It was not until fifty years after his death that George McJunkin, a respected cowboy of Folsom, New Mexico, was acknowledged as having uncovered one of the most important archeological finds made in North America. His discovery offered proof that Indians had arrived in the New World more than 7,000 years before the previously determined date of 1,000 b.c. McJunkin, a former slave who became a voracious reader of scientific data, tried to bring his discovery of ancient bones to the attention of archeologists. He wrote and invited several archeologists to his site but was not successful. McJunkin knew his discovery was unusual and important. Because of McJunkin's respected role in the community and his dedication to his scientific interests, the effort to have his discovery researched was continued by others. Although his role in the archeological find was overlooked for many years, his contribution was finally recognized.
George McJunkin was born a slave in 1851 on a ranch in Midway, Texas. His master Fergesen also owned George's father who was known by the nickname "Shoeboy." Shoeboy was a very fine blacksmith and he did work for many of his master's neighbors; the money he made, he was allowed to keep. After buying his freedom Shoeboy began saving up to buy his son George's freedom. Before he had saved enough, the Civil War ended, and Union soldiers arrived to tell the slaves they were free. McJunkin was then fourteen years old. With his new freedom he worked at driving oxen and taught himself to read and write. McJunkin spent three more years on the ranch.
At seventeen McJunkin got a job on a cattle drive to Dodge City, Kansas. He adopted the last name of one of his former masters, John McJunkin. After taking several jobs with various outfits, McJunkin finally settled in the valley of the Dry Cimarron River in northeastern New Mexico. It was such a beautiful valley he often referred to it as "my promised land." In the Cimarron Valley there was a racially mixed population of Anglos, Hispanic, and Indians, which gave some ease to this lone black man. McJunkin took a job working for Gideon Roberds, who raised horses. Although McJunkin had never been to school and did not read or write, he was proficient in riding, roping, and other skills of the range. McJunkin was asked to teach Roberds' sons to rope and ride, and the boys in turn taught McJunkin how to read and write. He would also get help from the cow punchers when they sat around the campfire at night. McJunkin took to reading enthusiastically and read everything he could find. He excelled in reading as he did with his many other talents. McJunkin was a master shot, hunted buffalo, and was known as the first man in the West to create barbed-wire fenced pastures. He was an expert bronco rider and one of the best ropers and cow hands in the country. He was by no means a typical cowboy as he was intensely interested in science and often traveled with a telescope on his saddle. Along with his interest in archaeology and history, he spoke Spanish and played the fiddle and the guitar.
As Roberds' sons came of age McJunkin was hired by Ben Smith for the Pitchfork Ranch. He worked on this ranch for thirteen years before going to work for William "Bill" H. Jack on the Crowfoot Ranch in New Mexico. As foreman of the Crowfoot Ranch and the top cowboy in the country McJunkin was highly respected. He had white and Hispanic cowboys under his leadership. His honesty was held in high regard and his ability to speak Spanish allowed him to serve as a bridge between Anglo and Hispanic communities.
Discovers Important Bone Pit
In September 1908 McJunkin found a gap under a barb-wired fence. The gap was the result of a flash flood, which tore a ten-foot gully in the bottom of Wild Horse Arroyo. The flood was so severe that seventeen people in the nearby town of Folsom were killed. While trying to determine how to repair the fence, McJunkin saw bones exposed at the bottom of the gully. He went into the gully and dug out the bones. Over time he found more bones and even a skull. He placed these bones with his collection that he kept at his ranch house. He had a museum of sorts in his cabin that included skulls, rocks, minerals, arrowheads, and other bones. As an avid reader of scientific books, McJunkin knew the bones from the gully were from a bison but their size and the fact that they were mineralized and thirteen feet under the surface told him this find was an important one. McJunkin wrote to several bone collectors about the place he called the bone pit. He initially wrote to a man in Las Vegas, Nevada, about his find, but he could not persuade him to come. He informed Carl Schwachheim, a blacksmith, and Fred Howard, the local banker, who once dug up a woolly mammoth. Neither was interested in making the thirty-mile trip to see the bone pit.
As McJunkin grew older nothing came of his letters and efforts to have others see his find. When the Crowfoot Ranch was sold he moved to a cabin in an isolated part of the ranch. His cabin was struck by lightening and burned to the ground, destroying all of his collection of bones, fossils, books, and his telescope. When McJunkin became ill he moved into a room at the Folsom Hotel. Unable to get out of bed his friends helped him to sustain himself by setting up rubber tubing to drink from. McJunkin could only drink raw bootleg whiskey. His friends took turns visiting him and telling stories or reading from the Old Testament. On January 21, 1922 McJunkin died. He was buried in the Folsom cemetery with a large gravestone to mark his resting place.
It was four years after McJunkin's death that the bones dug out of his bone pit by Howarth and Schwachheim were shown to a scientist. Among the bones were spear points whose discovery challenged an established belief regarding Indians in the New World. The first scientific report of the discovery was published in 1927 in the Natural History magazine. Although some were skeptical, the site was visited by many scientists and further proof of the antiquity of man was found. Although McJunkin's bone pit was one of the most important discoveries in America, not one time was McJunkin mentioned. Howart and Schwachheim were given full credit.
- Born a slave in Midway, Texas
- Becomes free as notified by Union soldiers
- Secures a job on a cattle drive to Dodge City, Kansas
- Discovers prehistoric bones in Dead Horse Gulch
- Dies in Folsom, New Mexico on January 21
- Bones from McJunkin's site are taken to the Colorado Museum of Natural History
- Discovery of second spear-point caught within the bones is offered again to the scientific community
- Discovery recognized as changing the established date of man's presence in America
- Recognition of McJunkin as the discoverer of the bones that resulted in a scientific revolution
Curious about the myth that the bones were found by an ex-slave, George Agogino, a Paleo-Indian archeologist at Eastern New Mexico University, researched the origins of the find. After numerous interviews and conversations with persons in Folsom he learned of McJunkin. Fifty years after his death McJunkin finally had his discovery and his efforts to share that discovery recognized. He was an extraordinary black cowboy who with telescope and scientific books helped to establish the presence of man in the New World 7,000 years before scientists originally thought.
Folsom, Franklin. The Life and Legend of George McJunkin: Black Cowboy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1973.
Preston, Douglas. "Fossils & the Folsom cowboy-George McJunkin dug out bones that led to questions on the New World's notions of human antiquity." Natural History 106 (February 1997): 16-22.
"1851—History: George McJunkin 1851–1922." Soul of New Mexico. http://www.soulofnewmexico.com/1851.html (Accessed 13 March 2006).
"Cowboy George McJunkin" netfirms. http://folsommuseum.netfirms.com/cowboy_george.htm (Accessed 13 March 2006).
Lean'tin L. Bracks