Although our homesteading family arrived in the area in 1870, they didn’t settle on the farm along Kanaranzi Creek until 1871. Their first home, like many other early settlers, was in a dugout. We know some things about this dwelling because Great-Grandma Hattie wrote about it in letters to her grown sons who had moved away to North Dakota.
These letters are known as “primary sources” because they came directly from the people who experienced the events. She described the dugout as a combination log cabin and “cave” dug into the top of a bluff with a small square window on the west side and the door on the north. It was a single room about 15 feet by 25 feet and lined with horizontal logs.
Several years ago, our oldest granddaughter helped me try to locate the dugout. Based on the description in the letters, she drew this floor plan. There are single beds for the 6 year old and the 5 year old. The 3 year old and the 2 year old shared a bed. The baby had a cradle near the parents. There are only 6 places at the table, so I guess someone had to hold the baby. This is her interpretation, but we also had some fairly specific things to use for locating the site.
We knew the approximate location of the “Lone Tree” that gave the farm its name. And, we knew that the dugout was supposed to be about 15 feet from that big old cottonwood tree. We found a square edge of raised ground at the head of a gully that seemed to be in about the right place.. This is what the site looked this past spring (the cap is for scale). Maybe this is the location of the dugout?
The feature was oriented correctly to have a window on the west and a door on the north and the idea was that this was the collapsed “cave” part of the dugout. So, we used the dimensions from the letters and tried to layout the rest of the structure. It was a dry year and later in the summer so the thistles are pretty healthy. But, you can see us in action as we set up the outline using string and electric fence posts.
If this truly was the location of the dugout, we thought that there would probably be some metal “artifacts” from the years of occupation. So, we used a metal detector to do a survey of the site. And, we got a hit! It was, however, an “artifact” that did not support the notion that this was the dugout location. This rusty nail is the kind that was once used to staple wire to wooden posts. Not so much today with the tech advantage of electric fences.
Fence corners commonly have a slight difference in ground elevation that’s in the square shape that we’re seeing here. I don’t remember a fence corner at this place, but the farmyard has changed and evolved a lot over almost 150 years. So maybe this is actually the location of an old fence corner? We still don’t know exactly where the dugout was, but maybe it’s a “multicomponent” site with the fence corner built right where the dugout was? We do know from the letters and family lore, however, that 2 of the 5 children who lived in that small space were born in the dugout. Pretty tough to do social distancing in that setting!