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George McJunkin

By Brenda Wilkinson
Socorro Field Office Archeologist

George McJunkin was born a slave near Midway, Texas in 1851.  George was freed at the age of 14 after the Civil War ended.  He was already fluent in Spanish, experienced with horses, and used to helping his father in his blacksmith shop, but he had never had the opportunity to learn to read.  He left home to join a cattle drive, ended up in northeastern New Mexico, and never returned to Texas.  Along the way he stopped to help a man dig a well.  He earned a handful of quarters, the first money he had ever been paid for his work.  He used it to buy the first footwear he had ever worn - a used pair of cowboy boots. 

His skills increased with each new job he took on, and eventually word got around that he was one of the best horse breakers and cowboys in New Mexico.  He traded lessons in breaking horses for lessons in reading, and soon began reading anything he could get his hands on.  He had always been curious about the natural world around him and was particularly interested in science.

McJunkin was the foreman of the Crowfoot Ranch when the great flood of 1908 hit nearby Folsom, New Mexico.  At least 15 people were killed in the flood, including the telephone operator, who died at her switchboard trying to warn people.  Afterwards, McJunkin was out riding, assessing the damage.  Wild Horse Arroyo had become deeply incised, and he saw something protruding from the surface.  He recognized them as bison bones, but they were much larger than modern bison.  George realized that the find was significant and tried to get an expert to look at his discovery, but it did not happen until after his death in 1922. 

Scientists later studied the Folsom Site, and their findings rocked the scientific world.  What they discovered were the remains of a Bison antiquus at a Paleo-Indian site dating back as far as 9000 BCE, where ancient bison had been killed by early peoples using special tools, now referred to as Folsom points. With this find, scientists were able to establish a human presence in North America about 7,000 years earlier than had previously been thought. 

Eventually, McJunkin was given credit for his find.  His hunger for knowledge and his persistence eventually earned him a special place in history, although he didn’t live to see it.  George McJunkin was a remarkable man whose discovery re-wrote the books on early man in North America.  His intellectual curiosity and determination continue to inspire a new generation of archaeologists.  

The Bison Antiquus now stands in the Smithsonian.

(c) U.S. Bureau of Land Management.