Friday, August 3, 2012

Elk County

This week we travel to Elk County located in the “Pennsylvania Wilds” of northern Pennsylvania. The county forms 832 square miles in the eastern section of the High Plateau Section of the Appalachian Plateaus Province of Pennsylvania and has a population of about 32,000 people. The principal water system is the Clarion River and its tributaries that form part of the Upper Ohio Valley. A small, eastern section drains to the Susquehanna’s West Branch Valley via the Driftwood and Bennetts branches of the Sinnemahoning Creek. Established in 1843, Elk County was formed from parts of Clearfield, Jefferson and McKean counties and its namesake is the Elk, a majestic four legged creature that still roams the more isolated parts of the county. Two state properties, Bendigo State Park and Elk State Park are also located in its forested woodlands and are popular outdoor facilities especially during the warm summer months.  A large part of the Allegheny National Forest is located in the western section of Elk County which holds favor to hikers, hunters and snowmobilers alike, at various times of the year.

Elk County has a long prehistoric record extending back to the Paleoindian period when much of the Northeast was experiencing a cool dry climate filled with a mosaic-like forest of spruce-pine and hardy deciduous hardwood trees. In “The Story of Ridgway” by Harry Hill (1964), mention is made of two fluted point discoveries near the mouth of Bear Creek, attesting to the site as a hunting station for Native Americans of the earliest times who went there before the climate turned warmer and drier and the forest cover approached modern standards.

36El 17 excavation trench

The Archaic Period in Elk County is represented by sites containing side-notched and corner notched points made from river drifted pebbles principally of the gray mottled Onondaga and other glacially derived cherts of the Allegheny and lower Clarion River Valleys. A dark grayish brown to black colored marine chert of the Vanport member was also a lithic material favored by Archaic hunters and gatherers for tipping their atlatl dart shafts. Typical forms were of the Brewerton side and corner notched, although stemmed points leading into the Woodland period were also made and used by the Archaic people who once lived in this region of northern Pennsylvania.

location of post molds at 36El 17

As time went on native populations grew in size. By the Late Woodland Period we see a rise in site density throughout the Clarion and Sinnemahoning drainages where settlement locations seem to have focused on upland and riverine settings. Archaeological research at one of these sites, the McKinley Earthwork, was carried out in the mid-1970’s by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission under special contract with the Allegheny National Forest (Smith and Herbstritt 1976). The site is one in a cluster of three-dimensional earth rings constructed by the McFate Culture sometime in the 15th century. Its location seems to suggest that it was a place of refuge selected for defense where a palisaded wall encircled an oval-shaped area measuring 315 feet by 230 feet. Archaeologists discovered that a ring  of earth averaging about five feet in width and about two feet in height was mounded up to support a wall of upright posts.  It is estimated that the wall was about 15 feet high and spanned the entire perimeter of the site. Interior postmold stains indicated the presence of dwellings and internal pit features, however, their actual size and function was not wholly ascertained owing to the time constraints of the field project.

triangular projectile points

The principal artifact classes recovered were confined to stone and ceramic objects. Triangular points and utilized flakes made from locally derived pebble cherts were the dominant stone tool types which suggest that hunting was a much practiced activity at the site. Points were essentially isosceles in shape with straight or concaved bases that appear generically Iroquoian in their execution. Ceramic fragments characterized by the shell tempered McFate Incised type, indicate cultural contact with groups further west and north in the French Creek and Chautauqua Creek drainages of Pennsylvania and western New York, respectively.

McFate Incised ceramic rim sherds

The archaeologists also found evidence of smoking technology at the earthring site. Stem and bowl fragments of out-flaring trumpet shaped pipes of fired clay and a small sand-tempered bird effigy pipe bowl fragment indicate Iroquoian influence from northern Pennsylvania and/or western New York, as well. Certain of the trumpet shaped pipes displayed exceptional skill in their manufacture that implies craft specialization within the site’s Native American population.

Moving on to the Historic Period we find that there are 63 recorded sites that are listed under this site/period category. The predominant type numbers 47 Commercial/Industrial with most as “petroleum related” and within the boundaries of the Allegheny National Forest. Among the other Historic Period sites listed is the Loleta Park site (36EL105), a sawmill town dated to the 1898-1913 period. There, two industrial and 11 domestic locations were selected for specific investigation by the National Park Service (Frye et al. 1993). Some of the discoveries at 36EL105 related to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) days of the last century when buildings were constructed on the site and where several of their remnants now survive. The recordation of two water dams were completed during this study that also relate to the CCC component.

Civilian Conservation Corps artifacts

We hope you have enjoyed this brief journey into the prehistory and history through archaeology where interesting information continues to contribute to our ever-growing body of knowledge about the people and their material culture from a part of Pennsylvania where the Elk still roam. 

Frye, Lori, Deborah Dobson-Brown, Herb Beamer and Robert Corso
1993    A Cultural Resource Examination of the Loleta Recreation Area, Millstone Township, Elk County, Pennsylvania. Report submitted to USDA Forest Service, Allegheny National Forest by Archaeological Services Consultants, Inc.
Hill, Harry
1964    The Story of Ridgway. Ridgway Publishing Company.

Smith, Ira. F. and James T. Herbstrit
1976    Preliminary Investigations of the Prehistoric Earthworks in Elk County, Pennsylvania. Report submitted to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Allegheny National Forest by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

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

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