April 24, 2018

A Nearly Pristine Pawnee Tipi Ring Site Preserved for More Than a Century

In 1844, explorer John C. Fremont was leading his second American expedition to map the Oregon Trail when he and his party came upon a large village of Pawnees in tipis along the Smoky Hill River in Ellis County, Kansas. Though Fremont didn’t know it at the time, the Pawnees were gathered there for their annual bison hunt (they normally lived in earth lodges farther north). That year's hunt turned out to be one of the Pawnee Nation's last, as they had suffered losses in the thousands due to infectious diseases brought by Europeans, crop failure, and warfare with Europeans and other tribes.

Ring 19 in the foreground, facing south towards the Smoky Hill River.

photo by: Chris Hord/Dr. Jack Hoffman, November 2015

View of Pawnee tipi ring number 19 from the south towards Smoky Hill River.

After the Pawnee Nation was forced to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma in 1873, what is likely the same tract of land they used for their annual hunting trips was purchased by a local cattle rancher. The property passed hands twice, and the Pawnee people’s hunting camp remained almost untouched. When the current landowners bought the farm in the 1960s, they and the previous owners shook hands, ensuring that the Pawnee Tipi Ring Site and Golden Spring Beach (as it’s known now) would be preserved. In 2013, the current landowners connected with the Kansas Historical Society during the Archaeological Training Program, where private citizens can bring their artifacts to local archaeologists for analysis.

Dr. Jack Hofman, an anthropology professor at the University of Kansas, led test excavations of the site between 2013 and 2016. His team discovered that the remains of the Pawnees' tipis were still almost entirely intact. In contrast, nearly all tipi ring sites in Kansas have been destroyed due to land cultivation; it’s rare that private landowners would have chosen to preserve an archeological site like this one.

At the landowners’ request, Kansas’ State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) listed the property on the State Register of Historic Places. The state then sent a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018, where the Pawnee Tipi Ring Site and Golden Spring Beach is currently under review.

Matt Reed, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, explains that his office has been loosely involved with the project in the past, and hopes to continue their relationship with Kansas' SHPO in the future: "I have been in contact with [the archaeologists] a couple of times beginning late last summer and have a trip scheduled for this month to visit the site in person. I hope that my office and the Nation can work with the archaeology team and the State of Kansas very closely on this project, as well as all future projects involving Pawnee cultural sites."

Referring to the site’s remarkable physical impression on the land, Kansas SHPO archeologist Tim Weston explains, “You can tell there’s something odd about it [if you visit the property]. You can see several shallow, circular depressions spread out through the pasture. Even with no background or training in archeology, you could look at it and think, I wonder what’s going on here?

The site is historically significant as a rare remnant of the Pawnee Nation in Kansas, and it is almost entirely pristine. In fact, the only part of the site that was moved is still on the property. Stones that once lined the Pawnees' tipi rings were utilized in the construction of a barn nearby. When archaeologists began excavating the area, they found similar stones buried beneath some of the rings, indicating that the Pawnees would have reused the site year after year.

There is a chance that the Pawnee Tipi Ring Site may not be the spot Fremont happened upon almost two centuries ago (there are some discrepancies between Fremont’s account and the site’s location), but archaeologists did find metal from the same time period as the explorer’s second expedition. In addition, the historic Pawnee Trail, depicted in the tribe's oral traditions, also appears on maps—including one dated to 1845—that show its route intersecting with the Smoky Hill River in the general vicinity of the archaeological site. Excavation also uncovered bison bone, further confirming the site’s use as a Pawnee hunting camp.

Reed adds, "The area corresponds to our known travel corridor that has become known as the Pawnee Trail and later, a portion of the Santa Fe Trail. Being a campsite within a travel corridor, this site hopefully can contribute to knowledge about our mobility, community, our material culture of that time period, and the breadth of our cultural area."

Note: This story has been updated to reflect the views and involvement of the Pawnee Nation's Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO).

Carson Bear is an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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