Willow Springs Campsite
The Willow Springs campsite, in the southern Laramie Valley has served as a travel route for millennia, starting with the Native Americans that called the Plains home. In more recent times during the mid-1800s, the same path was traversed by the Overland Stage Route, Union Pacific Railroad. The site has served as a hub of continuous human occupation for at least 1,500 years, with hints that there is far older archaeology reaching back nearly 13,000 years.
In 2021, the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist (OWSA) began conducting fieldwork at Willow Springs, after a hiatus of nearly 60 years. Previous excavations at the site uncovered an extensive Native American campsite with stone tools, pottery pieces, animal bones and beads. The site has yielded at least a dozen Folsom and other Paleoindian points and is one of the largest prehistoric ceramics assemblages that have ever been found in Wyoming.
In the prehistoric era (>300 years ago), the site appears to have been a major bison hunting camp, where people prepared for hunts and processed hide and meat from the animals after hunting success. This activity appears to have persisted into the so-called ‘Protohistoric era’, as indicated by European trade goods.
In the historic era of this location, written and oral records tell us that the site appears to have played some role in the early Overland Trail. This was a stage line that operated during the 1860s prior to the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Given the large quantity of ammunition and shell cartridges, the site may have been the site of a small, undocumented skirmish during the historic era.
What to Expect:
Work this season includes excavation to continue the search for Paleoindian and historic artifacts, magnetometry survey, documentation and tree ring dating of a historic cabin and geological documentation of site surroundings.
Typical work tasks include systematic excavation with shovels and trowels, screening site sediments to search for artifacts, and cataloging recovered artifacts in the curation tent.
We work from 7am to 5pm daily with an hour lunch break for those that want it. Work can be arduous, but we try to cater tasks toward individual physical abilities. The biggest environmental hazard at Willow Springs is mosquitos, which can be quite severe depending on hatch schedule. Weather is typically good in June, but participants should be prepared for anything, including snow flurries and winds in this area can be especially severe.
What's Included in the Cost:
Breakfast and lunch are provided to all participants. Camping and space for pull-behind campers is available onsite, but all dig participants must provide their own camping equipment, or RV. For those camping on-site, dinner will also be provided. The site has portable toilets and fresh water.
For those who prefer to stay in town, there are many accommodations to choose from in the town of Laramie which is only 20 minutes away, but this is not covered in the program cost.
What to Bring:
Campers must bring all camping equipment including tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and chairs. Please ensure tents and poles can withstand high winds. No cooking supplies are needed, unless you would like to have your own special snacks and drinks.
Participants will need to provide their own transportation to the site each day. The site is accessible by any vehicle, but high clearance vehicles are recommended (e.g., a Subaru or Rav4 at least).
All participants will need to bring basic work attire, including work boots, work gloves, a water bottle, sunscreen, strong insect repellant, and preferably long sleeve shirts and long pants.
Spencer R. Pelton
Wyoming State Archaeologist
State of Wyoming
What makes your site significant?
The prehistoric component of the Willow Springs campsite is remarkable for the large assemblage of Native American pottery at the site. It is one of the largest and most diverse pottery assemblages thus far identified in Wyoming. The historic component is remarkable because sites dating to the 1860s are rare in Wyoming, and the assemblage from Willow Springs seems to be unmixed with later historic occupations.
What has been your most rewarding find at this site?
The most surprising discovery at Willow Springs is the extensive 1860s occupation, which was previously unknown. The large, diverse assemblage of ammunition is rare, especially outside of forts or battlegrounds, suggesting that the site was used in a previously undocumented skirmish.
What are your current research objectives at this site?
Our current research objectives are to understand the age and nature of the historic occupation and document the complicated geologic context in search of buried Pleistocene archaeological components.
What has been your most rewarding or most important find at this site?
Our single most important find is a copper earring, the only artifact of its type thus far discovered in Wyoming. We are currently trying to determine if the earring is made from native or trade copper.
Participation is subject to availability and is at the full discretion of the dig location. Prices and dates dates subject to change.