An Analysis of the Fort Leavenworth Race Track Site

Elizabeth Wilson

Fall 2001

ES 546 Field Geomorphology   *    Emporia State University

Abstract   *    Introduction   *    Methodology    *   Results    *    Analysis


The primary field objective of ES 546(Field Geomorphology) was to note archaeological features, specifically the Ft. Leavenworth Race Track, in a geomorphic context. Archaeology is such that encompasses many fields of science that are essential in geoarchaeology; geology, biology, and climatology. Geoarchaeology was the focus of study for the Fall 2001 Field Geomorphology course, which was inclusive of the previous factors. Geology offers information on soil properties, surrounding bedrock, and fossil anaylsis. Topography of the landscape was also incorporated in this session from surface surveying. It yielded combined results that provided good groundwork for the evaluation of later acquired data. Biology is indicative of vegetation growth and other organic substances found in the field. Vegetation was still fresh and active for the first field session allowing us to note distinct differences from a ground view. Vegetation was not as lush in the second field session, however aerial photographs were taken to examine data we were unsuccessful at acquiring before. Void of active vegetation, soils and bedrock geology were more evident in these photographs. Finally, climatology is helpful in determining historical climate factors influencing the natural environment. Zones of different vegetation, differences in soil and bedrock, climate, and topography are all geomorphic characteristics to determine an archaeological site. Through the field crews methodology and anaylsis of results, one can come to a satisfactory conclusion that may not be certain, but a good starting point for discovery and further research.


Archaeology is the study of past human activity. Thus, it is important to note activity that took place during the studied time frame. Fort Leavenworth was constructed in the mid-1700's for the main purpose of monitoring trade with the Indians. It's existence was not long lived as it's commandment was not successful in rebuilding the establishment after a windstorm. The fort deteriorated and its inhabitants abandoned the site. The site was noted by explorers in the early 1800's, however it was forgotten about up until the past 50yrs. Site surveys have been conducted to find the abandoned site, however nothing has been conclusive.

The remains of the inhabitants lifestyle is what is of interest to researchers, including the Field Geomorphology crew. Large amounts of past human activity leave behind settlement patterns and we know the fort had considerable amount of human activity as a trade route. Such patterns are indicated in the geoarchaeological record as crop markings, artifacts, and soil stratigraphy. All three are discussed below to some extent dependant upon the course of the natural environment.

The Missouri River has significantly changed since the Ft. Leavenworth occupation. Lewis and Clark observed the River during their expedition in the early 1800's void of the large meander that currently exists. The image (fig. 1) below shows Lewis and Clark's map of the valley during their expedition. It is evident that no meander was noted. In comparison, Fig. 2 indicates the present feature of the Missouri River in addition to comparing the old Missouri River as referenced by Lewis and Clark. It is important to note the path of the old Missouri River as it followed the western side of the valley along the bluffs. Located within is a gap that fell from the bluff maybe a thousand years ago or so. This rock would have deposited into the floodplain allowing for different vegetative growth not seen in other areas along the river. Additionally, this rock layer may have been an element in the River's change of position. Regardless, this feature is unique to the archaeological site vicinty and is essential to note when evaluating these geomorphic aspects. Our archaeological focus, the race track, was located in this area of the Missouri River Bottomland amidst the growth of vegetation and flooding. It's location is near where kite aerial photography and surface surveying was conducted. Our methodology has acknowledged all of the previous factors in evaluating the possible locality of the race track. After discussing this, I will present the results with an analysis.


Fig.1 Lewis and Clark Map of Missouri River     Fig.2 Topographic Quadrangle of Leavenworth
Oregon Historical Society Press (1998).

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Research was conducted by the Field Geomorphology course to determine a possible locality of the racetrack on the Fort Leavenworth base in Leavenworth, Kansas. The study site was visited on two occasions, Sept. 29 and Oct. 14, yielding different results for comparative analysis. Though the site was not located, through careful observation of the acquired data of the physical features one can conclude where the racetrack may have existed. Instructed by Dr. James Aber of Emporia State University, our first field session took place of Sept. 29, 2001. Prior predictions of weather conditions seemed perfect for our fieldwork, however wind currents were not as strong as was required for the techniques to be used. Our first field application included usage of kite aerial photography. The objective was to stabilize the kite airborne at approximately 250ft. At that point, we would attach one of two conventional film cameras or a digital camera powered by radio controls, and elevate the kite up to about 1000ft. Due to the wind factor, a couple of hours yielded no success for keeping the kites in flight. Thus, the field crew decided to attempt using helium balloons to achieve aerial photographs. This would have been successful but unfortunately one of the balloons popped and no additional helium was available to inflate another. Consequently, another option was put forth to potentially further our study.

East of the air field, is the presumed location of the racetrack indicated by the orange square on the below DOQ image (fig. 3). Upon evaluation of a topographic map, we followed a path that led back into where our study site may have been. This road is shown in fig.3 as a small road (near center green circle) perpendicular to the North (South) main gravel road. Note the path parallel to the main road, slightly east of the orange square. We searched for this path in hopes to evaluate the locality, however again we were unsuccessful and there were no specific features that were unique or stood out. The field crew decided to attempt the search from the next path south of the one we were on. The topographic map indicated a small depression near the bend in the path as seen in fig. 3. I walked around in the area and noted a significant difference in vegetation, willows and grassland, in comparison to the surrounding environment of cottonwood tree cover. Ultimately, our field session offered no more information that what I have previously mentioned. Though many of our field techniques were unsuccessful, the information we did acquire was further analyzed upon data collection from the next field session.

The second field session took place on Oct.14, 2001. Again instructed by Dr. James Aber from Emporia State University, the field crew made their second attempt at kite aerial photography. To our benefit, the field technique was a success, allowing us to acquire data consisting of digital, color visible, and color-infrared photographs. The following section demonstrates the result of this field session.

Fig 3. The DOQ image indicates the airfield and vicinity from which our data was acquired. The orange square centered in the image is the presumed racetrack site. Green circles indicate where an old road may have existed and the purple circles indicate an old stream channel. (Click image for larger view)

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The first field session allowed for analysis of different vegetation zones. Though no aerial photographs were acquired from this session, I have referenced one from a previous session to observe aspects that would have been evident for a lush season. Remaining photographs were taken from the second trip to Fort Leavenworth in October. Vegetation zones, soil properties, and topography are all aspects identified in the following images.

Fig. 4. Digital photograph acquired in June, 2001. Vegetation is lush in the race track vicinity to emphasize differences. The bottom-right quarter of the image shows a difference in forest cover. This would indicative of the depression surveyed during the first field session.
Fig. 5. This digital photograph was acquired on Oct. 14, 2001. The view is further south than the above image and lack of active vegetation is evident. Soil differences can be determined by differences in ground cover now more distinct without forest cover.
Fig. 6. This color-infrared photo is of the same vicinity as the previous digital photograph. Acquired on Oct. 14, 2001, this image emphasizes areas of active vegetation and water. The bottom-right corner displays more small water bodies indicating the location of an old stream channel. The old stream channel is shown in the above DOQ as purple circles.
Fig. 7. This aerial photograph was acquired on Oct. 14, 2001. Perpendicular to the gravel road, a faint line indicates where the old road existed. Though the vegetation is not as active in this image a slight distinction can still be make.
Fig. 8. This image was derived from the above image to emphasize the old road. Notice the horizontal line that runs through the center. This feature can be described as a crop marker.
All above images... © J.S. Aber.

The levee of the Missouri River was constructed in the 1940's, possibly earlier for flood management. I feel that it is extremely important to include this element in the analysis. According to Matt Nowak, soil for the levee may have come for the race track site. Observing the topographic map for the area, a small depression exists in this vicinity. Matt suggested the soil may have been taken from this location. It is quite unfortunate if this is the case in that bulldozing would have disrupted any archaeological evidence. It is however, an aspect that is essential in evaluating the results. Currently, it is by law that a site is surveyed prior to beginning construction. Thus if anything is discovered, the site can be excavated and artifacts can be safely recovered. Given the time the levee was constructed, it is unlikely the area would have surveyed prior to construction. Therefore, if any site existed and if, in fact, soil was taken from the race track site, evidence would most certainly not be in situ.

Geophysical methods, such as soil resistivity and ground penentrating radar, would be beneficial for further analysis of this site. Undoubtedly, such techniques would be preferred however without more definate ideas of site location, it would be very time consuming and costly. On the otherhand, soil augers are more time and cost efficient. Personally, I recommend that core samples be taken from the presumed locality and for comparison, from areas known not to be possible. Soil stratification can be indicative of buried deposits whether they be cultural or natural. Matt Nowak advised me that several years ago a deep trench was dug just outside the levee to observe soil conditions. He was amazed by the soil stratification indicative of numerous floods, deposition, and erosion. Certainly this information can be evaluated and compared with aerial photographs for possible site identification and interpretation.

In conclusion, I feel that much further research must be conducted before making a prediction on the location of the race track. Aerial photographs are beneficial in identifing visible surface features, however given the amount of flooding causing frequent disturbance to soil, I think that subsoil research is an important avenue of study.

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Aber, J.
2001 Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Lack, H.M.,
2001 Geoarchaeology in Iowa.

Nowak, M.
2001 E-mail communication with Matt Nowak. Natural Resources.

This webpage was designed for ES546 Field Geomorphology
Instructor: Dr. James S. Aber of Emporia State University
For questions or comments contact Elizabeth Wilson
Created on Nov 17, 2001