Henry Chapman Mercer, recipient of numerous accolades for his work studying Native American pre-history, identified evidence that cannibalism was practiced by Indians on the banks of the York River.
Perhaps best known for his influence on the Art & Crafts Movement as the founder of Monrovian Tile Works, Mercer was a man of wide-ranging interests. He graduated from Harvard in 1879 and then went on to study law, but never practiced. The well-to-do Pennsylvanian was driven by a fascination with the antiquity of Native Americans, indeed the antiquity of man. He became a member of the newly formed Archaeological Association of the University of Pennsylvania in 1890 and was appointed curator of American and Pre-historic Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, in 1891.
American archaeology was still in its adolescence when Mercer examined stone artifacts in the Delaware Valley, explored the hill caves on the Yucatan Peninsula, and scientifically excavated, interpreted and cataloged the contents of shell middens near the mouth of the York River.
A midden is a pile of domestic refuse consisting mostly of shells left by Indian populations along the shore. They offer unique glimpses of daily life because the alkalinity of the shells helps to deter decomposition.
Some 38 clam shell heaps were identified by Mercer at York during the summer of 1891. Most notable was heap No. 6, upstream at the future site of the York Country Club. There he found, besides the usual shells and charcoal, fabric-marked pieces of aboriginal pottery, some bone implements and deer bones that had been cracked in such a way that bone marrow might easily be extracted.
In the same vicinity were found a number of isolated human arm, leg and foot bones. They too were broken and split with a tool in such a way that the marrow could be extracted. No animal tooth markings were found on any of the bones. Mercer collected the specimens and delivered them to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for analysis.
Professor Edward D. Cope judged the bones to be from a small or perhaps female Native American. He could tell the ankle bones were Indian by the distinctive hollows he found, commonly referred to as Thompson’s Facets. These facets were the result of habitual squatting and were not characteristic of European anatomy.
Artifacts found by landowners in the vicinity of the York shell heaps around the time of excavation were also cataloged in Henry Mercer’s 1897 report of his findings titled, “An Exploration of Aboriginal Shell Heaps revealing Traces of Cannibalism on York, River Maine.”
Mercer wrote, “On Mrs. Bullard’s property, workmen in grading (1890?) found a stone celt, or ‘plummet,’ so called. (Information received from Mrs. Bullard, September, 1891.) At L (J. E. Davis’ property), laborers in digging (spring of 1891) found a so-called tomahawk of iron. (Information received from Mr. Davis, September, 1891.) Mr. F. Woodward, of Chase’s Pond, reported the discovery of a broken stone pestle and three grooved stone axes, found in the course of many years in the neighborhood of the eastern end of the pond. A grooved stone axe was found on the Norwood farm by the father of the present (1896) Mr. Norwood. A broken celt was found by Mr. Walker on one of the shell heaps at G.”
Shocking as it still is, the concept of Indian cannibalism was not new to Mercer or to other students of Native American history. Henry W. Haynes presented evidence to the same effect found in shell heaps at Mt. Desert Island. Mr. Manly Hardy had found human bones in a shell heap on the south end of Great Deer Island, Penobscot Bay. Henry Mercer himself also found more evidence of cannibalism in the hill caves of the Yucatan Peninsula in 1895. The disturbing truth is that all peoples of the world probably engaged in at least ritual cannibalism at some point in their tribal history. American Indians were no different.
According to a report presented on the subject by Harvard’s Peabody Museum, eye-witness accounts of North American Indian cannibal feasts in the 17th century are plentiful. Early travelers to the coast and Jesuit priests who lived among the Indians attribute the practice to many tribes in the Americas.
There were no layers of accumulation in the York heaps to indicate a succession of aboriginal visitors. The size of the piles and their apparent continuous use led Mercer to estimate that they could have taken several centuries to create. Indian feasting near the mouth of the York River had to have ended by 1652, by which time settlers had built a coast road and established a ferry across the river.
Based on the middens’ contents and continuity of use, Mercer drew the conclusion that they were formed within a few hundred years of European contact.
Evidence of the York middens has likely been graded away for cottage lots or fairways by now, but thanks to the copious notes and photographs of Henry Chapman Mercer, some of the history they contained lives on.
Mercer retired from archaeology soon after the York dig to document more recent history by collecting workmen’s hand tools for his Pennsylvania museum. He believed that implements used every day by the common man were far more historically illustrative than opulent trapping of wealthy households.