The Buried City is an important pre-Columbian site on Wolf Creek eighteen miles southeast of Perryton in Ochiltree County. It was well known to buffalo hunters and early ranchers in the area by the late 1870s because its impressive ruins were visible aboveground. Large mounds concealed the remains of stone dwellings, and numerous artifacts were found on the ground around them. The first scientific excavation of the ruins was conducted in the spring of 1907 by T. L. Eyerly, who taught science and history at the short-lived Canadian Academy. With several interested students, among them fifteen-year-old Floyd V. Studer, Eyerly probed the rock-slab walls and uncovered many evidences of pre-Columbian habitation. In the academy bulletin Eyerly published two brief papers concerning the findings, reportedly the first discovery of pueblo ruins subsequently linked with the Texas Panhandle Pueblo Culture, or Antelope Creek Focus. The largest of these ruins, later named for geologist Charles N. Gould, was labeled the Temple. Over the next several years Studer brought the buried city to the attention of other archeologists, most notably Warren K. Moorehead of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Moorehead corresponded with Studer extensively and in 1919 and 1920 made trips to the Panhandle to examine the ruins. In his book Archaeology of the Arkansas River Valley (1931) Moorehead explained that the ancient village site, extending over 3,500 feet along Wolf Creek, was the product of a fairly advanced aboriginal culture of unknown origins. At that time the land on which the "city" was located was part of the Shady Nook Ranch, owned by James T. Fryer, for whom Lake Fryer was named.
Although Studer conducted intermittent surveys of the ruins through 1966, no further major excavations were made. In the early 1980s, however, former Perryton mayor Harold D. Courson, president of Courson Oil and Gas and Natural Gas Anadarko, bought the site and surrounding property. Through his efforts the Texas Historical Commission was given two easements covering about fifty acres; the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places and was also made a state archeological landmark protected by the Texas Antiquities Code. In 1985 and 1986 Courson supplied the funds for archeological excavations directed by David T. Hughes, then a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma. Beginning in the summer of 1987 annual excavations were done in conjunction with a Texas Archeological Society field school.
About seven areas of the Buried City, consisting of some five ruins of dwellings, none of which is on the conservation easement, were unearthed by 1988. Between thirty and forty ruins along the creek are within a 900-acre block of land surrounding the easement. The surveys seem to reveal a different picture of the Indians who inhabited the site between a.d. 800 and 1500 than Moorehead and Studer had theorized. Hughes argued that the Buried City inhabitants were of a culture distinct from that of the contemporaneous Antelope Creek Focus. Over several centuries these people developed their own society in relative isolation, even though they retained general Plains Indian characteristics. According to Hughes's hypothesis, the Buried City people were of Caddoan linguistic stock and may have been related to the Wichitas or Pawnees.
The architecture, though comparable to that of the Antelope Creek Focus and the modern Pueblo tribes, appears to have been of local development. Many of the dwellings apparently were built on a scale that was massive by prehistoric standards; one house was found to have had up to 650 square feet of floor space. Large caliche boulders mined from nearby valley walls outlined the rectangular structure. After the stones were set in place the dwelling interior was dug out to an average depth of two feet, with the fill being used to erect the thick exterior walls of the structure. A center aisle ten to twelve feet wide included a hearth, and wooden posts twelve to eighteen inches in diameter stood in each corner to form roof supports. The entrances, crawlways eight to ten feet long, always faced east. In addition to excavating dwelling space, the people also dug circular storage pits about three to four feet deep; apparently these were used until rodents infested them, then were filled with trash. Certainly, digging in the hard caliche must have been a task for these people who had only stone and bone tools.
Although Buried City artifacts such as projectile points, stone knives, and bone tools are similar to those of other contemporary Plains people, the pottery of the Buried City folk is considerably different from that of their Antelope Creek neighbors in that it was finished more smoothly and in some cases polished and decorated, in contrast to the cord-marked, conical vessels of the Antelope Creek villages. Buried City pottery closely resembles that known as Geneceo, from southwestern Kansas. Apparently the inhabitants of Buried City engaged in trade for flint, but although some from the Alibates flint quarries has been unearthed, much of the Buried City flint was from cobbles and pebbles found along the Canadian River. Perhaps relations between the Buried City folk and the Indians who mined the quarries were not always cordial. There is scant evidence of trade with Mexico or the Southwestern tribes. Some of the flint appears to have come from the Niobrara area on the Kansas-Nebraska line and some from a site in Kay County, Oklahoma. Although archeologists early in the century reported stone cairns concealing remains of the dead on the canyon rim near the village, these apparently were disturbed by passing visitors before the recent excavations, since few burial sites have been located.
Corn and probably beans and squash were among the crops cultivated by the Buried City people. They apparently had a two-tiered system of plots. While some crops were planted in the creek's floodplain to take advantage of the moisture retained in the sandy bottoms, others were sown on higher ground; water was diverted along slopes containing brush diversions to distribute the rainfall more widely. These higher plots were effective safeguards against flooding of the lower fields. At the time of its occupation, the area around the village was well watered by several springs fed by the Ogallala Aquifer. These kept Wolf Creek, which cut into the aquifer's upper level, flowing all year long. Such a region of abundant water often attracted bison, ducks, turkeys, and small animals like rabbits and prairie dogs, all of which provided meat and skins for the Indians. Fish and mussels likewise were staple fare in their diet.
Hughes speculated that the ruins composing the Buried City site represent a series of villages or semipermanent farmsteads inhabited over the course of centuries. At least five groups of structures, each containing seven or eight dwellings, have been identified. It is possible that each group, which may have housed as many as 100 people, was occupied for roughly twenty years, until some local resource, such as firewood, was exhausted. Then the Indians would move along the creek to another site, which they inhabited for another generation. This gradual trek up and down the creek continued until the area was abandoned, probably as a result of drought or intrusion from later nomadic tribes around 1500. The influence from southwestern Kansas on the Buried City populace may have come through trade and intermarriage. Hughes concludes that trade contacts could indeed provide an avenue for bringing husbands and wives into the community.
Much interpretive work remains to be done with the information Hughes and others have gleaned. Nevertheless, Buried City is one of the most important and fascinating Texas archeological finds and sheds light on the Panhandle area's Indian past. A historical marker that briefly tells the site's early history is located on Lake Fryer Road four miles east of U.S. Highway 83.