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PREHISTORY IN WEST VIRGINIA

STONE MOUNDS OF HAMPSHIRE COUNTY, W. VA.

By L. A. KENGLA, of Washington, D. C.

Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Showing the Operations, Expenditures, and Condition of the Institution for the Year 1883 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1885), pp. 868-72.


The mounds or graves described in this paper are situated on the eastern side of the South Branch Mountain, Hampshire County, West Virginia, about 1 1/2 miles from the mouth of the South Branch River, on the property of Mr. Charles French. According to early accounts, the entire region between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Ohio River was owned by the Massawomee Indians. The immediate locality (Fairfax Grant) was, however, the hunting ground of the Tauxenents, a band, perhaps, of the above-mentioned powerful tribe.

The settlement of this district by the whites drove this tribe across the Alleghanies; and, after their departure, the country seems to have been a border line of warfare between the Delawares of Pennsylvania and the Catawbas of Virginia. This narrow and rough valley, from the mouth of the river to Moorefield, Hardy County, West Virginia, and probably far beyond, is replete with traditions and evidences of many a stubborn struggle - not only between contending tribes, but also between the Indians and the intrepid pioneers of West Virginia. The locality of these mounds, known as "Shin Bottom," was also the theater of contending, bloodthirsty savages. In close proximity to the graves there is a great bowlder standing on the side of the wood, to which a very interesting tradition is attached. It is called "Indian" or "Painted Rock." On its eastern face there is a figure, supposed to represent a man in the act of throwing a tomahawk. One can easily distinguish the rude outlines of a human figure, but the hand and tomahawk have been rendered obscure by the frequent violence of curiosity seekers. The lines are clear, strong, and of a dim red color. The tradition, as given by the inhabitants, is in substance as follows:

"At this point two hostile tribes, probably the Catawbas and Delawares, met and fought a terrible battle, in which all, with one exception, were killed, on the conquered side, and he succeeded in making his escape. Exasperated at this the victors, to complete their direful work, followed, brought back, and killed the unfortunate wretch, and with his own blood traced this figure on the rock."

The same account is given by Mr. Samuel Kercheval in his "History of the Valley," but with the variation that this warrior made a safe escape by jumping into the river and swimming with his head under water till he reached the Cohongornton, North Branch of the Potomac. (Page 48.)

The upper portion of this rock protects the side upon which the figure is sketched, from destruction by the elements. The South Branch of the Potomac was called Wappatomaka by the Indians. Throughout this entire range of mountains Indian mounds are numerous, and a comparatively unexplored field of archaeological treasures awaits development. The frequency of stone graves may in some degree be accounted for by the abundance of material suitable for their construction, by their proximity to fields of contest, to village sites, and to a most abundant hunting ground. They are found in much greater proportion in this than in any of the neighboring ranges. Their position cannot be restricted to any particular locality, for they are found on either side, on top, at the foot of the mountain, and in various places throughout the valley, sometimes on the river bank or on some small stream, or even in the central portions of the bottom lands. They are, however, less numerous on top of the ridges than in lower situations.

These stone graves are quite numerous in the vicinity of the "Indian Rock." In shape, both external and internal, they resemble modern graves;, and since they contain an inclosure like a coffin, the term grave is very applicable to distinguish them from the earth mounds. They vary much in size, the smaller being mainly confined to the low lands while the largest are more frequently found on the tops and sides of the mountains. Those of any considerable dimensions are generally flat on top and the smaller convex. The stone of which they are made depends upon the locality; those opened were constructed of gray sandstone. The upper layers consisted of pieces as large as our street granite paving blocks, which gradually increase in size as the interior or "coffin" of the mound is reached. The "coffin" is made of large bowlders of the same stone. These stones are rarely spherical, but range from a few inches square to a weight of several hundred pounds.

No. 1. The first grave examined was situated midway on the side of the mountain. It was built in a small hollow or ravine, down which in - wet seasons water flowed. Within 40 or 50 yards there were three others, two of which were opened and examined.

It (1) was very large, about 50 feet in length, 25 in width, and from 4 to 5 in height. It was flat on top and extended lengthwise north and south. The excavation was commenced on top at the southern extremity. After working downwards and northwards through the mass of rock for the distance of 3 feet, we came to some very large bowlders. Taking these as a guide we continued to work along the western side towards the north end of the mound. All the rock that remained at the north end and over the body of the "coffin" or cavity was next removed, and the earthy debris cleaned away. From the south end of the "coffin" was then removed the large rocks with which it was filled.

Then began the examination of the dark earth with which the floor was covered. The mass of the material was decayed wood-earth together with a small quantity of light colored clay. At the lower end were found one long bone and more fragments, presumably leg or thigh bones, and at the north end a fragment of a skull. No pottery or stone implement of any description was exhumed. The sides of the casement for the remains were constructed of large bowlders 1 1/2 foot high, placed closely together throughout the entire circuit. Beneath there was a floor of flat stones, and at the upper end one was raised about 2 inches above the rest, near which the fragments of skull were found.

No. 1 B. As yet only half of the first mound had been torn away, and encouraged by the find, though we mainly directed our attention to the discovery of stone implements, the destruction of the remaining mass was begun.

Commencing on the east side of the grave just opened we soon reached another wall of large bowlders, running in a direction parallel to and placed directly alongside of the wall of the former. Upon removing the stones from the sides and central portions as before, the excavation of the coffin was commenced. But a most careful search was ineffective in bringing to light any relics. The absence of all human remains may be possibly attributed to the position of the mound, which was such that a very large quantity of water annually passed through it, rendering the decomposition of the bones more rapid.

No. 2. About 20 yards to the right, when looking down tile mountain and facing the east, a second grave was opened, which was situated a little to the side of the hollow.

This mound, though not so large, extended in length in the same direction, north and south, as the former. In appearance, (save that it was not flat,) both externally and internally, it was similar to that of the one previously explored. It contained a single inclosure or coffin. No remains except a fragment of a long bone were found.

No. 3. A third of this group, situated about 30 yards down the mountain and on the lower side of an old road, was examined. Its construction and general outlines were the same as those already described. No remains were discovered, and from its position in the deepest part of the hollow it is supposed that all traces had long since been destroyed.

No. 4. The fourth mound was situated about 200 yards from the "Indian Rock," near the base of the mountain. Though much smaller, it resembled the above in all particulars. A large number of fragments of bones belonging to various parts of the body were collected. The exterior shape of the mound had been very much disfigured by hunters.

Mr. French, the owner of the property, needing stone for building purposes, had previously opened several graves and removed from them a quantity of bones and some pieces of pottery.

There were no means by which we could Judge the age of these mounds, even approximately. The first graves or stone heaps examined were encircled by a grove of oak and locust trees of an inferior size. Near the fourth there grew several large oaks, but all were at too great a distance to be of any avail in such a determination. The amount of earthy matter on or within could not be relied upon as affording any definite clew, since very little could penetrate the grave, and what was there could easily have been deposited in the lapse of time by nature. The stones were not placed immediately upon the corpse, perhaps; but they rested upon logs and brush, which were supported by the walls of the inclosure. If this supposition be correct, the amount of debris could have been greatly increased.

It is generally supposed that these mounds were quite small at first, and were increased in size by new interments and by the addition of stone from time to time. It is said that whenever a friendly Indian or tribe passed a grave, each individual, out of respect, added a stone or more to the heap. Though this may be plausible, it is just as likely that it was the final interment of the body, and that the size of the mound depended upon the rank and tribal standing of the person. If, on the other hand, these interments were only temporary, it is probable that the large mounds were the final resting places of a large number of bodies by secondary interment.

This hypothesis is in accordance with the customs of many tribes, east and west, and was practiced by the natives of the lower districts of Virginia long after its settlement by the whites. The total absence of all stone implements is accounted for by the residents, the supposition being that these were women's graves or of those members of the tribes who were of minor importance. The find of pottery in one or two would strengthen this supposition.

This theory is again to some extent sustained by the opening of several mounds on the top of this mountain yielding bones, pyrites (cubo-octohedral, crystal), arrow-heads, and fragments of pottery. In contradiction, however, to the above, one grave, opened by Mr. Joseph Pancake on his farm in the river bottom, about 2 miles above Romney, in this county, contained a celt, a pipe, and some arrow-heads.

On the front of this pipe, at the upper rim of the bowl, there was carved an eagle in a neat and tasteful manner. Some years ago the party from whom were procured the above specimens opened a large mound in Mineral County, West Virginia, near the town of Ridgeville. In external appearances, according to report, it was similar to those described, but, instead of in a coffin-shaped repository, the body was buried in a sitting posture. The skeleton was nearly whole at the time of exhumation; the feet rested upon the floor; the legs against a wall, above which in the seat were the thigh bones; and against a second wall leaned the bones of the back and chest. The arms seemed to have been placed in a careless position at the side, with the hands open and lying upon the shelf with the thigh bones. The head rested in a recumbent position on a third shelf. A fragment of pyrites was found near by, which is supposed to have been placed in one hand. Among the bones and debris there was discovered a brass button of continental style.

For the authenticity of his description the narrator referred to several gentlemen residing near the locality, who were present and assisted in the work, and in whose possession the bones were when last heard of. Other mounds and remains were found in abundance as the country was cleared and the land cultivated. The specimens of pyrites and pottery found on the South Branch Mountain have been added to the collection of archaeological remains from the district, deposited at Georgetown University.


Prehistory in West Virginia

WEST VIRGINIA ARCHIVES AND HISTORY