Steve Kaighen has had a love for military history since he was 13 years old and that love has led to his work as an avocational archaeologist for the last 39 years.
Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
Steve Kaighen has had a love for military history since he was 13 years old and that love has led to his work as an avocational archaeologist for the last 39 years. Over that time, he has found more than 8,000 artifacts at more than 50 military and civilian camps that he has searched. He shared two of his most recent archaeological dig experiences during the Friends of the Frontier Army Museum’s monthly museum night Feb. 5.
“The hobby has taken me to some of the most beautiful places here in northeast Kansas with rolling hills and prairies that many of the soldiers and officers saw for themselves as they left the fort,” Kaighen said. “Many people have spent a lifetime writing books about history and the horse soldier. Me, I’ve spent most of my adult life researching, documenting and finding artifacts from these mounted soldiers.
“I’ve never been in the military, but I’ve always had that connection,” he said. “First, it was the Civil War, but I needed something older than that. I felt that the research of the fur-trade era and the early military such as the Dragoons out of Fort Leavenworth, the 1820s to the 1830s, that was the timeframe for some weird reason. I stayed glued to that. Dragoon soldiers were in that time period. So, I specifically tried to locate Dragoon military camps versus any other military camp.”
The Fort Hays Project
In February 2018, Kaighen received a phone call from the Carlson Archaeological Research Team based in Texas asking him to participate in an archaeological dig at a campsite south of Fort Hays, Kan. The campsite had been occupied by George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry from 1869-1870.
The research team was looking for volunteers who had metal detectors to help survey the area and record the artifacts found in the field.
During the process, smaller artifacts found were bagged and flagged; larger objects were flagged and left next to the hole where it was recovered; colored flags were used to mark the location where the artifact was found; and archaeologists analyzed and recorded all of the findings.
Recovering artifacts can answer many questions including, “Who occupied the camp,” “How old the camp is,” and “How long it has been there,” Kaighen said.
“It is based on the density of the artifacts found in the ground,” he said.
During the dig, more than 500 artifacts were found, including a general service eagle button, an infantry button, .56-56 Spencer rimfire ammunition, a silver flower brooch and a picket pin still stuck in the ground in its original position. One of Kaighen’s personal findings included a cavalry bit boss adornment.
All of the artifacts found in the dig are now under the care of the Kansas Historical Society.
“History is saved,” Kaighen said.
Regiment of Dragoons
Over the years, Kaighen has located several military camps on his own through research, maps and documentation. He recently found a Dragoon camp in northeast Kansas. Since 2015, he has collected more than 350 artifacts and added them to his personal collection. Several of the pieces were on display at the event.
“They were found on private property with the landowner’s permission,” he said.
In this encampment, Kaighen has found horse bits, iron curry combs, iron forks, square nails, iron files, a silver brooch, a partial oakleaf cluster, and political tokens, including an 1849 Lewis Cass presidential campaign coin, and an 1848 Henry Clay presidential token bearing the words, “I would rather be right than be president.”
Upon gathering the artifacts, Kaighen made several observations about the surveyed area: artifacts appear to date at the end of the Mexican-American War between 1846-48; there was a lieutenant colonel or a major present because of the oakleaf cluster; between 15-30 soldiers camped there of both Dragoon and artillery based on the number and types of buttons found; there were many horses because multiple horseshoes, buckles and snaffle bits were found; and there were three campfires based on the iron pattern of the square nails. No alcohol was present at the campsites based on the lack of whiskey glass found, which Kaighen has found at multiple other Dragoon campsites. There was an Indian guide from either the Delaware or the Kickapoo tribe, as well as a supply wagon pulled by oxen. Based on the time period, Kaighen said the oakleaf cluster suggested a couple different military leaders, including Maj. Clifton Wharton, the commanding officer of the 1st Dragoons of Fort Leavenworth from 1844-1848, and Lt. Col. Edwin Vose Sumner, who was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 1st U.S. Dragoons on July 23, 1848.
So, why were so many artifacts left at the sites?
“I seriously think that a lot of it is worn out, it’s old. They’re going to get new stuff when they get back to the fort,” Kaighen said. “That’s my theory.”
In his 39 years of collecting artifacts, Kaighen said he has never sold an artifact that he has found.
“I have kept the collection together for a reason. Each camp has a story to tell or a story to solve,” he said. “So, I’m very particular about my collection, of how I preserve it, of how I want to teach others about it. The worst thing to do is to separate it and to lose its documentation. Once you do that … it has no story, it has no trace and that is very important.”
Kaighen is a resident of Gladstone, Mo., and works as a supervisor for Kansas Gas Service in Overland Park, Kan.