Not many people today know the name George McJunkin, but maybe they should. This guy’s largely been erased from U.S. history, which is a shame because of what he contributed to it. His incredible discovery arguably altered the way we understand the development of the North American continent — but he never got the credit for it. Now, 100 years after his death, we have to ask ourselves: why is that?
McJunkin was a Black cowboy who roved around the northern parts of New Mexico toward the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th. It seems he was something of an intellectual, having taught himself to read, as well as possessing a great many ranching skills.
He was fascinated by the natural world, even building a collection of artifacts that he came across through his jobs.
McJunkin was known to hunt buffalo all over the Great Plains, where he also toiled in a bunch of farms. He ended up in an area of New Mexico called Folsom.
There, he took on the task of overseeing the activities of the Crowfoot Ranch.
One day during 1908, a massive flood hit the Folsom area. As the head of his ranch, McJunkin had to get out there to see what the damage was.
And as he tended to his land, he noticed something intriguing. He didn’t know it in the moment, of course, but McJunkin was about to make a discovery that would change our understanding of the U.S. forever.
Tragically, though, this was never recognized during McJunkin’s own lifetime. For the remaining 14 or so years of his life, he attempted to show people what he’d found — but it was always in vain.
Nobody took his discovery seriously. It would be half a decade after his passing when the archaeological world finally took note, but by then he wasn’t around to receive the credit he deserved.
The silver lining to this tale is that people are now finally beginning to appreciate McJunkin and his life. And what a life it was.
Born in Texas in 1851, his early years were spent in servitude. After the Civil War concluded, though, he upped sticks and made for New Mexico, where he planned to live a free life.
Pretty much McJunkin’s whole life had been spent near horses, so it was only natural that he came to ride them. He was good with ropes, and his dad had been a blacksmith, which presumably gave McJunkin some handy tips.
In short, he’d acquired some fundamental skills for working on a ranch. And that’s exactly what he set out to do when he made the move to New Mexico.
McJunkin quickly established himself as a cowboy — and a good one at that. Locals began to think of him as among the most talented horse-breakers in the area.
And there were other feathers to his bow, too. He was an inquisitive guy, which fostered his voracious interest in science.
When he wasn’t working hard on the ranch, McJunkin also busied himself with learning to read. He’d never gotten the chance before, but now he was getting to grips with the skill with the help of some of his cowboy colleagues.
On top of that, he spoke a little Spanish and could play some tunes on the fiddle.
Over time, McJunkin’s adept skills as a cowboy meant he took on more and more responsibility. This culminated in him being appointed the manager of a whole estate.
This was the Crowfoot Ranch just outside Folsom, which is where McJunkin would ultimately make a discovery to rewrite history.
It all started in 1908 — on August 27, to be precise. The weather took a dramatic turn for the worse, with intense rainfall soaking the tiny settlement of Folsom.
It got bad very quickly, and soon huge levels of water were surging through the area. It was the most disastrous flood to hit since records began.
Newspaper reports from the time paint a vivid picture of how bad things were in the wake of the flood. Water was gushing through the streets, with houses and workplaces left in total disrepair.
Citizens had been forced to go up onto roofs for safety — but not everyone made it. No fewer than 17 individuals lost their lives.
This was the context for McJunkin going out to survey his land following the catastrophic weather event. He needed to see how badly his ranch had been affected, so he and a pal named Bill Gordon went to check it out.
And while they were doing so, Gordon noticed something. A new waterway had been formed in the land.
McJunkin then took a look at this fresh waterway, which proved to be an important decision. Because as he checked out this new stream, he spotted them: a pile of enormous bones on the ground.
The cowboy was taken aback. These bones looked like they belonged to a buffalo, but they were far larger than any buffalo he’d ever encountered. Something strange was going on here.
As something of an amateur natural scientist, McJunkin had a hunch that these bison bones were really significant. Given their vast size, he reasoned that they simply couldn’t have come from any species still alive during his own time.
Correctly noting that he’d discovered something remarkable, McJunkin retrieved some of the bones and brought them back home.
Despite McJunkin’s remarkably astute intuition, though, nobody took him very seriously. While he rightly remained sure that these bones were important, no one else seemed to care.
And for the next 14 years of his life, the cowboy tried and failed to get people to come and investigate the area where he’d found them.
McJunkin did his best to get people to listen. He sent letters to experts, and he even presented the bones he’d taken from the site to some of them.
But still no one would come. He eventually passed away at the beginning of 1922, never to learn the true ramifications of what he’d found all those years ago.
In a cruel twist of fate, it was only shortly after McJunkin’s passing that his discovery began to be taken seriously. Around half a year later, one of the experts he’d pleaded with to come visit the site finally did so.
This was Carl Schwacheim, who took a team along with him. And when they got there, these people couldn’t believe what they were looking at. Sure enough, the site was home to giant bison bones.
Matters continued to proceed slowly, though. Even after this team had visited the site, nothing much happened for a number of years.
But then in 1926 one of the people from this crew convinced an expert at the Colorado Museum of Natural History to come look at the site. That individual was J. D. Figgins, who instantly recognized the location’s significance.
Along with a colleague named Harold Cook, Figgins finally started to conduct a proper archaeological investigation of McJunkin’s site. And before long, some important discoveries were made.
It emerged that McJunkin had been right all along: the bones he’d found had belonged to an extinct species of bison. And not only that, but the remains of around 30 more of the animals were also found on the site.
Figgins knew he and his team were onto something important here. Excavations continued, with the researchers excited by the prospect of discovering a bunch of extinct animals.
What they didn’t realize at that time, though, was that this site contained more than just bison bones. It was far more important than even that.
For a long time, Figgins had been interested in the idea of ancient people living on the North American continent. Though he wanted to learn more about these populations, Figgins never really thought he’d discover anything about them on McJunkin’s site.
But as excavations continued, things started to fall into place.
During the summer of 1926, the archaeologists working on the site discovered something curious. As they were digging up the ground, one of the team members inadvertently brought an artifact to the surface.
It appeared to be the head of a spear, which was made of stone. But what exactly did that signify?
Answers weren’t immediately forthcoming. That first excavation ended inconclusively, but the following year a second one was instigated.
And it was during this second dig that another spearhead was found. With that, the team got in touch with some fellow archaeologists to see what they made of these strange artifacts.
The archaeological community was in broad agreement: the spearheads had belonged to human beings. And given that they’d been found alongside extinct bison bones, the implication was clear.
These people had been around a long, long time ago. As it soon became clear, they’d actually lived more than 11,000 years back.
Hearing this story nowadays is interesting, sure, but the significance of the discovery might be lost on many of us. But that’s because we aren’t privy to the historical context of the 1920s.
Back then, it was widely believed by most reputable experts that human beings had only been present in the Americas for around 3,000 years. Now, that theory had been blown out of the water.
McJunkin’s site had shown archaeologists that humans were around in America for far more time than was previously accepted. Native American communities had actually long been arguing that their history on the continent stretched back much further than was broadly acknowledged.
Now, in the wake of the excavations in Folsom, their claims were being vindicated.
So, the entire story of the Americas was rewritten as a result of what was found at this site in Folsom. And without the cowboy George McJunkin, maybe none of that would have happened.
At the very least, it might well have taken the archaeological community far longer to get to grips with all this ancient American history.
The question is, then, why was McJunkin’s part in all this overlooked for so long? Sure, he didn’t purposely set out to learn about the ancient history of America. And despite his inkling that his site was important, he didn’t fully appreciate just how significant it was.
But he still knew enough to draw attention to the area, so surely he should get at least some credit?
Yet when all the archaeologists were writing their academic articles about the site and its contents, McJunkin’s name was never mentioned. Why is that? Well, a look into some of their political affiliations speaks volumes.
Figgins, most notably, was in the Ku Klux Klan during his lifetime. Was a person like that ever likely to give a Black man like McJunkin any credit?
In a January 2022 article for the anthropology magazine Sapiens, archaeologist and historian Stephen E. Nash wrote that, as far as he can tell, McJunkin’s name only pops up in academic writing around the year 1946.
That’s in a book called The Lost Americans by Frank C. Hibben, in which the author incorrectly claims that McJunkin found the bison bones and the spearheads in 1925. In reality, McJunkin died in 1922.
That account is questioned in a later article that appeared in a publication called New Mexico Magazine. For this piece, an archaeologist named George Agogino attempted to figure out the truth of McJunkin’s role in the Folsom site discoveries.
He consequently read a lot of material, but he also considered stories passed down through word of mouth.
According to Agogino, it was definitely McJunkin who first discovered the Folsom site and the buffalo bones it contained. But he hadn’t known about the spearheads.
As Agogino phrased it, “[None of the archives] has a single sentence suggesting that McJunkin found, or even considered, the hand of man in the destruction of the bison.”
Even though McJunkin hadn’t been aware of the spearheads, Agogino gives him lots of credit. He wrote, “[George McJunkin’s] discovery...
was the start of a new and thrilling chapter in American prehistory, the story of the Paleoindian who entered the New World by way of the Bering Strait well over 12,000 years ago.”
As these conflicting accounts illustrate, McJunkin’s role in this story is quite muddled. And all this confusion has contributed to McJunkin being pushed to the margins.
If the original archaeologists had actually written about him and explained his part in the tale, though, all this could have been avoided.
But even if McJunkin never knew of the spearheads, he most certainly discovered the Folsom site and the bones. And for this, he deserves credit.
To that end, steps have finally been taken to recognize his achievement. In 2019 McJunkin was added to the Hall of Great Westerners, which is managed by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Admittedly, this gesture has come very late in the day. January 22, 2022, was the 100-year anniversary of McJunkin’s passing, which means his recognition as a great westerner came only slightly less than a century after he died.
But at least now more people know his name and the part he played in writing ancient American history.
As Stephen Nash pointed out in his article for Sapiens, the achievements of minorities are often overlooked in history. He wrote, “Sadly, credit often goes to the powerful and connected, not to the people who actually do the work.
Gender, race, status, and age discrimination often play a role in these narratives.”
The telling of McJunkin’s story, then, is important, as it represents an opportunity to right some historical wrongs. History forgot this man, despite his driving role in an earth-shattering discovery.
As Nash sees it, we now have a responsibility to tell the tale of this guy who was ignored because of his race.
Finishing his piece, Nash wrote, “As a naturalist and collector committed to uncovering hidden histories himself, I like to think McJunkin would want his own story rewritten so that it can be told accurately. In any case, George McJunkin can be celebrated as an extraordinary man whose inquiring mind, intrepid spirit, and perseverance instigated finds that would transform archaeology.”.