Friday, July 19, 2013

Potter County

This week we resume our travels through the archaeological heritage of Pennsylvania and journey to the northern region of the state to Potter County.  Often refered to as "God's Country", this county is located in the north central region of the state along the border of New York State in the Appalachian Plateaus Province. This region is characterized by narrow, often steep-sided valleys cut into the rolling plateau surface.   The headwaters of the Susquehanna and Allegheny Rivers originate in this rugged and beautiful section of the Allegheny Mountains. Major tributaries include Mill and Sinnemahoning creeks and flowing to the north, the Genesee River. Most of the county is considered as mountainous upland terrain; interestingly the distribution of archaeological sites is almost evenly divided between riverine and upland settings.

DCNR map 59 - Glacial deposits of Pennsylvania

The effects of Wisconsinan glaciation are evident in alluvial deposition in the Allegheny, and its tributary valleys created by downstream ice-damming of the Allegheny River and the movement of large quantities of soil and rock downslope attributable to glacier change. The Wisconsin glaciation was so named because deposits from its glacier were first discovered, described, and named in the state of Wisconsin. Radiocarbon dating of material from above and below the deposits of sediment left by the late Wisconsinan glacier, scientists have firmly established that in the United States the late Wisconsinan glaciation occurred between about 25,000 and 12,000 years ago. Local testing indicates that the ice was in Pennsylvania between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, reaching its maximum extent about 20,000 years ago. The glacier ran along the northwest corner of Potter County then southeasterly to Pine Creek on its eastern border- basically the northern third of the county.

The stripping and redepositing of soils from glacial activity exposed bedrock of the Catskill formation at or near its surface throughout much of the county.  This formation consists of sandstone, siltsone and shale with much of the soil classified by the Dept. of Agriculture as acidic soils. The glacially deposited gravels, pebbles and cobbles of jasper and chert- were utilized for tool production as evident in the archaeological record. Much of the region is forested in maple-beech-birch with some oak and hemlock.  This is a second to third growth forest- much different than the ‘black forest” recorded by settlers in the 1800’s.

 typical logging camp of the lumber region

This mountainous terrain with its dense tree cover is likely a factor in the low number of recorded sites in the county, but also the cold temperatures factor during the short growing season for certain food sources utilized by native peoples. This would have been especially true prior to the development of agriculture when such foods as nuts and berries were most important.  The Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey file (PASS) lists one Paleoindian site on a terrace above Twelve Mile Creek which was recorded based on artifact information provided by a private collector. Additional reference is made to this collection as “four stumpy fluted points of black flint” by John Witthoft in Foundations of Pennsylvania Prehistory.

Excavations conducted at 36PO4 for a major pipeline project found evidence of a short-term campsite from the late Middle Woodland period. This mixed assemblage of artifacts includes cord marked pottery, chipped stone and one Adena projectile point. The archaeologists noted that the absence of primary and secondary flake debitage indicates that tools were being resharpened as opposed to being made at this location. Flaked stone material recovered included jasper (1) and local cherts (15).

Adeana point and Middle Woodland ceramics from 36Po4

Additional archaeological testing for various highway, water and sewer projects and pipeline projects have produced little evidence of occupation beyond short term camps.  Lithic materials recovered have consistently been local cherts, jasper, and quartz.  Since the county is sparsely populated there have been fewer projects requiring archaeological investigations, thus fewer sites are found, investigated and recorded. 

As mentioned previously, the cold temperatures and short growing season of the region may have factored into the level of occupation.  A research project conducted in 1986 by William Roberts examined the growing season of corn in Hebron Township, Potter County.  Roberts compared “flour corn” Zea mays amylacea which takes 130 days to mature, to Zea mays indurate “flint corn” which matures in 100 days.  His observation of the frost patterns and growing season prompted him to research why hilltop fields might escape frost damage while low garden areas were destroyed by frost.  Roberts recorded temperatures at four locations for the growing season in mixed settings including twos hilltop archaeological sites.   Elevations ranged from 2,500’ to 1800’ ft and covered the period from April 15 to October 10.  The results have important implications regarding site selection and use during the Woodland period.

Temperature inversion as Roberts termed the variation in frost patterns is addressed as “Air at lower temperatures is heavier than air at higher temperatures. Cold air consequently endeavors to push itself under warm air. The result, if opportunity permits, is a circulation of different air bodies until equilibrium is obtained. Cold air from the high ground flows to the lower places and is replaced by warmer air from above. This process works best on calm nights where air pressure is high and and the sky is clear. This allows for “cold islands” cold lakes” or “frost holes” or whatever local term may be applied.

 Roberts research examined the feasibility of native peoples growing corn here during the Late Woodland and concluded that the poor soils and cool temperatures (avg. daily temp 46.1) would likely have restricted the crop to flint corn.  Roberts further compared corn production of Huron maize horticulture with Iroquois practices.  Huron produced single crops of two maize varieties a flour and a flint corn allowing for the possibility for crop failure.  Roberts concluded that hilltop forts and adjacent cornfields may warrant additional examination in better understand their relationship to Native American settlement patterns.

By the time Ole Bornemann Bull, the famous Norwegian violinist who toured the United States purchased land in 1852, the native population had moved out of the county.  Ole Bull attempted to develop a series of Norwegian settlements and assisted in financing many of those who came to Potter County. Transportation into the area was difficult and the lack of funds forced Bull to return to violin performance to raise money.  Restrictions placed on the land that Bull had purchased allowed for use of only steep hillside lands covered in rich pine forests.  Unfortunately the lumber boom occurred after Bull and the other Norwegians had given up hope and moved from the area. Today, visitors can enjoy the beautiful scenery at Ole Bull State Park.

The lumber industry and the boom that would greatly increase the population also wiped out the “black forest” and left hilltops barren due to uncontrolled clear-cutting. Today the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum  located in Galeton offers visitors an opportunity to view an early logging camp and equipment employed in the lumber industry.

We hope you have enjoyed this tour of the archaeological heritage of Potter County and you will seek out the resources listed here to learn more about your county and the important role archaeology provides in understanding our heritage.


Kent, Barry C., Ira F. Smith and Catherine McCann
Foundations of Pennsylvania Prehistory, Anthropological Series of the Pennsylvania Historical     and Museum Commission, Number 1. Harrisburg,1971.

Roberts, William L.
Frost Patterns and Their Implications for Aboriginal Settlement in Potter County, Pennsylvania, Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Pennsylvania State University, Anthroplogy,1988, housed in Section of Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Weed, Carol S., William F. Wenstrom, PhD. and Jeffrey L. Jones

A Cultural Resources Survey of the Proposed Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corporation Expansion of the Wharton Lateral Extension Natural Gas Pipeline, Potter County, Pennsylvania. Unpublished Manuscript, Section of Archaeology. 

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

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