A Place called Kentucke
Creating the Hunting Grounds
The origins and meaning of Kentucky are unknown. The name may come from the Wyandottes, who referred to the region as “the land of tomorrow,” or from a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) word for “place of meadows.” In the late eighteenth century, white colonists, surveyors, and observers wrote of the region as “Caintucke” or “Kentucke,” which one might imagine had a long e (ē) as the final syllable. Settlers in the backcountry, the westernmost reaches of the British colonies along the eastern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, often dropped the final syllable. They simply called the region “Caintuck” or “Kentuck.” They most certainly did not end it with a “y”—that is an American invention. There is one constant, however: since the earliest human presence in what became Kentucky, people have understood the region as hunting grounds. This is the mythical foundation of the “Dark and Bloody Ground,” a place where hunters from different cultural origins confronted each other over the abundance of large game, but that is a late chapter of a story that reaches far back into prehistory.
Between 22,000 and 17,000 BCE, glaciers encompassed much of the Northern Hemisphere and froze enough of the earth’s waters to cause sea levels to drop. Shallow seas, like the Bering Strait between North America and Asia, emptied and exposed land across which ancient peoples slowly migrated. Were these Paleo-Americans the first humans in the Western Hemisphere? Until the late twentieth century, most archaeologists and historians thought so. Recent archaeological evidence from Chile, however, makes it clear that humans were in southern South America by 10,500 BCE, nearly one thousand years earlier than previously thought. The evidence does not align with what we know about Paleo-American migrations: nomadic peoples hardly could have spread over such a great distance in just a few centuries. Although the Bering land bridge was the primary route by which most ancient peoples entered the Americas, this new evidence suggests that at least one other migration occurred at an earlier time, as long ago as thirty thousand years, and probably via sea vessels.
The ancient Asians who crossed the Bering land bridge became physically isolated in the northwestern corner of North America, trapped by what archaeologists call the Wisconsin Glaciation, two great ice sheets that covered most of Canada. They stretched southward over what is now New England, the Great Lakes, and the Midwest as far south as the Ohio River, and to the Pacific Northwest. The two ice sheets converged on the eastern ridges of the Rocky Mountains and may have been separated by an ice-free corridor that allowed animals and humans to migrate slowly southward. By 15,500 BCE, the climate began to moderate. As glaciers slowly retreated and melted, the oceans gradually filled and submerged the land bridge. As the climate warmed over the next seven thousand years, more routes opened to Paleo-American migrations southward and eventually eastward across the American continents.
Around 10,500 BCE
, small groups of Paleo-Americans followed woolly mammoths, giant sloths, and mastodons along the southern edges of the ice sheet into the region south of the Ohio River. The region’s abundant salt licks drew mammals to the region. Warm saline waters bubbled up there, providing salt for the animals’ diets. Early white settlers labeled
the marshy land that surrounded the licks “jelly ground.” Large mammals occasionally became trapped and died in the marshes. When British colonist Nicholas Cresswell traveled through northern Kentucky in 1775, he came across a place which he called Elephant Bone Lick (later known as Big Bone Lick) for the large bones, tusk fragments, and teeth that he found. For decades, Europeans and Americans debated whether elephants had indeed lived in North America, while Native Americans argued that remains were from sacred white bison.
Not all mammoth and mastodons whose skeletons Cresswell found at Big Bone Lick had been trapped in the marshes. When early white explorers like Frenchman Charles LeMoyne in 1739 and British colonists Robert Smith in 1744, John Findley in 1752, and Robert McAfee in 1773 came upon Big Bone Lick, they thought they had found a natural preserve of ancient animal remains. Native American lore corroborated their beliefs. For example, a Delaware told McAfee that the “big bones just as he saw them now, had been there ever since his remembrance, as well as that of his oldest people.” Yet, beginning with Paleo-Americans, the peoples who hunted Kentucky learned to recognize where animals congregated, and licks had become killing fields. Over millennia as humans hunted mammals at the licks, bones accumulated and, preserved by the minerals of the licks, gave credence to the myth of Kentucky as natural hunting grounds. In fact, humans shaped the circumstances that created it.
Paleo-Americans initiated this process with their heavy reliance on hunting. Clovis points—sharpened stone points that were bound to a bone or ivory shafts to be used as spears—provide the earliest evidence of human life in Kentucky. Paleo-Americans followed the large mammals and lived in small, short-term camps that included caves and rock shelters. As the climate continued to temper, the great coniferous forests of evergreens—needle- and cone-producing spruces, pines, and firs found adjacent to glaciers—began to disappear. Mammoth, mastodon, moose, and elk populations that had sustained Paleo-American diets gradually became extinct or followed the glaciers as they receded northward. Mixed deciduous forests of flowering and nut-bearing trees like oak, beech, maple, chestnut, elm, walnut, and sweet gum combined with berry-producing shrubs and herbal plants to replace the older landscapes. People began to forage for berries and nuts and to hunt smaller animals such as fish, birds, reptiles, and small- to medium-sized mammals. Because smaller game animals were not herd animals and were less migratory, Paleo-Americans became less mobile. They settled into their environments. Thus, the Archaic culture evolved.
Clovis point from webster county dated to the early Paleoindian era, roughly around 11,000 BCE. (Kentucky Archaeological Survey, Lexington, KY)
As native communities took root in Kentucky between 7000 and 1000 BCE
, they formed less-migratory societies that combined hunting, fishing, and gathering. Archaeologists classify this as the Archaic period in North America. Although they did not actively cultivate nut and berry plants, Archaic peoples began burning underbrush to replenish soils that could sustain the growth of such plants. They also domesticated dogs: at the Indian Knoll site in Ohio County, Kentucky, archaeologists discovered twenty-three dog burials, some in isolated
graves, others with humans both adults and children. Standing medium height, about fourteen to eighteen inches tall at the shoulder, dogs had long hair, looked similar to wolves, and probably helped with hunts. Archaeologists also have found the oldest evidence of atlatl usage in Kentucky, dating to the Archaic era. Atlatls consisted of a handle and hook made of wood, bone, or antler onto which Archaic peoples fitted a counterweight to sling a wooden spear with a stone spear point. Atlatls extended range and accuracy, making the weapon more useful than just a spear by itself. Archaic peoples created other specialized tools like grooved axes for clearing out plants and grinding stones for crushing nuts and seeds. They also participated in extensive trade networks. Archaeological digs in burial sites have revealed copper from the Great Lakes region as well as shells from the southeastern Atlantic coast. The presence of such mortuary items suggests that some individuals received social distinction in Archaic culture.
Roughly between 1000 BCE and 1000 CE, the stability created by secure food sources and immersion in trade gave rise to the Woodland culture. Native peoples continued many of the cultural patterns found among their Archaic ancestors, but they also cultivated indigenous plants, settled in more nuclear villages, constructed earthworks, and created more elaborate burial rituals. Although hunting remained the primary source of food, Woodland peoples began to purposefully cultivate nut- and seed-bearing plants like sunflowers. Pottery made from clay and fine sand provided a way to preserve nuts and seeds, as well as grasses and other vegetation. By 1000 CE, pottery had become a defining characteristic of Woodland Kentucky. Yet in more rugged areas, along the Upper Green River, for example, pottery would have been difficult to transport. In such regions, Woodland peoples commonly continued to use baskets.
Despite occurring irregularly throughout Kentucky, the development of bow-and-arrow technology also defined Woodland culture. Projectile points began to take the form that we typically associate with arrowheads, making it easier to hunt larger mammals like bison and elk for food and skins. Paleo-Americans and Archaic peoples had prepared animal hides using chipped-stone scrapers. Woodland peoples shifted to bone beamers made from the front-leg bone of a deer to scrape hides. Bone beamers not only made tanning easier but evidenced a new stage of animal usage among native peoples in which they fully used meat, skins, fatty tissues, sinew, and bones. To entice game into their hunting grounds, Woodland peoples used “burning out” techniques to create meadows and canebrakes where larger mammals would graze. The weight of the herds of bison, deer, and elk compacted soils, which made it difficult for underbrush and small trees to grow and which enlarged the meadows into expansive barrens. Through trade networks extending well into Central America, maize and beans arrived in western Kentucky around 800 CE. These crops gave some Woodland Kentuckians a more reliable and sustained agriculture as well. Stable food sources—both plant cultivation and hunting—allowed for more long-term villages in which Woodland culture flourished. Nevertheless, most Woodland peoples moved from settlement site to settlement site in a larger region. They followed herds of animals, and several years sometimes passed before they returned to a previous village location.
Around 450 BCE
, Woodland peoples in the Ohio River valley introduced new cultural practices that archaeologists label the Adena tradition. Burial mounds in which males and females were interred are the most significant cultural markers of the Adena because they suggest development of increasingly complex ideas about the afterlife. The culture, in fact, got its name from a large burial mound located on the early nineteenth-century Adena estate, located in Chillicothe, Ohio, and owned by Thomas Worthington. The burial mounds of the Ohio River valley excited and confused Europeans and Americans in the late 1700s and early 1800s just as the bones at Big Bone Lick had. They considered the mounds too sophisticated to have been built by the indigenous peoples who lived nearby. The Woodland peoples often entombed ritual goods like copper
bracelets and mica-head ornaments, accumulated through the trade networks first established in the Archaic era, alongside village leaders. Mortuary processing camps that were often adjacent to the mounds signified another cultural change: the segregation of ritual sites from domestic habitations. Although centered north of the Ohio River, Adena culture spread across northern and eastern Kentucky (from the Salt and Kentucky Rivers eastward into the Big Sandy region). The Adena cultural tradition evolved into the more-ritualistic and influential Hopewell tradition that emerged across the midsection of North America. Although Hopewell cultural forms and effects were most evident in southeastern Ohio, south of the Ohio River, very few Hopewell patterns manifested in Kentucky. Some archaeologists suggest that they did not appear here because Kentucky had become peripheral to regional native life—a hinterland of Adena-Hopewell culture. Still, much of Kentucky remained occupied by Woodland peoples who hunted and farmed. Some crafted pottery, made arrowheads and advanced tools, and lived in increasingly complicated and hierarchical societies.
Crosscut profile of the Adena-era Robbins Mound in Boone county, used as a burial site for more than one hundred individuals. (Kentucky Archaeological Survey, lexington, KY)
Roughly between 1000 and 1600, two distinct cultures evolved from the Woodland era: the Mississippian culture along the length of the Mississippi River, and the Fort Ancient culture along the Ohio River basin. The cultivation of maize became the foundation for each. Along the entire length of the Mississippi River, sustained maize production led to greater centralization of peoples into larger and permanent fortified towns, higher mounds with ritual plazas topped by temples, and village populations that sometimes exceeded one thousand residents. These larger towns sat on broad floodplains where residents took advantage of greater agricultural output to support high population densities. Stretching away from the Mississippi River valley, along the Tennessee, Salt, Green, and Cumberland Rivers, were smaller villages and hamlets. Along the Upper Cumberland and Upper Green Rivers, floodplains narrowed, and people lived on smaller farmsteads and in hunting camps and rock shelters.
Similar to their Woodland ancestors, the Mississippians continued to rely on hunting. Even as they promoted maize-based diets and cultivated hickory nuts, marsh elder, and persimmons, hunting remained a primary characteristic of their culture. Nevertheless, life became more permanent, encouraging development of centralized political chiefdoms and religious institutions. Large Mississippian temples arose at Cahokia in modern-day Missouri, Aztalan in modern-day Wisconsin, and Moundville in modern-day Alabama. Their existence attests to the extent of Mississippian culture. At such temples, community elites used information and goods obtained through trade to legitimize their social positions. One such Mississippian settlement was at Wickliffe Mounds in modern Ballard County, Kentucky. First occupied around 1100, the village sat on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, with houses and a central plaza surrounded by earthworks. One mound served as a cemetery. It includes as many as nine hundred interments. Around another mound archaeologists have found higher numbers of cooking vessels, evidence of better cuts of meats, new tools like hoes, and trade goods like Burlington chert—a fine-grained quartz rock from the upper Mississippi River valley that was particularly good
for making arrowheads. Although many of the tools the Mississippian peoples used were similar to those of their Woodland ancestors, they created more-elaborate pottery. Instead of sand, they mixed crushed mussel shell into the clay, creating smoother and thinner pottery vessels. Before fire-hardening the vessels, potters incised into their creations artistic symbols that appeared repeatedly but whose meanings have remained undecipherable. The new pottery technologies, known to archaeologists as Ramey Incised pottery from Cahokia, suggest the rise of more elite chieftains who dominated local life and distant trade. Yet, Mississippian culture at Wickliffe Mounds and elsewhere was not stable. Most villages existed for only 50 to 150 years before populations either moved or power shifted to a different chieftain, who established a new village center.
Along the Ohio River valley, the introduction of maize contributed to the rise of the Fort Ancient culture. Their towns were most vibrant in summer, when they farmed adjacent fields of maize, squash, beans, gourds, sunflowers, and tobacco. They practiced swidden agriculture, a system in which a tract of land was cultivated until its fertility depleted and the community relocated to new farmlands. Evidence also exists that they kept, although did not domesticate, turkeys. In contrast to their Adena ancestors, the Fort Ancients reduced consumption of nuts and grasses, but they remained reliant on hunting, which occupied them in winter. Bison and deer remained in the region, drawn by the abundant plant life that had been cultivated through centuries of Woodland-era burnings.
In contrast to Mississippian life, Fort Ancient life was less sedentary. Fort Ancient communities, therefore, established fewer and less-elaborate ritualistic centers. Entire family groups of twenty to thirty people migrated in search of bison herds in the winters, and when they exhausted lands from overfarming, villages uprooted to find new farmlands in spring and summer. Even in a village of forty or fifty people, households appeared scattered. These groups located ritual areas far from domestic habitations. Burials took place away from settlements and without social distinction. The patterns of life—kinship as the organizing principle, related but semi-autonomous households, non-segregated burials—suggest some notion of egalitarianism.
By 1200, however, the Fort Ancients began to demonstrate more social organization and stratification. Fort Ancient villages became larger as multiple family groups joined together under “Big Men,” who had demonstrated hunting prowess, natural leadership skills, and access to exchange networks. Some villages housed up to 500 residents, taking the shape of circles or arcs with distinct activity zones surrounding a central plaza: mortuary areas (sometimes a low mound) near the plaza, then domestic habitations, and finally storage and trash areas. One such Fort Ancient site was at Fox Farm in Mason County, Kentucky. Located on a ridgetop overlooking the Licking River, the village contained at least 5 low mounds, 2 fire basins, and 208 burials. Even though they employed mounds as burial sites, the mounds were never as large as those of Mississippian villages. Fort Ancients relied heavily on maize and beans as well as deer, elk, and bear. Nuts had nearly disappeared from their diets. The presence of engraved shell gorgets—crescent-shaped ornaments worn around the neck—and copper artifacts demonstrates villagers’ participation in broader exchange networks that may have introduced incised pottery from Mississippian culture as well. Even though they were somewhat remote from the Mississippians, the Fort Ancients at Fox Farm increasingly interacted with and borrowed from the inhabitants of western Kentucky. The central role of the plaza suggests the importance of group ceremonies and rituals to the strengthening of community ties. The erection of low burial mounds reveals a recognition of individual status. Ornamenting graves with limestone, pottery, stone and bone tools, copper, and marine shell beads evidences their immersion in Mississippian trade networks. And increased size of villages points to more complex political organizations.
Both Fort Ancients and Mississippians inherited the hunting grounds of Kentucky. The former used central and northern Kentucky as winter hunting grounds, and the latter hunted
western Kentucky and eastward along the Green and Barren Rivers. But the region was not just hunting grounds: it was a homeland. Archaeologists, at sites like Adams, Sassafras Ridge, and Winston Tipton, have uncovered proof that Mississippian villages persisted in western Kentucky as late as the 1600s. Fort Ancients continued to use central and northern Kentucky, but for reasons not yet understood, they abandoned settlements in the central region and moved their villages closer to the Ohio River. Only a few smaller villages like Eskippakithiki in Clark County remained as seasonal hunting camps. Later, in the mid-1730s, a more substantial settlement of eight hundred to one thousand Shawnee residents repopulated Eskippakithiki. They protected it with a stockade and farmed over thirty-five hundred acres surrounding the village. In 1752, British trader John Findley commented on the impressive settlement, but by then, Eskippakithiki’s days were numbered. The Shawnees, descendants of the Fort Ancients, were consolidating populations and relocating villages close to the Ohio River following patterns of their ancestors. As European explorers and American colonists wandered into Kentucky in the mid-eighteenth century, they encountered abandoned settlements like Eskippakithiki. They interpreted this to mean that the land was empty and theirs for the taking. Native Kentuckians, however, retained communities in more remote areas, such as the eastern mountains and the far-western floodplains, long after native settlements in more accessible areas disappeared.
Notable mississippian and Fort Ancient archaeological sites, from figures 6.1 and 7.1 in David Pollack, ed., The Archaeology of Kentucky: An Update, 2 vols. (Frankfort: Kentucky Heritage council, 2008), 2: 610, 740. (courtesy of craig Friend)
From Prehistory to History
Mississippian and Fort Ancient cultures developed within a temperate climate that since the eleventh century had averaged a few degrees above the temperatures o...