Crow Creek massacre

Crow Creek massacre
Crow Creek Site
Aerial view of the site
Nearest city: Chamberlain, South Dakota
Built: 1100
Governing body: Army corps of engineers
NRHP Reference#: 66000710
Significant dates
Added to NRHP: October 15, 1966[1]
Designated NHL: July 19, 1964[2]

The Crow Creek massacre occurred around 1325 between Indian groups in the South Dakota area. Crow Creek Site, the site of the massacre near Chamberlain, is an archaeological site and a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Located at co-ordinates 43°58′48″N 99°19′54″W. It is thought that either Middle Missou or Initial Coalescent Indians moved into the area. The overcrowding grew to a point that both sides conducted raids on each other's camps and mass graves produced the Crow Creek massacre.

There is evidence that one group knew of the potential for attacks on its village. The villagers, with around 50 houses, were on top of a bluff and were in the process of building a ditch and a new wall in order to try to prevent, or at least slow down, the attack from the other camp. Their efforts did not appear to protect them the impending attack.

The attacking group slaughtered the people on the bluff. Anthropologists, led by Thomas Emerson, found the remains of 486 people from the attack. Many of these remains had signs of torture and mutilation. These included tongues being cut out, scalping, teeth broken, beheading, and other forms of dismemberment.



The Crow Creek site is located in central South Dakota, and was home to the Lakota Sioux people of the Initial Coalescent tradition during the 14th century. Crow Creek is now a well-preserved archaeological site (Willey 1982). It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places automatically when the Register was started in 1964.[2][1][3]

In 1978, an archaeologist, Robert Alex, who was attending a meeting hosted by the South Dakota Archaeological Society, toured the Crow Creek site and discovered human bones while exploring the fortifications at the site (Willey and Emerson 1993). After permission to excavate the site was received, skeletal remains of at least 486 Crow Creek villagers were uncovered. These estimates were based on the number of right temporals present at the scene (Willey et al. 1997). This event, called the Crow Creek Massacre, has raised many questions in the archaeological community, among them being who would have attacked the Crow Creek village and why it was attacked.

Skeletal remains

The remains of the villagers of Crow Creek were discovered in a fortification ditch where they were buried and covered with a small layer of clay from the river bottom during the mid-14th century (Zimmerman 1985). The bodies found in the fortification ditch were piled as deep as four feet in some areas and were not systematically placed according to familial association or other methodic positions, but it is believed that such a systematic burial might have been impossible by the state of the remains by the time of burial (Willey 1982). The burial was only performed after an unknown amount of time passed. It is not clear who buried the victims of the massacre, whether it be the attackers, escaped villagers, or members of an affiliated village (Willey et al. 1997). The layer of clay covering the bodies was then coated by a “thin and scattered layer of bones” of which the purpose is unknown, but it is thought that scavengers might have dug up these remains as a food source (Willey 1982). The remains of these villagers not only tell of the gruesome story of their untimely deaths, but the hardships they faced prior to the massacre. The skeletal remains give evidence of nutritional deficiencies, previous warfare, and the events surrounding their attack.

Nutritional deficiencies

The villager's skeletal remains, as well as the remains of animals buried with the villagers, provide evidence of extensive nutritional deficiencies the Crow Creek villagers suffered. According to Zimmerman’s 1985 book Peoples of the Prehistoric South Dakota there is evidence of several ailments suffered by villagers that are indicative of malnutrition. As stated in Zimmerman’s book, “one of the most common characteristics was a pitting in the top of the eye sockets called cribra orbitalis. Associated with this on several skulls was porotic hyperostosis, a pitting on the back of the skull” (Zimmerman 1985:37). In addition to these ailments, Harris Lines, an indicator of insufficient amounts of protein and other essential minerals as well as truncated episodes of growth, were discovered while examining radiographs of several of the individuals (Zimmerman 1985). The Crow Creek villagers were measured as being shorter than their Arikara ancestors with the females being significantly shorter – this could have been another effect of nutritional deficiencies and illness (Willey 1982).

In a journal article entitled “The Crow Creek Massacre: Initial Coalescent Warfare and Speculations about the Genesis of Extended Coalescent”, Zimmerman and Bradley form the idea that the conditions faced by the Crow Creek villagers were not short term and had been prevalent in the population prior to the massacre based on the evidence of “active and organizing subperiostial hematomas along with the other bony alterations” found while examining remains (Zimmerman and Bradley 1993:218).

The presence of animal bones within the fortification ditch also points to the desperation of the villagers in obtaining a food source. Willey and Emerson’s article entitled “The Osteology and Archaeology of the Crow Creek Massacre” describes the presence of animal bones, specifically canine, within the fortification ditch. According to this article, it is likely that the remains of canines are representative of meals, and were accidentally included in the burial while collecting the villagers’ remains (Willey and Emerson 1993). It appears that even domesticated animals such as dogs were used as food sources during this time of famine.

Evidence of previous warfare

The skeletal remains of the Crow Creek villagers also provided evidence that the massacre was not their first encounter with violence and that they had been involved in previous attacks. According to the 1982 dissertation entitled Osteology of the Crow Creek Massacre by P. Willey, evidence of involvement in previous attacks is present in the skeletal remains of victims found in the mass burial. Two individuals had survived previous scalping incidents, and were in the process of healing which was indicated by the bony re-growth of their skulls, and a third individual had survived a head injury as indicated by “a healed depressed fracture in the frontal” (Willey 1982). There was also evidence of others being wounded by arrows, whose points remain in the legs and were overgrown by bone (Zimmerman 1985).

The massacre

Many of the bodies are missing limbs which can be explained as the attackers taking them as trophies, scavengers carrying them away, or the limbs being left in the Crow Creek village unburied (Wiley and Emerson 1993). Authors Willey and Emerson state that, “…they had been killed, mutilated, and scavenged before being buried” (Willey and Emerson 1993:227). “Tongue removal, decapitation, and dismemberment of the Crow Creek victims may have been based on standard aboriginal butchering practices developed on large game animals” (Willey and Emerson 1993:259). These are among a few of the mutilations that have been discovered at the Crow Creek site. In addition to these, scalping was indiscriminately performed, bodies were burned, and there is evidence of the removal of limbs through various means. As stated in the Willey’s dissertation, many of the mutilations suffered by the victims of the Crow Creek massacre could have been traumatic enough to result in death (Willey 1982).

A conservative estimate of villagers who suffered scalping is 90%, but the actual amount could be as high as 100%. This is based on skeletal remains that exhibit cuts on their skulls indicative of scalping (Willey and Emerson 1993). Men, women, and children were indiscriminately scalped with the only difference being that younger children were cut higher on the skull than other groups (Willey and Emerson 1993).


The events leading to this massacre are unknown, but there are many hypotheses that exist to explain such a horrific event. The most plausible of these explanations is that “overpopulation, land-use patterns, and an unstable climate caused the people to compete for available farmland” (Zimmerman 1985:16). The malnutrition suffered by the Crow Creek villagers was most likely not uncommon for people in that region during this time period. Because of this, there is a strong chance that another Initial Coalescent group or several groups in the region attacked the Crow Creek village for the arable land and resources (Zimmerman and Bradley 1993).

See also


  1. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  2. ^ a b "Crow Creek Site". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  3. ^ Note: A National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination document should be available upon request from the National Park Service for this site, but it appears not to be available on-line from the NPS Focus search site.


  • Pauketat, Timothy R. (2005). North American Archaeology. Blackwell Publishing
  • Willey, P. 1982 Osteology of the Crow Creek Massacre. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
  • Willey, P. and Emerson, Thomas E., 1993 The Osteology and Archaeology of the Crow Creek Massacre. Plains Anthropologist 38(145):227-269
  • Willey, P., Galloway, Alison, and Snyder, Lynn, 1997 Bone Mineral Density and Survival of Elements and Element Portions in the Bones of the Crow Creek Massacre Victims. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 104:513-528
  • Zimmerman, Larry J., 1985 Peoples of Prehistoric South Dakota. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London.
  • Zimmerman, Larry J. and Bradley, Lawrence E., 1993 The Crow Creek Massacre: Initial Coalescent Warfare and Speculations About the Genesis of Extended Coalescent. Plains Anthropologist 38(145):215-226

External links

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