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Fort Payne, Alabama

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The Issue

For information on Ft. Payne and to sign a petition, visit Located in Dekalb County, the mounds and the village sites that have occupied them, date back 1,000 years and are presumed older than Moundville.

Update: 2002 Feb

Dig unearths history
By Teri Baker
The Weekly Post
Published February 15, 2002

Russell Townsend with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians said his federally-recognized tribe has been working with officials since the remains of a prehistoric human was discovered on the site last June.

"The Department of Transportation (DOT) has done everything it was supposed to do," Townsend said, noting they had contacted all five federally-recognized tribes in the southeast.

In an area along U.S. Highway 11, archaeologists with Jacksonville State University found what they believe to be the remains of Woodland- and Archaeic-era Indians and artifacts dating back as far as 8,500 B.C.

The site is being excavated because of road work to straighten an area known locally as "Dead Man's Curve." The group of archaeologists came to Fort Payne to remove Native American artifacts from the site where the new road will soon be built.

Townsend said he was concerned because his organization represents Cherokees in eight states—Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. "We work with federal and state agencies in these states," he said.

He said the state has agreed that if any remains have to be moved, they will be reinterred a short distance away. "We find that's very respectful on their part," he said. "We feel state-recognized groups have every right to be concerned about their ancestors and their remains, but we were at the site in June meeting with the Department of Transportation and were impressed with their care and respect, the way they treated us."

According to Harry Holstein, director of the Archaeological Resource Laboratory with Jacksonville State University, as with all federal and state projects, this research in mandated.

"This is a three-phase project," he said. "In 1999 we did the first phase of the project on the site when our guy went out there, walked the fields and found two sites." One site is located across the creek, but it will not be excavated. Holstein said the finding of arrowheads proved this could be an important site.

In phase two, during the summer of 2000 the college took students to the site where they dug holes and found evidence of posts, pits and nutshell fragments. This determined that homes had been on the site. Phase three of the project, which entailed major excavation, began last summer.

Holstein said the last people on the site was over 500 years ago and was probably the Woodland Indians. "We've not touched anything recent," he said. "It's all prehistoric. We've gaining valuable information about the cultures."

The area was first occupied around 8,500 B.C., according to Holstein, the late Archaic time period to the Woodland time period, between 200 B.C. and 500 A.D.

"In June we started the project, and found so many posts and pits, we stripped off the entire right of way, took off the topsoil and exposed over 500 features," he said.

Over 2000 posts, which represents structures, were found on the site.

"But," Holstein said, "we stopped digging immediately once we found bones. We called the Alabama Department of Transportation and the Alabama Historical Commission the same day. Then we had to wait."

The Native Americans were also contacted. "Every federally-recognized tribe was contacted," Holstein said. "We tried to also contact local tribes, but I'm sure we missed some people." He said they met with the Cherokees on the site, and the group was pleased with what they were doing.

"We had to wait four months after that," he said. "We had to pay students and workers to camp at the site, and we did our best to protect the graves.

However, Holstein said, things came to a head when they hired the Fort Payne police to patrol the site during the Christmas holidays. "When people saw police camped on the site, they started talking, and rumors started going around," he said. "Local people drove by and thought `Gold!' By the time we got back after Christmas it was a mess."

Holstein said one rumor was that they had taken the bones out and had them on display at the university. "That's not true," he said. "All bones found were reburied near the site. We were trying to protect them."

"We want everyone happy," he added. "We're trying to help the county and city. And we want off the site as quickly as they want us off."

Archaeologists are digging very carefully, he said. Every time a pit is found, the digging stops. "We use satellites to tell us where we're at on the field," Holstein said. "We want to locate all the burials we can, otherwise the bulldozers will mash them if we don't move them.

We're trying to find them all to relocate them." Holstein expects excavation to continue another two to three months. "We're trying to locate everything," he said.

On-site director Rick Walling says he's excited about the project is because it's unusual to find such a well-preserved ground site. "The field has never been plowed with a tractor, and remains to this day pastureland, We're finding pits that were used for storage and fire pits that were used to fire pottery and for cooking," he said, adding that thousands of fragments had been found.

Objects found by the researchers are not funerary objects, but fragments used in every-day life. "This probably started as a place where they came through and stopped for a short while," Walling said. The first people traveling through were transient and date back to the earlier Archaic period around 10,000 years ago.

What started as an occasional site ended up in the latter period as a settlement, Walling said, and became a settlement some time around 3,500 years ago.

Researchers are trying to determine if inhabitants were hunters and gatherers or farmers. "We don't really know if they were farmers or not," Walling said.

As an added benefit for the public, when the university finishes with the project they will publish a report complete with photos. "We're excited about this," Holstein said. "We asked the Highway Department and federal officials if they would help pay for this report for the public, and they agreed."

When the project is completed, a glossy report complete with photos will be available for the public. It will explain the various time periods.

Local dig discoveries raise concerns for Native American group

By Steven Stiefel
[email protected]

Native Americans and archaeologists working for the state highway department are squaring off over human remains found at a project site near Dead Man's Curve in Fort Payne.

So far, it has been a peaceful conflict, but a legal war to stop the highway may be brewing.

Nick Blackbear, of Henagar, said he has been among 40-50 people who have gathered at U.S. Highway 11 the past four Sundays to hold a prayer vigil for the spirits of those who were buried on the pasture land where the state plans to build a more gradual turn.

A team from Jacksonville State University is working to unearth artifacts to be preserved. The remains of at least seven prehistoric humans were found, then immediately covered back. The discovery made matters a lot more complicated.

The state, compelled by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, contacted federally-recognized Native American tribes to seek input on what to do with the remains.

Blackbear said his group, made up of different tribes, wants the site covered back up and no further work done there.

"If we went on the other side of the creek and disturbed the white man's cemetery, people would be upset with us," he said.

The Native American group plans to take legal action to block any further excavation, basing this on a dig halted in Tennessee.

"My brother, Lou White Eagle, was part of that group in Tennessee, and he is telling us what they did there," Blackbear said.

When told of JSU's projected finish date of April, Blackbear replied, "The white man likes to lie. I wouldn't believe him. There are too many stories and rumors. When Native Americans owned this land, it was a paradise, pure and sacred."

According to Harry Holstein of JSU, the Cherokees were impressed by Alabama's efforts to follow the law and gave their permission for JSU to continue exploring.

Holstein said the local group should be glad the remains are being guarded because the site would surely be looted if JSU stopped today.

"People would dump the bones and sell the arrowheads at Trade Day," Holstein said. "Some of [the group] are nice, but some have become violent and demanding. One knocked down a fence, and some have gotten in the face of these college students claiming they have a right to be there when it's actually private property.

"The rhetoric is also getting very emotional, claiming the people buried there 'died a terrible death' and such. The bodies were there centuries ago."

Blackbear said JSU's team has allowed them to come onto the dig site to conduct the prayer services, but he wasn't aware of any belligerent exchanges. Fort Payne acting Police Chief David Walker said he was not aware of any related incident reports.

"JSU has to do things within the law, and we believe they have flawed," Blackbear said. "To say they 'died a terrible death' could've been dying of disease or famine."

Holstein said the state does not have to contact state-recognized tribes.

"It would be impossible - a nightmare - to contact every Native American within 500 miles, but the highway department has made a good faith effort," he said. "Still, it has gotten really political. People have been calling claiming to be Indians when they aren't, and the remains we've found are a thousand years removed from the historical tribes. There are no direct ancestors to these people buried there."

Blackbear, who says is Southern Cheyenne based out west, said the remains could be ancestral because nomadics roamed the whole continent. He has lived in DeKalb County for a decade.

"We're waiting for the Cherokees to tell us what to do, and we still have no definitive answer," Holstein said.

The two men do agree on the educational merits of the JSU dig.

Blackbear said he was disappointed to see little information in the library about Native Americans. Holstein said the project will provide great insight into prehistoric human activity in Fort Payne, all of it to be released to libraries and schools.

"We're not trying to be mysterious, and we don't care if they want to pray," Holstein said. "Just give us the courtesy of not stepping all over our excavation and ruining our data."

Update: 2002 Feb
Native American artifacts could be significant local discovery

By Steven Stiefel
[email protected]

The official state archaeologist believes the Fort Payne dig site near "Dead Man's Curve" may be significant to getting an accurate picture of the inhabitants of this area over thousands of years.

The Alabama Department of Transportation has paid a group from Jacksonville State University to find artifacts so they are not destroyed when bulldozers begin moving dirt. The plan is to make the dangerous curve more gradual by cutting across what is now pasture. The dig site is along the bank of Wills Creek.

The excavation has been under way since June, when it was only expected to last about three months.

State Archaeologist Thomas Maher of the Alabama Historical Commission said the site is a significant finding in two ways.

"That would be the fact that the artifacts are so old and indicate an intense occupation in a relatively small space. There are overlapping features that tell us many different groups lived there over thousands of years," Maher said.

"It is fairly rare to find an open site because they are often eroded or plowed away. An 'open' site refers to something out in an open field rather than in a cave or bluff shelter."

He said this is especially rare in North Alabama. Some of the findings date back to 5000 B.C., according to JSU.

"We will not know exactly how significant it is until the excavation ends and JSU completes its investigation. It will take them a good time to do analysis and write a report," Maher said.

He was surprised to hear that at least one tribal group has held a prayer vigil and demonstration near the dig site, which is surrounded by barbed wire and guarded 24 hours a day.

He said ALDOT considered taking an alternate route, but the state will likely proceed as started.

"Everywhere they moved, they hit another site, so it seems irresponsible to open this site and then close it when every looter and grave robber knows where it is," Maher said. "It is not realistic to cover it over and try to pretend there are no bones there. It's not an easy set of choices."

He said the JSU team found bones they could not determine belonged to an animal, so they immediately covered them up and began the legal process of notifying federally-recognized tribal groups to negotiate the removal of human skeletons. Groups that are only recognized in a particular state do not receive this notification.

"[The JSU team] cannot tell at the surface what they are getting into," Maher said. "At some point, the highway department will move forward and do their job. Of all the agencies, the DOT works most diligently to meet its legal requirements to preserve cultural artifacts. They can't please everyone, though."

Local archaeological dig site turns up human remains

By Steven Stiefel
[email protected]

More details about an archaeological dig near "Dead Man's Curve" have come into focus from Harry Holstein, an archaeologist from Jacksonville State University.

The skeletal remains of "seven or eight" prehistoric human beings have been discovered, the JSU team covering them up as soon as they are found.

"We've found spearpoints from about 5000 B.C., but most of the artifacts are from 1500 B.C.," Holstein said. "It is very significant in being an open site in a field with so many features in a concentrated area. It will tell us a great deal about the cultural mechanisms that led the inhabitants of Wills Valley to change from hunter/gatherers to a more settled agricultural lifestyle."

The information gained through carbon dating artifacts and analyzing pollen will allow JSU to create a unique public-oriented report that will be invaluable to libraries and students learning about prehistoric Fort Payne, he said.

Holstein said there is a lot of misinformation floating around.

"We are not digging up bones. Every grave is left in place, covered and guarded by us. There is no burial mound on the site we've dug up, which will be in the right-of-way for the reconstructed roadway," he said.

JSU is under contract from the Alabama Department of Transportation to find and preserve as many artifacts as possible before the path is bulldozed for the highway. The design calls for cutting across pasture to make a more gradual curve in what will be a four-laned highway running from the North Y to Terrapin Hills.

After bones were found, the JSU team reported this to ALDOT and USDOT.

"They told us to stop digging," Holstein said.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires ALDOT to make a good faith effort to contact federally-recognized Native American groups within a 500 mile radius whenever human remains are found.

After four months of negotiation with the Cherokees, Holstein said there is still no definitive reply about what to do with the skeletons. The North Carolina and Oklahoma Cherokees were impressed by the state's effort, he said, and have allowed excavations to continue where no remains have been found.

The Creek Indians were not interested in the findings, he added.

"When we started this, we had no idea what we would find. We aren't psychics like Ms. Cleo," Holstein said. "What we have found is bizarre and amazing. We've found 1,500 features, ovals and post stains in the ground. When we found the first skull, we covered it back and stopped digging immediately."

He expects the process to conclude by April.

"We want this highway built just like the people in Fort Payne," he said. "We are contractors doing a job for the state trying to preserve as much as we can. We expected to be out of here last August so we want to see it completed as soon as possible."

Fort Payne acting Police Chief David Walker said some local people are upset with JSU because they think the school is holding up the highway project.

"It is not JSU's idea to be there, and they have formalities to follow if they find something," Walker said. He said off-duty city officers have provided security at the dig site, but JSU has reimbursed the city. The new curve on U.S. 11 should prove safer when finished.

"There have been a number of accidents at the existing curve," Walker said. "There is an intersection there feeding a good-sized industry and Highway 11 is heavily traveled, so something needs to be done."

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