Bronc rider. Horse trainer.
Wrangler. Trail cook.
All of these and more describe George McJunkin, who made a discovery that helped define the presence of humanity in North America from mankind’s earliest days here.
Born sometime between 1851 and 1856, McJunkin originally came from Texas, and as a young man worked his way across Colorado and New Mexico as he pursued the life of a professional cowboy. He was self-made in this respect: he worked the trails on cattle drives, trained horses to sell in Santa Fe, and helped a family called the Roberds to establish a ranch on the Purgatoire River in Colorado. The life of a cowboy has never been easy, but for a Black man coming out of Texas at the end of the Civil War in 1865, McJunkin more than held his own. His grit was matched by a keen wit and intelligence. His biographer, Franklin Folson, noted that McJunkin taught himself how to read from schoolbooks he borrowed in exchange for riding lessons to local school children.
Along with grit, the life of a cowboy also involves a necessary awareness—some would say, an appreciation, even—of one’s natural surroundings. Views of the trail, the prairie, the riverbank—all become second nature to a cowboy’s passing while in the saddle. This was true of McJunkin: his appreciation of nature included a curiosity that would lead to a chance discovery that would resonate in the field of archaeology for years to come. A torrential rainstorm with flash flooding had struck on the night of August 27, 1908, in Folsom, New Mexico. McJunkin was the foreman of the Crowfoot Ranch, outside of town, and while out repairing fence line the following day, he noticed some large bones in the newly exposed bank of a dry arroyo.
McJunkin enjoyed the study of such finds, even keeping his own collection from his travels. His inspection of the bones revealed they were of some large animal, although—nothing he recognized. The story goes that he also found pieces of flint (“Folsom points”) with the bones that appeared to be handcrafted. He collected a few samples and later shared them with others, including the Denver Museum of Natural History in 1918. It was unfortunate that McJunkin’s discovery would not be fully investigated until after his death in 1922. For he had found among these bones the first evidence of human culture and presence in North America, dating to the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. A study of his “Bone Pit” (later known as the Folsom Site) would reveal an arrowhead or spearpoint, lodged in the ribs of what were determined to be a prehistoric Bison skeleton. It was the first clear archaeological evidence of mankind’s existence on the North American continent from the last Ice Age era.
In 2019, McJunkin was recognized for his lifetime work as a cowboy in the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy & Heritage Museum.
However, his legacy to all of us is even greater.