding of the stone tools became the focus.

The cover of a book by David Meltzer about the excavation work at Folsom site.
Book about the Folsom site by Professor David J. Meltzer. He dedicated his book to Carl Schwachheim and George McJunkin.

But finally, in the mid-1940s, someone started looking into who had made this discovery possible. George McJunkin’s name came up.  By 1948, New Mexico attorney E.C. Crampton was quoted in the press saying “George McJunkin, Negro cowboy and one-time foreman at the XYZ ranch near Folsom, should get the credit for the first discovery of the bones that led to the important archaeological discovery of Folsom Man.”  (The Albuquerque Journal, May 22, 1948.)

Later, David Meltzer, a professor of archaeology at Southern Methodist University and the author of Folsom: New Archaeological Investigations of a Classic Paleoindian Bison Kill. Meltzer dedicated his book to Carl Schwachheim and George McJunkin. Meltzer wrote:

“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.”

That closer, knowledgeable look made all the difference.

*****

George McJunkin is by no means the first person who could not attract attention for what he discovered or invented. Marie Van Brittan Brown had the first patent on a home security camera, but never made a dime from it. Marion Donovan came up with the idea for the disposable diaper but the best she could ever do was get companies to make diaper covers. And Garrett Morgan, a Black inventor who created the first gas mask, knew he would never be able to sell the idea. He hired a white man to represent him.

These are just a few of the unsung heroes on www.americacomesalive.com

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