Nebraska’s First Farmers
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The Crow Creek Massacre

Between 1300 and 1400 CE, 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.

Aerial of Crow Creek Massacre
Crow Creek Massacre site, near Chamberlain, South Dakota.
Aerial view taken by Smithsonian Institution, 1952.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, 398F11

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.

Pottery from Crow Creek Massacre
Partial restoration of rim and shoulder of pottery, circa 1325 CE, from Crow Creek Massacre site. In the Smithsonian Collection.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, 398F11

The Village Farmer 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.

Piece of charred roof from Crow Creek Massacre
Charred roof material, circa 1325 CE, from archaeological dig at Crow Creek Massacre site, South Dakota.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, 398F11

In late 1325 CE 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.

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.

Complete house floor from Crow Creek Massacre
Complete house floor at Crow Creek Massacre site, South Dakota.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, 398F11

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 roles in the ultimate massacre, but also movement of Central Plains people from Nebraska into South Dakota.

Protecting Native American Remains
Archeologist digging in storage pits at Crow Creek Massacre
Archeologist digging in storage pits at Crow Creek Massacre site, South Dakota, 1954.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, 398F11

In 1978, archaeologists discovered the remains of nearly 500 people at the Crow Creek Massacre site in South Dakota. Normally archaeologists would not excavate such a site, but severe erosion was damaging the site and looters uncovered the remains in an eroded area near the end of the fortification ditch. Under an agreement with the Arikara people, the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the remains could be excavated so that they would not be further desecrated by looters. The agreement allowed for study so long as the study was done within the state boundaries of South Dakota and could be completed within a year. The agreement also stated that the people were to be reburied as soon as possible. The remains were reburied in 1981.

Many American Indian people are very concerned about the respectful treatment of human remains. At Crow Creek, Native American holy people conducted ceremonies honoring the dead. Indian people worked as both excavators and guards at the site.

If you wish to know more about American Indian concerns about human remains, read the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). You should also know that many states also have laws protecting these remains, even on private land. Iowa is a good example of these state laws.

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