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Mysteries lost to the sands of time
SoVaNow.com / October 31, 2012Secrets to civilizations and distant cultures were lost forever when farmland and sandy islands were plunged underwater with the construction of the Kerr Dam. But for a brief four years in the late 1960s, a handful of intrepid amateur archeologists got a fleeting second chance to solve some of history’s daunting mysteries.
The federal government had sent a team of archeologists to the region prior to the new dam’s flooding to see what they could unearth in the way of Indian culture.
That effort was led by an expert from the Smithsonian.
But more than a decade later, a local, mostly avocational group seized the opportunity to excavate another site — with fascinating results — despite obstacles that included a boating accident, cold wind and sometimes waist-deep muck on an island typically submerged by the then decade-old lake.
Oak Hill Island, five miles or so long in Halifax County at the confluence of the Staunton and Dan rivers (and separated by a thin channel from Occaneechi Island, extending downstream to Clarksville), was inundated when the dam was built, but thanks to seasonally fluctuating water levels, parts of it re-emerged every fall and winter — showing obvious evidence of a Native American village. So in the 1960s, during a prolonged period of low water on the lake, the island got the attention it may have deserved years earlier. (The lake level dropped as low as 283 feet, a rarity in the modern day).
Found over four seasons of digging, from 1966 to 1970, were more than 100 graves, pottery, pipes, a cradleboard, copper trinkets, lizard effigies, fish hooks, more than 1,200 glass beads and evidence of a “contact” society — one that had, directly or indirectly, been in contact with the Europeans moving in.
One anthropologist, Dr. Heather Lapham, now of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, described the array as “stunning.”
But just who these Late Woodland-era indigenous people were remains a mystery: the Saponi? Tutelo? Saura? All were known to have lived in this region at about the time of European contact. Could the crew have found even older artifacts had they dug deeper?
Or, an even more tantalizing prospect — and here’s the $64,000 Question — could the artifacts be remnants of the mighty Occaneechee or the Susquehannocks, who allied to battle European settlers in the infamously bloody Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, but whose villages — somewhere in this area — have never been conclusively identified?
To prove substantial contact with the Europeans, sites would have to yield relics consistent with the known culture of the Occaneechee. (The Smithsonian archeologist’s dig, while successful, yielded no evidence of such contact.)
The evidence for identifying its occupants — pottery and glass beads — is inconclusive.
John H. Wells, who grew up on a farm near Boydton near Buggs Island, became interested in archeology as a child uncovering spearpoints in fields.
By the fall of 1966, Wells was the principal of La Crosse Elementary School. He signed up for a dig under the direction of the man who was then the state’s lone archaeologist, Howard A. MacCord Sr., working with the Archeological Society of Virginia.
Back then, Wells says, the lake didn’t have the traffic it does today, and the Corps every autumn let the lake level naturally fall 8-15 feet. So Wells led a volunteer crew to Oak Hill Island for four seasons, and they dug where they would find protruding evidence.
Among those who took part were Jerry Pool, Joseph Pool, Steve Pool, Tom Pool Sr. and Tom Pool Jr., all of Clarksville; Donald Propst of Chase City and Haskins Wells of South Hill, Ralph Underwood of Victoria, and Bill and Sally Allgood of Lawrenceville.
Sand was softened by the lake water coursing through it most of the year — “This was the easiest digging in the world,” Wells recalls. The job was easy in other ways too.
Opposition from Native American groups “hadn’t come about yet.”
And, as Wells’ definitive book on the site notes, “There were no environmental and few preservation laws in effect … No OSHA existed to control the volunteer workers’ exposure to the hazards of wind, waves, mud, cold weather and related hardships, and no one limited working hours to a fixed schedule,” writes MacCord in a forward. The Federal Antiquities Act of 1906 governed its excavation.
But the work was arduous and complicated, too.
Volunteers had to be ferried out the site, and they were limited to working weekends and holidays. Inclement weather kept them at home. (Wells himself thinks he would have bled to death after stepping on broken glass while wading in water to get his boat on its trailer had a friend not rushed him to medical care.)
But what they uncovered in four years was worth Wells writing a comprehensive, detailed account: “Abbyville: A Complex of Archeological Sites in John H. Kerr Reservoir, Halifax County, Virginia” was published in 2002 by the Archeological Society of Virginia. The reference to Halifax County, by the way, arises from the fact that Oak Hill Island and Occaneechi Island were county lands.
The 333-page book recounts what was found and how the mostly volunteer crew went about its work. The book is filled with maps, diagrams and sketches (but don’t look for Wells in any photos; he was the photographer).
Today, Wells, nearly 78, is retired as assistant superintendent of Lunenburg County Schools, and he lives in Victoria — arthritis keeps him away from dig sites — but the four seasons in Halifax County were exciting, productive ones.
The island where his crew excavated — alternately called Oak Hill Island or Nelson’s Island — held a treasure-trove of information about a group of indigenous people who made their home in Southside about 350-400 years ago. They would have lived in something like longhouses, homes made from saplings placed into the ground and bent over. The rounded tops would have been covered with mats.
They may have spoken Siouan. They hunted deer and ate freshwater mussels. Two of them appear to have been shot.
Wells is reluctant to put a date on the settlement, which he says wasn’t inhabited long. Some experts peg the glass beads at about 1640, hinting that the settlement is too early to be that of the Susquehannocks (originally from near what is now Harrisburg, Pa.) or the Occoneechee who together clashed with the whites in Bacon’s Rebellion — but Wells is respectfully skeptical of that early date.
Among the finds that most fascinated Wells were the burials and the disturbingly high number of infants and children. Buried clay pots contained remnants of food.
Wells believes the large number of child deaths wasn’t from any sort of famine or expected mortality but from “some sort of disease they picked up from the settlers” to which they had little immunity.
In the midst of its productivity, the group was caught off guard when, after 1970, the Corps of Engineers stopped letting the water level sink every winter — thus bringing to a screeching halt their research and reclamation efforts.
Landowners and lake users had successfully prevailed upon the Corps to keep the lake level up year-round. The volunteer archeologists had thought they had countless more seasons to keep digging at affiliated sites; they didn’t.
But far from being bitter, Wells recalls that the volunteers were fairly resigned: The work was hard year after year, and their lives were getting busier.
Still, goodness knows what Wells’ team never got to: “There were vast expanses” on Oak Hill Island never excavated, Wells laments.
In addition to Native American artifacts, Oak Hill Island, near present-day Staunton River State Park, also contained clues about Abbyville — an early settlement in Mecklenburg County.
Founded by white settlers in the late 1700s, Abbyville comprised a ferry and a flour mill and a village. If you wanted to cross from Mecklenburg into Halifax, or vice-versa, this was one of the places where you could. Today, laments Wells, some of Abbyville is now the Staunton View Camping Area in Mecklenburg but much of it, like the Native village in sight of it, is under water.
Oak Hill Island is completely submerged — out under the mile-wide reservoir as seen from the tip of Halifax County’s Staunton River State Park promontory.
Can the Abbyville sites be re-explored in the future? After all, the lake has been precariously shallow for a number of recent drought-stricken summers.
Silt is building up in the channel, Wells notes, probably burying Oak Hill Island all the deeper.
Turns out that window in the 1960s was just that: a second chance. There probably isn’t a third.
Also receding into the sands of time is the answer to who the people were, and exactly what happened to them.
Like most of the Native Americans in the late 1600s, notes Wells, “They were being displaced; they were on the move, seeking a new home.”
“Abbyville” is available for sale at the South Boston-Halifax County Historical Museum, which also houses many of the relics found at the site. The museum is open Weds-Sat., 110-4. (434) 572-9200
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