Some years ago, perhaps around 2008, friend and colleague Lou Hafermehl asked me to join up with him in research and a study that sought to look at the landscape history in and around Theodore Roosevelt’s 1883 Elkhorn Ranch in southwestern North Dakota. For a variety of reasons, our project came to a halt (the decision above our pay grade, as most if not all are), but prior to that, I had come across perhaps the best modern archaeological investigation of a “man camp” in western North Dakota: the Dee Taylor’s study of the Elkhorn Ranch. Arguments can be made back and forth as to whether the cattle ranching industry in the late-19th century was in fact an industry with man camp associations. I would argue yes, since it involved a clear boom-bust cycle, over-crowded and over-grazed grasslands, punishing winters, heavy speculation, and industrial railroads that attempted to bring the cattle to markets in Chicago and beyond. Actual cowboy open range cattle ranching was a short-lived event in American history, and perhaps this is why it is so heavily romanticized: it came and went like a flash in the pan (barb-wire fencing ultimately brought an end to those pesky open grazers).
The 1959 archaeological investigation at the Elkhorn was conducted by Dee C. Taylor (Montana State University), and it is titled, Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site. Without going over the 146-page report in detail (at least not here), I thought I’d mention at least one of the pieces of material culture that the archaeological crew recovered from the Elkhorn Ranch house. In reading through the domestic assemblage, my eyes focused on the label of one of the tins recovered that said, “OYSTERS.” The three individuals out at the Elkhorn (Theodore, but more so Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow) were from or around New England (Sewall and Dow served as hunting guides for Roosevelt in Maine). One can imagine that they would get a bit lonesome for some culinary semblance of home, and tins of oysters might have filled that void. Or they could have simply been hungry for food, and a tin of oysters was what they had to eat.
In today’s man camps of western North Dakota, at least the multi-national corporate Type I camps, the kitchens openly advertise southern style cooking, likely to draw the attention of any number of oil laborers from the Gulf of Mexico region. So in thinking about this in a comparative studies kind of way, one can say that in the 1880s New England ranchers devoured oysters at the Elkhorn Ranch site along the Little Missouri River, and in 2013 oil laborers from the Gulf of Mexico area are now on the northern Great Plains, inhaling canteen-style southern cooking around Tioga, Alexander and beyond. This is archaeological food for thought before I head to Denver to present my paper at the Western Social Science Association on the modern archaeology of man camps in western North Dakota.
Note: in his introduction, Dee Taylor noted that he took two anthropology grad students along on his excavation crew, William G. Buckles and John J. Hoffman, and other crew members included Arvid Scott, Rodney Myers, and Vernon Goldsberry. Be very suspicious of any historian or archaeologist who does not mention anyone but themselves as researchers, writers, and idea-generators.