Where the Buffalo Roamed…. Discovery of Skull Opens New Chapter in Utah History – Press Release 2/23/2004

DATE 02/23/2004 8:43 AM

This is part of an occasional series by the Sanpete Country Travel and Utah Heritage Highway 89 Alliance on the people and places along U.S. Highway 89.

Where the Buffalo Roamed….
Discovery of Skull Opens New Chapter in Utah History

Utah was once a land where the buffalo roamed, according to new evidence “uncovered” by two Salina men. It has long been believed that buffalo were never native to Utah, but a skull found in Salina Canyon by local resident Maurice Rasmussen was recently documented to be the remains of a buffalo dating back to the 14th Century.The skull, which has been under the care of the Office of Public Archeology at Brigham Young University for the past several years, was recently sent to New Mexico where a series of tests determined its age. “It turns out that the skull is from about 1350 A.D.,” Rasmussen says.

“It’s quite a thing when you think about it, something was living right here that many years ago and I just happened to find out about it.”

Rasmussen came across the skull in 1978 when he was building a road for the Red Creek Mine up Salina Canyon. “We had dug down about five feet in one area when we spotted something that looked like the brain cavity of skull. I got down into the hole and scrapped it out, and it turned out to be a skull. It was a miracle that we found it, if we would have dug about an inch lower or an inch higher, we never would have seen it.”

After showing it to few friends and trying to guess what kind of animal it was (he thought it might be a bull), Rasmussen simply added the skull to his personal “collection.” “I’ve found and kept a lot of things as I’ve gone through life “rocks and such,” he says. “I just thought that this was something else to keep.”

The skull might have remained part of Rasmussen’s collection forever had it not been for Bob Leonard, an archeologist for Fishlake National Forest. About sevenyears after Rasmussen found the skull, the two men, who are both from Salina, were discussing the interesting things that have been uncovered in Salina Canyon and Rasmussen mentioned his find.

“Bob came out and looked at it and got very excited,” Rasmussen says. “He said it was a buffalo skull and that it might be the only proof in 400 years that buffalo were in this part of Utah.”

Leonard says it was obvious at first sight that the skull from a buffalo. “You didn’t have to be forensic scientist to figure it out the skull was complete, it had horns and everything.”

The skull ended up being donated to BYU, where it has been in storage for several years. “We simply never had the money to send it away to be analyzed.” Leonard says. “But just recently, the office at BYU came up with the funding to get it dated and got the entire process moving.”

Leonard says the test results are “amazing.” “It’s very exciting news. On a scale of 1 to 10, I put it at a 10. It opens up a whole new mystery.”

Most interesting, he says, is the fact that buffalo remains have never been found in the “trash piles” left behind by the Fremont people, who lived in Salina Canyon hundreds of years ago. Their villages and artifacts have been uncovered and documented. The remains of other animals, including rabbits, deer, antelope and sheep, have been found among the Fremont ruins. But no buffalo. “If the buffalo were here, why didn’t the Fremont people utilize this resource?” Leonard asks.

“That is why this is so intriguing. We thought that we knew everything there is to know about the Fremont people, obviously, we didn’t know everything.”

Rasmussen, a life-long resident of Salina (his grandfather, Neils C. Rasmussen, founded the town), adds that he is elated that he uncovered a interesting part of Utah’s history. “But the skull is just one part of it. There are a lot more stories to be told in that area.”

Indeed, the buffalo skull just one of the many interesting items that have been found in Salina Canyon. It’s also home to, among other things, Fremont villages, shelters built by the earlier “hunter and gatherer” native people, and pictographs. “It’s a fascinating area,” says Leonard, who hopes to lead a volunteer excavation in the canyon this summer.

In addition to the Freemont sites, the canyon is rich in history, Leonard says. It was the site of the violent incident between two settlers and a band of Ute Indians that started the Black Hawk War; had a railroad and a prosperous coal mine built in it; and was used by Walkara, a man known as the “greatest horse thief in the West.” “He would drive horses and stolen stock through the canyon,” Leonard says.

The canyon also includes several valleys that were probably once lush with grass, he says. Leonard speculates that this is where the buffalo lived. “They probably didn’t roam the land freely in huge herds,” he says.

More than likely, they lived in the valleys in small herds. But the important fact is that they were here.”

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For more information Contact:Bob Leonard, (435) 896-9233 or Maurice Rasmussen, (435) 529-7762
Monte Bona
Sanpete County Travel and Heritage Council
(435) 462-2502
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