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George McJunkin: Black Cowboy and Pioneer of Archaeology

Written by PlayBack

By Marissa Johnson

George McJunkin was an African American cowboy responsible for the discovery of the Bison Antiquius. The discovery of this fossil shaped our understanding of human history in North America.

George McJunkin was born into slavery near Midway, Texas but was freed by the age 14 because of the Civil War. After being freed, he traveled west to New Mexico where the influence of Jim Crow persecution was less than it was in other parts of the United States. He taught himself to read and became a voracious reader and consumer of knowledge. Then, he taught himself Spanish and spoke it fluently enough to supervise both Mexicans and whites as a foreman on Crowfoot Ranch. He worked on several ranches and hunted buffalo. The men who worked for him fondly called him “Nigger George.”

On August 27, 1908, there was a disastrous flood in Folsom, New Mexico that killed fifteen people and caused extensive damage. George McJunkin surveyed and began repairing a fence that had been harmed by the flood. While repairing the fence, McJunkin made a huge archaeological discovery, the bones of a buffalo buried so deeply there was no way they could belong to any living buffalo. He knew they had to be ancient. Realizing the importance of his discovery, McJunkin contacted several archaeologists that were professionals and amateurs. Alas, none of them were very interested in traveling two days via horseback to survey the bone site.

Fulsom died before others realized the significance of his discovery. Four months after his death, Carl Scwhacheim and Fred Harth traveled to the site. McJunkin had contacted them several times, and McJunkin had pleaded with them to come visit what became known as the Fulsom Site. They came. The scientific community gave Harth and Schawacheim the credit for discovering the site for at least fifty years. Four years after the pair visited the site, the Colorado Museum of Natural History completed a formal excavation of the site.

The discovery of the bison bones and the spear lodged in the fossil’s ribs was significant, because it meant people had been living in North America since at least 9,000 BCE (7,000 years longer than archaeologists had estimated before the discovery). This finding was crucial to archaeology and to our understanding of the timeline of human history.

George McJunkin is buried at Folsom Cemetery in Folsom, New Mexico. There is a display about McJunkin and his discovery at the Folsom Museum.

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