Tuesday, October 27, 2015


In the previous Blog posting I noted the nature-oriented field trips taken by an innovative 5th grade teacher in a small town in central Kansas.  I think it worth mentioning that the same teacher stayed around for my instruction in the 6th grade.  Not only did she continue the out-of-classroom instruction but she encouraged wide ranging discussions in the classroom that could continue as long as student interest held.  I remember one long discussion concerning the interaction of President Eisenhower in the Taiwan/Formosa (Republic of China) dispute with the Chinese Communist People’s Liberation Army---would we nuke the “Reds”?

Map showing location of Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway.  Public Domain document.
At any rate, there are two field trips that stand out in my memory, both to outcrops of the Dakota Formation (Cretaceous) a unit that is the common red-orange sandstone and gray shale that crops out in this part of Kansas.  As noted in the previous Blog, the Dakota in Kansas represents the fluvial (stream), marsh, coastal, nearshore marine sediments that were deposited along the eastern side of the transgressing Western Interior Seaway (WIS).  Beginning in the Early Cretaceous marine waters came from the south (Gulf of Mexico) and met with waters moving south from the Arctic Ocean.  About 100 Ma the two transgressions came together and the mighty WIS formed.  The seaway continued to enlarge and therefore the coast line along the east continued to move inland.  When this happens a stratigraphic section shows marine rocks overlying coastal/marsh rocks overlying fresh water rocks.  The stratigraphy is very complex and difficult to interpret, especially in central Kansas. Within short distances of each other rockhounds could collect marine fossils, pieces of lignite coal and note nice fresh water icnofossils and crossbeds.

Google Earth image© of a part of Rock City showing large concretions weathering from softer shale/mudrocks.  

Rock City concretions with impressive crossbeds.  Photo courtesy John Charlton and Kansas Geological Survey.

One of the class field trips was to Rock City, arguably Ottawa County’s most “famous” attraction located about 12 miles or so northeast of my small hometown but closer to the county seat of Minneapolis.  At this locality about 200 large, mostly spherical, concretions, are weathering out of softer sandstone/mudrocks.  As noted in the previous Blog, the concretions are tightly cemented by secondary calcium carbonate.  Originally the sand was deposited in one of the rivers flowing into the marine waters to the west and many concretions display nice river-generated cross beds.  Rock City is not only noted for the large number of concretions (~200) but for the large size of many boulders with some approaching 25-26 feet.  They are gigantic.
Many geologists have noted the concretions and several have made detailed studies; however, the most comprehensive and recent publication is by McBride and Milliken (2006).  They believe the concretions formed as the result of diffusion of calcium through and precipitation of calcite within the sandstone containing them after being deeply buried. The calcium carbonate… came either from other marine limestones, shells or maybe anhydrite or perhaps even bicarbonate from oxidized methane.
For many years, including the years of my youth, Rock City was just sort of a public park where visitors could wander around, and if I remember correctly, we students  just sort ran among the concretions and climbed as many as we could .  Today the few acres of the park are owned by a non-profit organization and an admission fee of ~$3 is charged for adults.  A small gift shop, constructed of sandstone blocks of the Dakota, is also available for visitors. 

Here we are, May 1955 6th grade field trip to Rock City.  Note the fellow on the top of the concretion.  Probably lucky I did not fall off backwards!
Certain things just sort of circle around and meet again in the future.  In 1976 Rock City received designation as a National Natural Landmark.  I am not certain if the dedication was in that year or the next; however, I do remember the dedicatory ceremony was held on a very hot and humid Kansas summer day.  On stage were Congressman Keith Sebelius representing the big 1st District of Kansas (covering most of central and western parts of the state), a couple of members of the Kansas Legislature, a few local dignitaries, and an Associate Professor of Geology at Fort Hays State University.  I was honored by being selected to give the address and talked on the general geology of the area and the formation of the concretions.  Mostly I remember it was blazing hot under the sun and we were dressed in coat and tie---most visitors probably just wanted to find some shade, a tough job on the Kansas prairie. 

Reclining figure (petroglyph) at Inscription Rock.  The 1995 spalling destroyed the figure (and many others).  Photo courtesy of Kansas Geological Survey.

Inscription Rock (left) and “Indian Cave” (right) in ca. 1867.  Photo by Alexander Gardner for Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad.

Palmer’s Cave (“Indian Cave”) pre 1995 (before collapse of front.  Photo courtesy of Kansas Geological Survey.
The second field trip in my mind was to an “Indian Cave” located south of Tescott near Ellsworth and if I remember correctly (sometimes a stretch) it was a voluntary trip on a Saturday.  The cave had been known for decades, at least since the 1860s, since it was a popular picnic locality and home to a number of Native American petroglyphs---Inscription Rock was next to the cave.  Palmer’s Cave (formal name of “Indian Cave”) is not much of a cave as far as caves go and may be about 15 feet deep and was formed by wind and water in the soft sandstone of the Dakota Formation.  In 1995 tragedy struck the area as most of the petroglyphs near the entrance of the cave spalled off and the entrance to the cave was modified.  As a kid we had heard of “buffalo bones” and “human bones” being found in the cave; however, I do not remember finding either during our trip.

Palmer’s Cave was sort of out of my mind for several decades until I became interested in some of the 1860s-1880s conflicts involving Native Americans and the local settlers in Ottawa County and neighboring Lincoln County.  One such conflict is known as the Mulberry Scrap, an encounter that occurred in late January or early February, 1869.  Barr (1908) described the battle on Mulberry Creek”…between the Indians on one side and some Lincoln County settlers and soldiers on the other. Of course, the Indians got the worst of it, as usual, and this is how it happened.

A band of about a score of Pawnees were coming through the neighborhood, and stopping at Tom Skinner’s home, compelled Mrs. Skinner to cook for them. When the settlers heard of this they gathered together to see what had best be done. Several suggestions were made, but it was decided to go for the troops that were camped not far from the present site of Lincoln [Kansas in Lincoln, County]… Accordingly, a Lieutenant with about a dozen soldiers took up the trail with the settlers the next morning. They followed the Indians to Table Rock Creek (southwest of my hometown), where they found their camp fire and from there to Mulberry [Creek], where they overtook them...and…the settlers began hunting them up and down the creek. Some of them went south across the stream to a high bluff…They followed the red men to a rocky gorge where sixteen of them took refuge in a cave. 

Finding no other way to get the Indians it was decided to throw hay into the mouth of the cave and fire it. Seeing what was about to be done the Indians dashed out of the cave under a rain of shot. All but three were killed before they got out of range…

Photo taken in1895 of Tablerock (Old Tablerock), a few miles south and west of Tescott.  Vandals destroyed the formation ca. 1930s.  A much smaller version of Tablerock (New Tablerock) is in the same area.  The formation gave the name to Tablerock Creek.  I believe the Native Americans camped near here on the way to battle at Palmer’s Cave.
Another version of the battle found at www.American-Tribes.com: In late January or in very early February 1869, happened a lesser known incident – today known as the Mulberry Creek Massacre (Ellsworth County, Kansas)
For lack of information, little is known about this incident. There are a few versions of this tragic story. The story has to do with a group of about twenty Pawnees, who were returning home to their Reservation in Nebraska. A few of these men had served recently as U.S. Army scouts and had discharge papers in hand. Their presence alarmed local settlers, who summoned the cavalry. Though the Pawnees argued they were ex-Army scouts and tried to show their papers, a gunfight broke out near Mulberry Creek. Seven Pawnee were killed instantly (by US – Army soldiers and a few settlers) and five more were wounded and left to die on the hard winter ground. One Pawnee was taken prisoner. Pawnee Chiefs were infuriated by the murders but did not retaliate. The Pawnee Chiefs applied to civil and military authorities to rectify the situation but the pleas fell on deaf ears.

Shortly after this fight, the post surgeon from Fort Harker, B. F. Fryer, dispatched a civilian to the massacre site to collect the skulls of the dead Pawnee. After he had found and decapitated one corpse, a blizzard set in, and the Pawnee survivors stopped him from collecting the others skulls. But two weeks later, the weather moderated and Fryer resumed his search, ultimately recovering five additional crania from the Mulberry Creek Massacre. The Pawnee skulls became part of a shipment of 26 sent to the Army Medical Museum, including skulls from the Cheyenne, Caddo, Wichita, and Osage tribes.

I have read virtually every paper and report about the Mulberry incident that I could locate and none mentioned the exact locality or name of the “cave” where the Native Americans took refuge.  However, in tracing the route of the Native Americans and the following soldiers/settlers by examining the homesteads visited, as well as topographic maps, I am convinced that the cave was Palmer’s Cave.  There simply is no other cave in the vicinity.  So I suppose rumors about human bones at the “Indian Cave” that fascinated a kid like me might have contained some truth as it was passed down through the generations.  For anyone planning a visit please note that Palmer’s Cave is on private property.

So was my 6th grade education “better than most?”  Probably not; however, I had a fantastic teacher who instilled in me a fire for learning-- about the world, our external environment, why mathematics were important, the past--and the value of out-of-classroom learning.  Perhaps that was sticking in my mind when I chose geology and teaching as a profession—out-of-classroom learning!

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
          Wm. Butler Yeats