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An Analysis of the Faunal Remains from the Beaver Creek Trail Crossing Site (25SW49), Seward County, Nebraska


The following paper discusses the faunal remains excavated from the Beaver Creek Trail Crossing Site (25SW49) by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) field school during the summer of 2005. Excavation was led under the supervision of Dr. Paul Demers. The site, located on both the east and west sides of the Beaver Creek in Seward County, Nebraska, and just north of the current town of Beaver Crossing, was a fording location along the Nebraska City Cutoff portion of the Oregon Trail during the 1860s. This cutoff was a main route of travel for steam wagons carrying freight across the prairie.

Using historic photographs, journals, and newspaper articles, the main goals of the excavation were to identify archaeological remains of structures that are known to have existed at the site and, if possible, to pinpoint the uses of those structures (Johnson and Dempsey 2006). It is thought that a road ranch, houses or cabins, a saloon, post office, general store, and other associated buildings, such as stables and privys, were present at the site during a time when travel on the cutoff was at its peak. The excavation focused on several geophysical anomalies and encountered large concentrations of mortar and a fire pit, as well as other unidentifiable features. The faunal remains came from various places throughout the excavated area, most of the burned fragments coming from the large fire pit.

The analysis of faunal remains from this Oregon Trail site is quite basic and does not bring to light much information about the subsistence strategies of people on the trail. However, such an analysis is extremely important as, during the course of this paper, it was discovered that very little research of this nature has been done on overland trail sites. Continued investigation into the foodways of the people traveling on the Oregon Trail and other such routes could help answer a number of research questions pertaining to this time period and group of people. For example, questions about class, wealth, wild versus domestic animal usage, hunting patterns and needs, amount of meat available on the trail, and quantity and species of domesticated animals could be considered by taking a closer look at the faunal remains from sites similar to 25SW49.


The faunal remains from the 2005 excavation were examined in the lab in Morrill Hall (University of Nebraska State Museum) on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln city campus. In the fall of that year, under the direction of Dr. Demers, students enrolled in the research methods class (Anthropology 482) washed, identified, and cataloged all artifacts, including the bone remains. Once the initial cataloging was completed, the bones were separated into possibly identifiable and unidentifiable categories and were weighed (in grams) by graduate student Tyrel Moss. The bones were then set aside for further investigation.

The author continued with the study of the bones the following spring as a project for Archaeofauna (Anthropology 487). With extensive help from Nebraska State Historical Society archaeologist, Rob Bozell, the identifiable bones (those that could be assigned to a taxonomic group (Bozell 2002)) were separated by taxon and each element was identified. During the identification, notes were made on each specimen about modification. Characteristics recorded included the presence or absence of cut/knife marks, rodent/carnivore gnawing, if the element was mature or immature, and whether or not the specimen had been chopped or sawed. This data was compiled into a Microsoft Excel worksheet.

For each taxon, two calculations were made. First, the number of identified specimens (NISP) was calculated and second, the minimum number of individuals (MNI) was determined. Also, the minimum animal units (MAU) was recorded and each element was considered according to nutritional value (Bozell 2006).

Only one analytic unit has been identified at the site thus far. This unit is Feature 5, a large burn feature or fire pit. This feature contains 92g of unidentified bone or 11.97% of the total weight of unidentified bone remains and 226.4g of identified bone or 22.03% of the total weight of identified bone remains.


The Beaver Creek Trail Crossing Site contains 1117 fragments of bone weighing 1796.2g. Table 3 provides a detailed list of all identified bones and their weight and provenience, and description while Table 4 lists the unidentified bones and their weight, provenience and a description if pertinent. Fifty-nine fragments weighing 1027.5g were identifiable bone fragments, while 1058 fragments weighing 768.7g were unidentifiable, 30 of which are burned and 4 are calcined. Only the identified fragments were examined for evidence of butchering and other cultural and natural modification. The taxons represented are beaver, cattle, cottontail rabbit, muskrat, chicken, swine, raccoon, and painted turtle as well as bird, mammal, and turtle.

  • One beaver skull was excavated from the site (Figure 1). All of the teeth are still articulated with the mandible and maxilla. The NISP is 10% and MNI is 1.
  • Five bird bones were recovered. None of these bones could be identified further than the fact that they belong to the bird taxon. The NISP is 8.4% and the MNI is unknown.
  • Seventeen cattle bones were recovered, which is 28.8% of the NISP. In the assemblage there are 11 vertebra fragments, 1 ischium fragment, 1 ilium fragment, 1 molar, 1 tibia diaphysis fragment, 1 cuboid, and 1 metatarsal fragment. Two of the vertebra fragments articulate and these came from Feature 5. Two individuals were identified, a mature adult and an immature juvenile. This assessment was made due to the fusing of the bones. Six of the fragments exhibit evidence of being chopped (Figure 2) while 3 show saw marks (Figure 3). Eight have evidence of carnivore gnawing and rodent gnawing is visible on 2 of the fragments. Only 1 fragment has cut marks (Figure 5). One fragment, the tibia diaphysis, has a spiral fracture and knife markings. It is possible that this fragment is from a prehistoric occupation of the site and could be a bison bone (Figure 4).
  • Three rabbit bones were excavated. They are two lumbar vertebrae and a right radius diaphysis (Figure 6) that exhibits carnivore gnawing. The two lumbar vertebrae articulate with one another. The NISP is 5% and the MNI is 1.
  • A singular chicken bone was recovered. It is a left distal tibiotarsus. The NISP is 1.7% and the MNI is 1.
  • Three mammal rib segments were recovered. One of these fragments has cut marks on it. The NISP is 5% and the MNI is 1.
  • Six painted turtle bones (10.2% of the NISP), representing an MNI of 1, were excavated. These include 1 marginal carpace fragment, 3 costal carpace fragments, and 2 axial notches. One costal carpace fragment came from Feature 5.
  • Six unidentified turtle bones were found. They are all plastron fragments and make up 10.2% of the NISP and represent one individual.
  • Two raccoon bones were identified. They make up 3.4% of the NISP and represent one individual. They are 1 left posterior maxilla and 1 right mandible, which has cut marks.
  • Two muskrat bones are present. Elements include one right mandible fragment and one left posterior maxilla fragment. The NISP is 3.4% and the MNI is 1.
  • Thirteen swine bones, 22% of the NISP and 1 MNI, were excavated. Elements include 1 distal metapodial, 1 right distal humerus, 2 rib segments, 1 unsided metapodial (immature), 2 thoracic vertebrae, 2 scapula fragments (Figure 7), 1 right anterior ilium fragment (immature), 1 anterior lumbar vertebra (immature), and 1 right proximal ulna. The distal metapodial fragment was excavated out of Feature 5.


Animal Units and Nutritional Value

Of all the taxon represented at the site, only the chicken, cow, and pig bones were identifiable as cuts of meat. All of the cow bones recovered from the site could have been used as food. Table 1 shows the cuts of meat and their nutritional value (1=high value, 5=low value (Bozell 2006)).

Table 1. Cow meat cuts and values.
Element Cut Value
Cervical vertebra Neck 4
Ischium Rump 2
Ilium Sirloin 1
Posterior tibia Hindshank 5
Metapodial Feet 5
Lumbar vertebra Loin 1
Thoracic vertebra Rib/roast 3

The singular cow ilium represents the best or most nutritious cut of meat, the sirloin. The least nutritious cuts of meat are the feet and hindshank. The assemblage contains only one of each of these elements. One thoracic vertebra (rib/roast) is an immature individual while the rest of the portions are from a mature individual.

The one identifiable chicken bone is a tibiotarsus. This particular element is a drumstick and has a nutritional value of 2.

The pig bones, as with the cow bones, all could have been used as food as they all represent edible portions of the animal. Table 2 shows which cuts are present and what their nutritional value is.

Table 2. Pig meat cuts and values.
Element Cut Value
Metapodial Feet/stew meat 5
Distal humerus Shoulder 3
Rib Chops, spare ribs or bacon 3
Thoracic vertebra Chops 3
Scapula Shoulder 3
Ilium Ham/loin 1
Lumbar vertebra Chops/sirloin 1
Proximal ulna Shoulder 3

The two most nutritious cuts of meat from the pig bones are the ilium (ham/loin) and lumbar vertebrae (chops/sirloin) with a value of 1. The least nutritious of these elements is the metapodial (feet), while the humerus, ribs, scapula, and ulna are only mediocre meat cuts.

In short, the assemblage from 25SW49 is not large enough to determine exactly what cuts of meat were being most readily consumed at the site nor if one particular cut was being utilized in a greater frequency than any other. A larger assemblage would be able to answer questions about domestic meat availability and usage. However, the cuts of meat present at the site do tell us that wild fauna is not an exploited resource. Cut marks are only present on one wild animal, the raccoon mandible. Butchering marks such as chop or saw marks are present only on the cow and pig bones. It should be kept in mind that only one (or two in the cow taxon) individual is represented in these findings.

Technological Conclusions

Judging from the types of butchering evidenced on the cow and pig bones from the site, it is obvious that two methods of butchering were utilized: chopping and sawing. Only 2 of the cow bones and 1 of the pig bones is sawn while 6 of the cow bones and none of the pig bones have been chopped.

It is possible that sawed bones are representative of some kind of commercial butchering operation existing at the site. Maybe the road ranch owners were raising cattle for systematic butchering in order to supplement travelers coming through town on the trail. Chopping may have been used during informal butchering that did not occur for the larger populous, but rather for the individual family. This could have been done by both families established at the town and those families just passing through. Again, the assemblage is not large enough to determine if a particular species was butchered more precisely, frequently, or for larger distribution than another or even if such butchering practices were in wide usage.

It would be interesting to make further determinations about the amount of chopped bones as opposed to sawed bones at the site. This could have major implications about the types of technology available at the site as well as the activities that took place there and the subsistence strategies employed by those who both lived there and traveled through.

Spatial Distribution of Bones

For the most part, the bones are scattered across the excavated area of the site (Figure 11). The largest concentration of bones occurs in Feature 5, a large burn feature/fire pit located on the west side of the excavation area. This feature contains 92g or 11.97% of the NISP of the unidentified bones (30 of which are burned) and 226.4g or 22.03% of the NISP of the identified bones. Figures 9 and 10 show the identified bone distribution by weight and quantity, respectively. Figure 12 shows the unidentified bone distribution by weight. Figure 8 shows the burned or calcined bone distribution across the site. All distribution maps were created by Nolan Johnson (Johnson and Dempsey 2006).


In conclusion, the faunal assemblage at 25SW49 is somewhat diverse as it includes both domestic and some wild fauna (beaver, raccoon, rabbit, muskrat), although it is very small and therefore difficult to make any real assumptions about the people who lived at the site and how they approached eating, butchering, and even hunting. The assemblage is dominated by cow remains, followed closely by pig remains. This matches with the idea that travelers on the Oregon Trail drove cattle and other domestic animals out onto the prairie to utilize throughout their journey and possibly to set up livestock populations once they reached their final destination. Other sites in Nebraska from the same time period as have assemblages of similar composition to 25SW49. The Chappell Site (25DU2) and Paxton Site (25KH18) are both cattle-dominated assemblages that contain a number of small mammals (Carlson 1973). The cow bones from these two sites also exhibit cut and knife marks. At the Paxton Site, the heavier pieces have evidence of sawing.

There is a definite paucity of information relating to the faunal remains at overland trail sites. Some literature (Williams 1993) is available pertaining to what settlers brought with them on the trails, what foods they made, and things of that nature; however, not much is noted about butchering practices and how the settlers ate as they traveled along the trails. It is evident that this is an important area of trails research. The introduction of domestic animals onto the plains and how people utilized domestic animals is an area of research that is not often studied though it should be. As more excavation is done at trail sites, more analysis of faunal materials should be completed and comparisons should be made both between sites and geographic regions.

Figures and Tables

Figure 1. Beaver skull.

Figure 2. Chopped cow bone.

Figure 3. Sawed cow bone.

Figure 4. Possible prehistoric bison bone with spiral fracture.

Figure 5. Cow lumbar vertebra with cut marks.

Figure 6. Rabbit radius with carnivore tooth puncture.

Figure 7. Pig scapula.

Figure 8. Burned and calcined bone distribution (Johnson and Dempsey 2006).

Figure 9. Identified bone distribution by weight (Johnson and Dempsey 2006).

Figure 10. Identified bone distribution by quantity (Johnson and Dempsey 2006).

Figure 11. Total bone distribution by quantity (Johnson and Dempsey 2006).

Figure 12. Total unidentified bone distribution by weight (Johnson and Dempsey 2006).


Bozell, John R.
2002 Faunal Remains from 1996 and 1997 Archeological Investigations at Brown's Sheep Camp (5LA5824), Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, Las Animas County, Colorado. Manuscript on file, National Park Service, Midwest Archeological Center, Lincoln.

2006 Personal communication, April 13.

Carlson, Gayle F., and Richard E. Jensen
1973 Archeological Salvage and Survey in Nebraska. Nebraska State Historical Society Publications in Anthropology No. 5. Manuscript on file, Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology Division, Lincoln.

Johnson, Nolan L., and Erin C. Dempsey
2006 An Overview of the Archaeological Investigations of the Beaver Creek Trail Crossing Site (25SW49). Unpublished site report on file, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Anthropology and Geography, Lincoln.

Williams, Jacqueline B.
1993 Wagon Wheel Kitchens: Food on the Oregon Trail. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence.