Archaeologists seek site of 1865 battleground near Casper

By Wes Smalling
Casper, Wyoming (AP) 6-08

Somewhere in the hills west of Casper lie the remains of Sgt. Amos Custard.

Exactly where he and the 20 or so other soldiers who died with him are buried has been a mystery for more than a century. Over the next several days, a team of state archaeologists and volunteers is searching an area west of Fort Caspar along the Oregon Trail for the lost Battlefield of Red Buttes.

They also hope to find the graves of Custard and his 20 men who were all killed in the battle. On July 26, 1865, their wagon train came under attack from hundreds, if not thousands, of Indians a few miles from Platte Bridge Station, later named Fort Caspar.

According to historical records, Custard’s men were buried three days after the battle on or very near the battlefield, said state archaeologist Mark Miller. But no one’s ever been able to pinpoint exactly where that battle took place.

“This is probably one of the greatest enigmas of the Indian wars,” Miller said. “It’s supposed to be up there somewhere, but in the last 140 years, no one has ever found the exact location. It could have washed away or everyone’s been looking in the wrong place. It’s hard to tell. The historic records are real ambiguous about where the exact location was.”

Researchers have made several attempts to find the battlefield over the years, most recently in 2006.

There is a growing urgency to find it. The state plans to construct a bypass not far from the site where the battlefield is believed to be. The new road would likely bring urban development, Miller said.

“That whole area might get developed,” he said. “It would be nice to see if we can find the battlefield before it gets to that point.”

The search is taking place along a stretch of the Oregon Trail that passes through private land between Poison Spider and Robertson roads. The project is funded by a $17,000 grant from the Natrona County Commission along with matching state funds.

“We’d like to find it before a backhoe does,” said assistant state archaeologist Danny Walker.

If crew members are looking in the right spot, they expect to find wagon parts, projectile fragments and weapon parts, as well as bones of the dead. If they find the battlefield, they would excavate it, perform a detailed analysis of the recovered artifacts and preserve the sites in some way, which would have to be worked out with the landowner, Miller said.

The crew of 20 volunteers fanned out over a 100-meter grid with metal detectors, sticking a small orange flag in the ground at each sign of buried metal. By the afternoon a few sections were dotted with dozens of flags. But the “hits” from the metal detectors could be just about anything from a litterbug’s beer cans to items tossed aside by long-ago travelers of the Oregon Trail.

Or, they could be the remnants of burned-up wagons from a long lost battlefield.

Before the archaeologists dig at a flagged spot, they’ll try to get a better picture of what’s underground by scanning over it with a magnetometer, which bounces magnetic waves through the ground. They’ll also send electrical currents into the ground with a soil resistance meter to take a different kind of look at it. If a site still looks promising, they’ll carefully start digging.

“It’s a process of elimination, grid by grid,” Walker said.