“I went around the tree and it was just leaning there,” Jensen, the Cultural Resource Program Manager for the national park, said.
There it was, a Winchester rifle, just leaning on the tree as though its owner was coming back for it. The rifle, which showed signs of heavy use and wear, was manufactured in February of 1882 according to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West museum in Cody, Wyoming.
The museum, which keeps all the records for classic rifles such as the Winchester, used the serial number from the gun to track its origin. The records show also show that the gun was kept in a warehouse until it was purchased in June of 1882, but do not contain where or who it was shipped to.
“We really don’t know how long it has been there. It appears to have been a well-used rifle just based on the wear. It wasn’t brand new, it was just leaned there like it had been left behind,” Jensen said.
Excited by the find, Jensen said she posted her group’s findings on the Great Basin National Park’s Facebook page. Less than a week later, Facebook picked up the story as a trending topic, posting a link to the story on the feeds of the social media platform’s over a billion users. Jensen, who admits she is better versed in artifacts from the past than the technology of today, didn’t realize the wave of attention the park was about to receive.
“The story trended on Facebook three times that week I’ve been told. Apparently that is a big deal,” she said.
It wasn’t long after that before her and her staff began receiving phone calls by the hundreds. Jensen was being interviewed by reporters from the LA Times and Wall Street Journal. As tends to happen when a story goes viral online, the news spread to Europe and Asia.
“I got a call about it from Florence, Italy and through a Google search, my sister said she saw it in a Tokyo newspaper,” Jensen said.
The rifle is not Jensen’s first historical find, far from it. Having worked as an archeologist, Jensen said she has found spearheads that date far further than the rifle, into the thousands of years.
And yet, it is the Winchester, and its unusual placement, that has become the biggest discovery of her career. When asked why she thought that was, Jensen said it has to do with the mystery surrounding it.
“We told what we knew and what we were able to find out but everybody who sees the pictures wonders the same thing, ‘Why would you put your rifle down and just leave it there?’ It is just up to the imagination at that point,” she said.
Several locals from the area thought they might come up with the answer of who the rifle’s owner was, bringing old photos of grandfathers who used to own a Winchester rifle. Jensen examined each one, but has so far not found a match.
Though the mystery remains, visitors will have to wait until fall to view the rifle itself. After holding an initial viewing at the park, Jensen said the gun was in the process of being sent to the Buffalo Bill museum.
“They will be taking care of it to make sure it doesn’t fall apart anymore. We just want to stabilize it in the condition it is in right now,” Jensen said.
But for those looking to see the historical piece and try to solve the mystery themselves, the Winchester rifle will return to Great Basin National Park in the fall to coincide with the park’s 35 year anniversary and the 100 year anniversary of the National Service.