"Georgia and Sidney Wheeler had heard all about the mysterious cave.
"As archaeologists working for the Nevada State Parks Commission in 1940, the husband-and-wife team had been told many times about a cave with a "blocked-up" area in the back. The only trouble was that no one could remember exactly where it was.
"Because their job was to identify caves that were once used by prehistoric people and salvage any artifacts found inside before they were destroyed or stolen, they figured they would run across the cave one day. They had a lot of territory to cover, trying to rescue the caves from two particular groups of people: bat-guano miners and pot hunters. The miners, unaware of the caves' historic importance, collected bat excrement, called guano, and sold it for fertilizer, but in removing the guano, they often carelessly destroyed the items left behind by early people. The pot hunters, however, knew that many Nevada caves contained valuable Native American artifacts that they could sell or keep for their own illegal collections.
The rocky outcrops explored by Georgia and Sidney Wheeler
"During the day, the Wheelers drove through isolated areas looking for caves to investigate before they were ransacked. At night they often camped out far from civilization, sleeping in the back of their station wagon.
"One August evening after dinner, the Wheelers were sitting in their camp discussing the caves that they needed to visit when the subject of the mysterious "blocked-up" cave arose. They had noticed a small cave in the rocky outcrop above their camp and wondered whether it might fit the description. They decided to find out before sunset.
Was this cave with the blocked-up back?
"Sidney led the way and had no sooner begun to climb the slope than he heard the warning sound of a rattlesnake. Although he couldn’t see the rattler, he believed it was in front of him. Quickly, instinctively, he stepped backwards without looking and stumbled over a large rock, injuring his leg.
"For the next few days his leg was in such pain that he could not kneel, and so the Wheelers changed their plans. Instead of exploring caves, they stopped climbing and simply walked across the desert, scouting for caves that they might have missed. They hoped Sidney's leg would heal faster that way. On one of those unplanned days, the couple chose to investigate Spirit Cave, a small site they had noticed many times and dismissed. That day, August 11, 1940, would turn out to be an important one in North American archaeology, though no one would know it for more than fifty years...."
...continued in Ch. 1, Faces from the Past: Forgotten People of North America
Copyright © James M. Deem This excerpt is taken from Faces from the Past: Forgotten People of North America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012). All rights reserved.