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Ohio’s Prehistoric Inhabitants
Focusing on the North Central, Amherst, Ohio Area
Col. Matthew W. Nahorn
New Indian Ridge Museum
As the giant mile high glaciers receded, a lake formed in the troughs that they eroded out of the ground. The land around it slowly drained into this lake, its southern bounds at what we now know as roughly State Route 113 (or formerly 59). Paleo man then came into this area and hunted the giant mammoth and mastodons roaming this land. The lake however did not remain here. The glacier continued to recede, and as it melted back, new outlets allowed the southern boundary to slowly march northward, and at each major interval, a new, terminal beach ridge boundary formed, the final being the “north ridge” as we know it today. Meltwater collected in front of these melting glaciers, forming small lakes. As man continued to hunt and gather in this area over the years, he used the changing geography to his benefit. The ancient beach ridges were used as travel routes, as they were high having a good general visibility and well-drained with their sandy soil. On either side a swampy area contained rich hunting grounds. These Indian pathways were found by the early white settlers to be useful as well, and we see this today as this history has persisted into modern day – note our “ridge roads” of today occupy these ancient beach ridges. Eventually the present day outlet at the St. Lawrence River was opened, and the glacial lake, within the bounds of its Icelandic Trough was at about its present level we see today – Lake Erie, about 4,000 years ago.
The Amherst, Ohio and surrounding Lorain County area have been home to all types of people for several thousand years. In this area’s “beginning,” people of the Paleo culture lived near here. About 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the area from the immediate southern shore of Lake Erie to roughly the boundary of Ohio State Route 113, was all under water and at that time called Lake Whittlesey. This area was originally under about 2 miles thick of ice. Our “Ridge Roads” today are actually ancient beach ridges left behind by these ancient lakes. When the glaciers finally melted and receded, the land was allowed to drain through the St. Lawrence River, forming much of the landscape of this area as we know it today, allowing the Great Lakes to lower to their current level; and here we are today. This is why there is an overall absence of artifacts that suggest Paleo inhabitance, in this immediate area. There was however a cache of about thirteen paleo spear points plowed up in a field in South Amherst just south of Routes 113 and 58, on the East bank of Beaver Creek. Col. Vietzen, a local archaeologist, did secure an Archaic side-notched type of projectile point (circa 7,200 B.C.) and knife that were both found in Amherst, along the Beaver Creek.
The Beaver Creek watershed is the largest watershed located entirely within Lorain County, having its mainstem flowing directly into the Lake Erie. At that time, the Beaver Creek flowed much more reliably and was more powerful and able to support more human life such as powering early saw and grist mills. This was because much of the rain water had the opportunity to soak into the ground when it rained; no impervious cover (concrete, asphalt) was present. This “impervious cover” includes anything from blacktop and concrete to rooftops. These areas force water to runoff the land and do not allow it to soak in and percolate through the soils in an effort to act as recharging groundwater for the creeks and rivers. Furthermore, the Oberlin, Ohio area was still a large swamp, where water could slowly percolate through the ground, naturally and effectively recharging the Beaver Creek.
Many fur bearing animals, such as the beaver for which the stream is named, were quite prominent in the area. The Amherst Historical Society is currently preserving a man’s top hat that was fashioned many years ago of beaver fur.
The property contained within the New Indian Ridge Museum, 1811 Historic Shupe Homestead, and Wildlife Preserve in Amherst, was a prehistoric site, used by these peoples. A small number prehistoric artifacts have been recovered in this area, but the landscape itself simply speaks to being a quite hospitable piece of land for prehistoric inhabitants. High cliffs along the Beaver Creek, creating protections through peninsulas and the like characterize this area, in the northern part of the watershed. This landscape allowed for these people to utilize the creek’s resources, while at the same time these places add the comfort of a secure, high spot to live and sleep. Col. Vietzen always said that if you think it’s beautiful, the Indians thought it was beautiful.
Who were our prehistoric neighbors? Who lived in this area of Ohio a few thousand years ago? This section will attempt to answer these and other important questions. There are hundreds of local archaeological sites that provide an important glimpse into Ohio’s prehistoric history. These sites have provided a rich record of the people who lived in the Lake Erie Basin. A few will be explored here.
Col. Raymond C. Vietzen (1907-1995) was a prominent archaeologist and anthropologist who was born and raised in Elyria, Ohio. He operated the Indian Ridge Museum on a portion of his family’s property located at the corner of West Ridge and Fowl Roads for bout sixty-five years (1930-1995). Between 1997 and 1999, the contents of Col. Vietzen’s Indian Ridge Museum were sold at the Old Barn Auction House in Findlay, Ohio.
It is important to become enlightened on Col. Vietzen. He was not only an archaeologist, but also an artist and an author, writing seventeen books. He was the last living individual who was associated with the founding of the Archaeological Society of Ohio (at the time of its founding, it was the Ohio Indian Relic Collector’s Society). Today, it is the largest archaeological society in the United States. The last living founder of the Archaeological Society of Ohio, he was a charter member, served as president, secretary, treasurer, and editor of the society’s bulletin in the first years of infancy of the society. He worked alongside the founders and was good friends with many of them. He gave his all to the society over the years. For many years, he and his wife Ruth hosted the Archaeological Society of Ohio’s picnic on Father’s Day at his Indian Ridge Museum. He kept the society together during hard times and published a fine bulletin throughout his tenure. Ruth Bliss Vietzen, his wife, served as the first female officer of the society.
Col. Vietzen later decided to put all of his efforts on the Indian Ridge Museum and Lorain County Historical Society (of which he also served an office). To build his Indian Ridge Museum collection, Col. Vietzen worked on numerous local, prehistoric, archaeological sites. At one time, he estimated that his museum preserved over one million artifacts. This estimation was later affirmed. He also stated that he had recovered, examined, and excavated several thousand burials. This publication will highlight and review a few of the important, local, prehistoric archaeological sites, located in primarily the Huron, Erie, and Lorain County areas. Disputed information will be brought forward for the reader to consider. All information brought to light has been reviewed and backed by either the late archaeologist Col. Raymond C. Vietzen and or your author, Col. Matthew W. Nahorn, Curator/Director New Indian Ridge Museum at Amherst, Ohio.
Chronology in Ohio
Chronology in Ohio is basically straight forward. The chart below has been generally accepted by archaeologists in the Ohio area. The first people to come to this area are known as the Paleo people. Next, in order are, Archaic, Woodland (including the highly advanced Hopewell), Erie (in northern Ohio; Fort Ancient in southern Ohio), then the historic Native Americans (at the time of the contact period between the prehistoric Native Americans and the European settlers). Of course these early people are “prehistoric” and thus did not not have contact with white man or Europeans. Thus, we do not know what they called themselves. Therefore, the names you see here are simply group names that we, as archaeologists and anthropologists, have assigned to these native peoples. They of course left not written records, &c. The only evidence they left behind are their village or camp sites and the tools they used.
|Years Ago: circa||Name of Prehistoric Peoples:|
|12,000 B. C. to 10,000 B.C.||Paleo|
|7,500 B. C. to 2,500 B. C.||Archaic|
|1,000 B. C. to A. D. 600||Woodland (including Hopewell)|
|A. D. 1,000 to A. D. 1,600||Eries (Fort Ancient in southern Ohio)|
|A. D. 1,600 to A. D. 1,700||Historic Period (Contact Period)Prehistoric peoples had disappeared in Ohio. At circa A. D. 1700, several Native American Indian groups moved into Ohio. There were very few Native Americans around when the first European settlers came to the Lorain County area.|
How did these people get here, one many ask. This is an interesting question, and has recently been the center of much debate. This question and others will be attempted to be answered here.
The Paleo people were nomadic, ice-age hunters, who followed the herds of “food” – the mammoth and mastodon. They did not live in permanent village sites like the later culture of the Eries did. The climate in the Bering Strait area was turning quite cold. So, as the mammoths and mastodons decided to follow the sun, to the warmer weather in search of more food for themselves, they wandered northeast, ever getting closer to what we now know as Alaska. As a result of this freezing weather, much of the water in the area had become locked up in ice. This aided in the formation of the “land bridge” that formed with ice and land to connect the Old World and the New World. As the mammoths and mastodons wandered this way (into the Americas), so did the Paleo people. These animals were the people’s main source of food but were not native to the Americas. So, there they came, the prehistoric Paleo people entering the New World, about 12,000 years ago. There has been mounting evidence that these people were in the Americans about 20,000 years ago. Anyone can pull these dates out of their hats, but we are certain it was at least 12,000 years ago. More sound evidence is needed to secure the 20,000 date or any others for that.
The Paleo peoples used fluted or unfluted projectile points, spears, and knives to hunt, cut, and for all other utilitarian purposes. The fluted point is older than the unfluted point. The flute was utilized to hold the stick in place when projecting or throwing the point forward. Large, thick fist axes of flint were used as well as finely fashioned flint square knives.
The majority of all prehistoric tools were made of varying qualities of flint. Flint occurs all over the country. Flint Ridge Flint, occurring in Southern Ohio, is some of the finest. It is Ohio’s State gem stone. Flint is a glass, mostly silicon. Flint is like man’s window glass of today. Old flint, that is, flint that has been quarried and exposed to the air for a time, is very difficult to cut and shape (just like old glass). Glass manufactured years ago is much more difficult to work with, compared to glass that was made recently. Flint Ridge comprises of about 3 counties in southern Ohio. It comes in all colors from black to white.
The Paleo people evolved and changed over the years into the Archaic peoples. The Archaic peoples transformed the Paleo people’s unfluted projectile point into a side-notched point that was more reliable and easier to fasten to the shafts. The Archaic people’s tool box included the grooved axes. Dr. H. C. Shetrone, formerly of the Ohio State Museum (now Ohio Historical Society) once stated that all grooved axes are from the Archaic period. This holds true; Col. Vietzen also agreed with this statement. Celts, an ungrooved axe, were the successor to the fully-grooved, three-quarter-grooved, and half-grooved axes. These tools ranged greatly in size and shape. Overall, they were a heavy-duty tool crafted of a hard stone, being granite or other hard stones. Sometimes celts were of slate or even flint. These people had seasonal sites they would often visit each year.
The Archaic peoples slowly evolved into the Woodland people. These people are characteristic of developing a much improved form of pottery. The thicker the pottery, the older it is. The Adena peoples and the Hopewell peoples lived during the Woodland time. The Adena peoples had developed a stemmed projectile point or spear. The Hopewell people were highly developed. Their use of mica (from the Carolinas) and highly sought after obsidian (volcanic glass) for ceremonial pieces is a characteristic of this culture. Throughout Col. Vietzen’s more than sixty-five years in archaeology, he came to believe that this culture, the Hopewells, were at the top of the prehistoric peoples. He also felt that man is “going down the other side of the hill,” at this present time in our history. He may be correct.
The Hopewells had developed the birdstone, an ornament that’s use is still questioned today. Some archaeologists have been found in burials on top of the individual’s skull. This has brought up the idea that it was used to carry the person’s spirit to the heavens. More research is needed to recognize the intended use of these intriguing artifacts.
After the Woodland period, the Eries, Heries, or “Cat Nation” people were located in northern Ohio, on the southern shores of Lake Erie. They were called the “Cat Nation” because these peoples wore furs of cat-like animals – probably raccoons. These were always an abundant animal in the area. On a map that the author recently studied, the area located within the southern shore of Lake Erie was labeled as “Nation du Chat” or literally “Nation of the Cat” (French). Numerous remains of raccoons have been recovered on these local sites. In the southern part of the state, the Fort Ancient peoples inhabited that area. These two groups of peoples had evolved to live in sizeable agricultural villages, rather than being nomadic hunters. The Erie’s style of “arrowhead” was a more or less equilateral triangular point that was numerous on their village sites. There were several of these village sites located in the northern part of Lorain County. The Eries were ultimately defeated by the Iroquoian peoples in 1654. Why and how?
The English and Dutch had begun trading with the Iroquois for furs in the east. Large trading posts had been established. With the “richest” hunting and trapping grounds being located to the west, and belonging to the Eries, the Iroquois needed this land to fulfill their orders at the trading posts. The Eries wanted to retain their land and therefore this commenced the long, bloody war.
Much of the evidence of the Eries inhabitance has been documented by the Jesuit priests who visited here, at that time. The range of the Eries has long been believed to have extended from Erie, Pennsylvania and Ripley, New York to approximately the Maumee River at Toledo, Ohio. We maintain that this range of territory is still valid and true. Disputes have always been noted as to whether the Eries inhabited this area, this far west in Ohio. But, with the documentation that Col. Vietzen uncovered and the research I have executed, along with the Jesuit records, it is only right to recognize and acknowledge that the Eries did inhabit this area. We must not forget what previous archaeologists have uncovered – this will light the way to the future and provide all of us with better knowledge. “A backward glance in history will light the way to the future,” Col. Vietzen once stated.
After the Eries were defeated by the Iroquois, about 1654, Ohio was void of Native Americans. This was a period in Ohio’s time when the state was again without people living here. Then, Native American groups from out-of-state, moved into Ohio. When the European settlers came to this area, there were very few Native Americans; they had gone. The Native Americans who had contact with the Europeans, during the “Contact Period,” are now known as Historic Native Americans. The author wants to make it clear that the prehistoric Native Americans who inhabited Ohio are not related in any fashion to the Historic Native Americans; they have no connection. Northern Ohio was used as an important hunting and trapping grounds, but no permanent settlements were here when the first settlers from the east entered this area.
Local Prehistoric Sites and Their Inhabitants
There are numerous prehistoric archaeological sites that are located within the bounds of Huron, Erie, and Lorain Counties. Many of these were excavated by the late archaeologist Col. Vietzen. Some of these sites include the Franks site and Brownhelm site (Lorain County), the Seaman Fort Site (Erie County), the Burrell Fort Site (Lorain County), and the Garfield Bridge and Home Site (Lorain County). The highlights of these archaeological sites will be described here.
Obviously there are numerous other sites in the area that are worthy of inclusion here, however the author has chosen these to highlight in this work. The Franks Site has been classified by Col. Vietzen as an “Erie village” because of the extent of archaeological material recovered at that site that is related to the Eries. “The Franks Site is by far the largest and most extensive site … in northern Ohio,” stated Col. Vietzen in his The Immortal Eries, a 1945 publication. The site is located in the Brownhelm area, Lorain County. Further description takes us to the eastern bank of the Vermilion River, on land that is approximately 150 feet above the river – a perfect place to live. It is believed that the site encompasses about 80 acres of land.
The Seaman Fort site is located in Oxford Township, two and one-half miles west of Milan, in Erie County. It is further described as being on a high piece of land that has Hunt Creek and the Huron River bordering their respective sides, about 100 feet high. Earthen stockades and ditches, referred to as ‘earthworks’ were located on this site. Some of these still exist. The author has visited the site numerous times. It is on private land. The site is one of the safest sites for prehistoric peoples, and its orientation can be compared to the Burrell Fort site in Sheffield.
The Burrell Fort is similar in shape to the Seaman Fort as it is located on a high promontory with the French Creek and Sugar Creek at the base of the site. This particular site has been known for years and has illegally been “hunted” by collectors for a long time. The French Creek is the largest tributary that flows into the Black River, however its watershed size and the fall of this creek are both smaller and less that that of the Beaver Creek. The defensive uses that are found in many of these sites were characteristics of the Erie’s places of inhabitance.
The Cascade Park Site is located at the Cascade Park in the Black River valley and upland areas now preserved by the City of Elyria. The prehistoric peoples took advantage of the natural caves under the waterfalls of the River. When the Cascade Park system was being formed, Col. Vietzen worked on the prehistoric site to investigate the site and preserve its prehistory. Frank Wilford, an Elyria attorney (Amherst native and Oberlin College graduate) and friend of Col. Vietzen’s was instrumental in the formation of the park. A burial site was found to be located near Furnace Street. Archaic and Erie artifacts were recovered from the Cascade Park area. Col. James Smith, who had been captured by the Native Americans (Wyandots) spent the winter in the big cave. They called him Scoouwa, and the Black River was known as Canesadooharie or “River of Black Pearls” or “River of freshwater pearls” by the Wyandots. More on Cascade Park below:
“Elyria’s Beautiful Natureland”
Col. Matthew W. Nahorn, Director
New Indian Ridge Museum
Known as “Elyria’s Beautiful Natureland,” the land in and around Cascade Park has been a scenic spot enjoyed by people for thousands of years. Located at the confluence of the East and West Branches of the Black River (known as the ‘Canesadooharie’ or “stream of freshwater pearls” by the Wyandot Native Americans), this green jewel is situated in Lorain County’s seat of Elyria, Ohio. The River is a direct tributary to Lake Erie and drains more than 400 square miles of land. The park was largely developed and enlarged by Elyria Park Commission Member and local Attorney, Frank Wilford.
Atty. Wilford was born in Amherst, Ohio in 1874 (then known as “North Amherst”). He was a graduate of Oberlin College (1898). As a member of the Elyria Park Commission for more than 25 years, he was responsible for the publication: Cascade Park: Elyria’s Beautiful Natureland (1936). In 1944 he passed away of a heart attack in his law office.
The majority of the land comprising Cascade Park was donated by Heman Ely, the founder of Elyria, Ohio. Wilford gives much credit to the founder, Ely, for the planning of the City which allowed for the park’s development. Wilford states in his publication:
“Then Heman Ely, the Second, William A. Ely, and George H. Ely as Administrator of Albert Ely’s estate, set apart and gave to the city in 1894 the nucleus of our present Park. This was a fifteen acre tract…Six years later, the balance of the West Gorge with its Caves and Natural Bridge was deeded to the city by the Ely heirs…Then, later, William A. Ely and George H. Ely, through their gifts, counsel and active public service proceeded far in establishing our park as it exists today” (55).
Today the park encompasses about 135 acres.
During his work in the park, Atty. Wilford collected artifacts left by the prehistoric inhabitants. Many of these artifacts were acquired by Col. Raymond C. Vietzen, a friend of Atty. Wilford. Col. Vietzen operated the Indian Ridge Museum in Elyria, Ohio from 1930-1995. Many years ago, he conducted some archaeological explorations in one of the park caves. In his Prehistoric Americans (1989), Col. Vietzen states that there were burials of the Adena people near what is now Furnace Street. He also states that:
“No Paleo artifacts were found in the park as the Black River Valley was deep with glacial lake waters which covered the caves and falls in the park. We know Early Woodland (Adena) people lived on what is now Furnace Street and later (Hopewell) Middle Woodland and Iroquoian (Erie and Seneca) resided here” (113).
He continues by stating that this landscape, with its caves and shelters, has always been appealing to people of many cultural backgrounds. It continues to be enjoyed today as a park.
The Indian Ridge Museum was sold and artifacts dispersed after Col. Vietzen’s death. The important Elyria artifacts were purchased by Col. Ron Sauer and later sold to Mr. Dan Novotny, and were kept in the area. The New Indian Ridge Museum was able to acquire these pieces in October 2010, thanks to the Jean and Jay Rounds family. These artifacts are now preserved at the Museum in Amherst, Ohio, which is a private organization working to preserve the original Vietzen museum and other locally found prehistoric and historic artifacts.
After a study of these 32 flint projectile points, we see that people of the Archaic and Adena traditions inhabited this site, which includes several small caves naturally carved out of the local sandstone. Local flint and chert sources with some Flint Ridge material are represented in this collection. An early excavation of one of the caves by Col. Vietzen revealed the presence of approximately three feet of midden material. Evidence of the Eries calling this land home was also found during excavations by the presence of triangular points.
Interestingly, the caves on this site were used when James Smith (later Col. James Smith) was captured by and lived among the Wyandots for a time. Col. Smith’s accounts of the Canesadooharie, recorded in his journal during his captivity with the Indians from 1755-1759, are the first writings of the Black River.
Of the collection of 32 flint arrowheads found by Atty. Wilford, Col. Vietzen stated that, “These I now own and treasure and hope such will remain in the Elyria area, forever” (113). We are pleased to be able to keep them, along with their unique story, preserved in the area in which they were crafted and later found.
Another fine artifact from Elyria that was recently acquired by the New Indian Ridge Museum is a 5 ¼” long Hopewell spear of Flint Ridge Chalcedony material. It has the inscription “Elyria, Ohio” and was found at the original Vietzen family homestead near the corner of West Ridge and Fowl Roads in Elyria, Ohio, probably in the 1930s. It was displayed in Col. Vietzen’s Indian Ridge Museum for many years. The spear was transferred to the Col. Ron Sauer collection and subsequently purchased by the Rounds family, who donated it to the New Indian Ridge Museum for preservation.
A frame of 106 prehistoric artifacts was recently purchased from a gentleman in Miamisburg, Ohio, who discovered the New Indian Ridge Museum through our new website (newindianridgemuseum.org). He offered the frame of artifacts for preservation at our Museum. They are marked as being found by Walter Lersch in the Black River Valley in the area of Cascade Park, Elyria, Ohio. We were glad to acquire these important locally found pieces that were in Col. Vietzen’s Indian Ridge Museum for many years. The tag on the frame describing their provenance is in Col. Vietzen’s hand.
The frame includes many flint specimens, mostly of local flint sources and a few pieces of Flint Ridge material. There is one artifact of slate and one of quartz, which are rare for this area. Several thumb-scrapers, triangle points (Erie), miscellaneous scrapers, Archaic points, and drills are found within this unique collection. One drill has extensive wear on its bit. A few shell fragments are also included along with a couple bifurcated pieces.
Converse, Robert N. Ohio Flint Types. 1994. Archaeological Society of Ohio, Columbus, Ohio.
Smith, Col. James. An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith During his Captivity with the Indians in the Years 1755-1759. 1799. Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints.
Vietzen, Col. Raymond C. Prehistoric Americans. 1989. White Horse Printers, Elyria, OH.
Wilford, Frank. Cascade Park: Elyria’s Beautiful Natureland. 1936. Elyria Park Board, Elyria, OH.
More information on the Cascade Park site in Elyria, Ohio and the park itself, is forthcoming. Please check back soon for this.
The Garfield Bridge Site is located near what we know as the Garfield Bridge in Sheffield, Ohio. It is further described as being on the east bank of the Black River, at the easterly approach of the Garfield Bridge, near the northeast corner of Ohio Highways 254 and 301. During the commencement of the original 1936 construction of the bridge, prehistoric American Indian skeletons were recovered along with triangular projectile points, associated with these burials. Presumably, a man driving a bulldozer disturbed these burials. There were also some bone projectile points protruding from the bones of the skeletons. One of the specimens recovered contained a vertebra with a triangular point embedded in it. Another like this was found at the Franks Site. Both are probably of Erie origin.
Furthermore, a fine, related site is located at the Henry Garfield Homestead just down the road from the Garfield Bridge. While the foundation for the house was being dug in 1837, a fine spearhead of flint ridge chalcedony (over 6 inches long) was recovered. It is a fine spear. Artifacts also suggesting the Archaic people’s inhabitance were recovered on this and other area sites.
These are just a few important north central, Ohio sites. They provide an important glimpse into this area’s prehistoric past.