Friday, March 30, 2012

Butler County's role in Pennsylvania's Archaeological Heritage

This week our tour through Pennsylvania takes us to Butler County (Bt) where we will sketch some of the historical and archaeological resources, events and people of this county. Located in the Pittsburgh Low Plateau Section just north of Pittsburgh, Butler County is in the heart of the Upper Ohio Valley where a large number of archaeological sites have been recorded by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s (PHMC), Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey Program (P.A.S.S.).

As we journey back in time we begin with a notable incident that occurred during the mid-18th century involving the Father of our Nation, when Butler County had not formed and the region was the western frontier of Pennsylvania filled with danger and intrigue. The year was 1753, two days after Christmas on a return trip to Virginia, a young George Washington was nearly killed by a hostile Indian. The specific location where Washington’s brush with death took place is not precisely known but historians say the incident occurred near Evans City, at an Indian town known as Murthering Town or Murdering Town (Donehoo 1928:123. Washington’s journal for that day reads “The day following, just after we had passed a place called Murdering Town, we fell in with a party of French Indians, who had laid in wait for us. One of them fired at Mr. Gist or me, not fifteen steps off, but fortunately missed. We took the fellow into custody, and kept him until about nine o’clock at night, then let him go, and walked all the remaining part of the night, without making any stop, that we might get the start so far as to be out of reach of their pursuit the next day, since we were assured they would follow our track as soon as it was light. The next day we continued traveling until quite dark, and got to the river about two miles above Shahapins”. (Sipe 1929:148).This event was one of several which preceded the struggle for control of this territory by French and British troops during the French & Indian War. Native Americans who had occupied these lands long before this western expansion by colonists were swayed by troops to aid in their agendas.

Historic Marker of Washington's close encounter in 1753

Archaeological evidence of Native peoples in Butler county dates as early as the Paleoindian period about 16,000 years ago. Many of the high quality lithic materials found on the prehistoric sites of Butler County are from Ohio sources. Vanport cherts from the Flint Ridge, Coshocton from northeastern Ohio are two principal materials found almost universally on Butler County sites. Pebble cherts from glacial drift deposits are also quite common particularly these secondary souces were used extensively during the Late Archaic, Late Woodland and Late Prehistoric periods. Of the 432 sites recorded in the PASS files 370 are prehistoric and 95 are historic. Most are in upland settings but 146 are located in riverine settings. In descending order of frequency prehistoric sites are as follows: Late Archaic, Middle Woodland, Early Woodland, Middle Archaic/Late Woodland, Transitional, and Paleoindian/Early Archaic.

Fluted Points from Butler County

Paleo-Indian occupations in Butler County are indicated by the presence of fluted point assemblages. The Kellogg Farm site (36BT7) near Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania (McConaughy et al. 1977). At this site at least two finished fluted points and two fluted performs made from high quality chert, probably derived from source(s) in northeast Ohio. A second tool type called a Mungai Knife, also made from a high quality chert is similar, in its morphology, to the type specimen found at Meadowcroft Rockshelter in the Cross Creek drainage of Washington County, Pennsylvania (Adovasio et al. 1975). According to the PASS data base at the PHMC ten other fluted point finds have been documented for Butler County.

The Wolf Creek site (36BT82) a.k.a. College site is located on Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania property. The site was the focus of the University’s Field School Program in Archaeology between 1979 and 1993 (Skirboll and Hanson 1996). Tradition has it that the location was a Kuskuski Indian camp of the historic period although no actual archaeological or historical evidence confirms that assertion.

Profile map of  soil horizons at Wolf Creek Site (36Bt82)

Subsurface testing along the known boundaries of the Wolf Creek site conducted in 1993 revealed the presence of three, assumed contiguous, soil horizons. A radiocarbon date of 16,320+/-970years B.P. was obtained from the deepest stratum. No cultural evidence was found in this stratum but the overlying strata contained prehistoric and late historic period artifacts. Included in the recovered inventory of diagnostic artifacts is an Early Archaic period Kirk Corner-notched point, a Middle Archaic period LeCroy point, various point types of the Late Archaic period and a host of Woodland points. Other stone tool types include drills, scrapers, bladlets and non-diagnostic bifaces. Over four hundred grit tempered pottery sherds were also recovered that were tentatively identified as Mahoning Cordmarked (Mayer-Oakes 1955: 191-192).

Testing also revealed the presence of twenty-one pit features at the Wolf Creek site. Most were fire pits, others were historic disturbances and one (Feature 28) was a clay lined ash filled pit overlain with burned limestone fragments which the researchers have defined as a processing area where limestone was burned for use as pottery temper. Several circular-shaped cobble based features are assumed to have functioned as roasting pits.

The Bonnie Brook site (36BT43) is a multicomponent prehistoric site with two major Johnson Phase Monongahela villages. Located along Connoquenessing Creek on the outskirts of Butler City the Bonnie Brook site is likely the northern most village site of the Upper Ohio Valley’s Monongahela Culture Mayer-Oakes 1955). In the summer of 1977, staff archaeologists from the Section of Man, Carnegie Museum of Natural History totally excavated the site and recovered important information on Monongahela community patterns and material culture (Herbstritt 1981). The project was undertaken to recover archaeological resources prior to the construction of a phosphate removal facility proposed at the location by the Butler Area Sewer Authority.

Pre-Woodland-Late Prehistoric material evidence recovered from the site include Early through Late Archaic, and Upper Ohio Valley Transitional. In addition to a late Dalton-like biface, diagnostic projectile points/knives are: Kirk, LeCroy,St. Albans Side-notched and a modicum of small Shriver-Brewerton-like side-notched and a small Ashtabula assemblage. Lithic preference of the earlier Archaic components seemed to have focused on better quality material with later occupations preferring the local pebble cherts from glacial outwashes.

Bonnie Brook Site Map -36Bt43

There were two Monongahela village occupations at the Bonnie Brook site. The initial village consisted of eight circular-shaped wigwam type houses surrounded by a single palisade line that was superimposed by a second village of ten wigwams and a palisade. The second palisade had a bastion-like feature built onto its wall located on the northeast side of the village. Some of the houses of both Monongahela occupations had attached appendages made in typical Monongahela style. Houses and a palisade section of the first village had burned at some point in time but it is not known if the burning had transpired during occupation or after its abandonment.

The 236 pit and hearth type features recorded at the Bonnie Brook site are assumed associated with the Monongahela occupations. With the exception of hearths and amorphous burned stains these features contained typical Monongahela artifacts – pottery, triangular bifaces, so-called strike-a-lites, drills and triangular-shaped performs and blanks. Anvilstones, pitted stones and a broken discoidal or “chunky” stone were also recovered. A small group of bone and shell artifacts included bone and shell beads, bone awls, a turtle shell cup fragment and an antler drift. Drilled pendants included imitation cannel coal teeth or claws and a black bear’s canine tooth. Ceramic artifacts were dominated by Monongahela Cordmarked pottery followed by ceramic disks and pipes. One pipe bowl fragment was made from a fine grained stone of a non-local source.

An approximate estimated age of the Late Prehistoric occupations at Bonnie Brook site is around AD.1400 based on the ceramics and an uncorrected radiocarbon date of AD. 1415 which places the Monongahela occupations into the Johnston Phase. Two other uncorrected radiocarbon dates of AD.1765 and AD. 1770 are rejected on the absence of European derived trade goods and the fact that the Monongahela Culture disappeared from the Upper Ohio Valley by the first quarter of the 17th century.

Closing in on the 21st century we turn our attention to two historic sites in Butler County where some rather interesting archaeology has been done. Archaeological investigations of the Butler County Historical Society owned properties, these Historic sites were investigated under the direction of Dr. Ed Dlutowski as a public outreach program, oriented toward bringing archaeology to the public forefront with a dual emphasis on grade school level students and retirees. An integral part of these programs came about through creation of the Junior Archaeologist Program and the cooperative efforts of Slippery Rock University’s Institute for Learning in Retirement.

The Lowrie/Shaw House built in 1828 in downtown Butler City was originally the home of U.S. Senator Walter Lowrie. It is on the United States National Register of Historic Places.

The Little Red School House  , a one room school house built in 1838 was the first Public School in Butler County. Its occupational history after closure in 1874 included use as an office, library, meeting place and a Red Cross Center.

References Cited
Donehoo, George P.

1928 A History of the Indian Villages and Place Names in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Harrisburg.

Herbstritt, James T.
1981 Bonnie Brook: A Multicomponent Aboriginal Locus in West-Central Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 51(3):1-51.

Mayer-Oakes, William J.
1955 Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley. Annals of the Carnegie Museum, 34(2).

McConaughy, Mark A., Jan D. Applegarth and David J. Faingnaert
1977 Fluted Points from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 47(4):30-36.

Sipe, C.Hale
1929 The Indian Wars of Pennsylvania. The Telegraph Press.

Skirboll, Esther R. and RogerW. Hanson
1996 Preliminary Findings at the Wolf Creek Site (36BT82), Butler County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 66(1):54-67.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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