Until just the other day, the oldest evidence of a human presence in America came from an archaeological dig just outside my hometown of Clovis, N.M.
Clovis man, as the first inhabitants of that region came to be called, left some 11,200-year-old spear points as evidence of their existence.
Now the word is that humans were living in Chile 12,500 years ago, so Clovis has lost one of its claims to fame. It still has the Norman Petty Studio, where Buddy Holly got his start, and it has livestock auctions, but none of that is quite as special as being the site of the oldest human settlement on the continent. History is important to us humans.
Some years ago, Hill Williams, who has since retired as The Times' science writer, told me a black cowboy had something to do with the discovery of Clovis man. I'd grown up in Clovis without ever knowing that.
Turns out the cowboy discovered bones and spearpoints of Folsom man. Folsom is a village in northeastern New Mexico, and that discovery led to the later discovery of Clovis man, after the cowboy had died.
Just before the Chile discovery made the papers, a friend in Bellingham told me about an article in Natural History magazine that laid out the cowboy story.
George McJunkin was born a slave in Texas in 1851. At 17 he joined a cattle drive to Dodge City and went on to do cowboying for a number of New Mexico ranchers.
From slave to foreman
He became well-known for his skill and eventually became foreman of the Crowfoot Ranch, a significant achievement for a freed slave. People sought him out for his ranching expertise, but they also sought him for his scientific knowledge.
McJunkin had gotten a couple of boys to teach him to read in exchange for him teaching them about horses. He spent a lot of time reading scientific texts. The story said he carried two scabbards on his horse. In one was a rifle and in the other a telescope.
Ranchers hired him to settle boundary disputes because he could use a compass transit.
He spoke Spanish and was often a go-between for Anglo and Hispanic people.
One day in 1908 he was out mending fences when he came across some bones that had been unearthed by a flood. Because he was a student of science, he recognized the bones were significant and began collecting them and spear points from the site.
He described his find to a bone collector in Raton and wrote to another man who had once discovered a woolly mammoth. Neither was interested in coming to see his find.
A few months after McJunkin died in 1922, the two men he'd tried to interest in the dig visited the site and gathered bones there. It would be another six years before the discovery made it into Scientific American.
The climate at the time favored the belief than Indians hadn't been here all that long, and scientists tended to reject most evidence to the contrary.
Eventually McJunkin's discovery lead to the Clovis mammoth hunters in 1932 and changed the face of American archaeology, but as the Natural History article notes, "Not one scientific publication about the Folsom discovery mentioned McJunkin. The two men McJunkin had written to about the find got the credit in early articles about the site.
"By the 1960s, many archaeologists assumed that the persistent story of the ex-slave-turned-cowboy-scientist was no more than a colorful myth."
I wonder how many other people have been lost to history that way?
Truth to the rescue
This time someone came to the rescue. A professor at Eastern New Mexico University went to Folsom and started asking around. He eventually pieced together McJunkin's story. The article in Natural History, by Douglas Preston, spread the story further.
February's focus on black Americans began as an inducement to search out contributors to our society who might otherwise go unrecognized.
It isn't for their sake that we remember them, but for our own. So that what we know about our world will be more accurate.
We have a lot of ground to cover. Not only do we know little about people like McJunkin, but the continent we live on has 12,500 years of human history of which most of us are woefully ignorant.
There is more power in history than in gold. Take my money, leave me my history. Today is a good day to learn.
Jerry Large's column appears Sundays in the Scene section of The Seattle Times. You can reach him c/o The Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 464-3346. Fax: 464-2261. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org