Blackwater Draw Museum — traces of Clovis Man

Blackwater Draw Museum. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks.
Blackwater Draw Museum. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks.

Blackwater Draw Locality No. 1, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of the most important archeological sites in the New World. The Blackwater Draw Museum has wonderful displays of bones and artifacts to educate adults and children in the history of New Mexico as well as the New World.

The museum is located on U. S. Highway 70 five miles northeast of Portales, New Mexico and may easily be bypassed if you are unaware that it is there. It was opened in 1969 primarily to display artifacts discovered at the Blackwater Draw Site. Although a state museum, it is under the direction of Dr. John Montgomery of Eastern New Mexico University-Portales. The Archeological Site is five miles north of U. S. 70 on NM 467, and Dr. Joanne Dickenson is the on-site curator and archeologist there.

Much controversy has existed over the peopling of the Americas and the search for physical evidence in the form of tools and bones. Evidence was literally washed up in 1908 when torrential rains fell near the tiny town of Folsom, west of Clayton, New Mexico. The flood scoured deep channels and killed many families and livestock. George McJunkin, a ranch foreman, checking flood damage, found fossil bones sticking out of an exposed section of Wildhorse Arroyo. He knew these were not bones of cattle but thought they were of Bison.

This, and much later excavations, became the turning point in proving that the first Americans had arrived by the end of the Pleistocene period. An excavation in 1926 found a delicately made spear point with a central groove or flute among the Bison bones.

Many events led to the discovery of the numerous sediment layers, giving cultural sequences for the last 12,000 years. Ridgely Whiteman, in 1929, found a "Clovis" point and a piece of mammoth bone. He sent them with a letter to the Smithsonian Institute but there was minimal interest by those checking out the site.

In the December 2000 National Geographic magazine it lists Ridge Whiteman as the discoverer of the Clovis Man Site in its story "Hunt for the First Americans". Whiteman is mentioned on page 45. A. W. Anderson was a go-between to bring Edgar B. Howard and Whiteman together. At long last the discoverer is properly identified, thanks to Don McAlavy, historian of Curry County.

However, in 1932 during the construction of the highway between Portales and Clovis, there was a new development. The State of New Mexico had secured a portion of privately owned property as a right of way and as a location for its material pit. The sand and gravel at this spot were quarried with a horse-pulled scraper and screened by hand. Many prehistoric bones were uncovered. They were displayed in the windows of Ed J. Neer’s store in Portales, according to the Portales Valley News of Thursday, October 20, 1932, but were not considered an earth-shaking event but rather a curiosity.

Enter Dr. Edgar B. Howard, who was excavating at Burnett Cave in the Guadelupe Mountains near Carlsbad. On his return to Philadelphia he stopped at the Blackwater Draw because his curiosity had been aroused by a fluted projectile point A. W. Anderson of Clovis had shown him. Dr. Howard’s examination of the gravel pit area about 20 feet deep and covering several acres convinced him there was a connection between the mammoth bones and the projectile points. He determined to return the following summer.

He and Dr. John Cotter, also from Pennsylvania, were the first professional investigators. From 1932 to 1936 they excavated The Clovis Site as it was then known. (E. H. Sellards, excavating from 1948 to 1956, renamed it the Blackwater Site.) The site is famous for its sediment layers, giving a unique rain-gauge of cultural sequences for the last 12,000 years. It is unsurpassed in its cultural periods dating from the earliest Paleoindians to Ceramic times, as each level contains critically important evidence hidden in the deposits.

The cultural sequence is unique from most paleoindian sites in that it is layer upon layer, one on top of another. The dates range from 11,300 to 11,000 B.P. at the Clovis level. The Folsom level dates from 10,800-10,000 B.P. The ceramic level identified in 1996 excavations is still under analyses.

Clovis age and Archaic age wells were found indicating a climate fluctuation and variable water tables. The hand dug wells are the earliest water control system in the New World. The Clovis Type Site at Blackwater Draw is the oldest accepted culture in the New World. Their remarkable fluted points, other stone and bone weapons, tools and processing implements are found at this site. These implements are associated with extinct mammoth, ancient bison, horse and large turtles. Other Pleistocene age animals that visited the site for food and water were tapir, camel, four-prong antelope, llama, deer, dire wolf, ground sloth, short-faced bear, saber-tooth tiger, shovel-toothed mastodon, coyote, deer, armadillo and muskrat.

Human remains have not been found, even though the massive deposits of bone, tools, spear points and other evidence suggests future excavation may reveal such remains. Intact deposits on the site remain to be explored and excavated even after 63 years of sporadic scientific investigation.

Fees are very reasonable and payment at either the Museum or Site is sufficient for admission to both if receipts are kept. The fourth Sunday of each month will be a FREE DAY with no admission charge. Fees for civic and educational group tours will be arranged before arrival and will depend on the number of persons in the tour group.

About Phyllis Eileen Banks