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Wardell Buffalo Trap

Wardell Buffalo Trap mural.
Wardell Buffalo Trap A.D. 370 - A.D. 960. This 4' x 8' mural of the site was painted by Lynn Thomas, Charmian McLellan &   Ruth Rawhouser, assisted by Ann Anspach, Tib Sutherland, Mary Krause & Betty Pfaff, who collaborated to create an artist's conception of history. The mural and other Wardell exhibits may be viewed at the Green River Valley Museum.
‘Organized chaos’ may be the best way to describe a group of Native Americans on foot driving a herd of 1500 pound wild bison at full speed for as much as a mile into a specially built corral of juniper and sagebrush and then killing them with bow and arrows. It would have taken a long time for full-grown, excited, angry bison to bleed to death from the small 1-2” stone arrowheads, giving them plenty of time to raise havoc.

It seems inevitable that people would be injured or killed during the drive or kill. However, the danger was acceptable because the success of the fall hunt could be the difference between life and death for the whole group in the upcoming harsh Rocky Mountain winter. Between 800 to 1600 years ago, this very scene unfolded each fall not far from Big Piney, Wyoming in the Upper Green River Valley.

Bison skull.

Bison bones.

Projectile points.

The Wardell Buffalo Trap is located five miles northeast of Big Piney near the Green River.  Because the actual dig site had eroded significantly due to runoff cutting through the area following the exposure of the site, a need existed to present the trap in a museum setting so the historical and cultural background would be available to the public.  BLM and the University of Wyoming, with help from archaeologist Dave Vlcek, provided expertise for this exhibit.  Barbara McKinley was the project director.  Dr. George Frison has published dig results in The Wardell Buffalo Trap, 1973.

Prehistoric people apparently used the site for communal bison hunting during their migration southward.  Excavation revealed three cultural layers, each showing repeated autumnal use.  Radiocarbon dating of AD 370, 720 and 960 established usage periods. Years of ongoing erosion, and looting in the spring of 2005, prompted BLM to stabilize and protect the site. BLM Archaeologist/Paleontology Coordinator, Sam Drucker led the field team for the 2005 excavation. The bones they found represent more than 30 individual bison, which varied widely in age.

The corral was situated at the head of a box canyon and supported by juniper posts.  The corral was about 30 feet by 50 feet with high sides of logs, brush and hides to discourage buffalo from escaping.  Sagebrush and grease-wood "wings" extended ¼ to ½ mile toward the river to help funnel buffalo into the trap.

The processing area may cover 2½ acres and was probably hidden from the driveline to the corral by the brush walls of the wings.  The people camped there for extended periods while drying enough meat for winter.

The communal hunt involved driving, killing, butchering and processing the bison.  The whole process was probably done by about 125 people, with 20 to 25 adult males.  The corral served for killing and butchering.  The 436 side-notched projectile points found in the three layers indicate a trap, not a jump.

The cultural affiliation of the hunters cannot be precisely determined, but some projectile points and pottery suggest they may have been Athabascan migrating out of the Canadian Rockies. It is also not clear if the population lived permanently in the valley. Indications of a long period of use of the site, along with projectile points made of local chert stock, suggest a good knowledge of the area. Obsidian found at the site originates in the Yellowstone Park area.