Friday, December 20, 2013

Washington County

This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology takes us to Washington County located in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. Washington County is bordered by the Monongahela River on the east, Greene County to the South, West Virginia state border on the west and Beaver and Allegheny counties on the north.
On March 28, 1781 Washington County was formed from part of Westmoreland County. It was named after our American Revolutionary War leader and father of our country, George Washington. The county contains 861 square miles and its seat is Washington, Pennsylvania.

The physiography and geology of Washington County is shared by many of the surrounding counties in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Washington County is in the Waynesburg Hills Section and the Pittsburgh Low Plateau Section of the Appalachian Plateaus Province which consists of Permian and Pennsylvanian geologic periods (250-330 million years old). Much of the bedrock geology is comprised of shales, limestones and sandstones of various types. Some of the largest soft coal deposits underlay these formations and are economically important to much of southwestern Pennsylvania. The Monongahela River, with its many locks and dams, is used to barge the coal down river to Pittsburgh and beyond.

 The general topography of Washington County is characterized by gently rolling hills on its eastern half and , for the most part, rugged hills on its western half where the terrain consists of dissected valleys and somewhat narrow floodplains. With the exception of a small area on the west and an equally sized area on the north that drains to the main Ohio River, the creeks flow eastward to the Monongahela River which joins the Ohio River system at Pittsburgh. There, the principal watercourses include Ten Mile, Pigeon and Chartiers Creeks, the latter of which is the largest.

Chartiers Creek, named after Peter Chartiers, whose mother was likely Shawnee, had a trading post on or near the mouth of Chartiers Creek at present day McKees Rocks. Peter who sided with the French and their Indian allies on the Ohio frontier was also a fur trader and Indian-White interpreter during that period of political turmoil in the Ohio valley.

During the 18th century there were three notable Indian paths that ran through Washington County, all of which intersected at Washington, Pennsylvania and connected with other pathways along all four cardinal points of the compass.

The Catfish Path, from Wallace (1965)

The Catfish Path was so-named after the Delaware Indian, Tingoocque (translated as) “Catfish” (Wallace 1965). The path ran north along Chartier’s Creek and joined with other Indian paths at the Delaware town of Shannopin (Donehoo 1928) at present day Pittsburgh. South of Washington the path crossed both branches of Ten Mile Creek then on to join the Warriors Branch Path near present day Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.

The Glades Path joined with the Ohio River at present day Wheeling , West Virginia and extended eastward to the Raystown at present day Bedford, Pennsylvania. Traveling the path required one to ford the Youghiogheny River at West Newton, Pennsylvania. Other lesser waterways and mountains would have been encountered on the way between present day Somerset and the Juniata’s Raystown Branch. A 1797 entry in  John Heckwelder’s journal states that “ this road [Glades Indian path] is said to be best in summer during dry weather, when both Mountains are also easy of ascent” (Wallace 1965).

The Pennsylvania Archaeological Survey (PASS) files lists 1421 prehistoric and 166 historic sites bringing the total to 1556 recorded sites for Washington County.  This is a rather high site density of one site for every .55 miles. A review of the list shows that 2/3rds of the sites are located in upland settings as opposed to lowland (i.e. floodplain, terrace, island etc.) settings. Most of the upland settings are hilltops, benches and saddles (low points between two higher points).

variety of chert types and projectile points from the George Fisher collection

Cherts of various types were the preferred lithic material used by prehistoric peoples living in the pre-Washington County area. Not surprising, the dominant cultural stages based on projectile point types present at these sites characterized the Late and Middle Archaic periods (4,300-9,000 years ago). Projectile points representative of the Early, Middle and Late Woodland periods followed these next in number. The Transitional and Paleoindian periods are last with 11 and 14 recorded sites, respectively.

hematite celts from Washington County

Historic period sites are few in number when comparisons are made with the number of recorded prehistoric sites. Only 81 sites indicative of this period are known and largely include domestic/farmsteads and commercial/industrial component sites. Whatever the reason(s) the emphasis to report sites has been focused on reporting prehistoric sites of the foregoing eight recognized cultural periods.

cannel coal and slate pendants from Washinton County

The region in and around Washington County has been of interest to antiquarians and archaeologists for many decades past. George Fisher, an amateur archaeologist and collector from Finleyville, Pennsylvania single handedly located and investigated a large number of prehistoric sites dating to the Woodland period (2100 - 450 years ago). The notes and photographs that survive chronicle an active period in his site investigation career from the 1920’s through the 1940’s largely based on Monongahela villages in the southwestern Pennsylvania region. Fisher was especially active in many parts of Allegheny, Washington, Westmoreland and Fayette counties south of Pittsburgh and his report to the Pennsylvania Archaeologist illustrates these activities (Fisher 1930).

In 1973, a team of specialists from the University of Pittsburgh led by James Adovasio commenced excavations at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter located near the small village of Avella, Washington County. Meadowcroft is a dry rockshelter formed from part of a large sandstone cliff of Morgantown-Connellsville sandstone.It is a smaller part of the larger Casselman Formation typical to Washington County’s Cross Creek drainage. The contents of the rockshelter were sealed over many thousands of years by the down slope movement of colluvial sediments. These sediments sealed an incredible  cultural record dating back to approximately 16,000 years ago (cf. Adovasio 1975; 1977).

Map of SW Pennsylvania showing location of Meadowcroft and surrounding region

Over subsequent years, the team of specialists uncovered a multi-layered sequence of intact cultural deposits dating from the pre-Clovis through Historic periods which qualified the site as one of the most continually occupied archaeological records in North America. Meadowcroft Rockshelter was deemed so important that it was recognized worldwide and listed as a National Historic Landmark and World Heritage Site. Meadowcroft Rockshelter is the main feature of interest at Meadowcroft Village where the public can visit the rockshelter through guided tours.

We hope that you have enjoyed this journey to Washington County archaeology and encourage you to read additional information provided in the Reference section of this presentation. Do join us again next week when we will celebrate the Christmas season with more interesting archaeology facts!


Adovasio, James M., Joel D. Gunn, Jack Donahue and Robert Stuckenrath
1975       Excavations at Meadowcroft Rockshelter, 1973-1974: A Progress Report.

                Pennsylvania Archaeologist 45(3): 1-30.

Adovasio, James M.; Joel D. Gunn; Jack Donahue and Robert Stuckenrath. With selections by Jan D. Applegarth, Ronald C. Carlisle, David T. Clark, David Faingnaert, John E. Guilday, William C. Johnson, David Krinsley, Kenneth Lord, Esther Skirboll and Paul G. Wiegman
1977       Meadowcroft Rockshelter: Retrospect 1976. Pennsylvania Archaeologist  47(2-3):1-93.

Donhoo, George P.
1928       A History of the Indian Villages and Place Names in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg.

Fisher, George S.
1930       Indian Sites and Excavations in Western Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 1(2):8-9.

Wallace, Paul A.W.
1965       Indian Paths of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Harrisburg.

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

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