Excavation of Islands in the Staunton River (1966)
In the summer of 1966, I worked at Corning Glass Co. in Danville, Virginia as a laboratory technician. Some co-workers took me to an Indian site on Staunton River about a half mile below Smith Mountain. The view of the nearby mountains was beautiful. Before my first trip, some one had destroyed the site for the archaeologist-at-heart. I later found that a Dr. Sherman Dutton of Martinsville had brought in a small bull dozer to make trenches across the island some time before. I have been told that he is now deceased. Even 40 years ago, it was difficult to find a place where the sand had not been turned. I spent much of my time off work sifting through the sandy mud. The reward was a nice collection of Native American artifacts. Everything found would have been before 1675 and probably much older.
Note the two islands just inside Pittsylvania County. Upstream about a mile
is the gap where the Staunton River breaks through and the dam is now located. Downstream about the same distance is the mouth of the Pigg River.
The Roanoke River begins flowing west in the mountains of Virginia, not so far from the New River whose waters eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico. The Roanoke flows around through the City of Roanoke and down through the gorge of the Smith Mountains. The river becomes the Staunton until its confluence with the Dan River, then is called the Roanoke again until it empties into Currituck Sound. These waters enter the Atlantic Ocean near Roanoke Island.Also shown here are artifacts found later in 1966 about 75 miles down-river from Smith Mountain. It seems that Native Americans traveled extensively. The trip to their kinsmen near the North Carolina state line would have been a day trip, especially downstream. Their canoes were described by early explorers as being very large and holding over 20 rowers. Travel by water was much faster than overland. With continual harassment by the hostile Iroquois and white settlers, the Saponi Indians of northern Pittsylvania and their relatives in Campbell County, along with the Tutelo in the area which is now Salem, moved down to join with the Occaneechee Indians. There were three islands, the central and largest occupied by the Occaneechees. The Tutelos and Saponis took us residence on the two smaller islands nearby. All three islands were just below the junction of the Dan and Staunton Rivers.
These are some of the artifacts found forty years ago:
Staunton River/Smith Mountain Native
American cay pot from the 1600s.
(size: about 8 ½” across by 6”):
This is a sand tempered clay pot from a Saponi Island village in the Staunton River about a mile below the Smith Mountain gap. It was found by Robert D. Ricketts in the summer of 1966 as it protruded from the north bank of the island where erosion had exposed it after hundreds of years. The Saponi Indians of this area traveled downstream in 1675 to join with their relatives, the Occaneechee tribe about 75 miles downstream. On May 10, 1676, Nathaniel Bacon and a band of 211 volunteer Indian fighters attacked and killed almost all the friendly Occaneechees on the islands at the confluence of the Dan and Staunton Rivers (now Clarksville, Va.). Colonial Governor Berkeley was outraged and publicly proclaimed Bacon an outlaw. He probably would have had him hanged if he was not his wife’s cousin. Berkeley had a thriving business in trading cheap trinkets for beaver pelts and other furs with the Occaneechees. On July 30, 1676, Bacon issued a “declaration of the people” stating that Gov. Berkeley was corrupt, played favorites and protected the Indians. Berkeley fled just before Bacon burned Jamestown to the ground on September 19, 1676. Berkeley regained control and had 23 of the conspirators hanged. Bacon died abruptly the next month before the governor had to deal with his cousin-in-law.
At the time I found these artifacts, I never thought about the close relationship between the two tribes.
Clay pot from the banks of the Roanoke River below
Occaneechee Island. Reconstructed from 22
separate pieces. (size: about 9 ½” across by 9”)
The archaeological Society of Virginia sponsored an excavation of an Indian village on the upper Gaston Lake of the Roanoke River in the fall of 1966. The group leader was Col. Howard MacCord of Richmond. A trench was marked into five-foot squares where volunteers. Robert D. “Danny” Ricketts and his 16-year old nephew Jim Lynch, Jr. shared one of the squares. About three feet down in the sand, we found 22 pottery shards with identical surface texture which we placed in a paper bag. Later we “worked” the pieces together like a gig saw puzzle and glued them together to reconstruct this pot.
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