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History rises: Low water exposes artifacts

WINONA BAY, N.D. - Glenn McCrory saw remnants of his family's past scattered all around him on the site where his great-grandfather built a ranch back in frontier days.

WINONA BAY, N.D. - Glenn McCrory saw remnants of his family's past scattered all around him on the site where his great-grandfather built a ranch back in frontier days.

Broken slabs of concrete marked the location of the house where his father and older sisters lived. The house was still standing when he was a child

McCrory, semi-retired from farming at 64, spied a piece of rusty metal lying on the ground near where the barn once stood, now overgrown with weeds and brush, and recognized it as a part from an old wagon.

"I suppose the government would call that artifacts now," McCrory said. "I better not pick that up."

Nearby, beside a rusty cog, broken clamshells baked in the heat of early summer. For decades, old Jack McGrory's land just south of a territorial settlement called Winona lay deeply submerged by the waters of Lake Oahe.


Now easily accessible by land because of the Missouri River drought, the frontier trading center finds itself in the middle of controversy.

Since the reservoir was created in the 1960s by Oahe Dam, one of six earthen dams built on the upper Missouri, the high ground of the old town of Winona stuck out above the water and became known as Winona Island.

It's forbidden ground, government land restricted to the public in order to prevent the removal of cultural artifacts - and to guard against disturbing old gravesites that could now be exposed.

That prohibition, enforced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is causing friction between fishermen and others in the area who long were accustomed to fishing from shore. Enforcement has been stepped up in recent years because areas long covered by water now are vulnerable as Lake Oahe and Lake Sakakawea inch up from record lows this spring.

The former island and surrounding land - called Winona Bay when Lake Oahe is full - was a thriving hub in the late 1800s, a saloon town that lured both cowboys and Indians.

Winona, established in 1874, sprang up on the eastern bank of the Missouri River and once proclaimed itself the biggest town on the stagecoach line between Bismarck and Pierre, S.D., then Dakota Territory.

On the other side of the water stood Fort Yates, an army garrison where 3,000 troops were stationed after Custer's 7th Cavalry was wiped out in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.

Alcohol was forbidden at the fort and on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on the western bank of the river, so soldiers looking for off-duty libations and entertainment would cross the river - by ferry when the river was open, by sleigh when frozen in winter.


In its heyday, Winona boasted two hotels, two stores and two restaurants, among other businesses, including up to nine saloons, which might help to explain why the town originally was called the Devil's Colony.

Thirsty soldiers and cowboys weren't the only patrons who flocked to Winona for alcoholic refreshment and to gamble at cards. So did some of the American Indians from Standing Rock.

The illegal liquor trade, in fact, played a role in a tragedy involving the family of another of McCrory's great-grandfathers.

Tom Spicer, a blacksmith who had immigrated from Canada, lived with his family just north of Winona, on the other side of town from the McCrorys.

In 1897, Spicer, his wife and four other family members were murdered - apparently by men from Standing Rock who mistakenly thought they would sell them liquor, according to McCrory, who has read old newspaper accounts of the murder and ensuing trial.

Spicer and his wife, Methodists who taught Sunday school, kept no liquor in their house. Corps officials met with McCrory's father, born a year after the murders, for help in finding the Spicers' graves so they could be moved.

Winona's cemetery was nestled in woods south of town, near the McCrory ranch. Many buried there were prostitutes, some of them suicides, including one who reportedly drank carbolic acid on a saloon dance floor hours after receiving an upsetting letter.

In his youth, McCrory remembers hunting in the bottomlands along the river. In the winter, when the river was frozen, it was common to see hunters from across the river, at Standing Rock.


Now communities on both sides of the river are isolated from each other. The drive from Winona Bay across the river to Fort Yates takes more than two hours, using the Bismarck-Mandan bridge.

"The river wasn't the barrier it seems to be now," he said.

Jeff Kelly, the Standing Rock tribe's top game warden, peers through binoculars at a sweeping panorama from his lookout post high on Proposal Hill in Fort Yates, N.D.

But he isn't looking for poachers. He's looking for looters who scavenge old burial sites for artifacts and even bones to sell to collectors for profit.

Corps officials in North Dakota said they know of artifacts - flint knives, other tools made of bone or stone, arrowheads and pottery fragments - offered for sale on eBay.

The tribe, as well as state and local officials, works with the corps to protect cultural resources.

Kelly points below to a spot near the river, the site of an old mission cemetery long covered by the waters of Lake Oahe.

"Actually, we caught some guys in that area digging," he said.


Fossil hunters also have been digging along the shore illegally, Kelly said.

"The big thing now is dinosaurs."

Several years ago, near the community of Wakpala, on the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock reservation, graves from an old cemetery were exposed.

The corps had exhumed all the graves it could find - not all were marked - but obviously missed many, which belonged to members of the Mad Bear band of Yanktonai Sioux.

"I can't think of anything more upsetting," the tribe's archeologist, Byron Olson, said of the exposed graves. "It just hits you in the gut."

Wave action and fluctuating lake levels have exposed old villages and burial grounds for years, but the problem was exacerbated as the lake receded because of the lingering drought, now in its sixth year.

Donel Takes The Gun, a Standing Rock tribal council member, said families with relatives in gravesites threatened by eroding banks continually press their concerns.

"We need to get a plan," he said. "They want those graves moved. Right now we don't have a number."


The tribe's cultural preservation office is working to locate as many sites as possible. It expects to ask the corps for more help in locating and protecting them, he said.

One big problem, Takes The Gun said, is the unpredictable level of the lake. Fluctuations compound erosion.

Before the rise of Lake Oahe, government archeologists surveyed the reservation and found more than 200 sites, some of them prehistoric, many since covered by the water.

"We are seeing land that hasn't seen air in 43 years," tribal archeologist Olson said. In many areas, that uncovered land holds pieces of the tribe's heritage.

"It's actually Native American history written out there in stone and bone and all the things that were left behind," he said. "Now they're susceptible to wind, rain and people.

"People don't seem to understand that they're stealing the heritage of this tribe and other tribes," he added. "It's just a profound lack of respect for this culture."

Glenn McCrory's recent return to his ancestral farms near the old Winona town site is one of several he's made since they began to resurface three or four years ago.

Years earlier, as a boy, he explored the site several times with his father.


The former island is a thicket of tall grass, shrubs and trees, including box elder and ash.

Because of the dense growth, few objects are visible on the ground. Here and there, McGrory spots a piece of broken glass, purple from long exposure to the sun - probably fragments of broken whiskey bottles.

He points to a bowl in the ground, carpeted by turf and ringed by trees - all that's left of a basement, perhaps the old general store, in McCrory's estimation.

"That's about all you can see, is depressions," he said. "That's about all there is to see, I guess."

Winona started its gradual death after the railroads passed it by, shifting trade to rival towns like Linton and Strasburg. The fatal blow came in 1895, when the army abandoned Fort Yates.

The last occupied building, an old hotel, was vacated in 1912, three decades before McCrory was born, and more than half a century before the reservoir surrounded his boyhood haunt, seemingly forever.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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