Nearly 150 years after the Battle of Black Jack, the entire story about what happened in southern Douglas County between pro- and anti-slavery forces may still be untold.
That could change next month after a prominent battlefield archaeologist leads a team of sleuths, armed with sophisticated metal detectors and connected to global positioning satellites, scours fields, woods and ravines three miles east of Baldwin.
Called an archaeological survey, the searchers will use a procedure similar to detectives investigating a crime scene.
"We're looking for physical evidence," said Douglas D. Scott, adjunct anthropology professor at the University of Nebraska. "We call them artifacts, but it's also evidence of combat."
Bullets used during the Civil War era will be the primary artifacts sought in the search scheduled for May 4-6. The team also will watch for buttons and buckles from clothing, bullet-carrying pouches and anything else that may still be hidden on the battlefield.
"The physical evidence doesn't lie, and it doesn't have memory problems," Scott, 57, said. "It may be compromised by time, burial, deterioration or any number of things, but we can still recover the information."
Scott is a native of Independence who grew up hearing about "Bleeding Kansas" and the exploits of fiery abolitionist John Brown. He is retired from the National Park Service and is currently president of the Society for Historical Archaeology. He has explored about 30 battlefields in the U.S. and Great Britain, most of them where battles were fought in the 19th century.
Scott also has written books about his searches and findings at places like Little Big Horn in Montana where "Custer's Last Stand" took place and Sand Creek Battlefield in Colorado, among others. His findings have revealed new information, such as the types of weapons used by the American Indian tribes that fought Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
At Black Jack, Scott hopes to find artifacts that will reveal more information about how forces under Brown and Henry Clay Pate fought in what many consider to be the first battle of the Civil War.
Scott entered a bid for the project, and he will be paid with some of the $87,000 grant money for restoration of the park a couple of years ago. The fund is administered by the National Park Service. "We are incredibly pleased to have been able to procure the services of an expert of his stature," said Carol von Tersch, a member of the Black Jack Battlefield Trust. The trust bought what was known as the Robert Hall Pearson Farm where the battlefield is located in 2003 with plans to eventually restore it.
Students, volunteers help
Scott will work with about a half-dozen or more assistants, most of whom he has worked with before. A couple of local volunteers will help, as will students in a Black Jack history course at Baker University under Brenda Day. Day, who is the Baker archivist and director of Old Castle Museum, also hopes to involve other Baker students in the project.
"I'm truly pumped about getting out there and involving the Baker students because it is all for naught in saving these battlefields if we are not able to pass it on to the youngsters," she said.
Using maps and GPS, the location of artifacts will be carefully recorded, Scott said. What they find and the locations will help tell the ebb and flow of the battle.
"Where it was found is as important as what it is," he said. "The context of where they are found in association with other items will tell us more than any individual artifact ever could."
Last week Scott visited Black Jack to get an idea of what the land looks like, and he studied bullets and lead balls that have been recovered from the battlefield in the past as well as elsewhere in the county. They are kept at the Old Castle Museum. After the survey at Black Jack is completed, new artifacts will be turned over to the museum.
Scott said he thought the survey would go well. He doesn't think an illegal dump site on the fringes of the battlefield will cause a problem. Douglas County and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment will use a private contractor to clean up the dump site this summer.
"It looks very good, so I'm thinking there is a good chance that we'll recover some artifacts," Scott said.
The ground to be examined will include five to 10 acres, he said.