The soil in one of the state’s northern-most counties holds a wealth of historical information from Christ’s time to the Civil War.
Driving through Ochiltree County towards Perryton, its county seat, you can see for miles. Houses are few and far between until you arrive on the outskirts of the modest-sized town, population 8,000. With so few people living on the county’s rolling grasslands today, it’s difficult to imagine anyone there before. Surprising as it may be, the county is scattered with hundreds of prehistoric and historic settlements; its soil is revealing a bounty of artifacts telling stories we’ve never known.
On the southern end of the county, there is the Chill Hill archeological site, an expansive Antelope Creek Phase village—one of the largest in the state, discovered just three years ago. Nearby, remnants of a U.S. military supply depot divulge the day-to-day life of soldiers in the 1860s. Although archeologists have excavated numerous forts around the country, there has never been an investigation on a temporary camp like this one. Towards the center of the county near its lake and verdant Wolf Creek valley, there is a historic Kiowa village, the first on the High Plains to be studied. And perhaps the most intriguing finds are four sites once occupied by hunters and gatherers from 1000 B.C. until 800 A.D., which have the potential to quadruple the amount of information known about those prehistoric people.
Though digs began near Wolf Creek in 1907 to study the county’s Buried City—a fairly large ancestral Wichita village inhabited from 1250 to 1400 and another one of the area’s archeological treats—it wasn’t until the ’80s that the area was extensively studied. With Perryton’s remote location (the nearest city, Amarillo, is nearly 120 miles away), there is no major university nearby. Because universities and larger museums do the vast majority of archeological research, there simply wasn’t an organization to perform the studies.
But in the early 1980s, oilman and former Perryton mayor Harold Courson purchased a ranch containing the Buried City site, with an interest in its significance. Possessing numerous sections of land throughout the county, Courson and his family now own all the areas with the artifacts. Remarkably Courson hired a private archeologist to begin formal investigations. He and his son Kirk have been the “main stimulus” for much of the research, said Dr. Scott Brosowske, head research archeologist for Courson Archeological Research.
Though the Texas Archeological Society (TAS) studied the Buried City in the 1980s, the newfound sites along Wolf Creek valley and 15 miles south along the Canadian River prompted the TAS to schedule summer field schools. “There is not enough known about prehistoric life in the High Plains of the panhandle,” said Glynn Osburn, chairman of the TAS Field School Committee. “We are filling in gaps in our knowledge.”
Chill Hill Archeological Site
One of the primary sites of interest, Chill Hill lies along the Canadian River near Highway 70. Last year, archeologists studied a complete 700-year-old Native American village.
Referred to as Antelope Creek Phase people, the Native Americans arrived in the area around 1250 from parts unknown. In 1500, nearly all the sites were abandoned, perhaps because newly arrived, Apaches drove them away.
In the Antelope Creek Phase, people most likely hunted bison and other available animals gathered and grew corn, beans, and squash. In contrast, most prehistoric people in Texas were traveling hunters and gatherers.
They lived in small houses with walls made from posts and thatched roofs.
Chill Hill has a curious abundance of trade goods from New Mexico. The Chill Hill people traded bison hides, robes, and dried meat for such items as obsidian (volcanic glass), turquoise beads, and marine shell jewelry from the Pacific Ocean. Archeologists also unearthed nearly complete portions of pottery.
Along Wolf Creek, archeologists are also studying a mid-1800s historic Kiowa encampment. Though there is written material from that time, there have been almost no archeological studies of Kiowa until Courson Archeological Research’s work over the last few years. During that time, they have recorded approximately 30 sites in the area.
Migrating from the Wyoming area, the Native Americans moved southwest because they were at war with other tribes and wanted additional horses. Arriving around 1780, they stayed until the U.S. government forced them to relocate to Oklahoma after the Civil War.
Though scientists once believed the Kiowa and Europeans began significant trading when Coronado came through the panhandle in 1541, the recent Ochiltree County finds show that wasn’t the case. In an extremely isolated portion of the plains with no navigable streams, the Kiowa did not trade extensively until after 1833 when William Bent established a trading fort in southeast Colorado.
For modern experts and volunteers, the work is rewarding and time-consuming. “For every day we dig in the dirt, we have 20 to 30 days in the lab,” Brosowske explained. “We have to enter all the information on computers and write reports. We just finished washing and cataloging all the artifacts, so everything is a bit preliminary at this point. We’re just starting to put things together.”
This summer the 400-plus-member TAS Field School returns to continue studies at Chill Hill and another site, Evan’s Depot. They will also excavate seven new Antelope Creek Phase sites along the Canadian River. “After working in almost every part of Texas, I would argue that it is difficult to find another area of the state that offers the extraordinary variety of sites that are found in the Texas panhandle,” Brosowske shared with the TAS.
In terms of our state’s history, the information they are learning is invaluable. “People lived here for thousands of years. It’s part of our heritage,” Brosowske said. “We have the opportunity to discover our heritage. It’s information the people of Texas wouldn’t know otherwise.”