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Shenks Ferry Material Culture in the Ohio River Valley
Stewart Phase pottery from Elk County, PA
Andrew J. Myers
Material culture attributed to the Stewart Complex of the Shenk’s Ferry culture is not typically found in the upper Ohio River valley, in the region west of the West Branch of the Susquehanna drainage. Currently only two sites are known by this author where Stewart Complex remains have been recovered. Both are temporary rock shelter type sites located in extreme rugged upland locations overlooking the Clarion River valley in Elk County, PA. These sites were most likely located near trail systems that linked the upper Ohio Valley and the West Branch of the Susquehanna.
The term Shenks Ferry as related to a particular prehistoric group or groups of people was coined after excavations were conducted in 1930 by Donald Cadzow near the deserted village of Shenks Ferry in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Graybill, Heisey and Kinsey 1971). This site would become the type station for material culture that would be recognized as belonging to a Shenks Ferry culture or tradition. A related but more northerly and westerly group would be identified as the Stewart Complex. The ceramics found in Elk County, Pennsylvania and discussed in this text are related to the Stewart Complex.
As a group the Stewart people existed during the later portion of the Late Woodland/Late Prehistoric Period from around A. D. 1300 to perhaps as late as A.D. 1520 in certain parts of the Susquehanna valley. Hatch (1981: 10) has proposed, based on the excavation of the stratified ceramic deposits found at the Fisher Farm site in Centre County, that the Stewart Phase existed at least in that area from earlier than A.D. 1300 to as late and possible later than A.D. 1520. Herbstritt and Kent (1990) have offered a different viewpoint noting that around A.D. 1425 to 1450 the Stewart Complex people began to closely interact with the McFate people of western Pennsylvania to form the McFate-Kalgren Phase. This development would mark an end to the classic Stewart Phase.
The Stewart Complex was recognized as a separate entity from the Shenk’s Ferry groups of the lower Susquehanna Valley as early as 1952. In a publication by John Witthoft and S.S. Farver entitled, “Two Shenk’s Ferry Sites in Lebanon County, PA”, published in Pennsylvania Archaeologist (Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 3-32), they observed that one variation of the same culture occupied a slightly more northern range. They further surmised that this so called “Stewart Complex” extended from central Dauphin County north along the Susquehanna River beyond Sunbury on the North Branch, throughout the West Branch Valley, and along the lower Juniata River (see: Witthoft and Farver 1971:426 reprint of the 1952 article).
In 1954 the Stewart Complex was formally described by Witthoft (1954) , in an article published in Pennsylvania Archaeologist Vol. 24, No. 1. , entitled “Pottery from the Stewart Site in Clinton County, Pennsylvania”. In this study Witthoft examined approximately 1,200 ceramics from Stewart site and concluded that the ceramics were of the Shenk’s Ferry tradition but noted minor differences between ceramics of the lower Susquehanna Valley (Witthoft 1971: 468). In this report Witthoft observed that Stewart Complex Pottery could be ascribed to two types of Shenk’s Ferry pottery, Shenk’s Ferry Incised and Shenk’s Ferry Corded.
Witthoft (1971:468) described Stewart pottery as “being round-based with channeled collars, crushed rock tempered, cordmarked, and of somewhat gritty paste”. The major differences between the ceramics found in the lower Susquehanna Valley and those of the West Branch include design, in which he noted that all of the West Branch rim shapes and motifs could be duplicated in the Shenk’s Ferry series. Hatch (1983) perhaps summed up the situation best by describing the Stewart Complex as a set of attributes that metrically distinguish these ceramics from those of the lower Susquehanna valley. Also, Kent (1984: 126) has noted that Stewart Complex pottery typically exhibits smaller collars than it’s southern counterpart. Generally speaking Stewart Complex ceramics were somewhat more conservative in nature than other Shenk’s Ferry pottery types. Temper preferences were also noted from region to region including differences between the Stewart site sample and Shenk’s Ferry ceramics of the lower valley.
Later, Heisey (1971) would apparently place the Stewart Complex into the Blue Rock Phase, the earliest of three phases proposed regarding Shenk’s Ferry ceramics. The Lancaster and Funk Phases were said to post date the Blue Rock phase. Graybill (1989) would place the Stewart Complex into what he tentatively described as the West Branch Tradition which included the Clemson Island complex (Jones 1931) and the McFate-Quiggle horizon of (Smith 1984).
Recently Herbstritt and Kent (1990) have outlined developments of the Shenk’s Ferry culture. In the case of the Stewart Complex they suggest that at around A.D. 1300 Stewart Complex pottery began to move into the West Branch Valley. They note that currently there are two theories regarding this development:
1). The first theory finds the people of the West Branch valley borrowing ideas from the Blue Rock phase folk located in the lower Susquehanna Valley.
2). The second theory proposes an in situ development in which the Stewart complex “evolved out of a local antecedent culture identified as Clemson Island/ Owasco”.
Eventually according to (Herbstritt and Kent 1990) Stewart Complex pottery, begins to show up in association with shell tempered pottery whose origins lie in the McFate-Chautauqua culture of northwestern Pennsylvania. They state that the result of this blending of Stewart Complex pottery with McFate-Chautauqua is yet another new ceramic phase known as the McFate-Kalgren Phase (also known as the Bell Phase) which began to move east by around A.D. 1425-1450. According to (Herbstritt and Kent 1990: 14) this period marked the end of the Stewart Complex as the newer ceramics began to be tempered with shell, exhibit high collars, and were decorated with oblique and horizontal incised lines.
Shenk's Ferry Material Culture in the Upper Ohio Drainage
Only two sites are currently known by this author where Stewart Complex material culture has been recovered in the Ohio River valley. If we examine the locations of the two sites we find that they are situated in a similar setting, a little more than 12 miles apart. Both found along the western edge of the ridge separating the upper Ohio valley from the West Branch of the Susquehanna, and both are located along small runs located a short distance from the main stem of the Clarion River, a major constituent of the Allegheny River.
This region of Elk County is included in a portion of the unglaciated Allegheny High Plateau section of the Appalachian Plateau Province that extends throughout western Elk, Forest, and portions of Venango, Warren and McKean Counties. The topography of the region is primarily forested and is characterized by it’s broad undulating plateau and deeply cut valleys. In many areas in the Clarion River valley the topography is steep and the landscape difficult to traverse. Many of the hilltops, benches, and sideslopes are strewn with rocks and littered with downed trees. Large zones of mountain laurel and rhododendron thrive in the rocky soil and many areas even today are virtual “no mans land”. Also, rattlesnakes have made a strong comeback in recent years and like to sun and den in rocky locations.
Timber rattlesnake sunning at Elk County rockshelter
If we examine the location of the rockshelter sites it is interesting to note that both were located on or near through corridors which were likely used as trails to sally back and forth between the drainages. At least one major north-south trail discussed by Wallace (1965) entered the region known as the Kersey Road. According to Wallace (1965: Third Printing 1987: 78) the Kersey Road followed an old Indian path. It branched off of the Great Shamokin Path some fifteen miles west of Clearfield and four and one half miles east of Luthersburg. From there it ran north to the headwaters of Elk Creek. According to W.J. McKnight (1905) the Kersey road was laid out in the year 1812 and passed through the woods crossing Boone’s Mountain following the old Indian trail. The trail continued to Helens Mills where it crossed the Little Toby creek and proceeded to the point of Hogback Hill to the vicinity of Centreville (near present day Kersey). This Indian trail did not likely “dead end” at Kersey and probably continued along a northerly course. A trail split or splits likely occured before reaching Bootjack summit. Based on a 1997 (Myers 1997) study that examined the locations of temporary site types, mostly rockshelters, a number of travel corridors appeared to branch off of the Kersey Trail and proceeded west into the Clarion river valley. Depending on the route chosen the trail and it's variants could directly link the upper Allegheny, Southwestern New York, and the Lake Erie Plain with the Susquehanna drainage.
Located along these trail corridors were a number of temporary site types typically located at springheads or at the confluence of drainages. The prehistoric inhabitants of the region also occupied numerous upland rock shelters as they were fairly comfortable and secure, offering shelter from the elements. The Stewart Complex people are known to have occupied these site types and their remains have been found at the following:
The two know sites are Powers Run Rockshelter (36EL119)and Laurel Run No. 1.
Powers Run Rockshelter 36EL119
The Powers Run Rock Shelter (36EL119)
The Powers Run rock shelter is located on a hilltop high above the Clarion River valley north of Ridgway near the town of Johnsonburg in Elk County, PA. The site was located and recorded into the PASS files at the Carnegie Museum in 1999 by the author and is located only some 12 miles north of the Laurel Run rockshelter in a similar environmental setting, rugged. The site occurs (Ridgway 7.5' Quadrangle, 1969 edition, photo-revised 1981; N: 4593430, E: 696370) as a part of a large outcropping of bedrock situated just below the plateau rim near the point of a ridge at the 2080', m elevation contour, 620 ft. that overlooks the Clarion River valley. The rockshelter is open to the northwest and southeast. Similar to Laurel Run, the Powers Run rockshelter is, even by today’s standards located in an extremely remote locality. The headwaters of Powers Run extend to within a short distance of the headwaters of West Creek, a east flowing tributary of the Sinnemahoning Creek which is a large tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Once again, this through corridor was most likely used as a trail system to pass between the upper Allegheny and the West Branch of the Susquehanna.
A controlled surface collection and the placement of a 1m by 1m test unit produced a total of 30 ceramics including portions of a rim, neck and body of one vessel. The ceramic paste was tempered with a mixture of finely crushed quartz. The vessel walls were very thinly made and range in thickness from 2.87mm to 6.50mm with an average thickness of 3.87mm. The upper portion of the vessel exhibited a rim strip or narrow collar that was channeled with two encircling lines. The top lip was rounded, the rim is beveled in profile and flares slightly outward (see: Plate 1). Evidence of smoothing was witnessed on the neck, collar and top lip of the rim. The neck was decorated with alternating oblique bands of incising possibly herringbone like which were crisply engraved into the neck.
The vessel was cordmarked with what appears to be a twined fabric. Cordmarking on the body was applied horizontally below the neck. Surface cast taken from the body sherds produced final Z twist Cordmarking.
Laurel Run Rock Shelter
Laurel Run Rockshelter No. 1
The second site has been called the Laurel Run Rockshelter No. 1 (Carman, PA 7.5' quadrangle, 1970 edition, photo inspected 1983; N: 4578820, E: 686830). This site is in the process of being recorded into the PASS files. The site is a large vertical wall which is oriented due south and located in a major outcropping of rock littered across a hillside bench located just below the plateau rim of the ridge. The bench occupies the 2120' elevation contour. Many of the boulders in the group are “two story house size” and larger. The rocky hillside is covered with mountain laurel, the name of the run in the valley below the site. Laurel Run is another of the west flowing tributaries that enters the Toby Creek near it’s confluence with the Clarion River.
Ceramics and projectile from Laurel Run Rockshelter No. 1
A surface collection provided three ceramics, one projectile, lithics, and a few bivalve shell fragments. Of the ceramics, one is a low collared rim section, while the other is a decorated neck segment. Both the rim and the neck are tempered with finely crushed quartz. The collar is narrow measuring around 1 cm in width and is decorated with two horizontal encircling lines that were placed over a cordmarked surface. The cordmarking again appears to be final “Z” twist. The neck segment is decorated over a cordmarked cordmarked surface with opposed right and left oblique incisions separated by horizontal incisions. This pottery, at least the collared rim, appears to be classic Stewart Phase Shenk’s Ferry.
One question that comes to mind is where did the Stewart Complex individuals that entered the upper Ohio valley come from and where were they going? They had obviously entered the Ohio valley before their tradition/culture had undergone any major changes into Kalgren/Bell . They were likely traveling away from their villages conducting their usual hunting and gathering rounds, possibly interacting with neighboring groups located to the north and west, although evidence pointing to this is currently lacking.
The closest known Stewart Complex village sites in relation to the rockshelter sites being discussed were located in Clearfield County some 40 miles to the south. The sites however could be reached rather directly by following the Kersey Road which joined the Great Shamokin path near Clearfield.
Clearfield County was home to a number of Stewart Complex villages. Harry Matlack excavated several sites including Bell and Kelly. At the Bell site Matlack found evidence of a number of Stewart Complex houses patterns and a village surrounded by a stockade (Matlack 1986, 1987). According to Herbstritt and Kent (1990) the Kalgren site, located near DuBois in northern Clearfield County, has been described as the location where Stewart Complex pottery shows up in association with McFate-Chautauqua ceramics. This blending of the various types has been described as the McFate-Kalgren phase which may be synonymous with the Bell Phase. The ceramics found in the rockshelters however seems to predate this development.
During the time period that the Stewart Complex individuals entered the upper Allegheny the region was occupied by the Allegheny Valley Iroquois, Chautauqua Phase groups, and at least visited by some of the earlier McFate Phase groups from the French Creek valley.
Some groups that may have been in contact with the Stewart Complex folk include individuals prescribing to the Onoville and Westfield Sub Periods described by Schock (1974). Lantz (1989:2) dates the Cornplanter, Gould and Onoville sites to the general time frame of the Stewart Complex. Cornplanter 2 dated to A.D. 1260 +/- 100, Gould to A.D. 1340 +/- 55 and Onoville A.D. 1430 +/- 100.
Chautauqua Phase dates from the upper Allegheny region include those run from the following sites: Ellington Site, Uncalibrated A.D. 1328 +/- 107; Calibrated Age A.D. 1387, A.D. 1354, A.D. 1309, Calibrated 1 Sigma Age Range A.D. 1282-1419 (Schock 1974:55). J. Falcone Site, NSTF-14 A.D. Uncalibrated 1346 +/- 190, Calibrated A.D. 1392; A.D. 1348; A.D. 1326; Calibrated 1 Sigma Age Range A.D. 1258-1451 (Schock 1974: 55).
Some of the earlier McFate Phase dates, including those from the type station McFate Site Village No. 1, recently run by William C. Johnson are likely temporal with the Stewart Complex folk. The dates calibrate to A.D. 1409, 1412, and 1430 calendar years (Johnson 1999a).
This paper briefly examines the locations of two sites where Stewart Complex Shenks Ferry ceramics have been recovered. These ceramics appear as classic Stewart Complex types prior to any changes caused by interaction with other groups such as the McFate. As time progresses future archaeological survey and reconnaisance will hopefully add to our understanding of these enigmatic Stewart Complex folk and their relationship(s) with the inhabitants of the upper Ohio River valley. Their sites are considered by this author to be rare but others will likely be found over time. Profound changes would soon occur to classic Stewart Complex ceramics. At some point beginning with the Kalgren-Bell phase classic Stewart like pottery was no longer manufactured. Later ceramics would exhibit high full blown collars in keeping with the trends of the day.
The relationship between the Stewart people and the McFate Phase folk from which they likely borrowed this new ceramic technology (to form the Kalgren-Bell Phase) is currently poorly understood. Was this assimilation of the Stewart people a case of peaceful long term acculturation whereby their material culture underwent change from a dominant neighbor or was the change imposed rather quickly by force?
As the oncoming McFate folk entered the West Branch of the Susquehanna any remaining Stewart Complex individuals were forced to transform their traditions to more closely resemble the latter group. Some Stewart Complex folk may have gradually moved east to become part of the later Quiggle Complex others may have held out in Clearfield County as part of the Kalgren/Bell Phase groups. In any event their endeavors in the Ohio River valley appear to have been short lived and are now know from only a handful of documented sites.
Graybill, Jeffrey R., Henry Heisey and W. Fred Kinsey
Graybill, Jeffery R.
Herbstritt, James T. and Barry C. Kent
Johnson, William C.
Jones, Robert W.
Kent, Barry C.
Lantz, Stanley W.
Myers, Andrew J.
Smith, Ira F., III
Wallace, Paul A.W.
Witthoft, John and S.S. Farver
Witthoft, John and S.S. Farver
Dutch Hill Rockshelter Preliminary Report of Findings |
An Examination of Late Prehistoric McFate Trail Locations |
Testing at Indian Camp Run No. 2 |
Upland Bedrock Mortars and the Significance of Acorn as a Dietary Supplement in Marginal Landscapes |
Shenks Ferry Material Culture in the Ohio River Valley |
An Exploration of the McFate Taskscape: A Case for Compromise|
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