Nebraska's First Farmers
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The Crow Creek Massacre

Between A. D. 1300 and 1400 Native American sites similar to those once in Nebraska appear in South Dakota. Late Village Farmer sites in Nebraska do not appear to have been fortified, but several related communities in South Dakota were surrounded by ditches and bastions for defense. The movement into South Dakota resulted in deadly conflicts between people as revealed by heavily fortified villages and skeletal remains with frequent battle-related traumas.

Crow Creek Massacre rendering
An artist's rendering of what may have happened at Crow Creek.
The villagers were in the process of constructing a defensive ditch,
but their attackers got across it. The attackers burned the earth lodges
and killed almost 500 individuals.
Source - University of South Dakota Anthropology,
painting by Martin Wanserski.

At least one village in South Dakota, the Crow Creek site, was the scene of an early 14th century massacre of nearly 500 Village Farmer people attempting to colonize land to the north. They were probably attacked by warriors of the Middle Missouri tradition, Indians indigenous to South Dakota.

These people most likely moved into South Dakota because of climate changes in the Central Plains. Great droughts came more often, and the people could no longer grow their crops as well as they had before. They faced starvation, and so the Village Farmers left their homes and moved to the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota. The drought probably had less effect on the Missouri River where plants had enough moisture to grow.

Archaeologists believe a group called the Middle Missouri tradition people were already living along the Missouri River in South Dakota, but many bands had already moved further north. Consequently, the Central Plains people sometimes actually took over the same village locations left by the Middle Missouri.

In late 1325 A. D. the Central Plains people at the Crow Creek were attacked by the Middle Missouri tradition people. The Middle Missouri people apparently were able to get through the fortification ditch that the Central Plains people had built or were in the process of completing. Earth lodges were burned. The victims were buried in a mass grave on the northern edge of the site, at the top of this picture. Archaeologists have identified 487 victims. Click here for more about how archaeologists protected the site and honored the Native American dead.

Archaeologists have several ideas about what happened at the Crow Creek Site, about who killed the people and why. One hypothesis is that the attack was carried out by the Middle Missouri villagers from the north who were unhappy that the Great Plains people had moved into the areas and had taken their land.

Other archaeologists believe that the cause had more to do with the environment and overpopulation. There are estimates that nearly 8,000 people lived in the small area along the river. There were simply too many people living in this area, and they ran out of room to grow their crops. The climate also began to change and the people had less and less to eat. This conclusion is supported by the recovery of Crow Creek skeletons that indicate the people suffered from protein and iron deficiency. X-rays of some of the children's bones show growth had started and stopped several times due to food shortages. Some archaeologists have concluded that other Central Plains people wanted the land of the Crow Creek village so they could raise more crops for themselves.

There is some evidence to support the conclusion that battles were fought between other Central Plains people in South Dakota; although, no sites of massacres have been found. It is possible that Central Plains people from different villages got into a pattern of warfare and revenge and did not stop until 100 years later.

While it may not be possible for archaeologists to conclude what specifically caused the Crook Creek Massacre, it appears likely that climatic and environmental changes, population growth, and disputes over food not only played a role in the ultimate massacre, but also movement of Central Plains people from Nebraska into South Dakota.