Historical Details

Spanish Diggings is Mute Reminder of Pre-historic Days; Unwritten History

Courtesy of The Lusk Herald, 05/28/1936

Spanish Diggings is a Mute Reminder of Days When Pre-Historic Man Quarried Rock to Make Weapons and Implements; Has Unwritten History

Down in the southwest corner of Niobrara County, about 35 miles from Lusk, is located what is commonly known as the Spanish Diggings, consisting of a series of pre-historic stone quarries- a mute reminder of days when other races of men peopled these Western plains, and used implements made entirely of stone.

These diggings are one of many quarries and shop sites located throughout Eastern Wyoming, starting at some point in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and extending down toward Guernsey and Glendo on the Platte River.

Hans Gautschi of Lusk has made a thorough study of the Spanish Diggings, and is an authority on the subject. The following review of the Spanish Diggings was written by Mrs. Helen Willson, with the assistance of Mr. Gautschi, and gives a vivid and accurate description of the so-called “Diggings”:

As we go back in time, down into the history of geological and animal formation, the periods of time increase almost beyond comprehension. Twelve thousand years takes us back into the late stone age when man’s only machinery consisted of sharpened flints, the bow and arrow and rude traps. The story of Wyoming’s earliest inhabitants is enveloped in a haze of mystery and obscurity, but explorations have developed the fact that this State has the most ancient remains of vanished races to be found on this continent. In the prehistoric mines of this State there is embedded the hidden chronicle of extinct races-the story of the stone age and the cave man, of the buried, untold history of the primitive, rude and savage life of the childhood of mankind.

These prehistoric quarries are scattered through a region approximately 400 square miles in Platte and Niobrara counties of Wyoming. This region is a rectangle, ten miles wide, forty miles long to the eastward of the North Platte River. Its western end is northeast of Glendo, Wyo., its eastern terminus near a north and south line between Guernsey and Manville, Wyo.

The “Spanish Diggings’ proper is that portion one strikes when one turns at the big sign, three miles west of Keeline and drives from there approximately eleven miles south. Here, within easy walking distance, we find the main quarries of the region—the Barbour, Dorsey and Holmes quarries. The “Spanish Diggings” comprises only that part of the prehistoric mines region which lies in the Spanish Hills, one mile west of the Holmes quarry.

The name, “Spanish Diggings,” is a misnomer. Some say the name was conferred upon the region by cowboys and others say it was given by early explorers, who thought the excavations were made by preceding Spanish expeditions, which were made to this part of North America, under Coronado and others in the Fifteenth Century.

Here, so long ago that the Indians contacted by the earliest white adventurers had no traditions concerning them, men of crude culture labored infinitely. Here, doubtless, was the cradle of manufacturing in America, the locale of the first “big business” on the continent, which went in for organized industry to thus give mass production.

The region is indeed an archaeological paradise. Numerous expeditions of scientific men have visited it, explored and dug among its treasures, and carried away many thousands of relics for laboratory, study, and museum display. Considerable literature, precious to scientific mind of the world, has been written concerning it and men have traveled thousands of miles to see it, while others who care not for such things have spent their lifetime within a score of miles without once deviating from their regular pursuits to see it.

Different Quarries Described
The Barbour quarry was named for Dr. Edwin H. Barbour, from the University of Nebraska, who visited the region in 1905. Here large chunks and slabs of rock have been torn from the hillside, as seams were followed up and the desired quartzite obtained. The refuse rocks were dumped down the hillside and apparently the quartzite was carried away to be worked upon elsewhere, as very few chips and almost no refuse pieces were found there. The Holmes quarry is about sixteen miles southwest of Keeline. On the crest of the hill are soon to be seen pits from 10 to 25 feet in depth, in spite of the winds and rain of thousands of years, and on the slope of the hill are a series of smaller pits. As the desired material was obtained from one pit, they moved on up the hill dumping their refuse into the last abandoned pit. There are also open cuts at the crown of the hill. The chunks of quartzite containing the cores were broken off and carried to comparatively flat places on the hills and here were worked into implements. Today the refuge dumps on the hillside resemble those of modern mines. On the ridge of this hilltop at the Holmes quarry, one may still find chips, “rejects,” and partly finished implements.

Prehistoric Cross on Slope of Hill
On the eastern slope of this hill is a cross, built of rejected material from the adjacent quarries. The cross is approximately 100 feet long, and the outline can be distinctly seen. The best views may be obtained by standing at the head of the cross looking down the slope. There were apparently various designs made throughout the cross, some of which may yet be seen. In recent years visitors have removed many of the rocks and others have attempted to reconstruct the designs, which have partially destroyed the value of the prehistoric work from a scientific viewpoint. Those who visit the site should refrain from disturbing any of the rocks, as scientists and archaeologists will undoubtedly make more thorough and complete study of this cross in future years. From the foot of the cross extend two rows of stone mounds, parallel to each other, which run down into the valley for a distance of more than a half a mile. It is thought that the cross was used in some religious ceremonial.

The Holmes quarry was named for William H. Holmes, who wrote “Handbook of Aboriginal Antiquities”, as Bulletin 60 for the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institute, and many other articles on archaeological subjects. The Dorsey quarry, which is about one-half mile a little south by east of the Holmes quarry, was named for Dr. George A. Dorsey, curator of the Field Museum of Chicago, who explored the region in company with Billy Lauk and W. L. Stein in 1900. This quarry does not appear to have been so extensively worked as the Homes or Barbour quarries, but evidence is visible where veins of the precious quartzite were followed up.

In the entire region of the 400 square miles, more than 25 quarries have been located and explored. Still others undoubtedly remain, but have never been found, as they lie buried beneath the soil carried by the wind and rains of many centuries.

Also south of the “Spanish Diggings” proper, near the North Platte River, in the vicinity of Sawmill Canyon, 15 or 20 miles southeast of the Muddy workings in Converse and Niobrara counties, lies another quarry district. Near these quarries are shop sites covering many acres, where chips and cores are in such abundance as to stagger one’s belief. Most of the material is black and yellow jasper and a fine-grained moss agate.

The location of the “Spanish Diggings” as a prehistoric factory site was dictated by the presence of the raw material. Outcroppings along the ridge are a ledge of brittle quartzite. This rock was particularly adaptable in their use, since it breaks with a conchoidal fracture and a lump of it may be worked down and fashioned into crude implements – scrapers, knives, axe-heads, hammers, milling stones, weapon points, paint pans, hoes, etc. The heavy hammers or grooved mauls were usually of dense, hard quartzite, so peculiar, in fact, that when in the surrounding country or in the neighboring State of Nebraska and Oklahoma, the tools can easily be recognized as coming from the Wyoming Quarries – the formation of the rock at once establishing their source, though the craftsmanship, too, is peculiar to the region of the “Diggings.” Many of the finished products have been found in various parts of North America, thousands of miles from the “Spanish Diggings.” Fifteen hundred miles away, in Ohio, the site of an ancient village was found, and here in an underlying strata, estimated to be at least 2,000 years old, were found implements from the Wyoming quarries. It is also thought that the specimens of stone tools, implements, etc., found in the mounds of the Mound Builders in the Mississippi Valley, came from the Wyoming quarries. The theory is thus advanced that these quarries may have been the site of the workshops of prehistoric men who roamed over the land ages before the American Indian made his appearance, approached also the region on the Platte River.
Though the tools manufactured were for war, domestic and agricultural uses, tools, not weapons, predominate among the finished articles which have been found – ax head, both single and double-bitted, triangular hoes shaped with handles, scrapers and crude knives carved for use in skinning animals. The pursuits of peace and of agriculture seem to predominate their interests.

All the quarrying was done with stone implements, such as wedges and heavy hammers, and the overlying strata of other kinds of rock were removed to give access to the desired quartzite. Wedges have been found set in the rock seams ready to be driven. This, among other evidences, gives rise to the theory that the region was suddenly abandoned, either from attacks by enemy tribes or from some cataclysm of nature. Nowhere is there evidence that metal tools were used either in mining or for domestic purposes. Their mining work was a slow, tedious and laborious process and very crude, requiring hundreds of workers to accomplish what two or three men could easily do today.

If we contrast their labor and output with today’s machinery and mass production, we would realize what human intelligence has done in a period of time that is only a moment in the existence of this earth, an infinitesimal fraction of a second in the history of the universe.

Tepee Rings Indicate Mode of Living
Back on the mesa in close proximity to the workings are extensive village sites marked by hundreds of tepee or lodge circles, made by stones apparently used to keep the walls of the tepees in place, the habitations of early man being poles covered with the skins of animals or brush. Many such villages are located a number of miles away in pleasant valleys and parks, near springs or running streams. Nevertheless, nearly all of these villages were also workshops, as is evidenced by large accumulations of chips and rejects on the sites, showing that they were simply adjuncts of the quarry mining. However, here are found arrow and lance heads and hide scrapers, beautifully made from brilliantly colored agate, jasper and chalcedony. Most of these are small, and the work far superior to other quarry products, leading some to believe they were made by modern Indians after the quarry races were no more.

There has been no systematic plan of exploration, and no excavation of the pits to uncover the hidden relics of the race who lived so long ago in these desolate wilds – experts, scientists and curiosity seekers who have roamed over the terrain have only seen surface indications and picked up specimens as lay before the naked eye.

What Became of Race Who Worked the Diggings?
What became of this ancient race of manufacturers, traders and perhaps farmers, whose products were carried so far and spread over the continent? The best the learned archaeologists can do is guess. Erosion has obliterated considerable evidence, but the quarries, the workshops and camp sites, still remain as evidence of the frugality and ingenuity of a prehistoric race, and in no section of the entire world can be found ancient quarries of such magnitude as those of Wyoming’s prehistoric mining and manufacturing district.
As far back as 1905 it has been from time to time proposed that this region be made into a national park, but, though the United States Bureau of Ethnology was interested, the area was so large and so many private land titles were involved, that action was deferred. In the succeeding years efforts have been made along this line and the national park service title to at least a few square miles is still being petitioned to acquire and preserve for posterity the archaeological marvels of this area, which are not subject to removal by mere curiosity hunters and to vandalism.

“Spanish Diggings” Discovered in 1879
A.A. Spaugh, pioneer resident of this section of Wyoming, who now had extensive land holdings in and around Manville, is credited with having located the “Spanish Diggings” as early as 1879; Lauk and Stein of Whalen Canyon, near Guernsey, explored the region in 1882; I. S. Bartlett of Cheyenne in 1893; Riggs of the Field Museum in 1895; Dr. G. A. Dorsey in 1900; Dr. Barbour in 1905; and after that several scientific expeditions were made. In 1915, C. H. Robinson of Bloomington, Ill., representing the Illinois State Museum and the Mclean County Historical Society, in connection with Hans Gautschi of Lusk, spent two weeks exploring the “Diggings” and surrounding prehistoric sites. Mr. Robinson was greatly enthused over the findings in the entire region, and did more to interest local people in the ”Diggings” than any other person. Mr. Gautschi has since accompanied and acted as a guide for many local people and those from surrounding towns. Mr. Ralph Olinger, formerly of Lusk, but now of Newcastle, Wyo., Mr. O. A. Moss of Manville and J. R. Phillips of Casper have also been particularly interested in the prehistoric sites and all have fine collections of artifacts obtained from the said blowouts in the adjacent country.

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Related/Linked Records

Record Type Name
Obituary Gautschi, Hans (05/14/1883 - 04/26/1966) View Record
Obituary Olinger, Ralph (05/20/1885 - 02/06/1965) View Record
Obituary Willson, Helen (11/30/1894 - 09/24/1979) View Record
Obituary Willson, Helen (08/20/1845 - 06/29/1927) View Record