Salvaging Pioneer History along the Ohio River

Article excerpt


Excavation of an area along the Ohio River near Rockport, Indiana, in 1978 revealed the presence of a historic-period campsite. Containing evidence of campfires, animal bone, lead shot, and a few glass beads, the site held the potential for greater significance than was indicated by its size or physical remains. Analysis of the artifacts and animal bone showed that the site was occupied during the latter half of the eighteenth century, probably for less than 24 hours, for the purpose of butchering and presumably consuming bison, along with other locally procured game. Examination of late eighteenth-century ethnographies, as well as letters and journals from the era, suggests that the ethnic identity of the site's occupants was Euroamerican rather than indigenous aboriginal. At this writing, the campsite appears to be the only example found so far of a Euroamerican bison butchering site east of the Mississippi River.


Ephemeral sites, i.e. very short-term occupations, are archaeological conundrums. They are difficult to discover, interpret, and evaluate. Thousands of these sites dot the landscape, but their functions, temporal positions, and significance are nearly impossible to determine. In the Midwest, a century and a half of intensive agriculture has ravaged most of these sites. It is, therefore, extremely rare to discover an ephemeral, short-term occupation with its archaeological integrity intact.

The following account documents the excavation of one of three short-term occupations discovered along the bank of the Ohio River near Rockport, Indiana. The site was the first and, so far, only example of its type to be discovered east of the Mississippi River. However, historical sources suggest that dozens, if not hundreds, of similar sites may be present along the Ohio River. Therefore, the Rockport site is anomalous only in that it is the sole representative of its type to be located and excavated to date.

Site Setting

Rockport, seat of Spencer County, is the southernmost town in the southernmost county of Indiana. Situated on the Ohio River, Rockport lies within a region termed the "lowlands" by early explorers of the river. Above the present town of Tell City, Indiana, the tall bluffs rise almost at the river's edge. Below Tell City, these steep bluffs recede from the river and are replaced by a 5 to 8km-wide floodplain; hence the name "lowlands About 32 km downstream from Tell City, still within the lowlands, a great monolith of Pennsylvanian sandstone rises from the river's edge. It was on and around this nearly 30-m-high outcrop that the town of Rockport was founded and from which it derives its name. The investigated property lies adjacent to the Ohio River and Rockport (Figure 1). Bisecting the study area and forming part of its boundary is Huffman Ditch/Lake Drain Creek. Prior to coal dock construction, the tract was subject to flooding by the river or the creek or both simultaneously.

The modern physiography of the property was influenced by the creek and the river, and these forces caused extreme changes to the property over the last 200 years. According to the 1805 United States Government Land Survey map, that portion of Huffman Ditch/Lake Drain Creek which now forms the southwest property line was then actually the mouth of Honey Creek. Honey Creek currently enters the Ohio River approximately 4 km upstream from the area of investigation. It appears, therefore, that 200 years ago the property was part of an extremely narrow 3 to 4-km-long peninsula.

By 1876 the mouth of Honey Creek had migrated upstream nearly 3 km. An 1876 Spencer County map (Anonymous 1876a:73) shows Honey Creek entering the Ohio River nearly .8 km south of its current mouth. Huffman Ditch/Lake Drain Creek also has meandered away from its 1805 channel (Figure 2). It was understood from county maps that tons of silt had been deposited on and near the tract, but it was impossible to determine how or when or at what rate episodes of soil transport had occurred. …