Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Place Called Wolf Creek Indian Village Part 1

This post is long overdue. I was realizing that before I started delving into the actual history of what I had learned about Native Americans in our area, I need to tell the story of Wolf Creek Indian village. It is from this place that I dearly love, having a job there I dearly loved, (that heartbroken I had to quit because of my illnesses), that my "scant" knowledge learned about the first people in Bland County and in Appalachia springs from.

This will be a multi-part post. I have much to say about Wolf Creek Indian Village. The story of this village is just a small part of the history of the Native Americans in Southwest Virginia itself. But I can tell you that through this little village, which now has a museum dedicated to it, so much has been learned even if it is just a tiny part of the vast THOUSANDS of years of history of the people who first inhabited this continent yet to be explored.

Photos from the Department of Historic Resources Collections
This is the field in 1970 before the excavation.
Wolf Creek Indian Village and Museum is based on an actual archeology site. The village was discovered and known about long before the interstate was built. Especially by a man named Brown Johnston owned the farm on which it was found. When he would plow the field where the village was located, artifacts would make their way to the surface and turn up. It is said he once found pieces of bone and skull and that's when he mostly stopped plowing and started using the field only as a hay field or permanent pasture.

In 1967, the state had already began the project of constructing Interstate 77 through the mountains of our area. They had plans to construct two tunnels through the mountains and a long four lane highway through Bland County, thus we are known as the land between the tunnels. We like to say we were so isolated it took two tunnels to reach us!

A local resident named Wayne Richardson had an avid interest in Native American history and was an artifact hunter. The Brown Johnston farm was one spot that he thought was a village site. He had found periwinkle beads, shell artifacts, deer bone tools, and pottery shards. This knowledge with the story of human bones found suggested to him it was more than just a hunting camp.

The plan for the interstate called for rerouting Wolf Creek right through the archaeology site field. Wayne Richardson contacted Howard MacCord, who was the acting quasi state archaeologist (Department of Historic Resources as we know now was not quite formed)  and informed him that the road would be destroying what he thought was a village site with human burials.

You have to realize this is before NAGPRA had some teeth. It is before any laws or considerations or sensitivity were taken for constructing through Native American burial sites.  It took an uprising of Native Americans to get those laws through. But in the late 1960's the best anyone could do was to try to divert the construction or at least have them research and document the site.  Archaeology is basically the telling of history by what is found in the ground and tries to reconstruct that history.

We in Appalachia have lost so much history. In Appalachia, many of the old European home places are where Natives once lived. In this mountainous region, Native Americans settled on the best, most fertile ground with nearby water sources. Europeans recognized these places also and so the best places were then settled on top of by Europeans.

Another site in Bland County called the Newberry-Tate site is a prime example of that. A home was built during early European immigration and placed in the middle of a site that archaeologist believe was inhabited and re-inhabited by Native Americans for about 3000 years.

Wolf Creek's Brown Johnston site was unique in many ways. First of all it was the first state sanctioned archeology site in Bland County. It's number is 44-BD-1, which stands for 44, the state number, BD is Bland County and 1....first site ever recorded officially in Bland County. Being the first site attests to the outcry by locals to try to save it.  Most of the time not much attention was being paid to these sites in the mountains by the state. More attention was paid to places around Jamestown or the coastal sites.

It took men like Wayne Richardson and E.E. Jones and a few others constantly pushing to save and document these Native American historical sites in Southwest Virginia before they were destroyed.  I think the number of sites documented by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Bland County today is over 50.

E.E. Jones and Howard MacCord performed a test dig and found a large fire pit. The main pit represented in the recreated village today. The state was not going to divert their plans to re-route the creek to put the interstate through. It was cheaper to re-route the creek than to build another bridge. They gave Howard MacCord just 30 days to perform an archaeological dig and remove any burials.

By today's standards what he had to do to save what he could was appalling in archeology methodology. He had to work at a feverish pace. He had to employ a road grader to remove the top layers of soil to save time. I have heard stories from those who participated who said by the end of the dig, they worked in the dark with their car head lights pointed toward the site to try to save as much as they could from the highway bulldozers.

But even with all the faults of the methodology what they saved was short of a miracle and what emerged about the village was remarkable. First of all they mapped an entire village site which is VERY rare in these mountains. No European house or barn or road had been built in the middle of it before this dig. Secondly, it was determined to be an agricultural farming village, that included trade items such as sea shell gorgets.

The artifacts found, with the size of the village, with carbon dating, suggests the village consisting of about 100 people existed for 5 to 10 years between 1490 AD and 1530 AD.  44BD1, with other sites in the area, kind of blows away the uninhabited wilderness concept of Appalachia was just a hunting ground for the Native Americans. Later research expounds and explains that further which also explains a bit clearer the later history of the area and how things unfolded as they did.

In part two I will talk about how I came to be at Wolf Creek Indian Village, the reconstruction and the valuable lessons I see the village teaches us today. 

Sources: Archaeological Society of Virginia June 1971 Quarterly Bulletin - Brown Johnston Site by H.A. MacCord, Sr.

Photos are from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Collection on 44BD1 - Brown Johnston site.

Wolf Creek Indian Village and Museum

A Place Called Wolf Creek Indian Village Part 2

A Place Called Wolf Creek Indian Village Part 3

A Place Called Wolf Creek Indian Village Part 4