Most West Virginians have learned in school that the Mountain State was no more then a hunting ground for Native Americans, with very few isolated permanent settlements. Do any of our members doubt where this discussion is headed?
In 1842-1843 the Logan Historical Society1 published a monthly magazine called “The American Pioneer” which featured articles and contributed letters on the history of the Ohio River Valley, often including material specific to Native American earthworks. The letter featured here is one such item, and has been included on the POOF website as a first hand account in the late 1830’s of a little understood Native American archaeological site.
This letter was written in 1842 by the American Revolutionary War soldier, Isaac Craig, to Jno. S. Williams the editor of the The American Pioneer periodical series. Isaac Craig was the brother-in-law to the land owner of the “fort”, Gen. Alfred Beckley. It’s not surprising then, that the two would see in this structure a military purpose, and label it a fortification.
However, may the structure have served some other purpose?
AccessGenealogy includes the “fortification” in it’s report on Virginia Frontier Forts Prior to 1902, as the “Big Beaver Creek Fort” at, Virginia – in Fayette County. This was part of a larger manuscript which attempted to list all known fort structures within the United States prior to 1902. In actuality, the manuscript lists all structures labelled as “forts” without proof they were actually used for that purpose.
Fayette County in Virginia has a storied history – the original Fayette County VA along with Jefferson and Lincoln counties was used to create the state of Kentucky in 1780; another Fayette County VA was created by the Virginia legislature in 1831 from parts of Greenbrier, Kanawha, Nicholas, and Logan counties. This new Fayette County VA was subdivided in 1850 to form Raleigh County VA, and the portion given to Raleigh included the land on which the Ancient “fort” sat. During the Civil War, Fayette and Raleigh counties were two of 50 western counties in Virginia that broke off and formed the new state of West Virginia. So while the letter references an ancient fort “discovered” on Big Beaver Creek, Fayette County, VA, Isaac Craig is actually referring to an ancient “fort “on Big Beaver Creek, Raleigh County, WV.
The actual location of the fort today is in the town of Blue Jay, West Virginia. It has been assigned an archaeological site id of 46RG1. The earthwork has been completely destroyed, as the stones were reportedly used to build an office building for the Blue Jay Lumber Company which still stands today.
In 1977, a hobbyist turned archaeologist, Larry Beckett, being deeply interested in the early history of the Big Beaver Creek2 area, took it upon himself to dig several holes in the area presumed to be site of the ancient fort with the assistance of local school children. He says in a newspaper article3 that he discovered more then 500 objects in and around the ruins. These objects consisted of a war axe, a knife, baked clay figurines, and carvings and tablets he believes were petrified skins. In his investigation, he also discovered two additional walls in the area of the first wall.
The newspaper article describes some of the artifacts and the drawings etched on them in this fashion:
On one of the tablets some symbols are clearly visible. One shows a square that Beckett said was a standard North American symbol for fertility. Also an arrow formation, signifying a dominant male, such as chief or warrior, can be seen.
Many of the artifacts have a southwestern flavor to them, including a baked clay carving of a square faced warrior.
A number of the artifacts show a thunderbird design. Some show a warrior with an outstretched hand and a bird flying either out or into his hand.
His pride and joy, however, was a small round glazed stone that “might be the only known picture of prehistoric man in Raleigh County.” He theorized it was glazed with pine pitch. A set of small eyes is on the round artifact along with an intricate drawing of a man, with neck beads, holding his hand out to a bird.
In the article Beckett theorizes that while the structure could have been used for a fortification, it was more likely used as a ceremonial center for Indians populating the area. And with the inclusion of the additional stone walls – he further surmised that the whole valley around Big Beaver Creek likely supported a culture with the stone structure it’s ceremonial center. He stated that the artifacts dug up supported this theory.
So without ado, here is the letter drafted by Isaac Craig, using his own words to describe the structure.4
The accompanying plan is an accurate representation of an old fortification situated on Big Beaver Creek, Fayette County, VA. This work was first surveyed by Mr. Beckley, in October, 1837. I visited it in August of the following year, and must say that you can form no adequate idea, from drawings, of the immense quantity of labor it must have required to erect this fortification. The walls have fallen, or have been thrown down, covering a space of twenty feet from the edge of the fallen stone on the inside to the edge of the fallen stone on the outside. I suppose, from this measurement of the fallen stone, that the walls at the base were about seven feet thick, and that they were about six feet high. The distance from gateway to gateway is a little over one hundred feet.
This curious work is situated (as you will perceive) upon a level bottom of some twenty or more acres, and near its extreme point, where the creek makes a sudden bend; and it is evident to a military coup d’œil that the creek was intended to serve as a wet and formidable ditch, for cleared of laurel and timber, as we may presume the point then was, and during most of the year the creek presenting a rapid current, if not very deep, and of average width of fifteen yards, with banks perhaps six feet abrupt ascent, the garrison could have swept all its approaches with their arrows, &c. The three northern faces are evidently so placed as to enfilade an enemy approaching up the creek, or from the small sandy islands, while the southern face opposes the approach down the creek. The terra plane of the fort, and the point of land on which it stands, are covered with heavy timber, chiefly white and spruce pine, and a dense growth of laurel trees, some of which are fifteen or twenty feet high. At present the wall is little over three feet high above the terra plane — which, by the by, I should mention, is lower than the outer circumjacent surface. It was suggested by an old hunter (the discoverer of this work) that the ground had been beaten down by the tramp of men but this could not be, for the first frost would have raised the ground to its original height. Again, it has been suggested that the work was a cattle pen, and that the mud that would necessarily accumulate in such a place, had been carried out on the feet of the cattle. The idea of this work being a pen for cattle, is at once dispelled by looking at the drawing. The position and disposition of the work proves it to be of a military character.
The walls, to all appearance, were faced inside and outside with dry masonry and filled in with smaller stones; there are two small pieces of inside facing still standing — one in the southwestern angle of the work, the other at the north side of the eastern gateway: this piece of facing, which is the butt of the northeast circular face, have their joints well broken.
The stone of which this work is built, is evidently fractured by percussion. The stone, as they lie, are edges up; evidently the fallen faces of the walls. It may be well to remark that the bottom land, on which this work is situated, presents no appearance of rock or stones whatever. The soil is extremely rich; it is jet black and is very light. The ground, when I visited it, was covered with fern breast high.
You will perceive by the drawing, that the hills on the opposite side of the creek from the work come sharp up to the creek.
Large pine trees have taken possession of all the salient angles, as if to perpetuate the form of the work. The area of this work is about twenty square rods. At a there is a spruce pine six feet eight inches in girth growing on the wall.
Isaac Craig, author of this letter, would go on to publish a periodical of his own called “The Olden Times” and in that publication included a report of the “Ancient fortification.”
Frank Sellers of the National Park Service, New River Gorge National River, Glenn Jean, WV conducted investigations on the research of site 46RG1 and provided them in a paper for the annual meeting of the West Virginia Archeological Society on Saturday, November 13, 2004, entitled “The Big Beaver Creek Fortification: Another Re-Visit to 46RG1.” If any of our readers has access to this paper and can make a copy of it, please let the editor of the POOF website know by using the contact form or comments on this page. Thanks!
Logan County West Virginia Historical Society ↩
Ancient Fortification by Isaac Craig. Published in The American Pioneer, Vol. I. September, 1842, No. IX, pp. 298-300. Pittsburgh, April, 1842. ↩