Pat Neill let out a sigh as he took a moment to unwind in his office chair. The 72 year old had been staying fairly busy in his Oregon-based office. Every so often, he had a few minutes to spare, giving him a window to let his mind wander.
It was September of 2018.
Many months had passed since he checked up on his former childhood home of Douglas. A bookmark on his web browser, used maybe twice a year at most, was ripe for a click.
He opened the Douglas Budget’s website and started reading top articles from the past few weeks.
“I was in between things and thought, ‘Well, I’ll just take a look and see what’s going on,’” Neill said in a phone interview Sept 22.
Little did he know, a recent article on the site posed a question only he could answer.
“I was like holy crap,” he said. “He’s talking about what I did.”
THE HUNT BEGINS
Heavy rains had washed out a crew of University of Wyoming archeology students from the typically crusty rolling plains just outside Douglas on a sour summer day in 2014. They were in town to unearth more remains from the LaPrele mammoth kill site near Ft. Fetterman. Mother nature had other plans that day, so the group, led by UW archeology professor Todd Surovell, sought refuge under the roof of the Wyoming Pioneer Museum in town.
While browsing the exhibits, something caught Surovell’s eye that he wasn’t expecting.
In the corner of the room, a large enclosed wooden and glass case guarded some bones that Surovell was very familiar with. They came from a Columbian mammoth, the same type of animal he was digging that summer. Next to the bones, information was printed on a modest white card regarding the Douglas man who had discovered them.
L.C. Bishop found the bones on his property in 1938. For 20 years, Bishop sat on the information before drafting a letter to the state seeking professional assistance for their excavation.
Other clues came later on when new museum Director Mel Glover stumbled upon a small paper bag with mammoth bone fragments and a label stating they came from Bishop’s site on July 15, 1958, exactly 20 years after the initial discovery. Names included with the bones consisted of last names Bishop, Vetter and Hildebrand and a July 1958 date, but nothing else.
Continued research connected Bishop with William R. Eastman, who was believed to have given the bones to the museum. Through a visit to the Converse County Courthouse to check land records, Surovell believed he had dialed in a specific area to search.
With the help of generous landowners, he started scanning the countryside. He found nothing. A return visit in 2018 had him feeling better about his efforts, as he came across an area closely resembling the clues he could recite from memory.
Having a new search area secured, he brought up students to spend a few days to dig a test trench. They hoped the dirt they tested would be the same age as the mammoth bones, roughly 13,000 years old.
At this point, Surovell really had no clue where to even start looking, since the area had no real clues to pinpoint the mammoth.
He thought the best way to find any additional clues was to reach out to the Douglas population through the Budget. Surovell contacted the paper for a story, which appeared in the Aug. 29, 2018, edition.
A few days after the story hit newsstands, Surovell received bad news from the test dirt. Results showed it was not even close to the same age as the bones, approximately 10,000 years too young.
“We were in the wrong place. . . we didn’t know where to go to next,” Surovell said. “I was feeling kind of dejected.
“Two days later, I get this e-mail out of the blue.”
A SURPRISE INDEED
As Neill read through Surovell’s article on the Budget website, he couldn’t help but feel a bit in shock.
“It was so surprising,” he said. “It was describing things that were really familiar to me in terms of growing up. The whole experience basically flooded back into my brain.
“I could barely tell you how excited I was.”
Neill’s mother, Barbara, was described by her son as an amateur geologist. His father, Bill, had managed the Safeway in Douglas until retiring in 1963. The family could often be found “rock hounding” around the area, and they were familiar with a lot of happenings in the area during that time.
“When I read the thing about the Hildebrands, they were basically my neighbors,” Neill said, stating later they actually lived two blocks down the street. “I was shocked to see the name come up.”
He was close friends with Lyle and Elizabeth Hildebrand’s children, Fred, Jeneva and Ann, growing up. Believing they moved away from Douglas years ago, he knew they likely wouldn’t contact Surovell.
The Oregon man e-mailed Surovell while still at work Sept. 7, 2018, anxious to share his memories. He told Surovell that over the course of a few long weekends in July 1958, he was one of a handful of individuals digging at the site.
Neill’s family had been invited by the Hildebrands to visit the site during excavation work. That, in itself, was a huge success for Surovell’s search, yet, it took place 61 years ago. Neill was only 12 at the time, and couldn’t even start to predict the location of the mammoth.
“I’d be hard-pressed to even know what direction from Douglas it was,” he said. “All I remember was being in the backseat of my mom’s car and then we were there.”
What Neill did have was the only collection of images ever taken of the mammoth. He and his mother snapped off a couple rolls of film on the family’s “cheap, old Brownie” camera on both black and white and color film. He knew exactly where those photos were in a photo album stored in his garage.
“I said, ‘Get home as soon as you can,’” Surovell recalled, laughing.
As the workday came to a close, Neill hurried home and started digging through his collection of childhood keepsakes.
“It was pretty easy to find,” he said.
Neill apologized for the “grainy” images produced by the inexpensive handheld camera, but when Surovell opened up his e-mail and browsed through the series of images he had a different take.
“I love those photos,” Surovell laughed. “They were really helpful.”
DAYS AT THE DIG
Neill remembers the dig being sort of a “party atmosphere.” He referred to the invitation-only dig as a “little, big deal” as not many folks knew about what was going on out there.
He and his family spent a handful of long weekends revisiting the site for additional work, each time being just as fun as the last. One memory that sticks out to Neill is Elizabeth bringing a large galvanized wash bucket full of fried chicken for the group one day.
“I’d never seen that much fried chicken in my life,” he recalled. “People were having a few beers and it was a pretty good time.”
For a little relief from the digging, he remembers jumping from a cliff into a pile of dirt with friends Fred and Jeneva.
He also remembers taking the bones home, cleaning them up and “ruining them by putting varnish on them” before taking the bones to the museum. He was a part of the whole experience.
A COUPLE LUCKY SNAPS
Most of Neill’s 26 color and eight black and white images scanned and uploaded to Surovell didn’t help in locating the mammoth. Most of the images taken that day in 1958 were centered around Tim Cross moving earth with a D-3 Cat dozer, the heap of bones poking out of the ground and the handful of attendees posing for photo ops next to the bones.
Only two of the photos showed enough of the landscape looking north to give Surovell something to match against current-day scenery.
“I knew we could go out there and match the location,” Surovell said. “That landscape looks generally familiar to me.”
On Sept. 14, 2018, Surovell brought doctorate student Madeline Mackie and master’s student Chase Mahan with him on a quick trip to Douglas. They started at the landowner’s property they had previously tested to say hello and make sure they could walk the property once more.
Nearly a mile from the road, they kept searching by holding up Neill’s images to the landscape, attempting to line everything up. It was almost an impossible task. Hours passed as they worked toward the southernmost edge of the property that was clearly marked by a barbed wire fence.
Surovell took one a look at the photo and glanced down the valley and across the landscape below him. He stood atop a dry, dusty hillside. Doing a double-take, a smile soon stretched across his face as his four-year search finally came to an end.
He actually found the spot.
And it was just beyond the fence on the adjacent landowner’s property.
Surovell shouted down to Mackie so she could come up and verify his discovery. She agreed, and the pair stood staring at the one single landscape marker in the distance that lined up perfectly with the rolling hills. He was 1.4 miles from where he initially thought the mammoth was before receiving the photos.
The mammoth wasn’t even in a spot an archeologist would typically check, he said, as it was up a steep hill next to a dry tributary. These conditions don’t typically mean optimal preservation sediments for bone, but by sheer luck, this mammoth was well preserved.
Surovell contacted the neighboring landowners and was able to visit the site and confirm the location of the elusive Bishop mammoth after years of searching.
“I don’t think I would have found it without Pat’s photos,” he added.
Efforts to dig at the new mammoth site is still in the works as an agreement has not yet been solidified, but Surovell is hopeful.
“I can’t do anything without the permission of the landowner,” he said. “I need to get him a proposal. I’m pretty sure he’s going to allow me to do it, but I don’t know.”
If he does get to dig, one thing is for sure: Neill is invited.
“I’m sure I can get some time off,” Neill said. “I’ll make time.”
Surovell would like to test the age of the bone and determine the cause of its death. If the mammoth turns out to be a mammoth kill site with Paleoindian involvement, such as the Laprele mammoth 10 miles away, it would be only the 16th site to be found in North American archeology since the 1930s.
“Who knows what the future holds in terms of the future of this site,” Surovell said.
“If it turns out to be an archeological site it becomes incredibly important.”