People have been traveling through southeastern Wyoming for thousands of years.

For the second straight summer, the Wyoming State Archaeologist’s Office is excavating at the Willow Springs campsite in the southern Laramie Valley, a site that sits on private land about 15 miles south of Laramie on Highway 287.

The spot is an oasis on an otherwise hot, dry plain that serves as a window into the prehistoric past of what’s now southcentral Wyoming.

“A willow grove is a really attractive place to be when there isn’t a lot of water around,” said Wyoming State Archaeologist Spencer Pelton, explaining that the Willow Springs site features springs that flow year-round.

The archaeological record shows that people have continuously passed through the area since prehistoric times, Pelton said. Today, Highway 287 bisects the valley, and before that the Lincoln Highway, which was the first paved road to go end-to-end across the United States, ran through the region. In 1867, the Union Pacific Railroad came through Willow Springs, and earlier than that, immigrants traversed the Overland Trail through the desert.

There was an Overland Trail Stage stop at Willow Springs from 1862-69, which is part of the archaeology that the team is digging this summer, Pelton said. Before that, the Cherokee Trail, a short-lived immigrant trail, came through from about 1849-50. The group traversing that trail included 1,000 to 2,000 Cherokee people traveling from Oklahoma to California for the Gold Rush.

“They came right through here,” Peloton said. “And even before that, we have 1,500 years of Native American occupation that suggests that Native Americans were using this as a trail for many thousands of years.”

Today, the area is home to moose, elk and antelope. Before Europeans arrived, there would have been bison as well. Site excavations have yielded bison bone, stone flakes and tools, obsidian and pottery shards.

The team has found a couple ancient artifacts on site like Folsom points, or the oldest weapon found in North America at about 12,000 years old. Native American occupation of the site seems to have picked up about 1,500 years ago, or in the late prehistoric period, Pelton said. At the time, people started using new technologies like the bow and arrow.

“The bow and arrow is really pretty recent in terms of weaponry,” Peloton said. “Before that, for 12,000 years, people were using spears.”

Bones left behind suggest people at Willow Springs were mainly hunting bison and pronghorn, and potentially deer or mountain sheep. Other artifacts found onsite, like obsidian from Yellowstone and northern New Mexico, or an olivella shell from the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean, suggest a history of trade through North America.

“(These things) came a really long way to get here, probably through trade,” Pelton said.

More recent artifacts include buttons, a brass ring and brooches, and ammunition shells and bullets.

Marcia Peterson, assistant Wyoming state archaeologist, explained that all artifacts will be cleaned in the field, dried and taken to the University of Wyoming where they will undergo lab analysis. Bone will be examined to determine its animal source and stone tools will be analyzed for historic use and age. Any charcoal that was collected will be sent off to a lab for radiocarbon dating.

Because the site is on private property, all artifacts will be returned to the landowner.

Artifacts found on public lands go to the University of Wyoming Archaeological Repository, which permanently houses everything from mammoth bones to Paleoindian projectile points. Open to visitors, it’s the largest archaeological repository in the state and the only federal one in Wyoming.

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