The Native American Farming Landscape of Eastern Kentucky: Part 2

By Matthew J. Davidson

In Part 1 of this blog we discussed how archaeologists re-imagine past Native American landscapes, and we explained that Native Americans were still living in Kentucky when explorers like Daniel Boone first arrived.  Eventually, Tribal people may have been removed from Kentucky in the late 1700s, but a lot of evidence remains of the places they lived and the changes the made to the land.  Part 2 of this blog describes the different types of evidence archaeologists use to re-image past cultural landscapes. 

Figure 1.  European map of Shawnee, Miami and Delaware towns at the confluence of the Miami and St. Joseph’s Rivers, Ohio in 1790.  Note the presence of residential areas, paths, gardens and cornfields.  Image from Sleeper-Smith, Indian Women in the Ohio Valley 1690-1792 (2018); original from Military Journal of Ebenezer Denny, An Officer in the Revolutionary and Indian Wars (1860).


Trails and waterways were the main navigation features of Native American landscapes (Figure 1).  They connected towns and important places by foot and by watercraft.  Several examples of wooden canoes have been found buried in river flood sediment where they were abandoned centuries ago.  Contrary to popular belief, Native American paths and trails did not follow buffalo (bison) trails; in fact, it was likely the opposite – bison followed old Native American trails (see this 2018 blog).  In 1928, a detailed map of Native American trails was made by geographer William Myer.  It shows that trails connected Native American groups across the southeast.  You can see a high-resolution version of it here.

Figure 2.  Above is a 1938 WPA photograph of Biggs Mound in Greenup County.  It was built about 2,000 years ago, but continued to be used until 500 years ago.  Photograph from Pollack and Powell, New Deal Archaeology and Current Research in Kentucky (UKWMA No. 3192).  Below is an interpretation of how Biggs Mound may have been used. The image is based on a similar mound in Fayette County, published in Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass booklet.


Mounds are large scale constructions made of earth and stone.  In general, most mounds either contain burials or cover something up.  Many were used for both.  Mounds that cover something up usually mark the place where an important public building or ritual space was located.  The majority of mounds (and earthworks) were built during what archaeologists call the Woodland Period (1000BC-AD1000), but continued to be used by descendants during the later Fort Ancient Period (1000-1750AD).  Biggs Mound is a great example of this (Figure 2 and Figure 3).

Like mounds, earthworks are also large scale constructions made of earth and stone; however they are less common than mounds and usually weren’t used for burying people.  Archaeologists debate over their function.  One thing we can say for certain is that like mounds, most earthworks were also built during the Woodland Period and continued to be used for hundreds of years.  The largest and most significant grouping of mounds and earthworks in the state is known as the Portsmouth Works, which extends along the Ohio River banks for many miles in both Ohio and Kentucky.  Read about it in the September 5th post.


Native American cemeteries and burial places changed over time – they were not always in mounds.  Sometimes cemeteries were separated from towns and consisted of stone burial crypts, mounds or groups of burials in the ground.  Other times they were located within towns, near people’s houses, or in public areas.  In Kentucky, there are state and federal laws that make it illegal to intentionally disturb Native American graves and cemeteries.  However, in contrast to European and Euro-American cemeteries, Native cemeteries are not protected from some ground-disturbing land uses such as plowing, planting, and cattle grazing.


Bedrock features are human-made changes to the surfaces boulders and stone cliffs.  There are two main types of bedrock features.  The first type are petroglyphs – carvings of symbols, and figures of animals, humans, and mythical creatures.  Like earthworks, archaeologists debate the meaning of petroglyphs.  The second main type of bedrock features are related to making food.  They include mortars for grinding plant food, nut cracking pits, and other working surfaces.  You can see examples of bedrock features at the Red River Museum in Clay City Kentucky.  If you ever see these in a park or recreation area please respect them; they are very rare and offer unique information about the past. 

Figure 3.  Replica houses made of wood frames and thatch roofs.  This architectural style was typical at farming villages in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia during the Fort Ancient Period.  Photo by the author at the Sunwatch Indian Village Archaeological Park in Dayton, Ohio.


Wood features also include a wide variety of things.  They include wooden artifacts such as tool handles, carvings, statues, arrow and dart shafts, and canoes.  They also include carvings and paintings on trees sometimes referred to as dendroglyphs.  Wood was also the main material used for houses and public buildings, as well as for things like storage buildings, docks and stockades (Figure 3 and Figure 4). 

Figure 4.  Scene harvesting watermelons during the 1700s. Artwork by John Buxton, used with permission of the author.
Figure 5.  At center is a corncob fragment from a Native American town site in Greenup County, Kentucky.  Photo by the author, identified by Dr. Renee Bonzani, University of Kentucky. The two drawings are from Wagner, The Corn and Cultivated Beans of Fort Ancient Indians (1986).


Native Americans in Kentucky farmed (agriculture), tended gardens (horticulture), and managed forests (silvicutlure) (Figure 5).  The pieces or remains of ancient plants (Figure 4) grown by Native Americans are still preserved at archaeological sites in Kentucky.  They are found by archaeologists in trash pits, fire hearths, and house areas – basically, anywhere food was stored, cooked, eaten or thrown away. Archaeologists have also found evidence of field clearing and burning. 


It is important to remember that landscapes are not just places we live, but places where we interact and learn with each other, participate in meaningful events, and express ourselves.  Landscapes are places that give us our social identity and remind us of “who we are”.  In Kentucky, the Native American farming landscape was filled with the things we have discussed: houses, towns, trails, gardens, and cemeteries.  These were probably important to how Native American farmers viewed themselves and their identity. 

Figure 6.  Hunting party returning to a village in winter.  Image from Bradley (2007:67), artwork by L.F. Tantillo.  Note: image is a Mohawk Iroquoian village in New York, but the geography and house style are similar to what would have been in eastern Kentucky during the 1400s to 1700s.

Landscapes were also filled with people.  But how do archaeologists study the way people viewed themselves and each other?  Archaeologists study this by looking at the artifacts people left behind.  Think about it, the things we use every day – our shoes, clothes, and accessories are a big part of our identity.  Things like technology, games, and food also tell us who we are.  Studying the remains of these things tells us that the Native American world was not inhabited by a single people with uniform goals, beliefs, and values.  Just like today, it was rich with diversity and difference, cooperation and conflict.


This post cannot hope to rebuild the entire Native American cultural landscape.  That is a subject that would take the space of many volumes.  Instead, I hope that it opens a window for readers into a Native American past that is more than just a collection of things. It was a past with many people in different places that were connected by trails, waterways and vistas.  These places were filled with mounds, villages, cemeteries, farm fields, and forests.  As with all human societies, this farming landscape was dynamic and always changing.  Not every field, village, and mound was maintained and used forever.  Just as old farmsteads, rural towns and rust belt cities have been in a cycle of depopulation and decay since the late 20th century, the Native American landscape of Kentucky also changed over time.  Some places may have been forgotten, while important places were kept up for many centuries. 

Figure 7. A person surveying the landscape from a rocky overlook.  Many rocky cliffline areas of of eastern Kentucky were used by Native American people for thousands of years. This artwork is titled “A High Place”, by artist John Buxton.  Used with permission of the author.


Because the vast majority of Kentucky’s land is privately-owned, voluntary stewardship is vital to the continued preservation of the many significant places built by Native Americans.  Most private landowners protect and maintain their land simply because they want to continue using it.  As an archaeologist I think landowners also have a special opportunity to be the gatekeepers and stewards of the Native American past.  Likewise, some of Kentucky’s lands are held by public entities such as cities, counties, non-profit organizations, and the Federal Government.  These entities have a special responsibility to protect Kentucky’s historic cultural landscapes.  Please report any unauthorized digging, looting or disturbance of human remains to a professional archaeologist, a government employee, or the Kentucky state archaeologist.  For general information about site protection, see the Kentucky Heritage Council and Society for American Archaeology web pages.  Contacts and information are provided below.


The Organization of Professional Archaeologists:
The Kentucky Office of State Archaeology:
The Kentucky Heritage Council:
Society for American Archaeology:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s