Museum, University of Nebraska State


Date of this Version



Chapter 11, Natural history studies, section 11.1, pages 261-274

In Archeological Investigations at Engineer Cantonment: Winter Quarters of the 1819-1820 Long Expedition, Eastern Nebraska

Edited by John R. Bozell, Gayle F. Carson, and Robert E. Pepperl

Lincoln, Nebraska: History Nebraska, 2018

History Nebraska Publications in Anthropology, number 12


Copyright 2018, Nebraska History. Used by permission.



It is our contention that Thomas Say, Titian Peale, Edwin James, and their colleagues of the Stephen Long Expedition of 1819–1820 were heavily engaged in scientific research, which took the form of the first biodiversity inventory undertaken in the United States. This accomplishment has been overlooked both by biologists and historians, but it should rank among the most significant accomplishments of the expedition. The results of this inventory continue to inform us today about environmental, faunal, and floral changes along the Missouri River in an area that is known to be an ecotone between the deciduous forests of the eastern United States and the prairies of the Great Plains. This inventory was completed at a time when the impact of Euroamericans was just beginning.

A modern archeological excavation of the Engineer Cantonment dwellings has added significantly to our knowledge of the environment and species present at the site in 1819–1820. The archeological investigation has added 7 percent more species for the species richness estimate for Engineer Cantonment. These additions to the biota of Engineer Cantonment were not made uniformly across the groups surveyed. The species added to the inventory are primarily plants, mollusks, and fish. The flora at Engineer Cantonment was not heavily surveyed by James because he was at the site only a little over two weeks. The survey party's interest in fish appears to have been only as food items, so we learn the most about them from their skeletal remains in the camp's trash. The mollusks are difficult to survey because they are small, secretive animals.

The written documents, collections, and drawings left to us, along with the archeological inventory, form an image of a dynamic riverine system with a highly meandering river having a wide valley filled with oxbows, palustrine wetlands, and scattered groves of trees. This has now been modified to an area that has a channelized river with the surrounding wetlands being drained and converted to agricultural and municipal purposes. Construction of upriver dams has controlled flooding, especially in the spring, so that the river valley is not renewed and changed. Irrigation of farmlands has promoted the growth of riparian forests composed primarily of cottonwood. Suppression of prairie fires, which were prevalent during the fall of 1819, also has promoted the growth of trees and other woody vegetation. The city of Omaha and its suburbs are expanding and encroaching on the site from the south and west, converting once open grasslands and scattered trees to housing tracts with well-manicured lawns and non-native Nebraska shade trees.

The impacts of these landscape and environmental changes are clearly reflected in the plants and animals of the area. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done some habitat restoration in the Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge and continues fish and wildlife habitat restoration in associated upland and wetland areas along the Missouri River, their efforts will never be totally successful, because many of the plants and animals no longer occur in the area. Among mammals, three of the top herbivores are gone as are four of the top carnivores. We are not advocating reintroduction of bison or wolves, but without these species interacting with the plant and animal communities, no restoration will truly re-establish what once was. Secondary herbivores and carnivores have now filled these top niches and make a vastly different impact. The gray squirrel and eastern chipmunk appear to indicate that it is not just trees that make a forest, because the forest established along the Missouri River and its former floodplain is dominated by cottonwoods that do not provide the necessary habitat for these species.

We believe our examination of the Engineer Cantonment area in eastern Nebraska demonstrates the value of biodiversity inventories, both historical and modem. Although it is beyond our power to undertake historical inventories, we urge efforts be directed toward the reconstruction of other historical biodiversity inventories, including phytoarcheological and zooarcheological surveys. This may be feasible in areas such as historical forts, which were visited by traveling biologists on a recurring basis. The results of these explorations, especially when combining the work of a number of parties and scientists, may result in useful historical biodiversity inventories. Other places on the Great Plains where this may be possible would include Fort Union in North Dakota, Fort Sisseton in South Dakota, Fort Hays in Kansas, and Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Today's modem inventory is tomorrow's historical inventory, and so there is still an ongoing need for biodiversity inventories. They provide the baseline information for dynamic biological systems that will change over time and with environmental shifts.