#Lookback: Pit Houses

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

Early hunter gatherer people who lived in Wyoming utilized pit houses for shelter.
Several of these sites have been excavated along the Sweetwater River drainage.
Archaeological evidence indicates pit houses were occupied seasonally and when
resources were depleted in an area the hunter gatherers moved their camps. A pit
house was usually circular or oval in shape, nine to twelve feet in diameter, dug into the
ground and roofed over. On average the pits were only 20 centimeters deep;
sometimes earthen walls were built around the pit. Occasionally, archaeologists find
post holes associated with the pit. What the superstructure of the pit house was made
of is open to speculation, probably brush and poles or perhaps hides were used as
roofing material. Archaeologists have excavated several pit house sites close to the
Sweetwater River at Split Rock, Jeffrey City, and Crooks gap. Frequently, pit houses
are discovered when oil interests do an archaeological survey before installing pipelines
and well pads or when highways are moved. Most of the pit houses radiocarbon date to
about 5420 to 5170 years ago, but one radiocarbon date estimated a date of 8010 years
ago. The pit houses were located close to water, but not directly adjacent to water
features. The average distance from a reliable water source was a little over half a mile.
Perhaps early hunters didn’t want to spook their prey by building too close to the water
or maybe the water table close to the river was too high to keep their homes dry. In the
winter getting wet could be fatal.

Some of the artifacts found by archaeologists include flaked tools, projectile points, a
fragment of a grinding stone, modified cobbles, fragments of animal bones, heat altered
rocks and charred goosefoot seeds. Baskets, woven mats and furs have long since
deteriorated to dust. It appears there were many short term occupations of most of the
pit houses over 250 years.

The animal bones found at the sites help to determine the diet of the early occupants of
Wyoming. Seventy-seven percent of the bone fragments came from medium size
animals such as coyotes, pronghorns and deer. Fetal bones of a pronghorn were found
indicating occupation of the pit house in the Spring. Twenty-one percent of bones came
from small animals such as rabbits, mice and prairie dogs. One percent of the bones
were unidentifiable. Large game such as buffalo were evidently rarely part of their
diets. The early hunter gatherers did not have the horse to help hunt buffalo.
Seed evidence indicates the early hunter gatherers utilized prickly pears as a major
food source. A small amount of charred seeds from the goosefoot plant were recovered
as was a broken grinding stone. There is only indirect evidence of tubers such as
biscuit root being collected and used as a food source. Tubers need to be roasted in
order for them to be digestible. One of the fire pits may have been used to roast tubers,
but the roots themselves have disintegrated over time.

Now imagine you are part of a small hunter gathers group 5000 years ago living along
the Sweetwater River. In the middle of winter, the days are cold, windy and dry. The
wind carries the loose sand and blasts the occupants of the pit houses when they leave
the house. Prickly pear cactus and sagebrush are the dominant plant life. You left your
last home, another pit house several days walk from here after depleting all the firewood
and prickly pears and have moved into a pit house you occupied two years ago. Your
home is half a mile from the river so you’ll have to make frequent trips to the river for
water. In the middle of the pit house is a fire pit lined in stones. Your home is circular
and has a diameter of 12 feet. The fire in the middle provides heat and light, but the air
in your home is smoky. Today you are lucky, one of the women has trapped two
rabbits, so there is fresh meat today. One of the rabbits was pregnant, providing a
couple of extra bites of meat. Also on the menu is some dried meat of an antelope
killed in the fall by the hunters, and dried prickly pears. Your fire is fed by sagebrush
which grows in abundance. It is the job of the older children to gather the fuel for the
fire using stone tools.

As the seasons progress you will dig the tubers of the biscuit roots which grow in
abundance at this site when Spring finally arrives. The tubers will need to be roasted
before you can eat them. Perhaps some of the roots will be cached in the bottom of the
pit house and stored for later use.

When the weather moderates the family leave the pit houses and follow the herds of
animals. Leading a nomadic life looking for hunting opportunities. In the Fall amaranth
seeds are gathered and roasted. The tiny seeds pop like popcorn when roasted.
When the frigid winter winds start to blow again, it is time to seek the safety of the pit
houses and start the yearly cycle again. It was not an easy life.

Next up for the Fremont County Museum
December 2022-October 2023
at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Memories: Artists
of the Lander Valley and Beyond” art exhibition
March 10, 7:30 pm at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Corner: Interactive Stargazing” Bailey
Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
April 21, 10-11 am at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Corner: Scat, Tracks and Skulls”
Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
April 22, 9-3 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Garden-Expo: Planting Historic Vegitables
for Kids” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

April 29, 1-3pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Sheep Shearing Day” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop
Children’s Exploration Series
May 13, 9-1 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Lander Area Petroglyph Trek” Wind River
Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series
May 17, 7 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Gold Fever in the Atomic Age: Wyoming’s
Uranium Boom” by Zach Larsen, Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers

Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the
Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.
The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit
The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum.  The
WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish.
 In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on
donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections
management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four
years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the
benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural
Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the
museum you choose to support.

Related Posts

Have a news tip or an awesome photo to share?