LARAMIE — The southern Laramie Valley has served as a travel corridor for as long as humans have been crossing the plains, from Native American routes to the Cherokee Trail, Overland Stage Route, Union Pacific Railroad, Lincoln Highway and Interstate 80.
An archaeological site near Tie Siding, called Willow Springs, was recently the focus of an excavation conducted by the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist, and the quantity of artifacts they discovered has the office planning to continue digging in the future.
Spencer Pelton, the Wyoming state archaeologist, said the site, which sits on private land northwest of Tie Siding, was used by Native Americans and later settlers traveling overland routes through the area.
“It’s a beautiful spring in a pretty dry place, and it also has a really nice stand of trees around it,” he said.
In addition to fresh water and shade trees, the site attracts plentiful big game.
“There were a ton of elk hanging out there when we there,” he said. “It’s just a great oasis in the southern Laramie valley.”
In the 1850s, the Cherokee Trail took wagon trains from Oklahoma along the Arkansas River, the South Platte River and then along the Colorado/Wyoming border to Green River and points west. In the 1860s, the Overland Stage Route ran from Kansas to Salt Lake City.
The transcontinental railroad blazed a new overland route that allowed for the settlement of the city of Laramie in 1868, followed by the transcontinental Lincoln Highway in 1913.
“They all come through the same area right there, and before that it looks like Native Americans were using it comparably as well,” Pelton said.
The Willow Creek site was first excavated in the 1960s by archaeologist William Mulloy, the founding faculty member in the University of Wyoming Department of Anthropology. Mulloy found extensive Native American campsites with stone tools, pottery pieces, animal bones and beads. He also found artifacts from the 1860s suggesting the site’s use by overland travelers.
Pelton said Mulloy’s work at Willow Creek was never written up in a report and the artifacts are still stored at UW. Last year, the landowner approached the state office, knowing that the area had been studied before.
“The Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist decided it would be a good idea to return to it, answer some questions, and try to get a report,” Pelton said.
Archaeologists worked at the site for about 10 days in mid-June. They found an extensive collection of arrowheads, pottery pieces and animal bones.
“This has one of the largest prehistoric ceramics assemblages that have ever been found in the state,” Pelton said.
They also found a surprising number of artifacts from the 1860s, including shell cartridges, pieces to muzzleloaders and equipment for melting down lead and making bullets.
“It looks like this Willow Springs was part of the Overland Stage Route or Cherokee Trail — which slightly preceded it in the 1850s — even though it’s not been recognized as such yet,” Pelton said. “We’re trying to answer the question of what role it actually did fulfill.”
Pelton’s office has plans to spend the next year cataloging the artifacts and synthesizing their findings. They’ll return next summer for further digging, with the goal of writing up the project for a journal publication.
“We still have some lingering questions,” he said.