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Posts Tagged ‘Folsom Archeological Site’

Our archeological tour group congregates at the Folsom Museum (www.folsomvillage.com/folsommuseum/) in the heart of what was the old downtown. The Museum stands across from the abandoned hotel, two of the few Folsom buildings that survived the flood.

Doherty Cash Register, Folsom © SR Euston

The Museum is in the old Doherty Mercantile Building and has an amazing collection of local memorabilia, maps, newspapers, farm implements, saddles, and even a reconstructed law office.  On its wide front porch, we’re warmly greeted by Museum volunteers who offer a splendid ranch lunch with loads of meat, hominy, and cole slaw, topped off with Betty Short’s special “high altitude” chocolate cake.

After lunch we leave for the archeological site, 18 of us truck-pooling. We rumble over a track cut  through lush grama range grass and gambel oak groves. The site at the head of Wild Horse Arroyo is undistinguished from its surroundings except for the fencing and the locked gate we pass through.  Only slight berms and an unvegetated bank suggest that here is one of North America’s most important paleontological excavations.

This is the story the Folsom Site tells scientists:  About 10,500 years ago, a roving band of Paleoindians encountered a small herd of now extinct bison. Some in the band scared the bison up into this box canyon where they bunched up, unable to escape. Meanwhile on the banks above stood other Paleoindians ready to attack the trapped animals with spears armed with Folsom points. In all 32 bison were killed. Over the next few days, the bison were dressed and dried. After the meat was packed up, the group moved on.

Looking for Bison Bones © SR Euston

In the arroyo, we get a chance to examine the site itself.  Although thoroughly excavated, small bison bone fragments remain. We look around and finally locate a few. They’re little, lightweight, beige shards. It takes the tour leader to confirm they’re bison bones, not stones.

As we leave it’s clear the site itself, beautiful ranch land that it is, seems somewhat anticlimactic. But the story it told archeologists was of profound importance. It is the first place that proved humans were in North America before 8000 BCE.  And it remains one of North America’s best known archeological sites. An entire Paleoindian culture is named after it. Not bad for a New Mexico arroyo.

It’s definitely been worth the trip.

Oak Copse Near Folsom Site © SR Euston

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The Folsom site is a speck in northeastern New Mexico’s grand sweeping landscape, a mix of long black mesas, volcanic cinder cones and grassy swaths. Here Cattle is King and giant local ranches with names like the TO and the Cross L have been in families for generations.  Cattle, horses, deer and pronghorn definitely outnumber human residents.

At the Base of Johnson Mesa © SR Euston

The range in May is light green and tan, dappled with cloud shadows and speckled with white locoweed, purple verbena and brilliant orange-red paintbrush. Heading east out of Raton on US 64, we pass between mesas and old wind-worn cinder cones. Over 100 of these remnants dot the Raton/Clayton volcanic field which covers 8000 square miles of New Mexico, an area the size of Massachusetts. The largest, to our south, is Sierra Grande, a spectacular shield volcano, visible for miles around.

North on State Route 325 is Capulin Volcano National Monument, a beautifully conical volcano, which rises over 1000 feet from the plain. A narrow road (with no guard rails and sheer drop-offs) winds up the volcano and ends at a parking lot about 100 feet from the summit. From there trails lead down into the crater and around its rim. The view from the Rim Trail is amazing. On clear days you can see five states: New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas. Folsom is five miles north.

We return to Raton on the northern route via State Road 7 across Johnson Mesa where the 1908 flood originated. Two thousand feet above the plateau, Johnson Mesa is a breathtaking fourteen mile long, six mile wide sky island, hovering above the volcano field to the south and Colorado high plains which you can see to the north. There are no trees at all, just remnant volcano cones,  green rolling grass and depressions filled with rainwater.

Bell Church, Johnson Mesa © SR Euston

Occasional abandoned ranch buildings are all that’s left of the homesteaders who ventured up here in 1887. For a while the community of Bell thrived on the mesa top but brutal winters and the too-short growing season drove the settlers back down to the valleys below. Currently no one lives on the mesa year round. What’s left are two cemeteries and the stone Methodist Episcopal Church. And the grazing cattle.  In the late afternoon sun, we spot a herd of pronghorn bounding gracefully across what could be mistaken for the African veldt.

Next: The Folsom Site Tour

From Capulin Volcano © SR Euston

Johnson Mesa Toward Evening © SR Euston


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“Just after a beautiful rain in the evening, the sun set upon a happy and prosperous little town of 800 inhabitants. The next morning, it arose in a clear sky upon a scene of destruction, death, desolation and horror.”  La Epoca, Folsom NM    August 31, 1908

Midnight, August 27, 1908 the Dry Cimarron River flooded Folsom, killing 17 residents and washing away much of the town. Folsom, in northeastern New Mexico’s Union County, was a bustling community at the crossroads of the Santa Fe Trail’s Aubry Cutoff and the Goodnight-Loving Trail. At that time, Folsom boasted the largest stockyard north of Ft. Worth. But Folsom never really recovered and today less than 100 people call it home.

The flood, the result of a 12 inch deluge upstream on Johnson Mesa, also swept away soil from nearby canyons, including Wild Horse Arroyo, 13 miles northwest of Folsom. Later that year, George McJunkin, a local cowboy and avid fossil hunter, was looking for stray cattle and instead came upon a very large bone exposed in the arroyo’s bank.

By accident, a world class archeological site had been discovered.

But it took almost twenty years for scientists to follow up on McJunkin’s discovery.  In the late 1920s archeologists from Denver’s Museum of Natural History  turned up multiple extinct bison bones and some two dozen small, very sharp, finely chipped stone points. These 10,500 year old artifacts significantly pushed back scientific dating of the Paleoindian presence in North America. And “Folsom Man” became an archeological icon.

Interpretation at the Folsom Site © SR Euston

The Folsom Archeological Site is a New Mexico State Monument, a National Historic Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located on State Trust Land, it is only open to the public for one tour annually, arranged in May by the Folsom Museum as part of New Mexico Historic Preservation Month. ( www.nmhistoricpreservation.org)

So, on a balmy May Saturday, we head for Folsom. Who could resist a free, once-a-year, guided field trip to a site where 10,500 years ago prehistoric hunters slaughtered giant bison with stone points sharper than steel?

Besides, I’d never pass up an opportunity to visit the northeast corner of New Mexico. It has some of the best territory we’ve got.

Next: The High-Lo Country

Volcano Field: Northeast New Mexico © SR Euston

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