Lusk and Niobrara County


From Wyoming Tales and Trails

Continued from previous page, this page: The Spanish Diggings.

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About This Site

Sketch map of the Spanish Diggings by Robert R. Gilder, 1906. Nebraska, 1906.

South of Manville, Jireh, Lost Springs, Keeline is am area extending into Platte County and Goshen County north pf Hartville. The area is bounded on the east by the Rawhide Buttes, the Haystack Range and on the west by an area known as the " Spanish Diggings." The Spanish Diggings themselves are an area in the Southwest corner of Niobrara County extending across the south county line into northeastern Platte County. It is an area of canyons such as Muskrat Canyon, Dead Horse Canyon and Whalen Canyon. In Whalen Canyon there are a number of caves showing signs of previous human habitation. Thus rumors arose that Whalen Canyon had been used as a hideout for the infamous Jack Slade and his gang. Muskrat Canyon is an area of abandoned mines. Access from the horth even today is difficult. In the summer, streams such a Muddy Creek and Spanish Creek are subject to unexpected flash floods. Indeed, in early June 2015 roads into the area such as Jireh Road and Spanish Diggings Road were washed out in areas rendering access to the area even more unaccessbile. Even as late as the early 1900's the area was basically unexplored.

More remarkable, however, is the presence of numerous tipi rings. An early visitor to the area investigating Muskrat Canyon as an investment for copper mining later wrote:

Our destination was Muskrat canyon. 25 mUes distant, and for six hours, our team of heavy draft horses plodded ahead without any apparent anxiety as to how long it would take them to cover the distance. Far ahead of us, Rawhide Buttes were outlined dark and gloomy aga'nst the southern sky. Then as night came on with our journey only half completed, we were under a starlit sky such as 1 have never seen elsewhere, except in Arizona and New Mexico. It was somewhat after nine o'c'ock when we finally climbed down from the wagon and opened up the shanty, built a fire and started in to prepare something to eat and then to make ourselves comfortable for the night. It was cool for we were a mile and a quarter above sea level, and the stillness, outside our little group, was oppressive. Later in the evening, while chatting and smoking around the welcome fire, I asked the superintendent if he had ever noticed any aboriginal remains in the vicinity. He replied that the level meadows in the canyons and on the low mesps were almost covered with scores and hundreds of stone rings, and that the Indians of today have no theory as to the origin of these antiquities.

* * * *

I measured a number of these rings and found them to range from ten to twenty feet in diameter, almost every size between these extremes being in evidence, but the majority of them approximate 16 feet. In some cases, a large and small circle were noticed close together with an aisle or stone enclosed walk connecting the two. I examined very carefully, t he surface enclosed by these stone circles, and found numerous crude scrapers chipped from jasper and chalcedony which materials are very plentiful in the surrounding hills. I could find no other implement or weapon except the rude hide scrapers above referred to, and this seemed t o indicate that much dressing and tanning of hides had been carried on i n these old villages.

The following day, 1 visited and mapped another large group of exactly the same kind of remains on the level mesa top that stretches between the mouth of Wildcat canyon and Rawhide creek, distant about three miles from our camp Covering an area of perhaps 160 acres, it was impossible to find an open space of 50 feet between the rings, which will give some 'dea of their number. I was told by people familiar with the country, that these village sites can be found on almost any level tract of land, especially if in the neighborhood of a creek or spring. I had confidently counted on another day In this fascinating region with the idea of making some excavat'ons, but during the last night we were in camp, it suddenly turned cold and began to snow, making it impracticable for us to tarry longer with the limited supply of provisions on hand. We had hoppled our horses the night before and turned them out to graze, and with the snowfalling and the wind blowing forty miles an hour the next morn'ng. we were obliged to do considerable walking before we found the team. Then a very disagreeable ride of five hours directly against the storm brought us to the railroad again. itus, W. A.: "Prehistoric Village Sites in Eastern Wyoming, "The Archeaogical Bulletin, July-August, 1914.

Tipi Rings near the Spanish Diggings, c. 1908, photo by Robert F. Gilder.

Most remarkable, however, is that the site covering 40 square miles constituted one giant workshop for making various stone, quartize and flint tools, such as arrow heads and scrapers. In addition other remants left by Native Americans were found.

Jug found in Spanishh Diggings, 1915.

In 1906, Robert F. Gilder, an Omaha newspaper writer explored the Spanish Diggings south of Manville. He had been inspired by earlier writings of George A. Dorsey (1868-1931) and Robert Stewart Culin (1858-1929). See Culin, Stewart: Bulletin of the Free Museum of Science & Art, University of Pennsylvania, Jan. 1901, and Dorsey, George: Field Columbian Museum Publication 51"An Aboriginal Quartizite Quarry in Eastern Wyoming," Dec. 1900, which described their 1900 trip into the area.

Spanish Diggings, Photo from the Dorsey and Culin 1900 expedition.

Culin and Dorsey were guided into the area by two local ranchmen and prospectors William Lauk (1853-1935) and Joseph Stein (1851-1935) who had claims north of Hyattville near Sunrise. Whalen Canyon where the two resided was rumored to be the an area in which the infamous Jack Slade had hidden his loot. Stein had come to the area about 1881 and allegedly became a partner of an individual who claimed to have been a member of the Slade gang. The two searched for the cache. One day, so the story goes, the partner went out on a burro but never returned. It was said that the partner was later seen at Ft. Laramie spending money as if it was going out of style and then disappeared. Did the partner find Slade's gold and cut Stein out of his share? Is the story true? We will never know.

George A. Dorsey, Spanish Diggings, 1900.

At the time of Culin's visit, Stein was already becoming disgusted with growth in the area as a result of the Sunrise Mining Camp. As described by Culin in his account:

Messrs. Lauk and Stein, were interesting characters. They had taken up their land some nineteen years ago, when wandering bands of Sioux fre- quently crossed the cafion, bear and antelope abounded, and the trees still bore their burdens of Indians buried amid their branches. Stein, in particular, was very bitter against the en- croachments of civilization. He rejoiced, he said, in nature un- contaminated by man. Now it was necessary to lock the cabin door. Formerly theft was unknown. A stranger would come, pass the night, cook his supper from the stores, and depart leaving all else untouched. Another railroad, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, was being completed into Guernsey. The gangs were working on its embankments and the great piles of posts were there in readiness to fence off its track. The hills on every side were scarred with the trenches and shafts of the prospec- tors for the iron ore that had led a competing railroad to race to the incipient town. The two partners had sold their claims and intended to remove to the wilderness, where they hoped to live undisturbed by railroads until their days were ended.

Ultimately the two filed for separate homesteads just across the county line in Platte County. The adjacent homesteads were proved up in 1918. Lauk died in April 1935 and Stein died six months later. Both are buried in the Wheatland Cemetery.

Two years earlier another old prospector from the area Mauritz Aronstein died. His body was discovered when persons traveling the Rawhide Buttes road noticed a small dog on a knoll near Muskrat Canyon. The dog was observed to have stood in place for a week. As anybody passed, the dog barked as if to get the attention of the passer-by. Someone finally investigated to see what the dog wanted. Aronstein was found near his mine dead.

Spanish Diggings, Photo by Charles H. Merrill, University of Nebraska, 1906.

Next Page: Spanish Diggings Continued.