Prehistoric Remains at Mount Carbon

by Dr. Otis K. Rice
Chairman, Department of History
West Virginia Institute of Technology
Otis Rice Collection (Ms2003-324, Box 9)

The upper Kanawha Valley contains abundant evidence of prehistoric habitation. Among the more striking remains are village sites and burial grounds at such places as Marmet, Pratt, Hugheston, and Mount Carbon; dozens of mounds of various sizes in the valley itself and along many of its tributaries; and the walls on the hillsides above Pratt and Mount Carbon. The remains clearly show that successive culture groups inhabited the Kanawha Valley, often for prolonged periods. The earliest habitations date back to perhaps a thousand years or more before the birth of Christ. On the other hand, the identity of the prehistoric residents and their fate are even yet largely shrouded in mystery.

Among the most interesting of these prehistoric remains are those at Mount Carbon, about four miles east of Montgomery on Route 61. The Mount Carbon remains consist of a village site or sites between the highway and the Kanawha River and of stone walls and rock cairns on the mountain above the town. Early settlers of the upper Kanawha Valley, who like most other West Virginia pioneers lived partly by hunting, must very soon after their arrival in the valley have become aware of these walls. Yet, their concern with the grim problems of survival left them little time to explore the walls carefully, and their low regard for the Indians probably induced little speculation on their part as to the origin of the structures.

The Mount Carbon walls were built across ridge spurs between Armstrong and Loop Creeks, both tributaries of the Kanawha River, at elevations ranging from about 1200 to about 1600 feet above river level. The walls actually consist of five, or possibly six, windrow segments made up principally of sandstone slabs. These windrow sections were built of loosely and irregularly placed stones, which formed a wall as much as three or four feet high and up to twelve and fifteen wide.

Nineteenth century investigators, who under the influence of the Romantic movement of their time often gave free play to their imaginations, grossly exaggerated the nature of the walls and gave rise to erroneous information which has persisted to the present. The considered the mounds and earthworks as hardly inferior to the pyramids of Egypt and concluded that their builders were a super race quite apart from the American Indians. Their superficial studies of the walls left the impression that they were from three to ten miles in length and from eight to ten feet high. At points along the wall, which they depicted as continuous, were “lookout towers” made of stones piled twenty feet high. The truth was, as John P. Hale, the Charleston businessman and antiquarian pointed out, that there was no continuous wall, and consequently no enclosure as early visitors had suggested. Furthermore, one of the supposed lookout towers was placed in a small cove which obscured vision on three sides.

Scientific excavations at the site of the walls have yielded no knowledge either as to the purposes for which the walls and rock cairns were erected or of their builders. The first effort to study the site scientifically was made in 1884 by Colonel P. W. Norris for the Smithsonian Institution. Norris died, however, before his investigations were completed. In June and July of 1958 Dr. James H. Kellar, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Georgia, under a grant from that institution and the West Virginia Archeological Society, spent six weeks trying to unravel the mystery of the walls. Kellar and his associates found few artifacts. The most plentiful were hammerstones, but there were also some side-notched projectile points, scrapers, and crude choppers, generally made from poorer grades of the Kanawha flint, which crops out below the walls. On the other hand, they found no pottery sherds. Subsequent finds by local amateur archeologists added nothing substantial to the investigations by Kellar.

Examinations of the walls have offered absolutely no positive clues to their purpose. Kellar rejects the idea that the walls were defensive, since they were erected on steep slopes instead of the brows of the ridges where they would have been most advantageous as defenses. Besides, they were not high enough to have given much protection, unless giving support to a log stockade, and there is no evidence to support such a conjecture. He also rules out the claim that the walls may have formed enclosures into which to drive animals. About the only animal that could have been trapped in this manner, according to Kellar, was the buffalo, which avoided such rugged terrain. Kellar concluded, therefore, that perhaps the only reasonable assumption on the basis of existing evidence is that the walls and rock cairns served a ceremonial and ritualistic purpose. Yet, even this suggestion is warranted only by the fact that other explanations cannot be supported by logic or evidence. Dr. Edward V. McMichael, the West Virginia state archeologist, generally concurs in the conclusions of Dr. Kellar.

Excavations at the village of Mount Carbon, at the base of Armstrong Mountain, may ultimately offer some clues to the identity of the builders of the walls. Careful examination of a part of the Mount Carbon village area by Dr. McMichael and a crew of serious-minded associates has during the past three years provided much new information concerning prehistoric settlement of the Mount Carbon area. McMichael found some indications that a culture group known as the Early Hunters may have been at Mount Carbon as early as 8000 B. C. and that a later group, the Archaic hunters and food gatherers, were in the region between 6000 and 1000 B. C.

McMichael’s efforts also uncovered evidences of habitation by the Adena Mound Builders, who constructed most of the mounds and earthworks of West Virginia. The Adena group, which was in the Kanawha Valley between 1000 B. C. and 200 A. D. is believed to have built one mound and an enclosure once standing on Armstrong Creek and the mound at Falls View, across the Kanawha River from Mount Carbon. The circular houses of the Adena inhabitants appear to have been scattered over the bottom lands at Mount Carbon.

Between 200 and 1000 A. D. a group of people designated by McMichael as the Armstrong Mound Builders resided from time to time in the bottom lands at Mount Carbon. They lived in small circular houses. Numerous interesting artifacts from this period have been uncovered. The Armstrong Mound Builders probably erected most of the mounds on both Loop Creek and Armstrong Creek.

About 1000 A. D. the Buck Garden hill people began to occupy the Mount Carbon site. They were probably driven out of the valley by the Fort Ancient group, who arrived at Mount Carbon about 1400 A. D. and remained until about 1600. Some of the most interesting discoveries made by Dr. McMichael and his associates deal with the Fort Ancient occupants.

Many of the burials and artifacts at Mount Carbon date from the period of Fort Ancient occupation. In addition to earlier finds, more than forty skeletons were unearthed by McMichael and his party. Refuse pits disclosed that the Fort Ancient people lived partly by hunting and fishing and partly by farming. Wild game, fish and mussels, squash and other vegetables formed the staple parts of their diet, but they also used the dog for food.

The dwellings of the Fort Ancient people were rectangular in shape and had thatched roofs. The houses were a part of a palisaded village which had an entry passage of overlapping walls. Bastions were placed at intervals along the outer walls. From time to time this village was evidently expanded by erecting new palisades.

The question stills remains: who constructed the walls on Armstrong Mountain? Was there any relationship between the walls and the village inhabitants at Mount Carbon? It seems reasonably certain that there was. If so, then precisely which group of occupants most likely constructed the walls? Sigfus Olafson, of New York, who has long had an intense interest in archeology, believes they may be of Archaic construction. He bases his belief on the fact that some of the artifacts found in the workshop area around the walls is similar to Archaic products. Kellar suggests that they could have been constructed by a Middle Woodland culture group, but McMichael points out that only few remains of Middle Woodland culture have been found in the Kanawha Valley.

McMichael believes that the builders of the walls lived in either the Adena, Archaic, or Middle Woodland periods, but considers the late Adena people the most likely builders. He gives three reasons for his opinion: the comparatively large numbers of Adena residents in the Mount Carbon areas; the fact that the Adena group had a strong enough social organization to enable them to carry out such a sustained and difficult project as the construction of the walls; and the close parallels between the Armstrong walls and the structures of other Adena and Hopewellian peoples.

Although much knowledge has been gained by the careful investigations of the last half dozen years, much remains to be learned about the pre-history of Mount Carbon. The work of archeologists is done slowly and painstakingly, however, and bits of evidence found in widely scattered areas must often be pieced together to establish simple facts. With rapid strides being made in dating and classifying the discoveries presently being made, it may not be too much to hope that even yet the riddle of the Mount Carbon walls may be solved and a new chapter in the pre-history of the upper Kanawha Valley may yet be written.

Native Americans