Emergence of Historic Tribes
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The Oto & Missouria Tribes:
Eagle Ridge

The Eagle Ridge site was a Oto village built on top of an older Plains Woodland burial site. The site is just beginning to provide archaeologists with insights into the life of the Oto tribe.

Bone tools
Bone tools to scrape flesh off hides. Elk leg (top) and rare bear femur bone tools. From the Nebraska Eagle Ridge site.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society

During the summer of 1998, a housing project was being built on a high bank of Papillion Creek, about two miles east of the town of Papillion. Road graders and other heavy equipment uncovered skeletal remains of ancient humans. When remains like these are found, federal and state laws say that work stops while archaeologists excavate the site and collect the remains for eventual reburial by the appropriate Native American group. The Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology Division was called in to do the emergency salvage excavation.

They found that the skeletal remains were from the Plains Woodland period (2000 to 1000 years ago), and they were part of a burial site. Those remains that survived were carefully collected for reburial.

During the initial exploration, evidence of a more recent protohistoric village was found that dated from 500 to 250 years ago (1500 - 1750 CE). As the excavation progressed, the Society discovered a large number of pits associated with the village. They excavated over 100 pits. Curiously, they could not identify definite evidence of structures or houses built at the village. There were a few scattered post molds that may have been from this period or a more recent farmstead that once occupied part of the site. It appears likely that the structural evidence may have been concentrated near the surface and was removed either by cultivation or the initial grading by the contractor that took place prior to the arrival of the archaeologists.

The type of material recovered and the location strongly suggest an Oto occupation of the site sometime between 1700 and 1750. The site was inhabited by at least several hundred Oto people as evidenced by the type and quantity of European trade goods. The site was a village or base camp, not a temporary camp. The people grew corn and other crops and collected nuts and other wild plants. They fished and hunted deer, elk and birds. Bison do not seem to have been particularly important to their economy.

Native American pottery shards
Shards of native-made pottery from the Eagle Ridge site in Nebraska.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society

Although they had access to some European tools, they continued to make stone tools and clay pots. Their primary European trading partners were probably the French.

The most common artifact types found during the excavations were raw materials for ground stone and chipped stone tools, suggesting that sources for both of these were nearby. Finished ground and chipped stone tools were also present in limited numbers. Pottery was quite abundant. Simple stamping as a surface treatment is common and many of the rims are very similar to those found on protohistoric Pawnee Lower Loup sites.

European trade goods
European metal goods from the Eagle Ridge site.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society

EuroAmerican trade goods were fairly plentiful, generally of the type expected on quite early sites. Included are: glass beads, small brass beads, brass tinkling cones, brass tubes, a brass bell, unidentified brass fragments, an iron hatchet blade, iron knife blades, iron ball ammunition (grape or canister shot), an iron awl (small drill), and unidentified iron fragments.

Evidently, European trading partners were not providing significant numbers of firearms to these Native Americans. Only one incomplete gun part was recovered. It was identified as being from a French Type D trade gun that was introduced about 1730. No gunflints have been identified, yet.

There may also be early 1700s Spanish olive jar fragments. If so, these would be the first colonial Spanish pottery found anywhere in the Central and Northern Great Plains. In any event, it is the oldest example, by a century, of European-made ceramics discovered in Nebraska.

Floral and faunal remains were also present in the pits, in varying amounts. Included among the worked bone items was a quite rare example of a flesher fashioned from a bear femur (see photo above). Red pipestone was quite abundant at the site. The researchers have not yet identified the source of the stone, but it was probably obtained through trade from Minnesota. These stones usually show evidence of having been worked with metal tools.

One of the most important goals of archaeology is to understand why cultures change or remain the same. The Eagle Ridge project offers an ideal opportunity to study rapid culture change, which took place during a dramatic period in the development of the American West. It will certainly offer important insights into protohistoric Oto settlement, subsistence, and technology as well as relations with neighboring tribes and colonial European interests.

The Eagle Ridge investigation is still on-going, but already provides insight into the life of the Native Americans during the late protohistoric and early historic time period. There are still questions waiting to be answered:

  • What were the relationships between Native and European populations in Nebraska at the earliest point of contact? What European goods were these villagers receiving, from whom and in exchange for what?
  • What was the nature of inter-tribal relationships in Nebraska as a result of European colonial activities?
  • How did the introduction of European goods affect the Eagle Ridge people? How did their use of technology change? What changes were there in their subsistence economy and social structure?
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