The land of Oklahoma is steeped in mystery and history, a place where the past whispers to the present.
Art Peters, the curator of the Hinton Historical Museum, has dedicated himself to unlocking the secrets of this land, delving deep into the soil in search of the forgotten remnants of those who journeyed west in pursuit of California Gold.
They just threw those items aside because they were useless to them now.
And 173 years, they’re still laying out there.
They’ve been plowed over and shuffled around, But they're still out there.
Bold pioneers forged a path through the heart of Oklahoma, leaving behind their campsites littered with the debris of their travels.
The mute testament to their tales of courage, tragedy and romance.
Learning their stories and tracing their route is his passion as he crosses the state Digging the Wagon Road.
Gold was discovered in California at Sutter's Mill in 1848, and it set off a frenzy of people heading towards the gold fields, so they could seek their fortune.
It was Josiah Gregg who decided once at Santa Fe not to go back on the Santa Fe Trail to Independence, Missouri, but to go through Indian territory at that time, Oklahoma back to Fort Smith, Arkansas.
And he was the first one to discover there's a pathway that's passable by wagon train to Santa Fe.
A petition was made to Congress to survey the route through Indian territory.
Captain Randolph Marshall was assigned to lead a detachment of the fifth Infantry ahead of the first caravan of immigrants headed west.
They had a military escort on this one because it was being mapped.
It was the first journey across the Indian territory.
He had surveyors with him.
He had two regiments of dragoons.
So two large groups of mounted cavalry.
On April 11th, 1849, the members of the Fort Smith and California Emigrating Company said their farewells to anxious relatives and friends.
It was a scene of excitement and suspense, such as the town never saw before, nor since when the little army of adventurers took to their departure.
Owners and drivers made their final checking up of equipment, gave a last going over of horses, harnesses and wagons and found everything in order.
Mothers counted the children in their wagons, and on horseback.
Saw to the last detail of food supplies, cooking equipment, family remedies, and settled herself upon the wagon seat while her husband loosed the lines and gave the word that started the mules.
And at last, they were off.
There were 479 in the company, traveling with 75 wagons, including settlers or merchants with their stock of goods and other equipment drawn by 500 oxen and as many horses and mules.
The holiday spirit that prevailed was manifested by banners streaming from wagons with streaking inscriptions, the most common one being "Ho!
for the diggings."
Captain Randolph Marcy.
The first obstacle they faced was the Poteau River.
There was no bridge, so the heavy wagons had to be ferried across.
On the other side, a rugged, hilly terrain and mud.
They would often have to use ropes to pull the animals and the wagons out of the mud.
Some of the immigrants actually just gave up at that point and they would get pack mules, and decided that it was easier to just take a pack mule, then take all that stuff in a wagon.
Going into the great unknown.
The chief fear among the immigrants was Indian attack.
Many wagon trains passed to California without being attacked by Indians.
You can't have a movie hardly without Indians attacking, and you have to have some drama.
But a lot of them never got attacked.
Every wagon train would have seen Indians because Indians want to trade.
There were Comanche encampments there.
But there had been some discussions between the Comanche leader of that area and some Creek and Seminole leaders, during which the Comanches agreed to let these emigrants pass without bothering them.
They would also sometimes buy ponies and mules from the Comanches.
It was usually about a week between wagon train sitting out because the grass would have to regrow for cattle and oxen.
There were people from all walks of life.
There were doctors and tailors and scientists.
Just any any profession that you can think of at the time.
And most of them were men who were traveling by themselves, but some of them were families.
One family of which some account was available, was that of Dr. John R. Conway, brother of two Arkansas governors and nephew of Nellie Conway, President James Madison's mother.
In addition to himself and Mrs. Conway, there were ten children.
Four sons and six daughters.
The eldest daughter, Mary, just out of school, was a charming, vivacious girl of 17.
All the young men were enamored with lovely Mary Conway, who apparently was very charming, as well as being very lovely.
They thought, "Oh, this is a sweet young lady.
We can just get all kinds of things for her and she will notice us."
Mary was the focus of many admiring eyes.
She stirred the emotions of young immigrants and army officers who became rivals for her smiles.
That's a polite way of saying they're getting in fights over her.
They had lots of opportunities to do things for Miss Mary, like bring her flowers if they happened to find one.
Or maybe they could care for her horse, for her.
Camp number 33, uh, is east of Hinton, about seven miles out and as they leave that camp the next morning, Lieutenant Simpson is one of the lead officers riding ahead.
He comes to a high place.
He sees a group of mounds on the western horizon, which are west of Hinton.
As they were approaching these mounds.
Lieutenant Simpson saw off in the distance this is one particularly oddly shaped mound and rode his horse over to it.
He gets an idea that I will be the guy that brought her some flowers.
He dismounted his horse, and he climbed to the top.
He unfurls the American flag.
He waits for a larger group to gather around the bottom, and he is about to pronounce this mound, which is a rock.
He's going to name it after Mary Conway.
So he can be her hero or the dramatized little scenario.
Everybody likes a little romance.
Would it be Lieutenant Harrison?
Would it be Lieutenant Simpson?
Which one would she choose?
He had the flag and he paused.
Lieutenant Harrison yells from the bottom, "Hey..." Simpson, why don't you name this after Mary Conway?
He was going to do it anyway.
Now his plan was a little sabotaged.
But you're in the moment.
So he went ahead and did it.
I hereby name this Rock Mary!
And that way it would have an official name.
It would go in the records sent back to Congress about their journey across Indian territory.
The trail marker would be known to all future travelers as Rock Mary.
Miss Conway was so flattered by Lt. Harrison's suggestion she gave her promise t hey would be wed.
They had been traveling together for about 35, 40 days, so I imagine they spent quite a bit of time when Mom didn't need her.
He asked her parents if she could marry him then and they would not allow her to marry him then that they would have to wait.
He didn't want his daughter to get married on the trail , so he talked to Lieutenant Harrison and said, When we reach California, then you take a leave of absence and you come to California, we'll have a proper wedding.
We would love to have our daughter married to you, but not on the trail.
There was celebration in the camp that night with Lieutenant Harrison as the guest of honor.
In the morning, the wagons were loaded and headed west.
Art Peters, curator and historian, has dedicated his life to uncovering the treasures of the past.
The artifact now joins the collection on show at the Hinton Historical Museum.
Art scours the fields and backyards for the faint remnants of lives long gone.
One thing that gave me goosebumps was I found a three prong eating fork, and this fork was run over by a wagon wheel when three of the prongs were bent and one prong broke off and the handle bent.
When I got back to the museum with that, it's like, Hey, I think that would fit on the wagon downstairs.
And it fit perfect.
It was like, Yeah, someone dropped it.
It laid out there and got run over by a wagon wheel when it was broke.
Another very unusual thing was a lipstick tube.
And I thought, is that really a lipstick tube?
It looks like it.
It's shaped like it.
And when I did research, lipstick was first patented in a tube in 1915.
1919 was the first year wagons were outsold by automobiles.
So to have a lipstick tube in a campsite was not out of date.
It was the very end of wagon travel.
Peters has spent years traveling across the backroads of the state, looking for campsites and asking for permission to dig.
This 8 to 10 acre area Right here would be where the immigrant wagon train camped.
The mile section road has cut this campsite in two, but the bigger half is right here.
I wanted to excavate with the metal detector.
Right here is the center of the camp or about the center of the camp.
And from here, we can see our surroundings all the way around.
That was the most important thing, was to camp on a high place.
The average camp site will usually be about three to 4 to 5 acres.
Larger wagon trains that had many more wagons to circle the wagons.
They can be up to, you know, a thousand feet across or a thousand foot area.
Maybe a really large campsite can go up to ten acres.
A lot of times I just know this is a site that could have been used.
So I will just set up a grid and start going and start moving along.
And as I move along, different things will appear or develop.
My grids I do 100 foot by 100 foot square.
That's about what I can cover in a day if I'm not finding a whole lot of artifacts.
The more artifacts you find, the more you dig.
Some days it's a half of that.
If the farm is being plowed and tilled and terraced, it will be four or five inches.
The plowing doesn't move things around too much out of their general area that they have been in most of that time.
They will naturally shift things back and forth and back and forth, but 4 to 5 inches deep and I think the deepest I've ever dug for an item was about eight inches.
A chain link or a wagon bracket or spoon handle, spoon or fork handle will get me pretty excited that, wow, this is a great find.
You document everything that you find and then you can come back to the office and you can write down what you have found out in the field.
You can put that on a piece of paper with the grid.
Some campsites are so littered with stuff I can only do ten feet by ten feet in a day because there's so much to document.
Half a day of finding things, half day documenting.
Red Rock Canyon is just a few miles outside of Hinton.
On one side of the park, remnants of the wagon road are cut deep into the sandstone cliffs.
As the wagons came in, they were lock up the back wheels to slide them down.
That is what the sliding in the wheels is, cutting the ruts.
To the left here, we can see a shallower rut.
But that is where people walked alongside the wagon as they came into the canyon.
When he's coming down this hill, he's going to hold that brake on the wagon to lock up the back wheels to let the wagon wheel slide.
Every time the animals take a step, it will slide the wagon.
The wagon road across Oklahoma.
I know between here and the Texas Panhandle border, about only five places where a wagon rush can be seen.
So you can kind of dot a line, sort of.
Uh, so before those are all gone, we need to preserve those.
The sandstone also bears the names of travelers cut into the sides of Rock Mary.
This is the oldest date we can still identify up here.
That 1855 is right in the middle of the gold rush era.
It started 1849 through about 1860.
He was obviously an emigrant traveling through, stopped to carve his name on the famous Rock Mary.
There's probably only about 20 that we can make out today, but there were probably been over 200 during the wagon travel time when he started.
Peters would rely on written accounts.
Wagon ruts and walking the landscape to map the wagon road.
Today he can spot telltale signs using satellite images on Google Earth.
They traveled average was 10 to 15, 16 miles per day.
So about every ten or 15 miles they camped.
The wagon road goes from Fort Smith to the McAllister area and then on over to Purcell area, on out to the Weatherford area.
And from Weatherford it goes up that goes west to the Texas Panhandle.
It ends up right through the heart of Amarillo.
They go west pretty much on to Santa Fe and approach Santa Fe from the south.
You need to leave out.
By the 1st of July.
You had to be all the way across and into California before September, or you took a risk of being snowed on and have to have a winter camp all winter long.
Each artifact, along with written accounts, helps piece together a picture of what life was like on the trail.
Their animals might die.
They might get sick.
People got sick, died.
Cholera was a thing that they dealt with.
A lot of accidents.
Nobody died very often of an Indian attack.
Other things, cholera or disease.
Or maybe a snake bite.
Snakes were a serious concern.
Contrary to the popular image, over 90% of emigrants walked the entire route to California.
People that were able bodied were walking alongside those wagons.
The wagons were carrying all those goods, and the people were on foot.
Now, they were very lucky if they had a horse to ride, but most of them were just walking along with the wagons.
They were usually able to walk faster than the oxen were able to pull the wagons.
Have to give them time to rest.
That is why they would probably start off early in the morning and then quit shortly after noon.
They would have to find some place to camp that had the water, wood and grass.
That was the thing.
Water, wood and grass.
They would circle the wagons for a corral.
So all the loose animals could be inside and graze during the night.
You would graze them outside and then by nightfall put them inside the circle.
That would take up 8 to 10 acres of land for a wagon train that size.
The men would have to go out.
And if they could, you know, deer, turkey, rabbits, something like that, to cook for their evening meal.
That was the freshest food you could have.
If it was a rainy day or if there were just no game around, you would resort to your can.
They would do a lot of visiting because they would not have time during travel.
You would stay with your wagon and you would want your children to stay there so that they didn't go off in the high grass and get lost.
They also would have some entertainment.
You'll read accounts of people playing the fiddle and dancing.
They would have their evenings when they would sit around, tell stories and then they would set out a guard for the night.
And the next morning, Then it was all about getting all of the stuff loaded up again and getting ready to go.
After successfully crossing Indian territory, the military escort left the caravan behind at Santa Fe.
The young lieutenant promised to meet Mary in Los Angeles.
The military was not needed beyond Santa Fe.
From Santa Fe the wagon train would have went south to Albuquerque, and from Albuquerque The trails into California were already established.
October 7th - Lt. Harrison started out after dinner today to examine a ravine two miles from here.
And as he has not returned, I think he must have wandered further than he intended.
Captain Marcy waited till first light to send out a search party.
They found a spot where Harrison's horse tracks were surrounded by several other horses and then led north.
Lieutenant Sackett followed the track about two miles from where Harrison was met by the Indians to a small branch of the Colorado, where, to his horror and astonishment, he suddenly came upon the murdered corpse of poor Lieutenant Harrison.
Lt. Harrison did what any smart soldier would know not to do.
He ran off away from their party to explore a ravine on his own.
And he was met by Indians who ended up killing him.
A better young officer or more courteous, amiable and refined gentleman never left.
There was such an expression of gloom cast over the command, as I have never witnessed before.
So Miss Mary was almost a widow before, before she was 17.
Mary went on to California not long after their arrival.
She met a steamboat pilot.
They married and raised six children together.
People continued going to California by wagons until automobiles, and then they travel by automobiles and till the Dust Bowl.
And then another surge of people from Oklahoma traveled to California on Route 66 in the 1950s.
So it's ironic that Route 66 parallels this wagon road to California.
The romance of the trail lives on in the imaginations of those who dream of the Golden West.
What's left of the campsites lies below backyards and wheat fields waiting to be unearthed and to tell the tales of the trip to the man who spends his days digging the wagon road.