During the summer 2005 archaeological investigations at the Beaver Creek Trail Crossing Site in Seward County, Nebraska, a number of firearms-related artifacts were recovered. By identifying specific kinds of weapons and evidence of firing and impact, we can begin to reconstruct details of behavior at this site. Identifying weapons and the uses to which those weapons were most likely put, however, is only the beginning. The fact that some projectiles were associated with faunal remains suggests that further research will be necessary in order to get a more complete picture of life at the Beaver Creek Trail Crossing Site.
There were a total of twenty-five projectiles recovered from the site, in addition to three exploded percussion caps. Figure 6.2 illustrates distribution of the projectiles across the test units. The majority cluster in the north, north central portion of the excavated area. The majority of the projectiles (fifteen out of twenty-five) consisted of shot of various sizes, ranging in diameter from .15 to .40 in. There were four larger-caliber spherical bullets, all of them deformed in one way or another. Two projectiles show evidence of high-velocity impact, a third has been heavily deformed through chewing by an animal, and the fourth was apparently discarded after having been poorly cast. All four could have been fired in a shotgun or large-caliber musket. Four more spherical bullets of .36 caliber show the distinctive land-and-groove marks of having been fired in a Colt revolver, Model 1851 Navy. There are also two conical bullets, one of .22 caliber with evidence of impact, the other from a .44 Ballard or Wesson rifle. The percussion caps are small, suggesting that they came from a pistol or smaller rifle. The assemblage as a whole is consistent with hunting activities, and the association of some projectiles with faunal remains reinforces this interpretation. The artifact section explains which projectiles are associated with faunal remains. In addition, with the exception of the .22 caliber bullet (which cannot be identified temporally with any certainty), these artifacts are consistent with a probable 1860s occupation of this site.
In the next section, each artifact is organized by type and provenience, in more detail, and draw conclusions about behaviors or activities that can be identified in the assemblage. Thanks to Dr. Douglas D. Scott of the Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service, for his invaluable assistance in the preliminary artifact identifications, as well as pointing me toward helpful references and offering valuable guidance.
- 25SW49.0016 — one conical bullet, caliber .44 - This bullet appears to be from a .42 or .44 Ballard or Wesson breech-loading rimfire rifle, based on its dimensions and the visual appearance of the rifling grooves (McKee and Mason 1980; Thomas and Thomas 1996). A more precise measurement of its length, width and weight suggests a fairly close match with the .44 Ballard. There are no indications that this bullet was fired. It was, however, found in association with faunal remains.
- 25SW49.0043 — one conical bullet, caliber .22 - This bullet shows evidence of having been fired, as it is deformed in a manner consistent with high-velocity impact. The .22 is a fairly ubiquitous bullet, however, and there are no further conclusions that can be drawn as to the age or make of the weapon that fired it. The provenience in which it was found contained only a small number of artifacts, suggesting that the association of this bullet with the historical occupation of this site is tenuous.
Spherical Bullets — Large Caliber
- 25SW49.0158 and 25SW49.0163 — two spherical bullets, caliber indeterminate - These bullets are heavily deformed through high-velocity impact, and are associated with faunal remains.
- 25SW49.0194 — one spherical bullet, caliber possibly .50 - This bullet is heavily deformed, evidently having been chewed by a pig. It is difficult to determine if it was ever fired, but it is associated with faunal remains.
- 25SW49.0200 — one spherical bullet, caliber .60 - This bullet is only half-formed, and was likely poorly cast and discarded. The bullet was never fired because of its poor casting. It is interesting that the bullet wasn't melted and recast to conserve the material.
Spherical Bullets — Revolver
- 25SW49.0136, 0141, 0143 and 0169 — four spherical bullets, caliber .36 - Each of these bullets has a distinctive land-and-groove banding as well as the seven-faceted outline associated with having been fired in a Colt revolver, specifically a Model 1851 Navy (Scott et al. 1989; Douglas D. Scott, personal communication). All four are fairly consistent in that each has a casting mark, black-powder stippling, and a ramrod mark. There are no clear signs of impact deformations on any of the four bullets.
Spherical Bullets — Shot
- 25SW49.0062 — one spherical bullet, caliber approximately .32 or .33 -
- 25SW49.0084 — one spherical bullet, caliber approximately .25 -
- 25SW49.0095 — one spherical bullet, caliber approximately .38 or .39, possible casting mark -
- 25SW49.0123 — two spherical bullets, caliber approximately .39 or .40 -
- 25SW49.0155 — one spherical bullet, caliber approximately .33 -
- 25SW49.0156 — two spherical bullets, caliber approximately .35, and one spherical bullet, caliber approximately .15 to .18 -
- 25SW49.0166 — two spherical bullets, deformed, caliber approximately .36 -
- 25SW49.0178 — one spherical bullet, caliber approximately .30 -
- 25SW49.0182 — two spherical bullets, caliber approximately .33 -
- 25SW49.0193 — one spherical bullet, caliber approximately .34 -
In all cases, there is no clear evidence of firing or impact beyond some general deformation. The projectiles in proveniences 0062, 0123, 0166, 0182 and 0193 are associated with faunal remains. Figure 2 provides a list of all the projectiles according to provenience along with the type and size.
- 25SW49.0062 — There are three fragments representing two exploded percussion caps in this provenience, one approximately .25 inches long, the other approximately .20 inches. Neither have distinguishing manufacturer's marks or other identifying marks. -
- 25SW49.0085 — This provenience contains one exploded percussion cap, approximately .20 inches long. There are no distinguishing manufacturer's marks or any markings. -
|Table 6.1. Data Table (Projectiles Only)|
|Provenience||Type||Approximate Diameter (inches)|
Analysis and Interpretation
The research question for the firearms-related artifacts was to determine if they correlated with hunting behavior at the Beaver Creek Site. The large quantity of faunal remains recovered suggested that hunting, butchering and possibly provisioning of travelers might have taken place. Upon initial analysis the assemblage of bullets and percussion caps appears to support this contention. The bulk of the assemblage consists of lead shot of various weights and calibers, consistent with the use of a shotgun for hunting. The larger pieces of shot could clearly have been used for larger game, and the small piece from provenience 0156 could have been used against smaller game or birds. One can easily envision a muzzle-loading shotgun as standard equipment for a homestead or road ranch of this time period. Muzzle-loading firearms, although increasingly obsolete in the late nineteenth century, were still widely available and popular on the frontier, as powder and ball were easy to obtain (Scott and Fox 1987:76).
The four larger spherical bullets (from proveniences 0158, 0163, 0194 and 0200) have a similar hunting association; they could have been fired in a large-caliber shotgun or muzzle-loading rifle, also common firearms on the frontier at this time. The half-casted bullet from provenience 25SW49.0200 is particularly interesting in that it seems to have been discarded or lost during the casting process. It is reasonable to suppose that the occupants of this site would have cast their own ammunition, and it is interesting to see an example of this process. The two deformed bullets were associated with faunal remains, and it might be enlightening to study those remains to look for a direct correlation between them and the bullets.
The lone .44 bullet from a Ballard rifle is interesting in that, while not an unusual kind of firearm, it is not as common as the Henry or Winchester. The Ballard was a breech-loading rimfire rifle that used metallic cartridges, distinctive for its double trigger guard (Gluckman 1965). It was considered a sportsman's rifle, good quality but not strictly high-end. It could easily have been used in a hunting context at the Beaver Crossing, whether by road ranch occupants or travelers.
In contrast with the hunting-related projectiles, the four bullets fired in a Colt revolver are more difficult to interpret. The Model 1851 Navy revolver was a common sidearm on the frontier. It was considered a general-purpose tool, and was as likely to have been carried by a Denver-bound bullwhacker as a road ranch occupant (Serven 1954; Wilson 1979). It would not have been a first choice as a hunting weapon, but it may have been pressed into service out of expediency. Alternatively, these bullets may represent some other kind of behavior entirely, such as target practice or some kind of recreational shooting. The bullets from proveniences 0136, 0141 and 0143 were associated with faunal remains, but there is no clear evidence of deformation through impact.
The .22 caliber bullet is difficult to interpret, both because of the lack of associated artifacts to provide context and the fact that bullets of this type have changed little over a long period of time, making determination of age difficult. Beyond noting that the bullet shows deformation from high-velocity impact, there is not much more that can be determined from this artifact. The exploded percussion caps are relatively small, suggesting they came from a pistol or small rifle. There are, unfortunately, no manufacturer's marks or other identifying markings with which to make any more detailed interpretation.
The data we currently have on the artifacts is sufficient to state that they are consistent with both the presumed time frame for occupation of this site as well as the interpretation that hunting activities were carried out at this location. The presence of spent bullets within the presumed dwelling area and their association with faunal remains suggest butchering activities taking place within the site, with carcasses and recovered bullets being discarded in trash pits. The Colt revolver bullets, as mentioned earlier, might reflect target practice or some other kind of recreational shooting going on within the habitation area. All of this is what we would expect to find at a road ranch site along the overland trails, where wagon trains may have been provisioned by the proceeds of hunting. While such a scenario is speculative, it is nevertheless consistent with the firearms-related artifacts recovered at this site.
After having identified the kinds of weapons reflected in this artifact assemblage, the next step is to look at spatial distributions and the details of related artifacts. This might give us some indication of the location, size and general contents of the supposed trash pits. In addition, as mentioned earlier, a closer look at the associated faunal remains might yield a direct correlation with some of the expended bullets in the assemblage, clarifying the issue of hunting and butchering activities. Indeed, a more intensive cleaning and microscopic examination of these artifacts themselves might reveal more ballistic data that can shed light on the specific weapons represented in this collection. It might be enlightening as well to review some of the historical sources for the nineteenth-century trails, particularly freighters' memoirs. It may be possible to discern a kind of "gun culture" among people involved with overland travel (what kinds of firearms they carried, how they were used) and compare the artifacts from the Beaver Creek Site with the historical record. Ultimately, this particular assemblage, while not tremendously large, can provide a great deal of information about life at Beaver Crossing during the 1860s, and, in a broader sense, shed light on the experience of overland travel in the middle of the nineteenth century.
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