While mapping suspected graves, my son William snapped this photo when I paused to estimate how much farther we could go before the sun set.

I learned I could dowse when I laughed at a little Irishman from the Sandhills (Gene Murphy).  He was demonstrating dowsing to somebody else when I happened along.  I was probably 18 and told him it was a bunch of bunk.  He fixed his beady blue eyes on me and said, “Come here.”

He had me hold a pair of pliers in a particular way and then had me walk in a certain direction.  I felt dumb doing it but knew that nothing would happen.  Then, without any warning, it felt as if an unseen hand had grabbed the plies in my hands and violently tugged them downward.

Gene, glowing with vindication, explained that there was some sort of underground disturbance there and that he used it to test other dowsers.  Gene had been dowsing for a long time (and I don’t think I ever asked him where he learned), mostly irrigation wells, but had recently joined forces with a couple of other dowsers and started a wildcat oil exploration and development company based in Stockton, Kansas.

Gene was pretty excited that I could dowse and within an hour or two I was in a an old Pontiac with him and a few other guys. After fixing a radiator hose and refilling the radiator from a stock tank we finally arrived near an isolated, slow-moving up-and-down oil pump (a “grasshopper”).  On the way down Gene had fiddled with a wire coat hanger, fashioning two “L”-shaped dowsing rods from it.  He handed me these, showed me how to hold them loosely but not too loosely, and then helped me clamber through a barbed wire fence and into the pasture with the grasshopper steadily bobbing up and down in the darkness.

Again I was told where to walk and again the rods moved at the appropriate locale.  Gene and his pals all clucked their approval and I was allowed to return to the car.

On the way to the nearest hamlet to find a cheap motel they explained that they had a geologist’s report on this particular oil well; the report noted a fault line x number of feet southwest of the hole.  By finding it without knowing it was there I had proven I could really dowse.

The next day we visited other sites they were familiar with and I discovered that by using these bent coat hangers I could detect two different types of fractures in the bedrock thousands of feet below.  These cracks, faults and shears, are the bane of the oil driller.  Oil can’t be sucked up thousands of feet; there has to be pressure on it to make it rise up into the hole far enough for the grasshopper mechanism to pull it the rest of the way.  So geologists look for something called a “stratographic trap,” a natural cavity in the earth that slants to one side.  On the low side of the slant there’s water, in the center crude oil and on the high side natural gas.  If this trap is slanted enough the driller can attempt to drill into the center portion.  If successful (and these holes are so deep that they never go straight down for the full distance so they don’t ever end up exactly where the driller is aiming) the well will avoid both the gas and the water.  This way the water and gas put pressure on the oil (sometimes tremendous pressure – that’s what powers “gushers”), forcing it up the well.  If the trap isn’t slanted enough, however, the bit will penetrate the gas pocket first, letting off the pressure like opening a bottle of pop.  Once the gas pressure is gone, the oil can’t be recovered (except through fracking, which didn’t exist then).

Faults and shears, being cracks in the bedrock (and I never did learn what they really were – one is a vertical slippage but I’m not sure which or what the other is), they also allow pressure to escape.  Gene and his partners dowsed (or “witched,” as they called it) for oil deposits; Gene’s son Pat and I looked for any cracks that could have drained the pressure away.  It was very rare to find a deposit that wasn’t plagued by cracks, but even then bringing in oil was far from a sure thing (one very promising site was destroyed the night after drilling was completed when a small earthquake occurred and literally shattered the bedrock like a stone striking a pane of glass).

Once the oil witchers decided I wasn’t there to steal their secrets and go into business for myself, they taught me how to find oil as well.  Every dowser has his or her preferred methods but I found I could use a brazing rod with a small amount of crude oil attached to it the same way Gene did to find oil.

Dowsers were not unknown in that area and occasionally we’d be asked to visit small pioneer cemeteries and locate unmarked graves.  I don’t pretend to know how dowsing works, let alone why the same techniques that one uses to find and evaluate oil would also work on human bodies, but for me and several of the others it did.

I found that with the bent coat hangers I could find disturbances in the ground – not just cracks in bedrock.  And so I could use them to locate the four sides of a grave.  There are other dowsers who do this, and I was present once when a little hilltop cemetery north of Loretto was dowsed this way.  However, I go one step farther by using my oil witching rod to make sure there’s a body in the grave.  For me, at least, just because the coat hangers move doesn’t mean there’s a body present – those rods simply locate disturbances.  I didn’t have my rods with me the day a man dowsed at that hilltop cemetery – he found far more graves than there ever were people living in that area — I think he was mistaking old plow furrows outside the cemetery fence for graves because he didn’t check to see if there were bodies in them –

The oil company only brought in one successful well (their first), a slant hole (wells can be drilled at an angle if necessary) in Stockton.  Gene and his partners did this for a man who had been paralyzed in a car accident — they gave all the proceeds to him.  Which was very, very nice of them.  But none of the wells after that were successful (and I never did get my promised 32nd share of any as a a result).  In time the tax laws changed and many of the wildcats went on to other scams (most were scams – I’ll tell some of those stories someday).

I continued to work with Gene around here locating irrigation and house wells and actually still do that occasionally (as well as finding leaks in underground pipes).

I have demonstrated my two dowsing techniques to several archaeologists.  While none of the possible graves I’ve discovered have been excavated, the archaeologists have told me that my findings are “consistent with known burials at other sites.”  They’ve even followed me around on hillsides with a sophisticated backpack GPS system to mark suspected graves.

Without digging or using something like ground penetrating radar, I can’t prove that I’m finding graves.  But I do know at least one professional archaeologist who works with a dowser on all of her excavations and, as I said, the State Historical Society has enough confidence in my dowsing to have marked some of the sites I located with GPS.

In my experience the Native Americans used two different burial techniques.  The differences may have been cultural or they may have used one technique for a certain class of people and the other for another group.  Whatever the reason, all the burials I’ve located have either been individual (bundle burials the archaeologists call them – the deceased was wrapped in a blanket with his or her knees against their chest and buried in a sitting position) or large, roughly rectangular group burials (ossuaries).  The ossuaries are secondary burials – many dead bodies were placed on scaffolds or even in trees.  In time, when the bones had been picked clean by the birds, these bones would be gathered and interred with the bones of many other people.

At all the sites I’ve explored, the bundle burials are on the tops of the hills (high ranking individuals?) with the ossuaries filling the slopes below the summits (again, this is consistent with what the archaeologists are familiar with).  Bundle burials are also to be found near the few mound sites I’ve been able to explore on the Beaver, Cedar and Shell creeks.  This suggests to me that the Native Americans attributed something spiritual to the mound locations – either mounds were good places to be buried or by concentrating burials in and around mounds the mounds became powerful.  But this is just conjecture –

Even to this day I’m somewhat skeptical about dowsing simply because it can so rarely be verified.  I dowsed our irrigation well location a few years back, gambling around $50K that I was right (I was…).  More recently I was asked to evaluate a farm where Gene Murphy had located an irrigation well in back in the 70s.  The well was never very good and the owner wanted to drill a new one.  This was an interesting challenge — checking my mentor’s work.  I found a completely different site with the best water I’d ever detected.  The owner had enough faith in me to drill there and he said there’s so much water that it rises in the well nearly 100 feet above the water-bearing gravel.  Gene had missed it entirely.  So dowsing at best is more art than science, but it’s all I currently have to use when looking for Native American graves.  (We have it set up legally that once I locate an area of suspected graves on our property it has to remain undisturbed.)

A lot of people don’t believe in dowsing.  I didn’t until I discovered I could do it, and I don’t expect anyone who can’t do it to simply take my word that it’s real.  I can only speak for myself, and I’ve only been able to verify a comparative handful of my finds.  But I do believe I’m accurate at finding several things in the ground, including graves.  So I’m including these findings in my archaeological notes about the farms.  It may be silly, but I feel a great sense of responsibility to the people who were here before.   Only a few know anything about them; fewer still seem to care.  So if I don’t try to learn all I can and record it in some way, who will?  In the end I’d rather be wrong and protect an area that doesn’t contain graves than allow something to happen someday to an area that does…