Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Archaeology: The Past Comes Alive in Our National Forests 

03-11-2019 10:25

In August 1888, 650 men and officers from forts Douglas, Bridger, and Duchesne gathered in Strawberry Valley, Utah, outside of Salt Lake City, for the first large-scale army maneuvers in the West. Although small by modern standards, this exercise was a major event in military preparedness. Its importance was underlined by the presence of photographer C. W. Carter, whose strikingly detailed photos clearly depict army life in the late 1880s.

Last summer volunteers in an innovative new program called Passport in Time (PIT) joined archaeologists in Uinta National Forest in north central Utah to conduct a preliminary archaeological survey and excavation of the camp. They studied the site using Carter’s photographs, which documented the precise locations of the camp artillery and of maneuver activities. It is rare that archaeologists possess such accurate records of historic activities as actual photographs of the site taken while it was occupied. They uncovered artifacts including numerous bottles, shoes, mess kits, tin cans, and other items used by the soldiers. “You could tell how the camp was divided by rank,” said volunteer Jill Schaefer. “Whiskey bottles and medicine bottles were in one area, while champagne bottles were in another.”

Halfway across the country, in northern Minnesota, volunteers joined archaeologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in Superior National Forest to test a prehistoric site. Prior to undertaking the project, the archaeologists believed the site to be a small encampment between 6,000 and 11,000 years old. However, once excavation began the rich deposit of artifacts including stone spear and arrow points, pottery, animal bone, and copper pointed to the existence of a much larger, more complex site. Both historic and prehistoric materials were discovered. When a volunteer unearthed a very rare, oxbowlike point (an Archaic point found most commonly in the Plains states), it was clear that something very important was being discovered. Of the 2,500 known heritage sites in Superior National Forest, this is the only site dating to the Archaic Period (from 2,500 to 6,000 years ago) that is not under water. During this period, the climate was warmer and drier; the water levels of lakes and rivers were lower. As it became colder, the water levels rose and Archaic sites, located along shorelines, gradually became submerged. This site will provide a new opportunity to understand why the Archaic occupants selected this unique setting. Both the archaeologists and the volunteers were thrilled. The opportunity to participate in uncovering a little-known part of history seemed too good to be true.

These are just two examples of the fascinating opportunities that were offered last year by the Forest Service in partnership with CEHP Incorporated, to involve the public directly in Forest Service Heritage Management activities as volunteers or site visitors. The primary objectives of PIT are to provide a unique and rewarding recreational experience, to improve public understanding of the fragile nature of heritage resources, and to foster a conservation ethic toward archaeological and historic sites.

Initially developed at Superior National Forest in 1988, PIT was modeled after a similar program in the Canadian providence of Ontario. Interestingly, the Canadian program has been discontinued due to a lack of administrative support, while the Forest Service program is being dramatically expanded to respond to public demand. PIT meets the objectives of the Forest Service’s National Recreation Strategy by increasing recreation and by striking a partnership with the public. It also is a key part of the Forest Service’s Windows on the Past public outreach initiative. PIT was tested in 1989 in five eastern national forests—Superior, Nicolet, Ottawa, Chippewa, and Chequamegon. It was so successful that in 1990 two forests—Uinta in Utah and the Chattahoochee in Georgia—were added.

PIT differs from other Forest Service volunteer programs principally because it is oriented toward recreational experience for the volunteers and the visiting public. “My goal is to build a strong avocational constituency that fosters stewardship for our diminishing historical and archaeological resources,” says Gordon Peters, supervisory archaeologist for Superior National Forest and conceiver of PIT. “In order to achieve this, it is important for the public to have an opportunity to help the Forest Service manage these resources. Unlike other volunteer programs this program stresses enjoyable, educational, quality opportunities that will make people want to participate year after year.”

Uinta archaeologist Charmaine Thompson says, “The returns to the forest are quite remarkable. We were able to use PIT to teach the public ... that information gained from archaeology is interesting and useful. We also were able to show the public about the past. The Uinta will be hosting another PIT project this coming summer. We will then use the information recovered to interpret the site. I believe that PIT offers site visitors and volunteers alike a diverse and satisfying recreational experience.”

PIT is unique because it invites the public to participate and visit ongoing archaeological projects. In the past archaeologists tended to be secretive of site locations and less than welcoming to visitors. The public was discouraged from being interested in its own history. In contrast, PIT greets site visitors and offers them tours, which often are guided by a PIT volunteer.

PIT projects cover the entire range of heritage-preservation activities and include evaluation of archaeological and historic sites, stabilization and restoration of archaeological sites and historic structures, and such interpretation and enhancement of heritage resources as exhibit design, development of posters and brochures, site protection and monitoring, oral history and documentary research, processing of artifacts and records, laboratory work, and photography.

A PIT volunteer needs no prior experience, just an interest in the past and a willingness to learn. Volunteers range in age from fourteen to well over eighty and include teachers, students, retirees, painters, sheet-metal workers, homemakers, waitresses, bus drivers, doctors, government employees, and military personnel. PIT volunteers come from all over the country, from rural areas and from the inner city as well.

The public response has been so favorable that more projects are planned nationwide for 1991. The following are examples:


  • PIT volunteers at Oconee National Forest in central Georgia will work with forest archaeologists to excavate an A.D. 900-1300 farmstead site.
  • George Washington National Forest, Virginia, volunteers will work on archaeological excavations of a site 9,000 years old; they will also help reconstruct a nineteenth-century plantation and locate outbuildings.


  • Shawnee National Forest, Illinois, volunteers will excavate a prehistoric stone fort.
  • Hoosier National Forest, Indiana, volunteers will locate and record prehistoric rock shelter sites.
  • Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri, volunteers will help with the first systematic archaeological site survey of the forest’s wilderness areas.


  • Ottawa National Forest, Michigan, volunteers are needed to assist with archaeological documentation of the Norwich Copper Mine, oral history interviews with local residents, excavation of the Timid Mink prehistoric site, and a survey along the Black River to discover and record historic and prehistoric sites.
  • Chippewa National Forest, Minnesota, volunteers will join Project Protect to monitor, map, document, and excavate heritage sites representing at least 10,000 years of human history.
  • Superior National Forest, Minnesota, will continue archaeological investigations at the Misiano site.
  • Chequamegon National Forest, Wisconsin, volunteers will learn the story of lumbering in Wisconsin by excavating an early-twentieth-century logging camp.
  • Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin, volunteers will examine an 1870s logging camp set atop an Indian settlement. Volunteers at Nicolett will also work on the continuing study of a pre-European-contact settlement that will be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.


  • Coconino National Forest, Arizona, volunteers will help excavate Elden Pueblo, a large prehistoric ruin on the outskirts of Flagstaff; document historic sites on the forest using historic photographs; and develop an interpretive brochure for Red Canyon Ranch, a prehistoric site.
  • Coronado National Forest, Arizona, volunteers will help research and record an 1878 army supply camp and reconstruct a tum-of- the-century mining camp.
  • Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, volunteers will help record the largest concentration of prehistoric rock art in Snake Gulch.
  • San Juan National Forest, Colorado, volunteers will assist with archaeological work at a large, prehistoric and historic Ute Indian camp and work with Ute youth and tribal elders in ethnobotanical and other oral history studies.
  • White River National Forest, Colorado, volunteers will help locate the historic Ute Trail.
  • Ashley National Forest, Utah, volunteers will perform test excavations of archaeological sites and develop public interpretive materials.
  • Uinta National Forest, Utah, volunteers will continue to research the 1888 Army encampment in the Strawberry Valley with test excavations in trash deposits and around artillery and rifle ranges.


  • Modoc National Forest, California, volunteers will help restore a 1923 cabin in a wilderness setting. Modoc volunteers also will participate in a cooperative effort between the Modoc National Forest and the Oregon California Trails Association to locate segments of the Lassen Emigrant Trail.
  • Willamette National Forest, Oregon, volunteers will help with excavations at a large seasonally occupied prehistoric camp.
  • Ochoco & Deschutes National Forests, Oregon, volunteers will participate in hands- on public archaeology in conjunction with central Oregon’s Windows on the Past Celebration.
  • Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho, volunteers will use historic photographs, aerial photographs, and metal detectors to assist Forest Service archaeologists in locating and recording the remains of two 1880s mining towns

Elizabeth Estill, the director of Recreation, Cultural Resources, and Wilderness Management for the Forest Service, sums up the program: “Passport in Time gives the public what they want—a chance to be an archaeologist for a day or a week. It’s not a brochure or a lecture, but a hands-on experience touching the secrets of the past. A Passport project is something the visitor will remember and share and even do again and again.”

For more information or an application, contact the PIT Clearinghouse, CEHP Incorporated, P.O. Box 18364, Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 293-0922. (Note: As of 2019, this contact information is outdated.)

Publication date: May/June 1991


Author(s):Kathleen M. Reinberg