Bannack Presentation


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The corresponding report to my Bannack presentation for this year\'s SHA Conference in Austin, TX 2011

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Bannack Presentation

  1. 1. Bannack Presentation <br />Introduction<br />(SLIDE) During the summer of 2008, the ghost town that is Bannack State Park in Montana was full of activity with numerous building restoration projects operating in conjunction with archaeological testing, mitigation and monitoring. This paper will focus on the excavations that took place around the Hotel Meade, a prominent building in Bannack, as part of the mitigation process. <br />(SLIDE) Bannack is located in Beaverhead County at the south end of the Pioneer Mountain Range in southwestern Montana. (SLIDE) The town lies along Grasshopper Creek, which runs through a narrow canyon with steep, dry hills on both sides.<br />(SLIDE) Gold deposits were first discovered at Grasshopper Creek by John White and John McGavin on July 28, 1862. This was one of the earliest gold strikes in what would become the Montana Territory. News of the strike traveled quickly and throughout 1862 and 1863 hordes of people traveled to Bannack, increasing the population to 3,000 or more. (SLIDE) On May 26, 1863, the Montana Territory was established, with Bannack as its first territorial capitol. And by late summer of 1863, Bannack contained “three hotels, three bakeries, three blacksmiths, two stables, two meat markets, a grocery store, a restaurant, a brewery, a billiard hall and four saloons”. However, like most mining towns, the initial boom of Bannack was short lived. When the news of gold discovered in Last Chance Gulch in present Helena, Montana, arrived in 1864, the population of Bannack shrunk over night. (SLIDE) Although the population was reduced; placer, hard rock mining, and later hydraulic and dredge mining of Grasshopper Creek, kept Bannack alive. As the amount of gold recovered declined throughout the second half of the 19th century, so too did the population of Bannack. By 1880 the population was just 232 people. <br />(SLIDE) When the county seat was transferred to the town of Dillon in 1881, the old courthouse in Bannack was transformed into a hotel, named the Hotel Meade after its purchaser Dr. Christian Meade. The hotel also served as the post office when, due to a shrinking population, the town’s post office was closed in 1938.<br />The history of Bannack is typical of many mining towns across the Rocky Mountain frontier, with some exceptions. Bannack was a key component in the formation of the Montana Territory and because of its influence, the history of the town is well known; compared to other Montana mining towns, whose sometimes poorly documented history is frequently based on oral histories of past residents. Many small settlements that sprung up around gold strikes during the early 1850s and 1860s were abandoned and lost to oblivion when the gold within the area ran out or the news of other gold strikes arrived. Some early boom towns were able to survive the initial gold mining bust through exploiting other means of revenue, such as lumber. But because of the lack of deciduous forest around Bannack this would not be the case. Nor would the railroad revive the town, since due to the towns’ location amide rugged terrain, a railroad track to Bannack was not cost-effective. All non-essential mining was prohibited at the start of WWII, which further thinned the population and by the mid 1940’s there were so few children in Bannack that the school was closed. As buildings became empty one by one, the town was left to decay, and since neither forest fires nor large scavenging incidents occurred, the town remained a relatively intact specimen of early Montana mining history. <br />(SLIDE) Because of its information and educational potential, Bannack was named a state park in 1954 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961. Today the town remains in a state of arrested decay, and visitors are allowed to explore the abandoned buildings. <br />The Bannack Historical Association was established in 1990 as a formal support organization to Bannack State Park. Its purpose is “to assist with preservation efforts of Bannack and promoting its historical and cultural assets. All funds that are raised through the Bannack Association are used solely for the purpose of promoting and restoring Bannack”. This generous organization is composed of private citizens, many of whom live in the area and remember visiting the ghost town as a child. (SLIDE) They promote many fund-raisers, such as Bannack Days, which features historical re-enactments and other activates such as gold and sapphire panning. Here we see some of the activities during Bannack days.<br />Previous excavations at Bannack emphasized the need to conduct archaeological investigation prior to ground-disturbing activity. Excavations in 1994 conducted by Renewable Technologies, Inc. were influential in establishing the function of several intact buildings in the historic town. It was concluded that archaeological data recovery is as important as architectural preservation in understanding fully the historic context of Bannack. <br />Beginning in the mid 2000s restoration and stabilization projects began around Bannack. Among other projects in Bannack, it was decided the foundation of the Hotel Meade needed stabilization. The CRM firm Western Cultural Inc. had already performed testing excavations on several buildings around Bannack, including the Hotel Meade. The planned stabilization work included digging a four foot trench around the back and half way around each side of the hotel. However because of the state park’s limited funds; it would seem the hotel’s foundation would need to weather at least another winter. The dedicated Bannack Association however had other plans. It was decided that the archaeological excavations around the Hotel Meade would take place as planned with the archaeology provided by Western Cultural Inc., and the Bannack Association itself would supply the volunteers needed to complete the work on time and on budget. <br />The initial plan for the mitigation included placing a number of excavation units within the area scheduled to be disturbed, focusing on those areas where shovel probes and excavation units revealed high artifact densities, and within areas considered high probability. (SLIDE) However, when the crew arrived, stabilization of the structure had commenced and a trench measuring 3 feet by 4 feet had already been dug around the hotel and the dirt separated out into six piles. Due to this unforeseen circumstance a new plan was developed. (SLIDE) With the help of the volunteers, the dirt from the six piles was screened separately using ¼” screens. It was determined that a 50% sample from each pile would provide an adequate sample of the entire pile. Following the screening of the piles, nine excavation units were placed around the Hotel Meade. (SLIDE) Over 20 volunteers of the Bannack Association and friends thereof provided untiring support during the excavations at the Hotel Meade. The gracious efforts of this group of volunteers greatly assisted with the successful outcome of the project. Cathy Speich-Ferguson, President of the Bannack Association, spent countless hours arranging all aspects of the volunteer work crew. <br />(SLIDE) Mitigation and monitoring efforts at the Hotel Meade revealed a total of 711 artifacts, 14% of which was building material. Very few of the artifacts recovered from mitigation around the Hotel Meade were of great historical significance, and most did not indicate a manufacture date. Highlighted here are some of the more interesting artifacts recovered. <br />(SLIDE) Artifact #1207 was identified as a small spoon, made of pewter, measuring approximately 2 1/4” long, with an embossed leaf design on the front of the handle. The spoon is most likely a toy, belonging to a child’s tea set, but small spoons were also used for snuff, as well as for spices, salt or sugar. <br />Three pieces of jewelry were recovered during the mitigation phase. All three artifacts were recovered from the north side of the Meade, near the back door. <br />(SLIDE) Artifact #1182 is a small brass ring with a single seed pearl inlaid in the center of the plain solid band with faint engraved rays extending from around the stone. The inlaid seed pearl and engraved rays indicate the ring has what is called a “gypsy setting”. This type of setting was introduced around 1875 and was a style worn by both sexes. <br />The Artifact was identified as being a size 3 by American standards, indicating it was worn most likely by a young child. <br />(SLIDE) Artifact #1215 is an ornate thin piece of jewelry made of gold. The face of artifact contains a design similar to Art Nouveau; a single flower, with the flower head located to one side, surrounded by a flowing, winding stem. The back is inset and rough with remnants of a cross bar or clasp attached off-center, indicating it was worn either as a pin or as part of a brooch. <br />(SLIDE) Artifact #1181 is a small animal figure; it’s missing its head but it may be a dog or a lamb. The back of the figure is flat and has a scar where a bar or pin was attached, indicating it was worn as jewelry. This artifact indicates the presence of a young girl or woman of some class. <br />The other artifact of interest recovered from the mitigation phase at the Hotel Meade was Artifact #1174, identified as a hard rubber vaginal irrigator. This type of feminine product is known to have multiple uses. Although often advertised as a product used for hygiene, it was also widely used as a method of birth control during the 19th Century. <br />Conclusion<br />Although the mitigation and monitoring efforts around the Hotel Meade did not reveal many historically significant artifacts, the overall artifact assemblage recovered from Bannack during the testing, monitoring and mitigation efforts during the summer of 2008 did provided significant information on a variety of topics. The artifact assemblage provided information on diet, medical practices, clothing and fashion, house hold commodities, butchering practices, and the presence of women and children on the mining frontier. The artifact record also provided significant information on the site formation processes at Bannack. <br /> Although the artifacts are important, the wealth of information learned from Bannack came from the public’s involvement. (SLIDE) The excavations around the Hotel Meade became an invaluable teaching tool that changed the mind sets of the volunteer participants and the Bannack Association. An appreciation of history as a public asset was gained, as participants learned that history belongs to everyone. And through this new appreciation for history came the understanding that history was determined not only through the finding of an object, but from the location, analysis and comparison of that object. The volunteers understood that the pot hunter with the keenest eye or the person with the newest metal detector can do more damage to the archaeological record and thus the historical record of a culturally significant site, than any small good that comes from the collecting and preservation of the objects themselves. <br />Many of the participants were themselves professed pot-hunters. Others considered for the first time that their tidying up of the Bannack State Park site, such as gathering all surface artifacts into neat rows along the foot paths, were in fact detracting from the interpretation and historical significance of the very site they worked so hard to protect. Awareness of the array of historical information that Bannack contains, with in-situ artifacts, and an understanding of the importance of preserving that information for future generations was gained by the public archaeology performed at Bannack. The collaboration of the volunteers, professional archaeologists and the directing local government organization furthered the communities outreach for the preservation of Bannack as an important contributor to Montana’s history. <br />The mistake of trenching the site before the archaeology could take place was managed skillfully towards an educational advantage. It supplied us archaeologists with the perfect teaching tool, through which the public was educated on the importance of preserving a sites integrity for future generations. (SLIDE)<br />