Dry grasses crackle beneath the square-toed boots of University of Wyoming anthropology Professor Todd Surovell as he weaves throughout a maze of sagebrush in a remote corner of Converse County. His eyes scan the ground, an action to which he has become accustomed in his line of work.
After every few steps, he pauses to examine objects off of the dirt surface. He reveals a small piece of flake, indicative of a surface archeological site, but this isn’t the reason for driving two hours from his home in Laramie on a Saturday morning just days before the fall semester.
He’s looking for clues - anything to tell him his suspicions are correct. It has been a mystery four years in the making, and Surovell thinks he has closed in on what could be a unique find.
Where did that come from?
On a rainy day in the summer of 2014, Surovell and field school participants were supposed to be working on the LaPrele mammoth kill site along LaPrele Creek near Ft. Fetterman. With weather conditions less than ideal, the group decided to venture down to Douglas for the day, eventually stopping into the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum to take a look around.
While browsing the displays, Surovell noticed something he wasn’t expecting. In the corner of the room, a large display featured a mammoth’s mandible, humerus, radioulna and teeth. Information alongside the massive bones noted that a local man had discovered them.
Intrigued by the bones, Surovell met with then museum Director Arlene Ekland-Earnst, who found a letter dated June 21, 1958, directly related to the bones. Surovell’s interest was piqued.
The letter was from Loren Clark (L.C.) Bishop to Wyoming State Geologist Horace Thomas talking about mammoth bones he found on his property in 1938. Bishop had dug out several bones but quickly determined further excavation needed to be done by someone with professional experience. Bishop, who was the Converse County land surveyor, understood the importance of the rare find he had stumbled across. To preserve it, he caved the dry creek bed bank over the find. For 20 years, he sat on the information before drafting the letter to the state seeking professional assistance.
For the next 55 years, nothing was done with the site.
Progress in locating the mammoth slowed for Surovell since that day in 2014, until new Pioneer Museum Director Mel Glover came through in a big way. Glover located a small brown paper bag with mammoth bone fragments with a label stating they came from Bishop’s site on July 15, 1958. The label gave three names, all of which had no first names attached. Names included Bishop, Vetter and Hildebrand, meaning it is a possibility Bishop received the assistance he requested.
Bishop’s family never donated the bones to the museum. In fact, the museum’s accompanying information with the bones noted the mammoth site was discovered by R.T. Bird of the American Museum of Natural History and that the bones were gifted to the museum by William R. Eastman, with no mention of Bishop, according to a University of Wyoming press release.
One student inquired about checking land records at the courthouse. Surovell and the student wanted to know if Bishop owned land in a particular area and to resolve the mystery about the section he mentions in his notes.
Surovell learned Eastman had requested help digging up a mammoth as well, and that Bishop had apparently given the bones he found to Eastman before they arrived at the museum. What’s more, Eastman later became the owner of Bishop’s land where the mammoth is thought to be.
Narrowing the search
Despite that information, Surovell still had plenty of unanswered questions.
“Question one is, ‘Where was the mammoth,’” Surovell queried. “Question two is, ‘Is it still there?’”
If they were to locate the mammoth, what can make it a rare find is to answer is if its death was associated with human interaction? Hundreds to thousands of mammoths have been found in the North America, but there are only 15 mammoth sites in North America that are known to have clear evidence of human interaction associated with them.
“The first one was found in the 1930s, interestingly, not far from here,” Surovell said of a find near Greeley. “This is sort of the hot zone for them. . . this whole area here.”
Mammoths went extinct just after the arrival of humans. Archeologists and paleontologists are intrigued to learn if humans played a role in their demise or if another factor such as climate is to blame.
“There’s a lot of good reasons to try to chase (mammoths) down,” Surovell said.
He noted that searching for the mammoth’s location has been a “fun little scavenger hunt.” The project has been an inexpensive venture, yet has benefitted students along the way.
Surovell directed his attention to Bed Tick Creek, a drainage of the North Platte River south of Douglas. Approaching land owners, he started searching the tall exposed cut banks present along the winding stream.
Coming up empty handed, Surovell went back to the clues he had and realized he could be looking in the wrong place. The problem with the creek was that it didn’t exactly line up with the other clues involving geology and land ownership.
“We discovered (Bishop) owned the section we’re on right now in the 1930s,” Surovell said as his SUV rumbled down the road. “It’s not far from Bed Tick Creek so that lines up with the signage.”
In 2017, Surovell returned with the help of landowners and was able to come across an area closely resembling the clues he had found at the museum and elsewhere.
“That draw immediately struck me as the right spot, given the information we had,” he said, pointing out a secret spot on one rancher’s land.
With a new location dialed in, they put in one augur in the spot Surovell believed the mammoth could be, but the results that came back were not promising. This summer, he and a few others spent a few days camping at the site to do additional auguring and dig a test trench. They didn’t find the mammoth but found samples to send in for testing. The trip also turned up a surface archeological site and a buried archeological site. Results are expected to come back in a matter of weeks, which can either make or break the search. The key is for the dirt to be the same age as the mammoth bones, about 13,000 years old.
“If we find dirt the right age, we feel much better about our possibility of being in the right place,” he said. “If we don’t. . . I think the story ends there . . . unless somebody comes out of the woodwork.”
If they can’t keep the search to a quarter of a square mile and have to resort to searching the entire Bed Tick Creek area, he says it would be a huge problem.
“But, if someone shows up with a photograph, it’s a complete game changer,” he said.
Luckily for Surovell, landowners for this particular search have been enthusiastic about the idea of a mammoth, if not many more, on their properties.
“We just find it fascinating that this can be here and the history of it,” one landowner said. “It’s exciting to think it’s there and we might find something.”
“These folks have been so helpful to us and so welcoming and so excited about this project. It’s been terrific,” Surovell said.
Other clues Surovell hopes come forward include notes, journals, or anything that can lead them to the mammoth’s location.
So, does Bishop’s mammoth ring a bell for you? Did you visit the site as a young child, or recall an old photograph in the family album of digging at the site? If you do, Surovell encourages you to reach out to him in solving this mystery of mammoth proportions by either emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling him at (307) 766-5136.