August 15, 2018

Archaeology Reveals the Hidden History of Amache Ochinee Prowers

Amache Ochinee Prowers was an indigenous woman in the 19th century. She was also a land owner, the daughter of a victim and survivor of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, and a cultural mediator among the Cheyenne tribe, Latino/a people, and Anglos. She helped shape the state of Colorado into what it is today from her home at Boggsville, a National Treasure of the National Trust.

But why is so little known about her life? According to Bonnie Clark, director of the undergraduate archaeology program and curator of archaeology at the University of Denver, Prowers’s role was often trivialized or even absent entirely from the historical records of her time.

However, Boggsville’s archaeological footprint and primary sources about Prowers tell a different story, indicating that she was critical to the financial and cultural success of the site. In our conversation with her, Clark explains the discrepancies between mainstream historical narratives and archaeology, as well as the importance of examining historic sites more closely for clues about the hidden stories of women and minorities.

When did you first become interested in Amache Prowers’ life?

As I was starting my graduate work at the University of Denver, Richard Carrillo invited me to become part of a crew doing work at Amache Prowers’ home. [The structure needed to be stabilized], so I was part of the archaeology crew prior to that.

We were digging under the floorboards in Amache’s living room, and it was one of my first days in the field. I pulled up a beautifully made point, the tip of a biface (a stone tool). I had been reading what little material was available about Amache Prowers—earlier history was focused on her assimilation. And when I found that stone tool, I realized that there was a lot more to this story. The archaeology drove me to understand a little bit more about her life.

Prowers] wasn’t just making those tools—we found these small stone flakes [which indicate that she was] maintaining her tools. She had a stone tool set and a ground stone for processing traditional foods. But at the time, it was kind of radical to even say that women made stone tools. I had to go back to Cheyenne ethnohistory to find some [literature about stone tools], especially when it came to the kinds of tools used for hide-working, which was usually considered women’s work. It makes sense that [Cheyenne women were] the ones making those stone tools, but it had always been associated with man the tool maker, man the hunter.

When it came time for me to choose a thesis [for my graduate program], I thought back to that work with her and my work at Boggsville in general. It was a great way to talk about the role of women in the West, and the way that archaeology fills in where history falls short.

But I also tried to think about all the different ways her life and her experiences were written into Boggsville. I pulled out from the archaeology and, in a way, excavated the archives. I came back to primary documents to [better] understand her life.

Portrait of Amache Prowers, seated, 1860-1863.

photo by: History Colorado

Seated portrait of Amache Prowers, 1860-1863.

Biface stone tool and seed beads that once belonged to Amache Prowers.

photo by: Bonnie Clark

Biface stone tool and seed beads, sewn onto traditional Cheyenne clothing during the 19th century, likely owned by Amache Prowers.

I went through archives that had been completed by Phil Peterson, a local history buff who had done a bunch of the early map work at Boggsville—he was a civil engineer. Because land rights often came from the women of sites [in Colorado], I did a lot of work with Peterson to understand where Boggsville’s land parcels came from.

Peterson owned some unpublished oral histories, and he alerted me to other oral histories, [including] a memoir about living at Boggsville by Amache’s oldest daughter, which had been published in a magazine in the 1940s. Through that and the unpublished oral histories, I was really able to see a different story, one that aligned more with the archaeology and less with the narrative in published history.

How did Prowers influence the way the state took shape?

Like many native women, Amache Prowers was a cultural mediator. Her father was a traditional leader among the Cheyenne near Bent’s Fort. [Amache’s husband], John Prowers, was a trader when the two of them met. It would have been important for John to connect with people like Amache’s father.

It seems that [Amache and John] did have a mutual interest in one another. They had a traditional long courtship with the exchanging of gifts. Then they were married, and Amache was still pretty young when that happened—but many traders on the Santa Fe Trail were married to indigenous women.

Boggsville Historic Site, Las Animas, Colorado

photo by: Beau Blackburn

Exterior of the Prowers House at Boggsville, where Amache Prowers once lived and worked.

After [the Sand Creek Massacre], both Amache and John testified to Congress to get justice for the Cheyenne people. As survivors, Amache, her mother, and her two oldest daughters were each given reparations of 640 acres (or a square mile) of land, and they chose very valuable land along the Arkansas River.

On that land, the Prowers’ cattle kingdom came about. John Prowers’ success started on Amache’s land and other lands that had access to through his connections with the Cheyenne. And Amache was there from the very beginning.

I’ve also really been influenced by the work of feminist geographers to think about how we all exist in networks of social relations, and that places are kind of nodes in that network of connection … those connections are sometimes fraught.

Sometimes the lines of communication can break down, leading to violence—as was the case with Sand Creek. But sometimes, people build on those connections and create bridges.

And that’s why Boggsville is important, because Latino/a, white, and indigenous people were all at this location together. Their differences helped build connections that made Colorado a stronger place. [Boggsville came into existence] after Sand Creek, but people still decided to be part of the same civil society at this place.

I hadn’t realized that Latina and indigenous women could own land in Colorado at that time in history. Can you explain the significance of that?

In Amache Prowers’ case, she, her mother, and her daughters [were able] to hold onto their land. But in most of the U.S., any land you came into a marriage with [then belonged] to your husband. Treaty rights protected the land for these married indigenous women. And for Latina women, land rights came through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

When I looked at the 1870 census for Boggsville, [it was a real eye opener to find out that] the majority of that land was owned by women. Rumalda Boggs and [her husband] Tom Boggs started the settlement, and the land Boggsville was on belonged to Rumalda. It was given to her through a Mexican land grant. The status of women of color was often different than that of Caucasian women, and at that time (at least in the case of land rights) women of color had more power.

Why is it valuable to use archaeology to interpret these sorts of marginalized histories?

Not everybody writes history, but everybody leaves trash. Prowers is a great example. She was an important cultural mediator. She was apparently fluent in Cheyenne, English, and Spanish. But she wasn’t literate, so she didn’t leave a record behind.

We have to rely on the published histories of the time, and she was an indigenous woman, so those period accounts can’t always be trusted. The oral histories with her family are better, but the materiality of her life that’s left—the house, the photographs, the artifacts that she left—[represent] a tangible history that can really fill in a different story.

“Not everybody writes history, but everybody leaves trash.”

Bonnie Clark

That is true of many groups who don’t leave behind their documents, or the documents that are there or written about them are slanderous. I’ve worked on Latino/a sites in Colorado where I’ve had to delve into Spanish-language newspapers to get a better background. For most of those folks living in southeastern Colorado, it’s their sites where we can tell their stories.

I talk a lot about Latina and indigenous women, but I also want to point out how other women of color were cultural innovators at these locations. A great example is [an African American woman named] Charlotte Green, who was famous as one of the cooks at Bent’s Fort. For African American women, the West held freedom that other places in the country didn’t seem to. They [lived and worked] in places of cultural exchange, doing new and different things. Just like Prowers, they experimented with new types of material culture and brought in their own cultural expertise.

These historic places bear their imprint, and it’s one of the reasons why we should be looking for these folks, [even though] they’re not always going to show up in the historic record. We think about the West being male-centric, but archaeology tells a different story, almost always. For all of us who are interested in telling that more complicated story, archaeology has a really critical role to play.

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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