|Photos by Stew Magnuson|
North of Scott City, Kansas, on Highway 83, there is a stretch of land south of the Smoky Hill River Valley that appears to be mostly flat farm fields, seemingly devoid of geological features.
But just to the west, five miles out of eyeshot is a beautiful valley where the 1,280-acre Lake Scott State Park, is a literal oasis in this otherwise dry land.
And in this state park are the Pueblo El Quartelejo ruins.
When I’ve shown pictures of the ruins to audiences outside of Kansas during my Last American Highway presentations, many are surprised.
Pueblo Indian ruins? In Kansas?
It turns out that a small tribe of Pueblos first came to this spot from their traditional homelands to the west at about 1640 to escape harsh Spanish colonial rule. Spanish soldiers later forced them back. Another group came in the later part of the century, and were also turned back. The foundations of a seven-room adobe home is the only structure that can be seen today.
Along with the Pueblos, the Plains Apaches also took shelter in the valley to take advantage of its springs and abundant game. One would think the valley was occupied on and off for thousands of years by peoples whose names are now forgotten.
There is now an effort underway to build an enclosed interpretive center over the Pueblo.
The ultimate goal is to bring back all the artifacts from the site that are now scattered around the country.
“We don’t have a single shard here, and this is our heritage,” Jerry Thomas, who is leading the committee that is setting out to build the new enclosure, said in a phone interview.
Thomas, a well-known artist who specializes in Western themes, is one of Scott City’s most famous sons. In town, he spearheaded the effort to build the El Quartelejo Museum and Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collection building. He more recently helped raise funds to build an interpretive kiosk for the Smokey Hill River Valley on Highway 83.
As for the Pueblo, there were several digs on the site over the years — the first in 1898 conducted by a University of Kansas professor. The university and other institutions now house the artifacts including the Smithsonian, the Kansas State Historical Society and the University of Northern Illinois.
The Scott State Park and Historical Committee expects to raise $1 million through private donations to fund the center.
On Oct. 19, Thomas was joined by Gov. Sam Brownback, state and local officials, park rangers and a member of the Taos Pueblo tribe for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to kick off the effort, according to the Garden City Times.
C. A. Tsosie, a Tiwa-speaking tribal elder, traveled to the ceremony and gave his blessing for the endeavor. The site will be “a sanctuary for all of America,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
When the enclosure is built, it is hoped that the institutions that now have the collections will return or loan items to be displayed there, Thomas said.
The digs uncovered items from the Taos Pueblos, Apaches, nearby tribes such as the Wichitas and European trade items suggesting that this was a popular spot for plains nations to meet and trade. Other structures were found hundreds of yards away from the seven-room Pueblo. The stones that make up the foundation seen today were uncovered then later reburied by the archaeologists. In 1970, they were dug up and placed back to where records taken by the Kansas University professor indicated that they had been found.
The seven-room pueblo probably didn’t have any windows or doors and occupants exited and entered through a ladder at the top of the roof. It was undoubtedly cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It is believed that the original structure was destroyed by fire.
Eventually, the last Native occupants of the valley, the Plains Apaches, were pushed south by their main rival, the Comanches.
Decades later, the Northern Cheyenne passed through here during their dramatic escape from Indian Territory in 1879. The last battle between the Northern Cheyenne and the U.S. Army in Kansas took place near here, at the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork.
Thomas said there will have to be a final archaeological investigation to make sure that the new building doesn’t damage or destroy items that the other digs missed. That will hopefully take place in the spring. Thomas hopes the doors open to the new facility in about two years.
It is certain to be a must-stop for those traveling on Highway 83.
Meanwhile, visitors to the area can stop and see the ruins at the park, or learn more at the El Quartelejo Museum/Jerry Thomas Gallery & Collection in Scott City.
The park entrance is three miles west of U.S. 83 on K-95. There is a $6 per vehicle fee for daily visitors.
El Quartelejo Museum/Jerry Thomas Gallery & Collection is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday in the summer season and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Labor Day to Memorial Day. It’s about a half mile west of the intersection of Highway 83 (main Street) and K-96 in Scott City. Free but donations are appreciated.