Tag Archives: Pre-historic

Native American Shell Middens along the York River

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.

Living landmarks of the York County coast

Pre-historic tree stumps at Kennebunk Beach
Pre-historic tree stumps at Kennebunk Beach

Mainers paid homage to the role trees had played in the history of their state by selecting the pine cone and tassel as Maine’s official floral emblem in 1895. For hundreds of years trees had provided timber for their homes, masts for their ships, fuel for their fires and food for their tables. Scientists, historians and journalists have recognized the significance of a few particular living landmarks on York County’s coast.

Stumps of ancient white pine trees rooted in peat were uncovered on Wells Beach by wave erosion in 1955. Radiocarbon dating performed in 1959 by geologist Arthur M. Hussey indicates that, 3,000 years ago, these trees were growing in a wooded upland, but were gradually drowned by the rising sea level. As the topography changed, the dunes moved up and over the ancient roots. Similar stumps have also been found in the intertidal area along Kennebunk Beach.

Charles Bradbury, in his 1837 “History of Kennebunkport,” wrote about a mysterious reference in 17th century town records to a marker at the “cursed fruit.” Historian Ruth Landon later identified the reference as an apple tree near Tyler Brook, the bitter fruit of which had inspired the name.

Cape Arundel cedar tree
Cape Arundel cedar tree

In her 1901 book, “Ropes Ends,” Kennebunkport librarian and author, Annie Peabody Brooks, published a photograph of a little bonsai-like cedar tree growing out of the rocks at Cape Arundel. Her caption read, “Old as Capt. Gosnold.” Starting in the 1890s, the same photo was periodically printed in tourist publications and the scraggly cedar became an icon of Cape Arundel’s picturesque rocky shoreline. The tenacious little conifer was still clinging to the rocks in 1950 when artist Frank Handlen captured its likeness in a pastel now owned by the Kennebunkport Historical Society.

A notable landmark at Beachwood (aka Goose Rocks Beach) was described by a Boston Daily Globe correspondent 1911. “In a broad expanse of eye-pleasing landscape in the village of Beachwood, a part of the town of Kennebunkport, Me, stands a group of old birches, long known to the native dwellers and summer sojourners as the ‘Twelve Apostles.’ From good viewpoints they can be seen from miles around and old time residents of the village say that originally there were 12 trees, healthy, white of bark and glorious in green foliage when the months of bloom rolled their courses.”

The majestic anatomy of elm trees often qualified them for landmark status. On May 17, 1826, a giant elm located 1½ miles from the Wells shore was uprooted in a late spring gale. The New Hampshire Statesman and Concord Register reported the loss. “The Great Elm, in Wells Me, which has long been a landmark for vessels entering that harbor, was blown down in the gale on the 17th ult. It was estimated to be 100 feet in height and rose 60 feet clear of limbs. Its circumference was 27 feet, 4 inches.”

Kennebunk has had its own iconic elms. Vintage postcards of the tree growing through the roof of the first Storer Mansion barn are still among the most prized eBay finds. The barn was built in 1855 by owner Captain Lord. Wishing to save the stately elm that stood in the way of his barn expansion, Lord left a hole in the middle of the new structure allowing the tree to grow unimpeded. Lattice and lead flashing wrapped around the opening had to be adjusted periodically as the trunk expanded. Kennebunk Town Historian, Kathy Ostrander, writes in her 2005 book, “Kennebunk,” that the barn was torn down in 1929.

Kennebunk's Lafayette Elm
Lafayette Elm

In the field next to the Storer Mansion stood the Lafayette Elm named for the French General who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War and who furthered French commitment to American interests. The wildly popular Marquis de Lafayette visited towns all over New England in 1825. At Kennebunk, an elaborate celebration was planned to honor his service to America. All the well-heeled ladies in town were invited to the Storer Mansion to meet the French dignitary, whose admiration of women was notorious. They reportedly dined in the shade of an already formidable elm tree. The Lafayette Elm succumbed to Dutch elm disease in 1971, but a slice of its trunk was saved by the Brick Store Museum. Naming an elm tree in honor of Lafayette’s excursion was apparently not an idea that originated in Kennebunk. The “Lafayette Elms” scattered all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire might lead a student of history to conclude that General Lafayette toured the elm trees of New England in 1825.

Many of the beautiful trees we wiz by in our cars every day were admired by horseback-riding residents of the Province of Maine and should be treasured as a link to our ancestors.

First humans in York County long ago

Our Paleo forebears roamed the land that became York County
Our Paleo forebears roamed the land that became York County

Information and artifacts gathered at the Hedden archeological site, on Kennebunk’s blueberry plains and at the Spiller Farm site in Wells, leave little doubt that York County was inhabited by humans 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

During the Ice Age — or Pleistocene Epoch — Maine was under ice a mile thick. So much more of the earth’s water was frozen then, that the sea level was lower and a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia called the Bering Strait was exposed. This provided a route for animals and humans to cross into the Americas. Archeologists still debate when the first humans crossed the Bering Strait, but 11,000 years ago the sea level had risen enough to re-submerge it. Anyone coming that way was already here. Also, by 11,000 years ago, enough ice had melted that migration south from Alaska became possible and people made their way to every corner of the American continent. The Maine landscape was open and shrubby at first. Forests grew only as the temperatures rose blanketing the state from south to north. Bruce J. Bourque, in his book “Twelve Thousand Years American Indians in Maine,” writes “The first solid evidence for a human presence in Maine is the period between 12,000 and 10,000 years B.P. (before present).”

The first human inhabitants are referred to as Paleo-Indians. They shared the land with woolly mammoths and likely hunted them for food. In 1959, when radiocarbon dating technology was in its infancy, a tusk more than four feet long was pulled out of the mud in Scarborough. After the initial excitement subsided it was concluded that the tusk probably belonged to “Old Bet” a traveling circus elephant that had been euthanized there in 1816. In the early 1990s the tusk was acquired by the Maine State Museum in Augusta. Radiocarbon dating verified that it actually came from a young adult female woolly mammoth. She had become mired in the mud and died approximately 10,500 years ago.

Within the last 20 years, Paleo-Indian archeological sites have been identified in Kennebunk and Wells. Tools found beneath a sand mound at the Hedden site in 1990 were made of a kind of rock called “chert,” that came from sources in northern Maine, coastal Massachusetts and New York’s Hudson Valley. University of Southern Maine faculty and students excavated a hearth and nearly 200 stone tools at the Spiller Farm site in Wells just a few years later. Maine stone tools made of chert from Piscataquis County were identified at the Neal Garrison site during a gas pipeline survey in Eliot. Maine’s first inhabitants must have travelled great distances to acquire the raw materials to make their tools or they traded with others who did.

The Archaic period followed the Paleo-Indian period and lasted from 10,000 to 3,000 B.F. For the purposes of study, this period is further divided into early, middle and late Archaic. During the Early Archaic period, Maine’s shoreline was much further out to sea than it is today. Artifacts from this period have been found underwater and in fishermen’s nets. Archaic sites have also been identified along rivers and waterways suggesting that these early Mainers travelled by boat. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that Archaic ground stone woodworking tools have been found.

The Ceramic Period followed the Archaic Period. As the name implies, Indians of the Ceramic Period made rustic clay cooking vessels. They were the ancestors of the Algonquin Indians who met Samuel de Champlain at Biddeford Pool.

By the time Englishmen arrived on the Maine coast, Americans had inhabited York County for thousands of years. They lived lightly on the earth, but did leave clues about their day-to-day lives. Artifacts found in shell heaps all over York County have taught us about what they ate and how they prepared their food, but there is so much yet to learn.

Kennebunkport kindergarten teacher Kathy Cmaylo was kayaking out in Cape Porpoise Harbor recently. As she stepped out of her boat, onto an island owned by the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, a large gray leaf-shaped object was inches from her footfall. Archeologists say the pressure-flaked bifacial chopper may be more than 2,000 years old. As her sister, your columnist can attest to the fact that Mrs. Cmaylo has been bringing rocks home since she was seven years old.

Clues to our history and indeed our pre-history are hiding in plain site all around us. Thanks to land conservation, the secrets of Cape Porpoise harbor will still be there when we are ready to know them.