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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 15, No. 1
March, 1937

Joseph B. Thoburn

Page 109

As a lad of about seven years, on a pioneer homestead in a neighboring state the writer was once walking across a field where the prairie turf had been turned over by a breaking plow a few weeks before and during that interval a torrential rainstorm had somewhat eroded the surface of the sod. As a result of this drenching wash of the exposed sod surface, the ends of the roots of the grass, weeds, and other plants had been scoured free of clinging clay and soil and brought into sight. There, on the top of a long sod, washed free from a covering of earth, along with the grass and weed roots, lay a small, pointed, stone object of brownish gray color—its edge, like its point, somewhat sharpened and its surface sufficiently smooth to reflect the light to a slight degree. It was flattened, and on either edge and near the end opposite the point there were two slight notches. Rubbing the dust and adhering soil from this oddly-shaped object, the seven-year-old youngster carried it to his father, who dug down into an old chest and brought forth ten or twelve like specimens which had been brought from the old farm in Ohio and were fashioned on somewhat similar lines, and then for the first time in his life this youngster learned that these objects were the artificially fashioned stone arrow points which had been used to tip the arrows of the Indian hunters and warriors. From that day onward, an Indian arrow point always held a fascination for that small boy, though he lived in a country where such specimens were so comparatively rare that he could but seldom find one. Nevertheless, unconsciously, his eye was trained to observe the surface of the ground as he rode or walked across a field until, by the time he had reached his middle teens, a horse upon which he was mounted could scarcely trot fast enough to keep him from seeing a piece of chipped flint or chert if it lay in plain sight on either side of the road. However, since keenness

Page 110

of sight did not render him a skillful collector, for he had yet to learn that other weapons, tools, and implements were shaped from the same sort of stone by a flaking process used by the Indians in prehistoric times, he rejected and threw away some otherwise interesting specimens, simply because they were not arrow-points!

Then, one day, he went alone to a point on a high rocky bluff overlooking a creek valley, upon the surface of which there were scattered numerous flakes and spawls of flint or chert and, scanning this surface, he picked up an odd stone of the same sort from which arrow points were shaped. The base of this specimen was about two inches long, elliptical in outline, flat and smooth, as if made by a single fracture, but the top, which, obviously, had been artificially flaked, was rounded to a shape not unlike that of the top of a tortoise-shell. Though the youth realized that this bit of hard silicious stone had been artificially wrought or fashioned, he was at loss to understand its significance, or the purpose for which it had been made. Within a week or two thereafter he had occasion to cross a pasture where the grass had been so closely cropped that the surface of the soil was partially exposed. There, he stooped and picked up a specimen of the same design or pattern as the one he had found on the bluff, though not nearly so large. The two items he brought together and compared and, thereafter, he did not reject such specimen, because they were not arrow tips.

Several weeks later, the youth was privileged to visit the state capital where he carefully scanned the only collection of prehistoric stone implements and weapons in the state of which he knew in the museum of the state historical society. There, sure enough, were more of the round-topped, flat, smooth-based objects, but because they were not labeled, he had to bide his time to learn their identity.

Then, a year or two later, a new railway was constructed through the home town; just where it left the corporate limits it

Page 111

crossed the creek where the channel of the latter was joined by a tributary ravine. The surface of the new road-bed was disturbed by the ties and rails of the new track, but scattered over it and in the sloping outer side of the barrow-pit were numerous bones, fire-reddened stones, flakes of flint or chert—yes, and a tomahawk, several arrow points, and also some more of the turtle-back implements, which, he surmised, must have been designed for use as hide scrapers, as indeed they were. It was plainly evident that the graders had torn into a village, or camp-site, which had been partially buried by flood action. Although the hometown had the distinction of having the first public library in the whole of the Great Plains region, there wasn't a book on its shelves that treated of the people of the Stone Age or of their arts and crafts. The president of a local bank was a man of university training and was greatly interested in such local discoveries, but there were no courses in anthropology in that great institution in his student days; so he could not offer much in the way of helpful cooperation. Even so, however, the boy, who as a lad of seven had picked up his first arrow point from the surface of a prairie sod, now grown to full stature still tramped the fields and in the spring of the year traversed the creek valley-lands and pointed out the sites of the Indian camps of long ago and picked up specimen implements of stone and bone, or scanned the artificial banks of a cut in the creek bank which opened a roadway to a ford across the channel, and there found one or two small shards of earthenware pottery that had been buried by the sedimentary drift of floods long centuries before.

Then, one day when he was twenty-seven years old, he gathered his modest little collection of local prehistoric specimens together, labeled them and carried them to the public library to which they were donated, and departed from the community. Throughout the ensuing twenty years, he had no chance even to look for an arrow point.

Page 112

In 1889-90 he visited portions of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek nations, in the eastern part of what is now the state of Oklahoma, with opportunity to see something of the adjacent portion of the neighboring state of Arkansas. Throughout that region he noted that many fields, meadows, and even wooded areas were dotted and spotted with low, circular mounds of earth, shaped somewhat like that of a saucer turned upside down. Puzzled by the unusual earth formations, he made numerous inquiries of intelligent residents of that section of the country as to the cause or origin of such peculiar formations. Most replies were negative, though, occasionally, someone would respond by saying: "I believe that some prehistoric race was responsible for such a formation, but I have no idea as to why or how it was done." Thereafter, as often as he had occasion to be in that part of the country, his curiosity as to the origin or cause of these small mounds was renewed. In 1907-8 the writer did his first active work in the lines of research and writing on local and western history, in the course of which he had occasion to learn much of the customs, habits, arts and crafts of the native American Indian people, including those of the Pawnee and Arikara—Caddoan Indian tribes of Nebraska and Dakota, whose habitations were in the form of timber-framed, dome-shaped earth-covered huts or lodges. Reasoning from the form of the remains of such huts or lodges that they might be the ruins of a modified type of such structures, it was not difficult to arrive at a conclusion that these small mounds might have originated in the destruction and fall of similar structures. Less than a year later, he was elected to a position on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma. A few weeks later he was sent to the eastern part of the state on an errand for the University which took him into nearly twenty counties. Spare time of evenings and mornings afforded opportunities for tramps through cornfields and cotton patches, with the result that he returned with a hatful of chipped chert and broken pottery. When the president of the University saw these specimens he asked as to previous ex-

Page 113

perience in the collection of such material and when informed, said: "Well, you might as well cover the field of American anthropology, also." At the time, the writer had no thought of doing any work in that line beyond merely proving the human origin of these small mounds. His first efforts in that direction consisted of a thorough research into the published literature of the subject in various scientific publications. In this effort, he was amazed to learn that the origin of these small mounds had been the cause of a seemingly endless dispute between Geology and Archaeology throughout a period of two generations' duration. Geology, unanimous in scouting every suggestion of human agency or artificial origin, called all of these slight and symmetrical elevations "natural mounds" and suggested as possible cause for such formations erosion or the weathering decomposition of rock, glaciation or ice action, wave action, spring and gas vents, earthquake action, animal burrows, ant-hills and many other theories even more fantastic than these. Archaeology, on the other hand, claimed these small mounds as the result of the work of human hands but cited no details. Scientists of both classes seemed content to view the formations superficially without delving into the interior of the same. The author dissected not one, but several, of the mounds of this type with the result that he found the postholes in which the supporting timbers had been placed and other conclusive evidence of the construction of earth-covered human habitations.

Finally, came a day when the writer walked over the surface of one of these bowl circular mounds in a cultivated field. On the surface, weathered out by the action of winter rains, were specimens of chipped chert, broken pottery, and polished stone which arrested his attention. "Here is the place for the most thorough proof," he exclaimed to himself. Seeking the owner of the land, he asked permission to excavate and was refused with instructions to move on. Three years of time, with good officers and the intervention of friends, was necessary to secure the desired permission; but that mound, which was considerably larger than the average,

Page 114

was excavated and found to be the ruins of a timber-framed, dome-shaped house which had collapsed while still occupied. The interior circle of the timbered structure had been 45 feet in diameter. A fine collection of specimens of arts and crafts was found and secured. The ground work of the timbered structure was carefully exposed by excavation. The postholes on the outer circle were 10 ½ to 11 inches in diameter, while the four center posts, which supported the center of the dome, were 15 inches in diameter.

As already stated, the writer's only object in those early excavations was to prove the human origin of these mounds. Obviously, the next step was to determine the identity of the people who had been domiciled in the huts or lodges of that type. The analogies between these architectural ruins and the primitive homes of these people of the surviving Caddoan tribes were very evident.

While such field investigations, observations, and researches have extended over a period of more than a decade and a half, and have included portions of the three neighboring states of Arkansas, Kansas, and Texas and much personal exploration and correspondence, research investigation has been extended into twice as many more states.

The actual work done by the writer or under his personal direction, has included excavation of valley-land burial grounds in LeFlore and McCurtain counties, in Oklahoma, and the careful dissection of a number of typical mounds of this class in LeFlore and Kay counties. Extensive surface scouting has been done in Bryan, Cherokee, Choctaw, Delaware, Kay, Latimer, LeFlore, McCurtain, Mayes, Muskogee, Osage, Pawnee, Pittsburg, and Sequoyah counties. In addition, he has gathered information from numerous other sources, by consultation and correspondence, in these and other counties of Oklahoma and in several other states that are involved in this discussion.

The writer frankly admits that, in proportion to the aggregate area throughout which and over which these peculiar formations are distributed or scattered more or less abundantly, his own

Page 115

pioneering work may seem to be far from sufficiently extended to justify final and general conclusions.

—Joseph B. Thoburn.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

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