By Brandon Martin
Most Americans are familiar with the origin story of Thanksgiving Day. As the story goes, the Indigenous Americans taught the pilgrims how to cultivate corn, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants, which enabled the pilgrims to survive in their new environment. After their first successful harvest, the pilgrims and indigenous people celebrated with a feast often referred to as the “First Thanksgiving.”
While it took the pilgrims about a year to grow accustomed to life in the New World, they learned the lessons from thousands of years of hard work and discovery by the natives.
Little is known about the lives of the indigenous people before the first European settlers; but due to the work of archeologists like Dr. Hayden Bassett, of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH), more is being unearthed about how they lived, hunted and migrated.
Bassett recently discussed the prehistoric settlements of indigenous groups along the Smith River during an event at the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center and Museum.
“This is an effort to bring together about 60-years-worth of archeological data and information and use that data to be able to say something about life in Henry County over the last 10,000 years,” Bassett said.
To locate some of the prehistoric sites, Bassett said “we are not just out there wandering.” Instead, he said archeologists use a method called predictive modeling. By combining factors like proximity to water, elevation, aspect and slope, researchers “find the most likely location for past human settlement,” according to Bassett.
In Henry County alone, he said there are approximately 264 archaeological sites.
“We can use those 264 archeological sites and all of the artifacts and data that came from them to begin to look at how people lived at certain points in time and how life changed as the environment changed, as new developments like agriculture, pottery and the bow and arrow came along,” Bassett said.
The first groups of people began migrating across the continent beginning in the Paleoindian Period around 16,000 B.C., he said.
“This is the period in which at the end of the Pleistocene–think between 10,000-13,000 years ago–and there is still a land bridge from North America and Asia through Siberia,” Bassett said. “That allowed people who were hunting big game to move across that land bridge.”
Bassett said that global warming caused an “ice-free corridor” to open from Canada and down into the United States.
“The Rocky Mountains created a natural barrier so most of the settlements actually went east,” Bassett said, adding that artifacts, such as Clovis Points, are evidence left behind from the migration.
The earliest Clovis Points found in Henry County date to around 9,200-8,000 B.C., according to Bassett. These points were used to hunt “the biggest game in North America. At the time, that was the mastodon.”
By working in groups, early settlers were able to take down the mastodons. Bassett said groups of about “25 people at any one given time” settled in Henry County.
Archeologists refer to the groups as a microband, he said, and explained that “microbands are groups of related individuals” that followed one another around “hunting and largely living on the floodplains of the major river systems. We know that about two or three microbands were occupying the Roanoke River drainage and at one point in the year, they are all coming together at maybe Smith Mountain Lake” to meet up to trade and conduct marriage ceremonies.
Outside of those occasional meetings, Bassett said that the microbands would spread throughout Henry County by following the river systems to hunt.
Between 9,200-8,000 B.C., the terrain in Henry County resembled modern day Eastern Canada, but that changed with the onset of the Archaic Period, which lasted from 8,000 B.C., until 1,200 B.C., when “Henry County begins to resemble today’s environment. It’s a little bit colder, but otherwise the tree canopy looks similar to today,” Bassett said. “Oak, chestnut and hickory are dominating. The coniferous forests are retreating north and with it the animals that prefer the cold weather environment.”
Some of the animals to leave Henry County during the time included bison, caribou, and moose. Additionally, the mastodon went extinct around 8,000 B.C.
This led to “people really clinging to the river,” Bassett said. “Part of that has to do with where they are setting up their base camps. We know there is a large one in Philpott. We also know there is another large one around the Smith River Sports Complex.”
Bassett said the settlers would hunt on ridge tops for white-tail deer, bear, and mountain lions, which they would take back to the base camps.
With the addition of inventions like the atlatl, a spear throwing device, Bassett said hunters gained the advantage on the ridge tops instead of hunting along the rivers. The atlatl “attaches to the end of a spear and allows you to propel it much farther with more velocity. You can actually increase your accuracy and your range.”
By having these base camps, the population grew significantly from 6,000-2,500 B.C.
“People are investing more in a local resource base,” Bassett said. “Rather than traveling extensive, long distances, the Middle Archaic is when you see people largely clinging to Henry County, Patrick County and Franklin County for all of their food, all of their stone resources that they are using to make tools and that type of thing.”
Near the end of the Archaic, Bassett said people began to centralize more towards Henry County and develop tools like soapstone bowls which were used to cook food directly in a fire.
Next came the Woodland Period between 1,200 B.C. and 1,500 A.D.
“That’s a point where we begin to see permanent settlements,” Bassett said. “Things that look like villages and very much act like villages. All of them on the floodplains of your major rivers. People begin living in these dome-shaped houses (covered in bark) on the Smith River.”
The diversification of tools during this period hint to more permanent settlements, according to Bassett. He said that people began crafting tools from bone and using tobacco.
“There’s not much in Henry County from this period,” Bassett said. “We think that is because a lot of people go to the Roanoke River, so the population becomes very low.”
Around 900-1,500 A.D., the population in Henry County exploded, Bassett said.
“One of the main indications is we get the arrival and adoption of maize or corn as a stable food item that allows people to settle the floodplains for a long period of time,” Bassett said. “It also allows people to store food for a very harsh winter, if need be.”
The largest fortified villages in Henry County were near Philpott, Stanleytown and Martinsville.
“At this time, we get the emergence of distinct cultures,” Bassett said. “They are not quite tribes at this point, but there is a sense of shared beliefs and stylistic choices as they are decorating similar styles with their pottery. They are what archeologists call the Dan River people.”
Bassett said the grouping encompassed an area from Roanoke to South Boston from 1,200-1,450 A.D.
“In Henry County, we have the most archeological sites from this period than anywhere else in Virginia or North Carolina,” Bassett said, and added there were approximately 500-700 people living in Henry County on average at the time.
“They are much more nucleated. More compact. Circular villages that actually have a palisade or a fortified wall around them,” Bassett said. “It (the palisade) indicates some kind of fear. We believe it’s an indication of environmentally-induced stresses during this time.”
With the warming period and droughts, Bassett said the villages likely needed the walls to protect their winter surpluses.
“The Seneca and other groups from the Ohio Valley were coming into Henry County and raiding this area for those food surpluses,” he added.
Bassett said the food supply was diverse during this time.
“People are largely cooking stew-based meals,” he said. “They were centered around white-tail deer, hickory nuts, acorns, and corn more than anything.”
Based on storage pits discovered by archaeologists, people also were eating mountain lions, passenger pigeons, Roanoke bass, American eel, turtles, and an assortment of other animals that aren’t typical in the area anymore.
Recreation is another aspect of early life, Bassett said, and added that many indigenous people played a game called Chunkey.
“It involves rolling these stone discs on the ground and typically the men would compete with one another or other villages in trying to throw a spear and knock over that rolling stone as it’s being tossed across the ground,” Bassett said. “Different villages in Henry County would get together and gamble with one another over this game.”
Bassett said the game was likely introduced to the area through trade routes from Illinois.
As more information is compiled about the daily lives of these villages, Bassett said archeologists have an idea of religion and beliefs.
“They start burying people in dedicated sections of the village. Now what does that indicate to you? They need a place to revisit people. They want to know where people are after they bury them,” Bassett said. “For some reason, they are starting to honor their dead. We see that in the burials themselves.”
From drawings of the burial grounds, Bassett said it was ascertained that people were buried with their bodies pointed towards the East.
“That’s a great indication for archeologists that there is some type of belief system,” Bassett said. “It’s kind of fuzzy as to what that belief system is, but when you begin to combine all the data, you can make connections that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”
One artifact found near a settlement in Philpott shows a face with lines underneath the eyes. Bassett said the image is like other artifacts found in the Southeast and “is called the Weeping Eye Motif. We see it in every state in the Southeastern U.S. It’s a part of a cosmology that is polytheistic where they recognize three or four major deities.”
One such deity is called the “Thunderbird,” according to Bassett. “It was modeled after the hawk. Many types of hawks have this V-shaped marking under their eye. Now archaeologists know what we used to call these Weeping Eye Motifs are probably these deities. Throughout Henry County they only recognize one deity out of this polytheistic system throughout the Southeast and it’s this Thunderbird.”
Bassett said little more is known about the belief system than that.
To find out more about the previous settlements, Bassett said that VMNH will be conducting excavations of known sites in Henry County over the next two years.
“Most of them were excavated in the 60s and 70s,” Bassett said. “Archeology has come a long way since then so we can now complete some of those excavations. A lot of those villages were only half excavated. We can return there and ask new questions.”