Evidence of Blackwater Draw’s Clovis people was hidden for centuries before Dust Bowl winds revealed their existence 75 years ago.
Ridgley Whiteman, a teenager who regularly explored the site in search of those who came before him, is credited with discovery of Clovis Man.
In 1929, Whiteman sent three letters, accompanied by a sample of mammoth bone and an arrow point, to the Smithsonian Institution.
The Smithsonian’s top dinosaur hunter, Charles Gilmore, responded to Whiteman’s letters and appraised Blackwater Draw. Gilmore determined the site was of little value to researchers, said Anthony Boldurian, a professor of anthropology who is former curator at Blackwater Draw.
It wasn’t until 1932 that news of Whiteman’s discovery reached Edgar Howard, an expert in prehistoric America and a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and the Academy of natural Sciences.
Howard had been digging the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains for evidence of another occupant, Folsom Man, Boldurian said.
Howard heard about Whiteman’s discovery and decided to explore it.
“Amazed by the co-occurrence of fossil bones and artifacts in the windswept draw, the scientist shifted his expedition’s focus to Clovis,” Boldurian said.
While Howard was digging at Blackwater Draw in 1932, someone else began digging, too — the Sanders Sand and Gravel Co.
As eastern New Mexico’s biggest gravel company, the business was using gravel for road and highway construction throughout the state.
According to “The History of Blackwater Draw,” written by Eastern New Mexico graduate student Lienke Katz, valuable evidence about Clovis Man was lost in the gravel company’s aggressive digging.
Researchers continued their work, but by 1953, “the quarrying was removing the overburden (of land), including the cultural layers, with terrible speed … so fast that research teams were not able to keep up with the heavy equipment of the mining operations,” Katz said.
The company’s owner, Sam Sanders, who in the 1950s bought the mineral rights at Blackwater Draw from its private owner, occasionally halted operations for excavators of the archaeological site, but not everyone was happy about it.
“The wife of one of the heavy equipment operators remembers that they had to do without pay for a month or two, and that one day, her husband came home from work saying he had seen something really pretty that morning — a round hole, with layers of colored sand,” Katz said.
“He said he filled it up pretty quick with the bulldozer, hoping that nobody would notice and stop work again,” Katz said.
As years passed, New Mexico dignitaries and local people attempted to save the site and find ways to buy Sanders’ land, but he wanted more money than could be offered, Katz said.
Finally, in 1978, after the gravel consistency began containing clay lumps and was no longer the quality needed for construction, Blackwater Draw came under the protection of Eastern New Mexico University, which has managed it since then, Katz said.
Since 1988, Joanne Dickenson, curator of Blackwater Draw, and George Crawford, assistant curator, have developed the site for security, access, interpretation and conservation.
Dickenson said digging continues and the search for more evidence about Clovis man is ongoing.
The dig site is about six miles north of Portales and 14 miles southwest of Clovis.
Researchers hope, Dickenson said, to find a burial ground that could reveal more about Clovis Man’s lifestyle.