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.