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PREHISTORY IN WEST VIRGINIA

"Cabell County Once Rich in Relics of Early Race of Moundbuilders," by Frances W. Oberholtzer

Huntington Sunday Advertiser, 13 April 1924

Mounds Leveled By Plowshares
Specimen in Camden Park is Most Familiar Remnant of Former Numbers
Remnants of Village Here
Group of Dozen One Mile West of Barboursville Excavated in Eighties
Ancient Builders Preceded Indians
Had Higher Civilization Than the Fiercer Red Man Who Lived by War, Hunting
Origin Under Discussion
Lived West of Alleghenies; Chiefly Along Mississippi and Her Tributaries


While historians and archaeologists turn their attention to Egypt where lies King Tut still shrouded in his mummy swarthings and protected from further disturbance by government authority, and other scientists are theorizing on the skulls found in a sand pit in southern California, believed to have been deposited before the time of the great glaciers, in the "Pleistocene Age," more than 500,000 years ago, farmers in the Ohio valley turn the soil with their plowshares, bringing to light bits of skeleton, fragments of flint and other relics of those far off inhabitants of this region, the Moundbuilders.

Local men of scientific tendencies say that Cabell county and its vicinity was once full of tiny mounds - that refuse from early settlements was disclosed on the banks of the Ohio with every spring freshet which wore away the soil along the river, and that relics of historic interest have been found and allowed to be lost again through carelessness.

The march of the present civilization has passed ruthlessly over these landmarks of that older civilization. The farmer has not spared from cultivation the spots held sacred by the Moundbuilders. The city builder has razed these obstructions to the construction of straight streets and avenues. Little now remains of the mass of material once stored in this region.

The mound at Camden Park and the group of mounds in the Ashland City Park are the most familiar specimens in this vicinity. They remain untouched. Countless others have been leveled.

A large mound group existed in Cabell county during the past century, one mile west of Barboursville. It was on a farm then owned by John Miller and since divided into smaller homesteads. Will Wilson, of this city, lived in that neighborhood some fifty years ago when a group of men whose authority the country people did not know came to explore the mounds.

The explorers were scientists from the Smithsonian Institute, headed by one Colonel Norris. Their findings in this region are published in a volume of house miscellaneous documents for the second session of the fifty-third congress in 1893-94, volume 10, in the annual report of the bureau of ethnology of which J. W. Powell was director, for the years 1890-91. Colonel Norris' report on this interesting group of mounds follows, the numbers refer to the chart drawn by him which is reproduced in the illustration, at the left center:

"About one mile west of Barboursville, on a hill nearly 500 feet above the Guyandotte, overlooking that stream for a long distance and offering a fine position for defense, is a group of mounds, very modern in appearance; it is stated, however, that large timber covered them when the country was first settled by whites. The old war trail passed immediately south of the group, and there is a fine spring on the slope of the bluff north. The soil around is a compact yellow clay.

"Following is their dimensions: No. 1, irregular, 150 feet long, 75 feet wide and 6 feet high, excavated in part. No. 2, oblong, 50 feet long, 20 feet wide and 4 feet high, excavated. No. 3, oblong, 45 feet long, 15 feet wide and 3 feet high, not excavated. No. 4, oblong, 54 feet long, 25 feet wide and 4 feet high, excavated. No. 5, oblong, 55 feet long, 20 feet wide and 7 feet high, excavated. No. 6, crescent, 48 feet long, 15 feet wise and 4 feet high, excavated. No. 7, oblong, 60 feet long, 20 feet wide, 6 feet high, excavated. No. 8, circular, 20 feet long, 20 feet wide and 4 feet high, excavated. No. 9, oblong, 40 feet long, 15 feet wide, 3 1/2 feet high, excavated. No. 10, oblong, 35 feet long, 10 feet wide and 3 feet high, not excavated.

"The trenches were run along the natural surface. All disclosed a heap of yellow clay similar to that around the mounds, and nearly all reached at one or more places in the oblong mounds the unmistakable core of older circular ones. At 6 feet from the edge of No. 7, upon the natural surface, were two skeletons in a reclining position on the side of the conical central core. At the center of this core was a partially decayed skeleton prostrate in, or rather under, a layer of charcoal and ashes. This older mound or central core was 4 feet high and 20 feet in diameter. On the north side was another skeleton placed like the first two, body reclining against the hard core and legs extended on the original surface of the ground.

"In No. 9, a fire bed was found at the top; a small, hard, conical mound or core was also under this, but nothing was found in it.

"At 10 feet from the south edge of No. 5 were two medium-sized skeletons, a lance head by the right side of each. These were lying at the foot of the hard, conical core, instead of reclining upon it. About 2 feet below the top of this ancient moundlet or core, and 4 feet from the top of the modern one built over it, were one very large and two ordinary sized skeletons, all having the skulls above the ribs as though buried in a sitting posture facing each other. With these bones were a fine steatite pipe, a celt, lance- head, fish dart, fragments of pottery, and mussel shells. These were probably intrusive burials. In the bottom of the old mound were fragments of a prostrate skeleton. Lying on the slope was a skeleton, well preserved, with head toward the top of the mound, and 13 feet north of it was another in like position on the slope of another small conical mound.

"The other mounds were on the same plan, showing that some people had erected a mound over their dead; that subsequently the same or another people had deposited bodies on the side or at the foot of the mounds and covered them with dirt from the excavations near by, and that these later mounds had been increased in size until in some cases, they had covered two or even more of the ancient ones."

Early settlers in Huntington remember the mass of refuse from a long-forgotten village which was buried along the banks of the Ohio at about Fifteenth street. Every time the river rose in the seventies the swirling water would cut away 6 or 8 feet of the soil and small boys would hurry to the bank to find remains of ancient campfires, bones, flints arrowheads, stone axes and shard of pottery.

Reference to these refuse grounds and to others above Guyandotte is made in Colonel Norris' report as follows:

"For half a mile along the bank of the Ohio, just above the mouth of the Guyandotte, is an extensive deposit of refuse from a hamlet or favorite camping place, probably the latter, as the remains are found to the depth of 3 feet showing that the site was frequently overflowed and thus built up in part by deposits from high water. Many relics, both ancient and modern, are found, the uppermost tier being a foot below the present surface. Half a mile above this is a field in which were three small mounds, two of which are now leveled. The surface for 3 or 4 acres in extent in literally covered with potsherds, shells and fragments of stone implements. A quartz pipe with bowl formed and stem hold partially perforated was found here. The maker seems to have given up his job of boring it out, after the outside had been brought to the desired form.

"Midway between Guyandotte and Huntington, are traces of an inclosure and hamlet site on a bottom high above the greatest floods. It was evidently long occupied, as a great number of relics have been found here. Nearly all of it has disappeared by the caving of the bank.

The lower end of Ritter park was another treasure ground of arrowheads. These may have been remnants of an Indian battle field since they were of the jagged edged variety used for war. The Indians used a flat headed arrowhead in practice, a long, slender pointed arrow for game, and the cruel jagged head which made an ugly wound and could not be easily removed for war. The arrowheads were made by striking off the flecks of flint over a fire starting at the point and going toward the butt.

Most of the relics found, in this region however, are from the period of the Moundbuilders. The remnants of a settled life are all from the Moundbuilders, since the Indians had no settlement along the Ohio river, and lived along the tributary streams. This country was the hunting ground for the Five Nations in the north and for various southern tribes who journied to this land of buffalo and bear. The Big Sandy valley was noted for its bear.

The peak at Gobbler's Knob was a built mound, according to John H. Sanborn, who was assistant city engineer at the time the top was leveled to form a loop for motorists at the top of Ritter hill. Mr. Sanborn found the ground loose and of the type of soil found in the bottom. Such a loose soil would have worn down in aeons past if it had been the original top of the knoll, he explained. In this mound was found bits of flint washed down the Teays valley from the deposits in Virginia and not found in this section. This old river once emptied into the Ohio near Catlettsburg and followed somewhat to the pyramids of the Egyp ___ apeake & Ohio railroad bed, scientists claim.

Mr. Sanborn was engineer when the mound in West Huntington at Thirteenth street was leveled to make way for a street. Citizens of that district speak of its destruction as wanton carelessness and describe it as a perfect mound of its size. Flints and stone implements were found in it, but no skeletons. Mr. Sanborn said that he asked that roadways be built around the mound, which should be left standing as a landmark, but his suggestion was not accepted.

A companion mound to the one standing today in Camden Park stood some distance east of the park. It was leveled to provide a right-of-way for the old Ohio and Big Sandy railroad.

All of the mounds in this district were minor ones. Several larger specimens are found in the state of Ohio, notably the Great Serpent mound, in Adams county, Ohio, consisting of a sort of fortification with numerous smaller mounds and 1,350 feet of wall. The Grave Creek mound of Moundsville, W. Va., is another mammoth one, but much smaller than the Adams county specimen. It is conical in shape measuring 320 feet, with a dish-shaped depression at the top. It was excavated in 1838 and two burial vaults were found - one at the base and the other 30 feet above.

The purpose of these mounds and the identity of their builders has been the subject of much discussion and study among scientists in the past. It is generally believed that the mounds were for burial purposes chiefly, and sometimes for religious use. They corresponded somewhat to the pyramids of the Egyptian rulers or the graves of the viking chief in which was buried the dead seaman in his long boat, with his rowers' and his implements of war.

The Moundbuilders preceded the Indians on this continent and were probably of Asiatic origin, coming across the country from the Northwest, having come from their continent by crossing the land that once connected the two continents at the Bering strait.

Their relics show them to have developed a higher civilization than did the Indians and to have been a more domestic race than the Indian which the discoverers of the North American continent found here. They may have been destroyed by the onslaught of the fiercer Red Men, as the Sumerians went down before the Semites among the mud heaps of the Euphrates-Tigris valley, when the conquerers took some of the tras of civilization from the conquered.

Or they may have been earlier Indians who later developed their war-like, roaming tendencies.

The region of the mounds is west of the Alleghenies. The Moundbuilders lived in the fertile vallies of the Mississippi and its tributaries. The centers of their population corresponded with the center of population in the country before the cities denied the agricultural districts.

In the west, where the rainfall is scarce, irrigation projects built by these peoples have been found. Some writers believe them to have built underground passages, sometimes tunneling rivers, means of communication between their settlements.

All of the speculation on these pre-historic men has not been of a strictly scientific character. Religious fervor has ever been a cause for research into the past and one, Rev. Calvin C. Gould, of Buckhannon, West Virginia, was the author of a volume, "Who Were the Moundbuilders?" in which he proves conclusively that these people were either the ten lost tribes of Israel, wandering in punishment for their idolatry, or one of their idolatrous neighbors, possibly the Phoenicians.

His book abounds in illustrations of tablets found in the mounds when he traces the resemblance between the rude writing and the Phoenician alphabet.

Some writers claim that among the Moundbuilders there were "Free Masons" in the earliest stage of their craft.

But few tablets or other attempts at picture or character writing was found in the mounds. None of those in this district contained any such fragment, though skeletons, flint, and stone implements abound.

The Great Kanawha valley, as well as that of the Ohio, had numerous mounds. In the region of Charleston, there were many groups. The mound in the park at South Charleston is the largest in this vicinity. Its present dimensions are about 140 feet in diameter at the base, 15 feet at the apex and about 25 feet in height. It is partially covered with trees and is fairly well preserved. The West Virginia Historical quarterly magazine shows that this mound was explored by expert archaeologists in the early eighties and that it was then about 175 feet in diameter and 35 feet high. The excavation into this mound showed it to be a double or two story structure.

The first or bottom story was twenty feet high, and afterward fifteen feet more was added, making a total of thirty-five feet. A square shaft was sunk down through the center of the mound to a little below the original surface of the ground. The shaft was begun twelve feet square at the top, and gradually reduced to six feet at the bottom. But little below the surface sod was found a pile of rough flattish, irregular shaped stones, of probably 100 to 200 pounds weight each. It was about half a mile to the nearest point where they could have been gotten. Upon removing these stones probably a ton or more - a stone vault was discovered seven feet long by four feet deep.

In this was one large skeleton, which seemed to have been buried without a head, as no sign of the skull could be found; the bones were much decayed. One spearhead was the only implement found with this skeleton. Just under the vault and six feet from the top of the mound, was found a second skeleton, ordinary size; it was surrounded by earth and much decayed. At three feet below the last and nine feet from the top, was a third skeleton, enclosed in the remains of a bark coffin, and surrounded by dry, loose earth. The bones were less decayed than the last. The skull was a "Flat Head" that had been artificially compressed. At twelve feet from the top the earth became mixed with ashes, and so continued for three or four feet.

At this depth - say sixteen feet from the top - was found the decayed timbers which, as the excavation progressed, proved to have been a wooden vault about twelve feet square and seven or eight feet high, though much decayed and fallen in from the weight of the superincumbent earth. What remained indicated that the cover had been roof-shaped. Some of the timbers of the vault were walnut and twelve inches in diameter. Five skeletons were found within this vault, the principal one being a huge figure measuring seven feet six inches in length and nineteen inches between the shoulder sockets. It lay upon the back, head to the east, legs together, and arms by the sides. It was on the floor of the vault and nineteen feet from the top of the mound. Beside this four other skeletons were found within this vault. The irregular positions of the bodies indicated that the skeletons (if skeletons) had been placed in standing positions, one in each corner; but the irregular heaps of these bones suggested to some who saw them the possibility that the subjects may have been buried alive to accompany and attend their great chief in his journey to the "happy hunting grounds" and land of spirits. These bones were far decayed, save the forearm of one, which was preserved by two copper bracelets, which were found still in place. Upon the slow oxidation of the copper the salts are absorbed by the bones, giving them a tinge of green, and helping to preserve them from decay. The large skeleton above mentioned had on each wrist six heavy bracelets of copper; four others were found under his head, which, together with a spearpoint of black flint, were incased in a mess of mortar-like substance, which had evidently been wrapped in some textile fabric. On the breast was a copper gorget; in each hand were three spearheads of black flint, and others were about the head, knees and feet. Near the right hand were two hematite celts, and on the shoulders were three large and thick plates of mica. About the shoulders' waist and thighs were numerous minute perforated shells and shell beads. A handsome stone pipe, carved out of gray steatite, and highly polished was found in the excavated dirt. In form and finish it is said to be precisely like the pipes of the Southern Cherokees, and approaches very closely to a type found in the Mianmi and Scioto Valleys.


Prehistory in West Virginia

WEST VIRGINIA ARCHIVES AND HISTORY