116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - Archaeologists struck out three years ago trying to find signs of first permanent settler Osgood Shepherd's 1830s cabin along the Cedar River near present-day First Avenue NE and First Street NE.
Too much building, demolition and building anew have taken place since to find any sign of Shepherd's life, Joe Thompson, an archaeologist with Bear Creek Archeology, Cresco, Iowa, said this week.
But Bear Creek is back, and Thompson is leading a team of six people, working with shovels and dirt-sifting screens in what has been bitter cold at spots up and down the west side of the river.
The six are laboring at places most likely to turn up historic items from the pre-Civil War period to the early 20th Century and much-rarer prehistoric artifacts from a time before native Americans had contact with Euro-American settlers and before there was a Cedar Rapids.
Bear Creek's new assignment also includes the hunt for evidence of the west-side cabins of early Cedar Rapids residents Robert Ellis, Isaac Listenbarger and David King.
The archaeological digging is required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to see if anything historic or prehistoric might be jeopardized when the city builds a flood-protection system.
In its earlier work in 2010 and 2011 on the east side of the river in Cedar Rapids, Bear Creek concluded that three dig sites were eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, and the company has recommended additional archaeological work there, said David Stanley, director of Bear Creek Archeology.
The three sites are in an area that extends from a city parking lot near 12th Avenue SE downriver to the former Sinclair plant site, artifacts from which include a projectile point that could date to 9,000 years ago, Stanley said.
Already the company's field work on the Cedar River's west side, which started in mid-October and will continue another few weeks, has unearthed three prehistoric artifacts - a scraper, a flake knife and an unfinished projectile point.
Two of the three were found near First Avenue NW and First Street NW and could be 2,000 years old, Thompson said.
Stanley, whose company has been digging in Iowa since 1983, and Thompson said the prehistoric artifacts found on the west side and ones found earlier on the east side come from small groups of native Americans who likely moved from place to place.
'Prehistorically, we don't know anything about this particular location,” said Stanley, a Cedar Rapids native. 'So this is remarkable because we don't know, because no one has really done any serious (archaeological) work here” along the river in Cedar Rapids.
Bear Creek's team isn't digging just anywhere. The company is working from a map that it created of land formations and river sedimentation deposits that suggest places most apt to reveal historic and prehistoric items.
Much of its focus is on historic items dating from the arrival of permanent settlers through the establishment of neighborhoods, where the city's first industrial workers lived. The company is using early insurance maps and early city directories to help in the work.
Part of this effort has Bear Creek's archaeologists searching for backyard privies because Stanley and Thompson said they also were repositories for an assortment of bottles, coins and other items from the city's early working-class population.
Stanley and Thompson said it is eye-opening to see the number and variety of patent medicine bottles that their work has unearthed, which they said is evidence that residents often looked for medical help somewhere other than local doctors.
At some point, after the archaeological work for the Cedar Rapids flood-protection project is complete, Bear Creek will present its findings to a professional symposium, Stanley said.
He noted that Bear Creek's effort could contribute to the understanding of Cedar Rapids's early working class - which Stanley called 'the people without history” - and to the history of the use of patent medicines in America.
'This work has the potential to reveal remarkable things about the historic development of Cedar Rapids,” Stanley said.