Remembering the Prickly Parts

A few years ago, after plowing up an old terrace, I found an arrowhead, a mostly intact quartz tip. I rushed inside to show my wife, but she hardly shared my enthusiasm and seemed more interested in the dirt clods I left on the floor. So, I ended up taking the arrowhead to work to show off, and I just happened to leave it on my desk, where it remains to this day. The arrowhead is a wonderful ice-breaker.  Often farmers will be sitting in my office while I’m scrambling to locate the correct version of the correct form. They’ll scan their surroundings and notice the arrowhead, which will spark much story-telling in arrowhead lore and buy me some time. One farmer said he was digging a hole with post-hole diggers and found a musket ball and an arrowhead in the same hole. This statement was the prelude to an hours-long conjecture session between the two of us on how those two items ended up in close proximity in the ground, which was more than enough time for me to locate form AD7HM-13/42 version 12.3. 

Having had many conversations about arrowheads, I’ve noticed arrowhead storytelling often contains an element of one-upmanship, as each arrowhead is a little larger than the last one mentioned. That said, I once watched a farmer find a truly massive spear tip. To be honest, the farmer needed that pick-me-up. We had already dug several soil test pits along a little branch that runs into Buffalo Creek. The soil, however, was nothing but coarse, no-account sand–not a layer of clay to be found anywhere. The farmer was getting  despondent at the thought of hauling in clay from offsite to build the dam for his irrigation pond. Then the backhoe emptied another bucket  beside a test hole and a five-inch spear tip tumbled down the dirt pile. The find completely changed  the farmer’s glum demeanor. 

 “This probably killed a buffalo,” he said gleefully, as we all stood around and studied the  spear tip. 

  “Could be a thousand years old,” said the backhoe operator, who had disembarked his steed to join in the studying. 

“Maybe ten-thousand,” I said. 

  “Could have killed a saber-toothed tiger,” the farmer said. We all peered down into the hole looking for saber-tooth tiger bones, but, alas, found none. To this day, the farmer still talks about that find and, for what it’s worth, cites me as a witness. He also suspects the spear tip brought him good luck. Despite the sorriest soil I’ve ever seen for a pond site, his pond miraculously held water. 

Likely, that spear tip is of Catawba origin. The North Carolina foothills where I live is mostly old Catawba territory. I won’t pretend  to be an expert on Native Americans, but from what I’ve read, the Catawba were a welcoming and  benevolent tribe, which is no small feat considering the Scotch-Irish settlers tended to be brash and rearing to fight (it was the Scotch-Irish Overmountain Men who whipped the British at Kings Mountain, helping turn the tide of the American Revolution). 

Sadly, the Catawba’s friendliness only hastened their demise. In the late 1600s, the  Catawba here totaled around 4,800 members. A hundred years later, their population had  plummeted to 250. From trading, smallpox spread quickly, ravaging their tribe. In 1775, a trader  named James Adair documented an old Catawba maize field that ran along a river bottom for seven  miles. He marveled that the Catawba must have once been a strong and numerous tribe to clear  and work a field that large. By 1830 when the Indian Removal Act was signed, the Catawba  population had dwindled so low that the government didn’t even bother relocating the few  surviving members through the Trail of Tears.  

One unintended drawback to the no-till era of farming is arrowheads remain hidden. Don’t get me wrong, saving soil is important, but finding arrowheads once reminded farmers of their predecessors here. And for people like me with Scotch-Irish ancestors who likely benefited from the downfall of tribes like the Catawba, it’s easy to glaze over the parts of our past that are prickly as a spear tip.

9 thoughts on “Remembering the Prickly Parts

  1. Wish I lived in your area. That way I could requisition your services. Whether your expertise was in fact needed, we could stand toe-to-toe spinning tales, heck with the runoff calculations. As always, (well, to my knowledge anyway) a durned good read. Or write. I guess “write.” You write, I read. My reading skills are kindly irreverant irrelevint irregul don’t matter. Happy Thanksgiving.

    1. Happy late Thanksgiving. Speaking of thanks, thanks for the nice words and comments. One of the favorite parts of my job is being an audience for farmers who love to spin tales.

  2. Thanks for an enjoyable post. I’ve yet to find an arrowhead, although the previous owners of our little acre left behind plenty of junk – mostly broken glass and old bed springs. Every spring, a new layer surfaces. And we have enough clay to establish a pottery!
    My husband did find a pfennig coin, worn so thin as to be almost unidentifiable, when we visited Sachsenhausen a few years ago. Although not officially a “death camp,” it was certainly the end of the line for many and seeing it was a sobering experience. Looking at the coin always makes me wonder whose hands it passed through – a soldier or his victim. I wish I could believe we will someday learn to quit killing.

  3. Arrowheads are indeed conversation pieces. Thera are a few creeks and a pasture close to where I like where hundreds have been found. I have never found any but it would be quite a treat… Take care and thanks for sharing!

  4. I’ve been recently learning about the sad demise of our indigenous peoples and heard a talk last week from a local Potowatami who told us how Chief Leopold managed to adapt and do some diplomacy to save his people from being removed from their land. They learned farming methods from the settlers and changed their traditions to accommodate. For good or bad. We have a flourishing tribe here in Southwest Michigan.

    1. Good to hear some tribes are flourishing. The Catawba in my area are trying to build a Casino now, in hopes to improve their situation. Some of their biggest opposition, however, is from the Cherokee who feel like it will cut into the profits of their Casino. The Cherokee and Catawba have long been rival tribes, even now when it comes to Casinos.

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