Strange Histories in the Forgotten West
Photos and Article by L. Abigail Jones
For all his affability, Indiana Jones is kind of a liar.
While archaeology can include elements of fun, real projects are time- consuming forays into practical aspects of research. Ask any field technician on a dig site: if you show up with a fedora and a pistol, they’ll hand you sunscreen and a shovel. There’s less continent hopping and more digging. Which is why my own foray into artifact identification surprised me; it had more elements of an Indiana Jones flick than I expected. What I’m about to report – after 8 years of incomplete research – relates to a serious (possible) archaeological question set in the American West. Or, it’s a humor tale. Time will tell.
I’m not an archaeologist, so you’ll have to forgive me ahead of time. What follows is the result of a circumstance in which a writer and cinephile (that’s movies, folks) ends up as the de-facto primary on a research project that wasn’t supposed to extend further than a two-county radius around Lewistown, Montana.
So sit back folks, and grab a bucket of popcorn. Central Montana is about to get weird.
￼Fade In: Winnet, MT 2016
“No one is going to remember this.” Jack Hansen paused in the middle of his sentence, his cigarette a punctuation mark in mid-air, both his memory and narrative diverted.
It was February, and the weather in Winnett was too warm for winter near the Breaks. But night was falling and the cold was pushing back. I was introduced to Jack by accident, through the kindness of a stranger. He was nearly 91 years young, a child born in a Dakota-Territory hay camp who remembered Civil War veterans marching in a parade. I learned more history from him in four hours than I could have garnered in four years, chasing ghosts through the pages of family histories.
“All this land out here, the incidentals I’m telling you . . . there are still all these things that people are never going to know. They’ll just find pieces out on the dirt they don’t understand, things that if I pick them up, I’d know them. But anyone coming after . . . they won’t understand who it belonged to. No one will be left to explain.”
He took another drag and I nodded, struck dumb by the grief in his statement. I understood, in part. I was here about lost history. I was here because no one living knew the land around Dovetail Butte like the boy who grew up traversing it alone on horseback, watching the smoke of native fires and following wild horses when fences were foreign things. If anyone could answer me, he would. Jack grew up on Blood Creek.
I was here because, to the best of my knowledge, someone in the last century pulled at least four artifacts from the soil in Jack Hansen’s former stomping ground, and only one of those items made sense in the context of Central Montana history.
And I wondered if he was there when it happened.
Flashback: Lewistown, MT 1990s-2008
As a teenager, I accompanied my father, then-president of the Central Montana Historical Association, to a meeting at the museum. He pointed out a trio of swords to me, and with a reminder not to touch anything, the adults shut the door and left me with a budding obsession.
The swords were aligned on a small, vertical rack in a glass case, one above the other, and my eyes drank in the details of each. Such odd handles: one of bone, another of wood with metal inlay, still another wrapped in blood-red sinew. All three were adorned with similar whorls and loops, a calligraphic fantasy of unfamiliar characters punctuated by intermittent rust. It was artistry in language, articulated on all three blades, that tantalizing inscription beneath:
“Swords, dug up on Dry Blood Creek near Valentine, donated by E.J. Sanford.”
Conjecture surrounded the weapons. Among those who noticed them, some thought they were Gaelic, even Oriental, or (one of my father’s offhand jokes) Viking. His other theory I dismissed out of hand as clearly impossible. But somehow, to a fifteen-year-old, it seemed totally plausible that Viking swords could show up in the soil of Central Montana.
In a display of complete objectivity, I ignored all other theories and supported my groundless one, all the way through college and into my late twenties. I sketched the swords, once, and over the years I compared my drawings to Northern European and other ancient alphabets. I always came back with nothing, possibly because I was looking in the wrong direction, or maybe because I was a Spanish major and completely unqualified. When I moved back to Lewistown in 2007, I focused my research approach: I would find an expert to translate the swords, and interview someone who remembered E.J. Sanford and the town of Valentine.
On my first visit back to the museum I met George Simonson.
The first thing I noticed about George was his cane, then his shoes beside me. “I’ve always wondered about those swords, myself.” I looked up into the kind face of another Historical Association president, and stood to introduce myself. We swapped theories, George offered his help, and we were colleagues. After buying a camera, I catalogued the markings on each blade under his supervision, until we had photographs of adequate clarity.
As a starting point, George and I decided to go with the Norse theory. Even if we were wrong, a linguistic expert might send us in a better direction, and anyway, Vikings are more fun.
“I’m biased.” He smiled. “I do hope they are Norse, because I’m Norwegian, but I’ll be happy to finally know, no matter what.”
To set me on my quest for a translator, George referred me to Hans Stokken, another Norwegian descendant living in Lewistown; he, in turn, referred me to a friend in Colorado. Eldon Hallingstad had more expertise, and while he couldn’t identify the language or the form of the swords, he gave me another idea. I sent a series of emails off to a source we will call “Philologists Who Would Know.” While we waited for an answer, George and I pursued our other avenue: museum records.
Sorting out the details of how the swords ended up in the Central Montana Museum was a difficult task, for one reason. Sometimes artifacts donated in the early days had records, and sometimes they didn’t. The only identification for the swords was on the tag, which carried a risk of misattribution; however, we were both willing to go on faith that the tag served as an accurate, if late, record of a transaction transcribed by someone who had been present when the swords were donated.
George recognized E.J. Sanford’s name from another acquisition report for a cross Sanford dug up in his garden in 1932. The swords and the cross had three details in common: their location, their method of discovery, and the man who donated them.
To many people, the idea that Viking swords could end up under the plow of a homesteader in the middle of Montana has no credibility. While I was willing to suspend my disbelief as a young woman, grad students aren’t allowed to conclude such things just because “Vikings are cool.” So, a little background.
Archaeological evidence found in the Canadian Arctic indicates the presence of Vikings in North America as early as 1000 a.d., 492 years before “Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue,” and at settlements as far apart as 933 miles. They were aggressive explorers, encountering different cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, not just by sea, but by land. A ring inscribed with Arabic, which was found in the grave of a Viking woman buried circa 850 a.d., exemplifies the reach of their travels, a baffling connection that corroborates encounters with the people one Arabic explorer called the “Russiyah” on the Russian Steppes. Another study tentatively linked Icelanders with a DNA variant found in Native Americans, one more tantalizing hint at contact between ethnic groups in the pre- Columbian era that could fill in missing history.
From ancient times until more recent pioneer settlement, it was not uncommon for people to travel great distances on foot. The Bear Gulch Pictographs near Forest Grove, MT are thought to be a commemorative ritual performed by Native America warriors after long vision quests. The pictographs are roughly 65 miles from the site where the swords were allegedly discovered, near Valentine and the Dovetail Butte, another popular landmark used for hundreds of years. Many of the Bear Gulch drawings are dated as early as 1000 a.d., contemporary with Norse explorations. If Lewis and Clark could walk across the United States with a Native American guide, why couldn’t Vikings walk from Hudson Bay to Central Montana? I know. Fun hypothesis aside, we still didn’t have a shred of evidence. So we hunkered down and waited for an answer to my email queries.
About a month after I sent the emails to the philologists, a cheerful reply showed up in my inbox: “Greetings, Miss Jones…” As I read the email, my incredible notion of Viking sojourners lost in Central Montana crumbled in the face of concrete fact, just not in the direction I expected. My castle in the sky was replaced by an even stranger apparition. Despite dad’s linguistic training, I’d ignored him, but his other far- fetched theory turned out to be more accurate than mine.
They were Arabic.
Forehead on my desk, I addressed my shoes.
“Pop Quiz, Hotshot: A depression-era homesteader digs up Arabic swords in the remote American West. What do you do?” Same modus operandi, different day. Get more in-depth translations, and go to Winnett. Unfortunately, due to life
circumstances, I ended up moving in 2009. It would be another seven years before I could pursue my local leads, and it was my mother who took the next steps. She carried my photos with her on a tour to the Holy Land, and her sources in Petra and Cairo filled in our knowledge of the inscriptions on the swords.
Remember how we got here? “Swords, dug up near Valentine on Dry Blood Creek by E.J. Sanford”.
E.J. Sanford described himself as a “wrangler boy who came up the Chisholm Trail from Texas.” He recalled that upon his first trip to the Valentine/Dovetail area, there was no one there. On his second, there was only an empty cabin, which makes the idea that swords would be under the soil even stranger. He bought land in the vicinity and settled there with his wife, Hattie.
The town of Valentine was established by Benning and Mary Bean when they settled on Blood Creek Crossing in 1899 and built a fine ranch house. Mary started the postal route and the town grew up around it.
As homesteaders, both families were avid gardeners, with Hattie Sanford renowned for her apple trees. Perhaps she was the one who found the swords, or even Mary, since she was close to Valentine? Museum records show that Sanford dug up a cross on Blood Creek in 1932. In 1933, he and his wife sold their land to the Clarks, and after that, I find no trace of them.
So we return to Jack Hansen, who states that he came to the area around Dovetail Butte when he was very young, and he watered for Clairmont Clark, but he never heard anything about swords dug up near Valentine.
While Jack couldn’t help me with my dead-end, he told me stories about the land around Dovetail Butte. He carefully meandered through history, referring in an offhand manner to names I came across in my research. He seemed humbly cognizant that he’s a living connection to a past I’ll never fully understand, except through typed fragments of black-and-white, or rotting beams covered by tall grass and dust.
As I listened to him, I realized that this was what my story was really about – not the crumbling ruins of a ghost-town on the plain or a distant possibility of ancient people crossing a prairie wasteland where historians would never expect them. Jack showed me a picture of the West before it came to be seen merely as a developer’s playground, a Montana version of Jurassic Park for entrepreneurial dreamers with ready-made labels to slap on “products of the frontier”. History is about the people that were, as much as the people who will be.
It wasn’t the story I came for, but I’ll take it.
We know this much. In the Central Montana Museum in Lewistown, Montana, a trio of Arabic Swords wait for proper identification from an expert who can view them in person. There may be dates and even names. The Metropolitan Museum in New York, NYU, or Columbia have been suggested as proper resources.
If the swords come from Blood Creek, I have to wonder if they came from the Philippines first. In the centuries before Spanish occupation, the Philippines were subject to Islamic rule, so the swords would have been a natural fit. When the U.S. took the colony from Spain, the Filipino population fought back. The conflict lasted from 1899–1902, and troops were sent from Montana. If a veteran buried the swords along Blood Creek while traveling the old ’79 trail near Valentine, not too long before E.J. Sanford bought his land, it would explain how such artifacts ended up there.
If you’ve never been to the Central Montana Museum, stop by and take a look. Whether you go for a familiar story or some strange history, you may find something you never expected.
Dedicated to the Memory of George Simonson of Lewistown, Montana
My latest source suggests that one of the swords was inscribed by someone who was copying Arabic from other examples but didn’t speak the language. On one of the other blades, they could make out a date and further suggested that if that date is Hijri (Islamic Calendar) it could be 862 a.d. Lastly, Arab swords were not curved until after the 1400s, and our swords are straight.
Is it possible? Could a non-Arab blacksmith with access to Arab artifacts make a set of swords that ended up on an expedition along the Missouri River before 1000 a.d.?
That’s not what my source said. I’m just putting random pieces together, and I take full responsibility for my fanciful ideas.
But maybe I’ll have a chance to dust off that Viking theory after all.
The process for finding the Swords’ origin required the cooperation and insight from a number of different sources on three different continents. These conclusions would not have been possible without the helpful spirit of Montana residents and the kindness of historians and strangers who were willing to help outsiders. The answer to this enigma belongs to us all.
Lewistown – Ward and Faye Jones, George and P.J. Simonson, Hans Stokken, Nancy Watts, Donald Kovacich; the dedicated staff of the Central Montana Historical Association, both past and present, and Hope Good and the staff of Treasure State Lifestyles, and all others who were present in various capacities.
Winnett – For help with historical research: Mary Brindley, Jennifer Tyler, John “Jack” Hansen, Kim Doman, Petroleum County Sheriff Bill Cassell. Special thanks belong to the third-and fourth graders at the Winnett library: thank you for sharing the copy machine while you learned about archeological artifacts, and I was tracking them down.
Elsewhere – Eldon Hallingstad and Denver friends, Arabic resources at the National Museum in Cairo, Egypt and at Petra, Jordan and environs (to protect them, they will remain unnamed), and various other academic and institutional sources, who remain anonymous but not uncredited.
Geoarchaeology Volume 30, Issue 1, pages 74–78, January/February 2015 Sutherland, P. D., Thompson, P. H. and Hunt, P. A. (2015), Evidence of Early Metalworking in Arctic Canada. Geoarchaeology, 30: 74–78. doi: 10.1002/ gea.21497
Ghazal, Rym., (2015). When the Arabs met the Vikings: New discovery suggests ancient links. The National. Retrieved from: http://www.thenational.ae/world/europe/when-the-arabs-met-the-vikings-new-discovery-suggests-ancient-links
Ebenesersdóttir, S. S., Sigurðsson, Á., Sánchez- Quinto, F., Lalueza-Fox, C., Stefánsson, K. and Helgason, A. (2011), A new subclade of mtDNA haplogroup C1 found in icelanders: Evidence of pre-columbian contact?. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol., 144: 92–99. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21419
Pringle, Heather. (2012). Vikings and Native Americans. National Geographic. Retrieved from: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/11/vikings-and-indians/pringle-text
Valentine and Dovetail, pg. 204. Pages of Time: A history of Petroleum County, MT. 1990. Petroleum County Library.
Madison, Erin. (2014) Lewistown ranch family’s land contains treasure trove of plains Indian rock art. Great Falls Tribune. Retrieved from http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/lewistown-ranch-family-s-land-contains-treasure-trove-of-plains/article_a0441738-c8dc-11e3-8147-001a4bcf887a.html
See Also: James D. Keyser, David A. Kaiswer, George Poetschat, Michael W. Taylor Fraternity of War: Plains Indian Rock Art at Bear Gulch and Atherton Canyon. Published by Portland, OR: Oregon Archaeological Society Press, c2012.
Deal, Babbie & Loretta McDonald (eds.), 1976. Heritage Book of the Original Fergus County Area. Lewistown, Montana: 1976 Fergus County Bi- Centennial Heritage Committee
Strandberg, Greg. (2014). Montana Readied Soldiers for the Spanish-American War. Retrieved from: http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/ montana-readied-soldiers-for-the-spanish-american-war/article_65d74dee-2bd4-11e4-a591-001a4bcf887a.html
Viking raids are recorded as early as 768.
Helle, Knut. (2003). The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Volume I. Cambridge, England. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=PFBtfXG6fXAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage &q&f=false