Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

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Curt

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Feb 1, 2014
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This is more like a museum report than a trip report. But it did involve a 4 mile hike. Agate Fossil Beds is in western Nebraska near the Wyoming border. It's pretty remote - about 100 miles from I-80 and I-25 and about 200 miles from I-90. The closest town is Harrison, Nebraska, population 250 which is about 30 miles away. The next closest is about 50 miles away. Agate Fossil Beds is probably not a place that most people will pop in to visit on their way somewhere else.

If you like history and geology / fossils this is good place to visit. There's a nice little museum at the Monument. Half of it is devoted to fossils found at the site, but the other half actually fascinated me more. In 1880 James Cook homesteaded a ranch in this location. Mr Cook was something of a renaissance man. Besides being a successful rancher he became interested in fossils from a chance encounter with a Yale University professor while guiding hunting trips in the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming. In the mid 1880's he found fossils on his ranch and invited his contact from Yale to make a visit to see the fossils. It turned out to be quite a find. Beginning in about 1900 and continuing for about 30 years excavations were conducted by several universities and museums at two hills on the ranch. The hills are named University Hill and Carnegie Hill (for the Carnegie Museum. The special significance of the hills were that the tops of the them are all that remains of an ancient waterhole. The reason for the massive die-off at the water hole is uncertain, but there is layer of mudstone on the hilltops containing hundreds, maybe thousands, of remains of animals from that ancient time, many of which were entire skeletons. Fossils found at the Agate Fossil beds include: (from Wikipedia)
The other half of the museum contains a collection of Plains Indian relics given to Mr. Cook by tribes living in the area. The 1880's basically marked the end of Horse Culture of the Plains Indians. Custer's Last Stand at Little Bighorn occurred in 1876. Before that time, but especially after Little Bighorn the U.S. army was engaged in continuous military operations against the Plains Indians to subdue them. The museum contains an impressive collection of items from the height of the Plains Indian Horse Culture. There are some items in the museum that I was astonished to see in such a remote museum. They probably belong in a more prominent museum like the Smithsonian. There are a few authentic items from the battle at Little Bighorn and at least a one other battle between a Sioux tribe and the U.S. Army. A personal item belonging to Crazy Horse which was removed at burial by his sister after he was killed while in U.S. Army custody at Ft. Robinson (a little farther north in Nebraska) is also in the museum. Last year I went to an event at a Nebraska State Park (a little farther south in Nebraska) that, among other things, had a gathering of Sioux from Pine Ridge Reservation along the South Dakota - Nebraska border. Some people from the tribe had been working with the Smithsonian Museum to help them identify and preserve items in the Smithsonian collection from the Plains Indians. As a thank you the Smithsonian Museum sent several items to the museum at the State Park for the event. As cool as that stuff was, it wasn't any better than the stuff in this museum. I think that the only explanation for items of such historical significance being in such a remote museum is that Cook's family must have insisted that these things remain at the Monument as a condition for giving them.

The fossils on the right are from a rhinoceros. The one on the left is a bear-dog.
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A camel.
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I'm afraid I didn't get a picture of the high-tops
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Some ceremonial moccasins also had beads on the bottom.
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A Sioux wedding dress.
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The "Battle of Greasy Grass" is the Sioux name for Custer's Last Stand.
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This copy of the original cowhide describing the Battle of Little Bighorn described above is displayed in the Museum. There was no indication where the original is, but I suspect it is probably preserved at the Museum.
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This flintlock was used by Sioux Indians in the Battle of Little Bighorn.
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This is the club that American Horse used in his hand-to-hand fight with Captain Fetterman as mentioned above. Note the broken handle as described above.
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The tag in the lower left corner reads, "Top: This large Pipestone cannunpa, with a T-shaped bowl and wooden pipestem, was smoked at the Fort Laramie treaty negotiations in 1868. As a result of the treaty, the U.S. government recognized the Lakota's possession of the Black Hills as a part of the larger Greater Sioux Reservation. Bottom: A pipestone bowl with lead inlay carved around 1900. The stem, wrapped in the skin of a male mallard duck, is decorated with red quills."

In addition to recognizing the Black Hills to be a Lakota possession, the Ft. Laramie Treaty recognized about 1/3 of South Dakota and large tracts of Nebraska, Wyoming, and a small part of Montana to also be Lakota possessions. "The treaty formed the basis of the 1980 Supreme Court case, United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, in which the court ruled that tribal lands covered under the treaty had been taken illegally by the US government, and the tribe was owed compensation plus interest. As of 2018 this amounted to more than $1 billion. The Sioux have refused the payment, demanding instead the return of their land." (Wikipedia)
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From the museum I walked up to the excavation sites at Carnegie and University Hills, the two hills seen below. It was a walk of about 2 miles from the Visitor's Center. The Niobrara River is the darker green strip in the picture below the hills. The Niobrara River empties into the Missouri River on the other side of Nebraska. The Platte River about 100 miles south was the route of the Oregon Trail. It's a larger river than this one and today is lined with trees along it's length but in the mid 1800's when the pioneers traveled along it there were no trees and it would probably have looked something like this.
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The Niobrara River. The trees in the distance are at a homestead. Otherwise, there are no trees in this area.
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Rocky Mountain Bee Plant
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Showy Milkweed
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Band-winged Meadowhawk Dragonfly. There were a lot of dragonflies around. I saw a couple other varieties but was not able to get a photo of them.
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There a lot Tiger Beetles along the sidewalk. This is a variety I have not seen before and haven't yet been able to identify.
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The Visitor's Center as seen from the archeological excavations.
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Mountain Short-horned Lizard
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Fossil excavations at one of the hills.
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A storm started to come up on my walk back to the Visitor's Center.
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Thanks for looking.
 
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Rockskipper

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Fascinating. I wonder if the moccasins with beads on the bottom were primarily used for horseback riding during rituals and displays. Seems like the beads would get ruined if they walked in them.
 

Perry

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Very interesting report! Thank you for it.


Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
 

b.stark

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Thanks for the report. The nw panhandle area fascinates me for some reason. I also recall camping at fort robinson a couple years ago, and happening upon the monument in the area where crazy horse was killed, having not previously realized that happened at ft Robinson. It is kind of amazing how much has happened out in the open prairie.
 

Pringles

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Really nice, thoughtful trip report. I got to Agate Fossilbeds last year. I found all that grass very comforting, on some level. Thanks for sharing.
 

wabenho

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This is very interesting, thanks for sharing!

Your mention of the fossils reminded me of a something I read in a book about Lewis and Clark. As they were preparing to set off on their expedition, skeletons of unknown animals (similar to what is at Agate Fossil beds) had been found and reported to them. They had no way of dating these remains or knowing the creatures were extinct and Lewis wrote that they fully expected to encounter live specimens of some of these creatures . They even speculated that they might see live mastodons in the West. This point has stuck with me and I think it really illustrates what an adventure they were undertaking.

Thanks again for the share!
 

Curt

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Fascinating. I wonder if the moccasins with beads on the bottom were primarily used for horseback riding during rituals and displays. Seems like the beads would get ruined if they walked in them.
I met one of the Sioux that has been helping the Smithsonian with the Plains Indian collection and I'd bet that he'd know the answer. It's amazing what they know about ancient times and customs from traditions and stories handed down from their ancestors. I saw him by accident a month ago just outside of Omaha. He's a teacher at a community college in Omaha. So, I suppose it's not impossible that I won't run into him again. If I do I'll ask the question and I'll let you know what he says.
 

Curt

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Thanks for the report. The nw panhandle area fascinates me for some reason. I also recall camping at fort robinson a couple years ago, and happening upon the monument in the area where crazy horse was killed, having not previously realized that happened at ft Robinson. It is kind of amazing how much has happened out in the open prairie.
I really like that area too. I guess that, in a way, the area is like the canyon country of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico which was the center of civilization and culture in this part of the world 800 years ago. 200 years ago the center of civilization and culture for this part of the world was centered on the Pine Ridge and the prairies of Nebraska, South Dakota, and eastern Wyoming. Now both of those areas are desolate and hardly anyone lives there. It's even hard to imagine now that significant populations once lived in those areas.
 

Miya

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Fascinating share!
Thanks! Love the dragonfly shot.
 

Reef&Ruins

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Visited that park last year. We really liked the artifacts although the original reason we stopped was to see the fossils!
Thanks for writing up a great TR.
 

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