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CASPER, Wyo. — Thousands of Indians, soldiers, settlers and migrants trekked to and through what is now Natrona County over thousands of years for bison, conquest and a new home.

They also made camp, buried their dead, fought battles, built things, hunted, farmed and dumped their trash.

They're gone, but some of what they left behind is not.

A historian, archaeologist and the county coroner want to ensure that evidence of the past isn't lost either.

"Once it's gone, it's gone forever; it can never be recovered again," said archaeologist Carolyn Buff of the Natrona County Historic Preservation Commission.

"There's a reason for doing archaeology -- to find out how ancient people lived, what they lived on, why they did the things they did," Buff said. "What value do you put on your heritage?"

Buff, Coroner Connie Jacobson and Fort Caspar Museum Director Rick Young met with the Natrona County commissioners on Tuesday to propose guidelines for developers if and when the remains of the past are unearthed.

Buff had asked the commissioners whether permits could require developers to follow a directive when they came across old human and cultural resources.

Commissioners told her they couldn't do that with a private developer working on private land, and Buff said she and the others agreed.

But they would welcome suggestions for guidelines, she said. "They can't require, but they can request."

The proactive approach toward local archaeology arose in January when the Natrona County Planning and Zoning Commission was considering the final plat and zoning change for River Park, a proposed 38-lot subdivision on 47.6 acres east of Robertson Road and north and west of the North Platte River.

Paradise Valley resident Eric Miller emailed county officials cautioning them that the proposed subdivision lies within the historically documented area of the July 26, 1865, Battle of Red Buttes, which took place about four miles west of present-day Fort Caspar.

That battle between several Indian tribes and the U.S. Army resulted in the subsequent and quick burial of what is believed to be 22 soldiers in a mass grave. This is the largest undiscovered burial site of soldiers on American soil.

In January, Jacobson told the Planning and Zoning Commission anyone finding human remains must call the sheriff's office and the coroner. Authorities would immediately declare the site to be a crime scene until ruled otherwise, she said.

Last week, Jacobson and Buff said probable guidelines for discoveries will retain this first step.

After that, the coroner would contact the Natrona County Historic Preservation Commission and possibly the Fort Caspar Museum to review the discovery, Jacobson and Buff said.

The commission then would contact the University of Wyoming's Department of Anthropology to send a crew to excavate the site, Buff said. A UW crew could respond to a small discovery within a day.

Nearly all these excavations would be considered "salvage archaeology," in which the items are removed and sent to UW for cataloging, curating and lab work, she said.

In her experience, Buff said archaeologists and construction workers usually cooperate so the site can be excavated while building can occur elsewhere.

She would like the guidelines to include recommendations for interpretive signs at the sites of discoveries and, ideally, green spaces where developments overlap with the historic trails, including the River Park subdivision, she said.

For example, the West Belt Loop, which contractors are scheduled to begin building this year to connect U.S. Highway 20/26 and Wyoming Highway 220, will cut through the Oregon Trail. The state will provide a turnout for motorists and interpretive signs.

Archaeological discoveries, including those of old human remains, occur with some frequency, Buff and Fort Caspar's Young said.

Seven sets of human remains have been found in the Casper area in the past 20 years, Buff said. Young added one of those was of a soldier unearthed while putting in a playground.

The fort area yields artifacts all the time, Young said. "We still find [them] every year, and this is a site that has been well-traversed."

Young and other historians are learning more about the possible location of the Red Buttes burial ground, and a set of guidelines adopted by the county would go a long way to alleviating any tensions among the public, developers and archaeologists, he said.

"We want to try to be proactive before development starts," Young said. "It just gives us more options."

 

 

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