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This site is dedicated to all of the many volunteers who over the years have unselfishly contributed their time and expertise whether it be recording sites, helping to excavate or simply sharing of information regarding items and places if historical significance within the Redbank Valley and surrounding areas of Northwestern Pennsylvania

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The Early Native Americans
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Kenneth Burkett

BACKGROUND

Archaeological sites are locations where early people camped for a short time, established villages or hunted and gathered food and other materials. Some evidence of these activities often remains as artifacts or visible disturbances in the ground. While some represent a single occupation, others are multi-component meaning that many groups visited the spot sometimes successively over thousands of years. Archaeologists are often able to define a sites relative age and understand the lifestyles of these early peoples through analysis of their distinct tools and pottery and by interpreting traces in the soil that reveal house construction and use of pits for food processing, storage and fire containment.

As of May 2004, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission lists 857 formally recorded archaeological sites in the three county area with Jefferson listed as having 161, Clarion with 178 and Armstrong having 518. While many of these sites are not positioned within the Redbank Valley watershed they do represent a regional occupation that using documented diagnostic artifacts can provide settlement and subsistence patterns often datable to specific time periods. Many of the sites represent overlapping instances of multi-component occupations sometimes spanning many millennia.

The physiography and climate of the this section of western Pennsylvania played and important role in prehistoric settlement patterns including where people lived and camped, how they moved about the landscape, and where they gathered resources. Campsites and permanent settlements tend to be located in areas providing at least some protection from bad weather and occasionally enemies. Most are situated along streams or trails and are almost always near natural springheads of cold clear water. Rockshelters are large natural overhangs that provided a simple convenient shelter in bad weather. In some instances the entrances of these the cave-like openings were enclosed with wooden or skin coverings making them very desirable and highly used for short stays during the winter. Sites of the earlier periods are frequently found on higher ground that would have served as a vantage point for observing game movements. Later they tend to occupy more varied settings. Findings include nut cracking tools on hillsides and knolls where acorns and other nut crops were being harvested. Other artifacts such as net sinkers for fishing are found at streamside campsites. When agriculture arrives occupations are situated on flat fertile terrain where sandy soils could successfully be cleared and farmed. Probably the hardest locations to discover are of the Contact Period, which are often situated at a prominent stream confluence or trail juncture and probably remained somewhat cleared making them desirable homesteads for the first European settlers and then the settings of our modern communities.

The single most important commodity to the prehistoric Native Americans was chert from which they made stone tools. While some groups traded for exotic colorful varieties imported from great distances, the most common type used in northwestern Pennsylvania is the Onondaga series found in sediment transported by the Ice Age glaciers and deposited in the gravel of the Allegheny River or as till on the glaciated areas of the Allegheny Plateau. While gathering this chert was relatively easy for populations living near or to the west of the river, those in the unglaciated uplands of Jefferson, Clarion, Indiana and Clearfield counties had to make lengthy journeys during the hot dry seasons when the river level was low enough to expose the gravel bars and nodules could be collected and carried back to their homelands.

Although of a much poorer quality, Vanport Siliceous Shale also referred to by archaeologists as Jefferson County chert, is the only other naturally occurring chert source known in northwestern Pennsylvania (Burkett 2001). Used for millennia in the upland counties, this black and tan chert outcrops geologically on hillsides in the Stanton and Coolspring area where several prehistoric quarry sites are known and many more probably existed prior to their destruction by 20th century strip mining. Often found at these locations are the stone picks used to dig and expose the chert vein, and hammer and anvil stones used to work the raw material into blanks and performs that were crudely shaped in order to reduce their weight and make sure that they would adequately serve as completed tools and points before being carried back to the village. Many of the rockshelters bordering the Redbank and Mahoning creeks contain enormous quantities of chert chips made from further refining or finishing these blades.

Transportation of quantities of raw materials, personal possessions or trade commodities must have been difficult for the Indians who were without the large draft animals so important to cultural development elsewhere in the world. In Western Pennsylvania, it was the dugout canoe, hollowed out of a single large log that served as the easiest means to move both people and heavy loads. The Birch tree whose bark is so often portrayed in artful depictions of Indian canoes did not grow at this latitude, and while to some extent Elm bark could have served the same purpose, canoes made of bark would have been unsuitable for floating on the local swift moving streams where numerous rapids and rocky shoals are common. The east to west flowing Clarion, Redbank and Mahoning waterways were especially important routes crossing between the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers due to the easily portaged short divide ridges in their upper tributaries. The presence of prehistoric inter-regional travelers plying these waters is frequently found on streamside campsites as artifacts made from non-local cherts such as Bald Eagle Jasper, rhyolite, quartzite and argillite from eastern Pennsylvania and Upper Mercer, Choshocton and Flint Ridge cherts from central Ohio.

Overland travel also routinely occurred on well-established trails. In his publication “Indian Paths of Pennsylvania”, Paul Wallace (1964) gathered and presented information on those best known, among which he notes that crossing the area were at least four main paths. The Catawba path originating at Olean, New York and used by the Iroquois to reach points southward as far as the Carolinas is documented as one of the most important early pathways in North America. It entered Jefferson County near Clear Creek and headed south through Sigel, Brookville, Stanton, Worthville, Sprankles Mills, and Grange before leaving the county at Hamilton. The Great Shamokin path extended between Sunbury and Kittanning following the Mahoning creek in Jefferson County from the East Branch to near Smicksburg before entering the Cowanshannock drainage. At Luthersburg a branch of this path called the Chinklacamoose passed from Dubois through Emrickville, Brookville, Roseville and Corsica following the approximate present day Route 322 through Clarion county on its way to Venango (Franklin). The Punxsutawney-Venango path originated in Punxsutawney passing through Frostburg, Grange and Ringold on its way to the historic Indian town of Fishbasket in Clarion County where it joined the Frankstown Venango path northward to Franklin. The presence of major prehistoric village sites situated where the fords of these trails cross major streams documents their use far into prehistory.

Formal archaeological investigations with published reports in this area are few. Unfortunately illicit and uncontrolled digging by artifact hunters, especially in rockshelters over the past two centuries has damaged or destroyed many sources of potentially important archaeological knowledge. When reviewing the Native American prehistory of this region it is possible to reconstruct a synopsis of periods and lifestyles from local site information and artifact collections noting relationships and similarities to other regional sites and recognized excavations.

PALEO INDIAN PERIOD
12000 B.C. – 8000 B.C.

Pennsylvania’s earliest inhabitants known as the Paleo-Indians appear in the archaeological record by at least 14000 years ago and possibly much earlier (Adavasio 2002). This entry coincides with a gradual warming of the climate and the slow retreat of the massive glacial ice sheets that once covered much of Pennsylvania north and west of the present day Allegheny River. Although this section of Western Pennsylvania was never actually inundated by these ice fronts, the much colder environment of that time created a very different open landscape covered with a tundra/tiaga of artic grasslands intermixed with patches of spruce and fir. While found throughout Pennsylvania, Paleo-Indian tools and points are rare suggesting that these people were living in small groups as opportunist hunters frequently moving as they followed the herds of caribou and other now extinct large ice age animals. Their tool kit is often made of exotic cherts from distant sources and contains a very distinctive Clovis projectile point easily recognized by a channel on one or both faces of the blade made by the removal of a long flake. Only a few Clovis points are known from the area, most having been found at small open campsite locations on older terraces above the major waterways.


Clovis Projectile Points

ARCHIAC PERIOD
8000 B.C. – 1000 B.C.

As the climate warmed, the southern woodlands gradually advanced northward completely covering the region with a closed coniferous forest by about 7300 B.C. Anyone venturing today among the remaining large stands of white pine and hemlock in Cook Forest or Clear Creek State Parks can easily note that the large evergreen canopy provides little in the way of wild food resources. It appears that humans were rarely present here during the Early Archaic until at least 6500 B.C. when modern deciduous forests made available considerable varieties of edible plants, nuts and modern game species. Sites of the Archaic period are found throughout the area in all types of settings including rockshelters indicating that these people continued to live as small mobile groups. An almost exclusive use of local cherts and apparent frequent site reoccupation seems to indicate that they were not far traveled. They possibly lived territorially returning to the same spots annually to exploit special hunting and gathering opportunities such as the ripening of nuts and berries, fish spawning runs, and the extensive spring nesting colonies of the passenger pigeon. They had a much more diverse tool kit that included polished stone adzes and axes suited to working hardwood, specially pitted stones to crack nuts and notched sinkers for fishing nets. Probably the greatest invention of this time however, was the atlatal. Long before the bow and arrow was known, this long handled device could extend the arms reach and help send moderately sized spears a long distance with great force. Of the many identified projectile point types from this long period, the small corner notched such as Brewerton series is by far the most common artifact type found throughout northwestern Pennsylvania.


Archiac Period Points and Tools - top row: Brewerton Points; second row: grooved maul, grooved axe, celt; bottom row: netsinkers, pitted stone

WOODLAND PERIOD
1000 B.C. - 1550 A.D.

The Woodland period is marked by three important phases during which a gradual transition in lifestyles occurred centering around the introduction of pottery making, hunting with the bow and arrow and the beginning of agriculture. Not well known in western Pennsylvania, the Early Woodland peoples (1000 B.C. – 50 A.D. lived in small semi-permanent bottomland settlements around which were grown sunflowers and other native plants providing seeds that could be safely stored for times of scarcity. Tobacco was also obviously grown as the first known tubular smoking pipes appear, as do items of personal adornment including beads, gorgets and pendants all made of a locally found soft gray colored stone called fireclay. Another sign of stationary living is the first crudely made clay pots with their distinctive straight sides and flat bottoms, which while being an important advancement for both cooking and storage were much too fragile and difficult to transport. The Adena style projectile points with their long and narrow blades and round-based stems are sometimes made from colorful cherts indicative of a growing relationship with the developing cultural centers of south central Ohio.

During the Middle Woodland period (50 A.D. – 1000 A.D.) western Pennsylvania was on the eastern fringe of the famous Hopewell culture. In the early half of the 19th century, explorations of large burial mounds in Ohio produced extravagant artifacts causing speculation about a hypothetical European or Middle Eastern origin of their builders, as no Indian culture was conceived as being capable of such accomplishments. Large Middle Woodland sites are unknown in this immediate area, but ongoing cultural contact at this time brought the first arrival of corn, beans, pumpkins and squash, which helped provide security from famine, enabled population growth and provided an improved lifestyle. This can be found in the artistic quality of their decorated well made pottery and smoking pipes, along with striking trade goods that include deeply notched projectile points chipped from colorful cherts, banded slate for stone tools and decorative adornments, and more rarely implements and rolled beads of native copper. Although not as imposing as those to our west, some small burial mounds are scattered along the Allegheny River valley extending upstream from Ohio into western New York. Such mounds have not been locally explored or confirmed, but an interesting article published in 1859 by the Brookville Jeffersonian intriguingly notes that mysterious stone cairns containing artifacts and possibly burial remains were uncovered during that year at several locations in Rose Township.


Early and Middle Woodland artifacts - top row: Adena points; center row: Raccoon Notched Points, bottom row; fireclay gorgets and pendants

The last prehistoric period is the Late Woodland (1000 A.D. – 1550 A.D.). During this time dramatic population increases and intercultural contact apparently resulted in pressured conflicts advanced by the first arrival of the bow and arrow easily distinguished on sites by the presence of small non-notched triangular arrowheads. For protection, these people lived in large heavily fortified villages where agriculture mostly replaced the gathering of wild plant foods. In general, such villages were permanent but probably existed for only 10 – 15 years until the local firewood supply and other resources became exhausted before being relocated a few miles away. That the house frameworks were consistently constructed of small saplings usually less than 4 inches in diameter suggests that the selected village locations may have been routinely burned or otherwise keep deforested as tall straight saplings and large open areas that can be farmed on the scale practiced by these groups would not develop naturally in the virgin forests.


Late Woodland artifacts - chipped stone hoe, trangular arrowheads

A regional boundary crosses this area during this period with villages south of the Clarion River found on slightly elevated fertile floodplain terraces along the Redbank and Mahoning creeks and their tributaries. In the northern sections bordering the Clarion River and upper drainage divides of the West Branch of the Susquehanna, villages of a culturally distinct group positioned their villages high on ridge tops where they might have been placed for better defensive capabilities. Extensive archaeological investigations have been conducted on sites of both these peoples in nearby counties.

Typical of the lowland villages is the Fishbasket site complex (36Cl93 and 36Ar134), dating between 1050 A.D. and 1500 A.D. that have been excavated along the Redbank Creek in Clarion and Armstrong counties near New Bethlehem (Burkett 1999). This series of villages each consisted of an open central plaza around which was spaced 18-foot diameter bark covered round wigwam style houses that were in turn collectively surrounded by a crude palisade made of upright poles. Food was stored in small 8-foot diameter oval huts built over shallow grass lined pits or cached it in deep cylindrical storage pits that served as root cellars. While distantly related to the early Monongahela of southwest Pennsylvania, they were a distinct group making a limestone tempered pottery decorated with variations of cordmarking and punctuations of the newly designated Fishbasket series of ceramics.

In contrast, the Bell (36Cd31) site dating to approximately the same time period and located in Clearfield County presents an example of a series of high villages positioned on a hilltop. Houses here were 30-foot long and 16-foot wide longhouses that were arranged in a circular configuration inside a very strong stockade outside of which a deep trench had been dug with the dirt used as an embankment to strengthen the wall. These people did not dig deep storage pits, but instead utilized unique semi-subterranean post-lined keyhole huts to store food. The ceramics at these villages include Shenks Ferry and McFate-Quiggle ware distinctively made with shell tempering and having incipient collars and decorated with combinations of diagonal and horizontal incised lines that appears to be ancestrally related to the developing early Iroquois.


Late Wooodland homes and ceramics - top row: round house and Fishbasket corded pot; bottom row: ovate long house and McFate-Quiggle pot

CONTACT PERIOD
1550 A.D. – 1800 A.D.

Beginning in the late 1500’s, European goods including iron tools and axes, brass kettles, glass beads and other trinkets for adornment first made their way into western Pennsylvania probably through dealings with the Susquehannocks whose territory bordered the northern fringe of the Chesapeake Bay. Old traditions and native technologies were quickly abandoned as trade patterns developed and expanded into the west bringing more and more quantities of superior goods. As dependency grew, the hunting animals for their pelts became indiscriminate causing a rapid depletion in their populations. This resulted in growing competition and tribal conflicts. Along with the goods however also came deadly European diseases: smallpox, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, typhus and diphtheria. By the mid-1600’s disease decimated the Native American populations throughout Pennsylvania and the entire northeast. These epidemics in conjunction with hostilities by the Seneca to gain total control of the fur trade resulted in the complete destruction, dispersal and absorption of the Monongahela and related peoples of western Pennsylvania by 1635 and then the Susquehannocks in 1673 (Johnson 2001).


European Trade Goods - brass kettle, brass arrowhead cut from a worn out kettle, glass beads and iron axe

By the early 1700’s the Delaware, Munsee, Shawnee and other eastern tribes had began moving into the nearly vacant middle and lower Allegheny River basin as displaced refugees trying to escape the growing European takeover of their native homelands. Here they banded together in a cultural mix of scattered small non-fortified settlements occupying the main river valley and uplands along many of the larger tributaries including the Clarion, Redbank and Mahoning.

Over the next several decades the Indians were caught up in almost continuous hostilities as they created and broke alliances during the ongoing struggles to control the Upper Ohio Valley.

Their loyalties lay with whomever was considered as the lesser of evils, and potentially would help or let them retain their lands. During the French and Indian War (1756-1763), most sided with the French since they ventured here only to trade and were perceived as able to keep the settlers at bay. The British occupied the region as soon as the French were forcibly removed in 1758. The eastern tribes almost immediately united in a nearly successful attempt to destroy the British Forts and drive the settlers back over the Allegheny Mountains during what is known as Pontiac’s War. The British then became their allies during the Revolution as they encouraged raids to harass settlers and cause manpower to be diverted westward from the American troops.

After the Revolution, the Americans made peace with the Indians in a series of agreements including the treaty of 1784 that ceded the last tribal lands in western Pennsylvania. By this time, with the exception of the Cornplanter Iroquois land grant in Warren County, most of the remaining Indians had already moved into Ohio or further west. When the first permanent settlers arrived in the early 19th century, they found a region that was again largely uninhabited with only a very few Indians continuing to travel about on hunting and fishing forays, or living alone in hermit like isolation. This seeming void led local 19th century historians to misleading suppositions and published histories stating that this area had apparently been largely uninhabited by the Native Americans.

REFERENCES:

Adavasio, J. M.
2002 The First Americans, Random House Inc., New York, NY

Burkett, Kenneth P.
1999 Prehistoric Occupations At Fishbasket, Pennsylvania Archaeologist 69 (1)

2001 Vanport Siliceous Shale, Pennsylvania Archaeologist 71 (1):1-10

Brookville Jeffersonian
1859 Indian Mounds, Brookville Jeffersonian (April 14, 1859):1, Evans R. Brady, Editor

Johnson, William C.
2001 The Protohistoric Monongahela and the Case for an Iroquois Connection, Societies in Eclipse, Archaeology of the Eastern Woodlands Indians A.D. 1400 – 1700. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London

Kent, Barry C. 1984
1981 A Map of 18th Century Indian Towns in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Archaeologist 51 (4):1-18

Matlack, Harry A
1986 Mystery of the Fort Field, The Bell Site Dig, Self published

Wallace, Paul A.
1971 Indian Paths in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, PA


 
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