Research Background

The Grand Wazoo River Valley
Whortle County

Climate | Hydrology | Geology | Soils | Vegetation
Settlement Model | Previous Research

Whortle County has a continental climate typical of the remote, lonely places where archaeologists generally choose to work. The region suffers from hot, humid, summers and cold, clammy, winters. The project is located in southwest Whortle County, approximately 10 km west of Englishtown. There is a wide temperature range between summer and winter (July mean high = 87o F, January mean low = 17o F) and precipitation (34 inches per year) is irregular, with occasional dry spells but only infrequent droughts. Over 55% of precipitation falls in the months between May and September. There are an average of 162 frost-free days in the area (temperature above 32o, 9 years in 10).


The Grand Wazoo River flows approximately west-east through the center of the study area. The Petite Wazoo, Flambé and Wanker Rivers are the three main tributaries west to east. The northern and central portion of the study area is drained by the Flambé , the southwest portion by the Petite Wazoo, and the south-central region by the Wanker. Two smaller tributaries drain the eastern portion of the region: Buffalo Trail Creek to the north of the Grand Wazoo and Arrowhead Creek to the south.


Most of Whortle County is situated on the Valparaiso Morainic System, in the Wheaton Morainal Country of the Great Lakes Section of the Central Lowland Province. The surrounding topography was formed by a complex series of glacial advances and retreats, primarily during the Woodfordian Substage (22000 to 12500 B.P.) of the Wisconsinan Glaciation. The Wheaton Morainal Country has nearly all the physiographic features associated with glaciated areas including kames, kame terraces, eskers, and a large number of glacial lakes, many of which are now drained. The surficial topography is entirely composed of glacial tills, glacial outwash sands and gravels, and glacial lake deposits. Topographic relief is gentle and rolling, with no major bluff development along the valley of the Grand Wazoo. The underlying bedrock is primarily dolomite of the Alexandrian and Niagran series of the Silurian System. Several of these deposits contain chert, with the most prominent surface exposure along Buffalo Trail Creek.


The soils of the study area are predominantly silt loams of the Morley-Blount-Beecher Association. The soil of the terraces and floodplains is largely Blount silt loam, a podzolic soil formed under deciduous forests. These soils are also found in the gentle slopes of the south-central region of the study area. A secondary soil type in this area is Morley silt loam, another podzolic soil formed under forest vegetation. These soils are imperfectly, but moderately well-drained soils. In the slopes and uplands north of the Grand Wazoo, the soil is predominantly Elliot silt loam, which forms under prairie vegetation. Elliot silt loam is a moderately drained soil. The soils along the floodplain of the Grand Wazoo are also differentiated east-west. West of the Flambé , Huntsville silty clay loam is present as a secondary soil type. Huntsville silty clay loam is often covered with prairie or mixed forest/prairie vegetation. East of the Flambé , the stream-side soil is Ashkum silty clay loam, a humic-gley soil which forms under wet prairie or marsh vegetation. Both soils are poorly drained. Finally, in the far southeastern section of the study area, moderately poorly drained Beecher silt loams are predominant. Beecher soils are formed under mixed prairie/forest vegetation, or under deciduous forests that have recently encroached upon prairie.


Palynological data from Schmendricke bog indicates that the major vegetational patterns seen in the Whortle County were in place by 10,000 B.P. Schmendricke Bog is located approximately 10 kilometers east of the study area and is assumed to reflect major patterns encompassing the area. The pollen diagrams from Baden show that at 11,000 B.P. there is a spruce (Picea) dominated forest which is quickly replaced by oak, with brief peaks of birch (Betula), ash (Fraxinus), and hornbeam (Ostrya and Carpinus). The hypsithermal (8,000-4500 B.P.), a period of increased temperature, is believed to have caused large-scale dessication of the forests and expansion of the prairie in other parts of the midwest. In this area it resulted in a loss of birch and slight increase in ragweed (Ambrosia) and other herbs, but no major changes in the oak dominated forest. Birch, however, returns during the "little ice age" (A.D. 1200-1800) and is still occasionally found in the area today. Examination of the notes and maps made by General Land Office (GLO) surveyors in 1821 corroborate the soils and palynological data. Researchers who reconstruct presettlement vegetation commonly use field notes from the GLO surveys done in the 19th century. The vegetation as described by the land surveyors is assumed to be generally accurate and the presettlement vegetation patterns are then used as a model for prehistoric conditions. The area examined here was surveyed in 1821 by John Daniels under a contract to John and Ginger Walker. The field notes were copied by government scribe Richard Dent in 1869 and are now on microfilm record in the state archives. Surveyor Daniels operated under instructions issued in 1815 and generally recorded two witness trees at each section corner, one tree at each quarter section corner, and gave general vegetation and soil descriptions at each section corner. Common tree names used by the surveyors, and their probable Latin binomials, are found in Table 1.

According to the GLO notes, the study area is a mosaic of prairie, oak barrens, and deciduous forest. The area south of the Grand Wazoo is largely forest, especially the floodplain and terraces. The area north of the Grand Wazoo is prairie and oak barrens on the slopes and upland, and a mix of deciduous forest and oak barrens on the floodplains and terraces. North of the Grand Wazoo, the dominant species reported compose a xeric community: white oak, with burr oak a co-dominant. Other species noted include black oak, and hickory. Hazel and vines are noted as an understory. Both the northwest and northeast portions of the study area are described by the surveyor as "dry, rolling prairie, first rate soil".

South of the Grand Wazoo, the dominant species of tree reported by the surveyor is black oak, with white oak a co-dominant. Hickory is noted as a secondary species with red bud sometimes noted as understory. Also reported are cottonwood, elm, lynn, ash, walnut, cherry and willow. Willow and cottonwood are noted again on the floodplain, along with black and red oak. Also noted on the floodplain of the Grand Wazoo east of the Wanker are cattails, bulrush and briars. The far southeastern portion of the study area is noted as "oak barrens", with white and burr oak noted.

It is important to note that surveyors did not randomly select witness trees nor did they necessarily report all tree species. Witness trees were selected for their perceived hardiness. The surveyor used those trees that the thought would survive in future years to serve as reference markers for the section or quarter section posts he had raised. Oaks were generally chosen as witness trees over smaller, or economically valuable trees, such as cherry or walnut. In describing the general characteristics of the land, some surveyors (such as Daniels) would simply note " Timber oak", without including understory characteristics or subdominant tree species. Nonetheless, a general understanding of the native vegetation at the time of Euro-American settlement can be established by utilizing these notes.

Settlement Model

The importance of understanding the past environment is that it allows us to form expectations for where to find prehistoric sites. A major premise for models of prehistoric site location is that human use of land areas should follow their food-productivity potential. Well drained soils adjacent to marshy areas and rivers are prime spots for archaeological sites, since marshes and rivers are highly productive in harvestable plant foods such as wild rice and bulrushes. These resource areas also provide high yields of animals such as deer, muskrat, beaver, and many types of fish, turtles, and waterfowl. Deciduous forest edges are highly productive in nuts, as well as deer and small mammals. We expect that human settlement will be most intensive at forest/marsh edges, especially on well drained, elevated soils along waterways. Wet or dry prairies are not as economically valuable to humans, and are not expected to have many archaeological sites.

In addition, since sites situated at the juncture of water resource/forest zones are located where the environment provides large amounts of storable foods (e.g. nuts), we expect long-term, stable encampments including houses and features such as storage pits. Sites located away from the major water sources should be short-term special use sites (e.g., hunting stands) and should be ephemeral. These expectations have been supported with survey data from northern Illinois and southeast Wisconsin. Within the proposed study area, the central and southern portions near the main river are the highest areas of productivity. In particular, the areas around the confluences of the tributaries and the Grand Wazoo should yield many archaeological sites. The gently rolling terrain, with moderately well drained soils and close proximity to a variety of ecozones and margin areas (tributaries, forest/wetlands, forest/prairie edge), has the highest probability of containing sites. Conversely, the upland areas in the far southeast, northeast and northwest of the study area are the lowest areas of productivity. Since either wet or dry prairie is low in economic resources for aboriginal groups, we expect might to find few sites in these areas.

However, it must be remembered that other factors influence site locations. Chert outcrops, salt deposits, protection from the elements, and migratory game (among other things) may affect where people choose to live. A direct high productivity-high site expectation may be overly simplistic. Only systematic survey of a region can provide information needed to test our productivity hypothesis.

In addition, it must be remembered that GLO notes and soils are not necessarily good indicators for environmental conditions of 5,000-10,000 years ago. In particular, Early Archaic and Paleoindian sites may have little or no correlation to the environmental zones seen in the early historic records. The wise archaeologist hedges his/her bets.

Previous Research

There has been precious little research in the study area previously. One expedition, led by the little-known archaeological duo of Baden and Jeske, did spend four months in the region. Plagued by mosquitos, ticks, poison ivy, sun poisoning and hangovers, no archaeological sites were reported by the survey party. Some might question whether they were in the right county. In a case that should be a warning to all, the entire crew left archaeology to form a communal anti-tax militia in central Idaho. However, research in adjacent areas suggest the following general culture history for the region:

The Occupation of the New World (ca. 14,000 B.P.) Archaeologists are confident that modern Native Americans are descendants of Asian immigrants who came across the Bering Strait during the Wisconsinan glaciation. The timing and the number of the migrations is still a matter of debate, and estimates for the date of the arrival of humans to the New World range from 12,000 to 75,000 years before present. Recent research, however, points to a date of circa 14,000 B.P. as the most likely time for the initial occupation of North America. A combination of dental, linguistic and geological evidence, coupled with a refined radiocarbon dating sequence for archaeological sites in the New World and Siberia, suggest that Native Americans separated from their Asian stock 14,000 years ago, and occupied most of North America and western South America by 12,000-11,500 B.P. The initial occupiers of this continent have traditionally been thought of as utilizing a cultural adaptation referred to as Clovis, and many Clovis sites date to circa 11,500-11,000 B.P.

A number of controversial North American sites (e.g., Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania or Old Crow in the Yukon) have produced dates of greater antiquity than 12,000 B.P. However, the best documented pre-Clovis site in the New World is not in North America. Monte Verde, in southern Chile, has been recently accepted by most Paleoindian experts as being a bona fide archaeological site securely radiocarbon dated to at least 12,500 B.P. At present, the implications of this pre-Clovis occupation in Chile for the rest of the New World are unclear.

PaleoIndian Period (12,000 - 9,000 B.P.) The first people to reach the interior of the New World are known to archaeologists as PaleoIndians. These people produced an efficient chipped-stone tool kit, which included distinctive tools known as fluted points (but see Monte Verde, above). Fluted points are found throughout North America and much of South America. The earliest variant of this type of tool is known as the Clovis point. Later types include Folsom points and Plano points. These tools were first found at sites on the Great Plains in association with the remains of mammoths and bison, giving rise to the mistaken notion that PaleoIndians were primarily big-game hunters. From sites found all over the continent, we now know that PaleoIndian peoples hunted and gathered a variety of foods, including deer, small mammals, and nuts. Large mammals were most likely a rare or seasonally taken resource; in fact, there are very few sites east of the Mississippi River with evidence for the hunting of elephants or other megafauna by humans. Evidence also suggests that PaleoIndian groups were highly mobile, and traveled across large territories in order to exploit resources when and where they became available. Population size was small, and local groups were likely no larger than 25 or 30 related individuals with a relatively simple social structure. One consequence of this highly mobile lifestyle is that little trash accumulated in one spot, making the location and identification of PaleoIndian sites very difficult. Sites are usually located on high river terraces or in upland areas on wetland edges. These locations did not flood, offered easy access to aquatic plant and animal resources and served as vantage points for locating larger game.

Archaic Period (9,000 - 3,500 B.P.) The Archaic is a long period of time during which important long-term trends of northern Indiana prehistory are begun. Archaeologists usually divide the Archaic into three parts. The Early Archaic (9,000-8,000 B.P.) is separated from the preceding PaleoIndian period primarily by the conspicuous lack of fluted points. Large spear points or knives with beveled edges and deep notches are found at Early Archaic sites, as well as smaller points with bifurcate bases. Sites from this time period are fairly common, with the same general geographic distribution seen in PaleoIndian sites.

The Middle Archaic (8,000-5,000 B.P.) is a period of population growth in northern Indiana. Projectile points tend to be smaller with side notches and straight bases. T-shaped drills are also common. In addition, a wide variety of ground stone tools such as milling stones, pestles and grooved axes are found from this period. During the Middle Archaic, a long-term warming and drying period, called the hypsithermal, reached its peak. Previously pine dominated forests were replaced by deciduous forests dominated by oak, hickory, and elm, which is more productive for human needs. In addition, all of the major rivers and their associated floodplains in the region were established by this time. Because of the rich resources available on river floodplains, people settled into larger, more permanent villages. Foods utilized during the Middle Archaic included deer, small mammals, fish, migratory waterfowl, a wide variety of nuts, and some domesticated plants such as squash.

The Late Archaic (5,000-3,500 B.P.) is a period in which a number of trends seen earlier (e.g., increased population, decreased mobility, domes tication of plants) continue. In addition, several technological innovations were introduced-- most notably the manufacture of pottery. Typical artifact styles in the Late Archaic include long spear points with square bases and smaller points with stemmed bases. Ground and polished stone artifacts called bannerstones also are found during the Late Archaic. A trade network was developed during the Late Archaic, along which artifacts and raw materials such as galena and copper were exchanged. These traded materials often were deposited in burials, and a unique burial complex called the Glacial Kame complex or culture arose. Burials found in glacial kame deposits are found associated with sandal-sole shaped shell and slate gorgets, copper artifacts, stone pipes and slate birdstones in southern Michigan, northern Ohio and northern Indiana . There is also evidence for a related complex, the Red Ocher complex. Resources utilized during the Late Archaic include all those mentioned for the Middle Archaic, with an increasing utilization of seed plants such as goosefoot (lamb's quarters) and sumpweed. The Late Archaic is well represented in northern Whortle County, with numerous village and mortuary sites reported. Late Archaic sites tend to be larger and contain more tools and debris than sites of any preceding time period. They are usually located on well-drained soil near water. Late Archaic sites are often found in upland areas near wetlands, as well as in the main river valleys and atop glacial beach ridges.

Woodland Period (3,500 - 500 B.P.) The Woodland period was a time of major changes in food choices and social organization in the Midwest. Like the Archaic, the Woodland is divided into three parts. Until recently the Early Woodland (3,500-2,100 B.P.) was separated from the Archaic by the use of pottery. However, in the southern Midwest, pottery is now known to have been utilized as early as 4550 B.P. (well within the Late Archaic). Early Woodland/Late Archaic pottery tends to be thick and porous, with fiber or course grit temper. Several sites near the Wazoo Valley have yielded Early Woodland pottery, although there are no known large sites in the project area. Other than the increasingly common use of pottery, there is little difference between the Early Woodland and Late Archaic in terms of tech nology. It is during this period, however, that mortuary activities first included the building of earthen mounds.

The Middle Woodland (2,100-1,600 B.P.) is most notable for the extensive use of large burial mounds and geometric earthworks, and a widespread trading network known as the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. Artifacts and raw materials such as obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, copper from northern Michigan, mica from the Appalachians, shark teeth and marine shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and a wide variety of cherts were exchanged throughout most of the eastern United States. Centers for this activity were the Scioto River Valley in south-central Ohio, and the Illinois River Valley in west-central Illinois. Snyders points are characteristic of this period, as are grooveless axes or celts. Pottery was grit tempered, better made, and more often decorated than in the Early Woodland period. Subsistence activities changed, with horticulture becoming a major supplement to the hunting-gathering lifestyle. Goosefoot, sumpweed, and sunflower were important plants which were actively cultivated. Maize (corn), a tropical import, was not an important part of the diet at this time. Northwestern Whortle County contains a distinct variant of the Hopewell phenomenon, with a number of Middle Woodland village, earthworks, and mound sites. These mounds tend to be found along the lower terraces of the Wazoo River.

The Late Woodland (1,600-500 B.P.) is a period of increasing population size and increasing dependence upon maize as a dietary supplement throughout the American Midwest. However, the uncertain number of frost-free days for growing the strains of corn available during this period, and the presence of plentiful wetland resources probably made corn less important to the occupants of this area than to people further south. The Hopewell Interaction Sphere of the Middle Woodland period was no longer a part of the social and economic lives of Midwesterners; there was a general return to the use of local resources for tool manufacture. Pottery was typically grit-tempered, and harder and thinner than Middle Woodland pottery. The bow and arrow was introduced during this time, and small, triangular, notched arrow points were a common tool type. Late Woodland sites from the area are ubiquitous, but few sites have been excavated near the project area. Late Woodland sites excavated in nearby areas suggest that the general trends discussed above are likely to hold true in Whortle County.

Mississippian After A.D. 900, people in the major river valleys of the Midwest and Southeast began to follow a lifestyle characterized by dependence upon corn, the use of shell-tempered pottery, the building of pyramid-shaped mounds and population aggregation into hierarchically ordered settlement communities. This lifestyle is termed Mississippian. Late Woodland groups in Whortle County adopted a number of Mississippian material culture attributes, although how and why the changes occurred are still not clear. A number of groups in the northern Midwest adopted maize agriculture, Mississippian motifs for pottery, and some burial practices. However, they lived in smaller villages, with a more mobile population, and used a subsistence strategy that entailed greater reliance on hunting and gathering than did the more southern Mississippians. The culture that emerged from this imposition of Mississippian attributes on a Late Woodland lifestyle has been termed Upper Mississippian, and several general traditions within this Upper Mississippian culture have been defined. Oneota peoples utilized shell tempering for their pottery along with the Mississippian stylistic motifs, while Langford groups continued the use of grit temper for pots even though they did adopt Mississippian decorative styles. Although Upper Mississippian sites are known from Whortle county, it is not clear if these sites are Middle Mississippian, Oneota, or Langford sites. In addition, Upper Mississippian groups in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, are represented by shell-tempered Fort Ancient materials. However, in a situation similar to the Oneota/Langford dichotomy, there is a grit-tempered ceramic ware found in Indiana known as Oliver Phase, which looks like Fort Ancient ware but is grit tempered. What the shell versus grit tempered dichotomy in Langford/Oneota and Oliver/Fort Ancient means is unclear at this time.

Protohistoric and Historic (A.D. 1450 - A.D. 1846) The nature and extent of Native American Protohistoric (A.D. 1450-ca. 1680) occupation of the area immediately prior to European contact is obscure. The Historic Period (ca. A.D. 1680-1846) is much better understood. We do know that several trends seen during the prehistoric periods change markedly during the Protohistoric period. Population growth and political complexity are two examples of long term trends that change at some point during this time. Most of the Midwest and Southeast appears to have suffered a dramatic population decline by A.D. 1450. The large ceremonial centers and towns are abandoned and replaced by smaller villages. By the time of European contact in the late 17th century, the indigenous population of Whortle County had left the region, using it only for seasonal hunting or as a stopover from one home territory to another.

Table 1. GLO Entries and Probable Latin Binomials.
GLO entryProbable Species
AlderAlnus rugosa
Ash, White AshFraxinus americana
Black AshF. nigra
Blue AshF quadrangulata
Green AshF. pennsylvanniaum
Prickly AshXanthoxylum americanum
AspenPopulus grandidentata
Quaking Aspen; Quaking AshPopulus tremuloides
BirchBetula papyrifera
Box Elder; BoxwoodAcer negundo
BuckeyeAesculus sp.
CherryPrunus serotina
Cot; Cottonwood; PoplarPopulus deltoides
DogwoodCornus spp.
ElderAcer negundo (?)
Elm; White ElmUlmus americana
Red ElmUlmus rubra
HackberryCeltis occidentalis
HazelCorylus americana
HickoryCarya ovata
Hornbeam; Blue BeechCarpinus caroliniana
IronwoodOstrya virginiana
Lynn; LindenTilia americana
Maple; Silver MapleAcer saccharinum
Sugar; Sugartree; Sugar MapleA. saccharum
Black OakQ. velutina
Bur; Mossy Cup OakQ. macrocarpa
Pin OakQ. ellipsoidalis (Q. palustris?)
Red OakQ. rubra
Spanish Oak; Pin OakQ. ellipsoidalis (Q. palustris?)
Swamp White OakQ. bicolor
White OakQuercus alba
White PinePinus strobus
Yellow OakQ. muehlenbergii
Yellow PineP. banksiana
Plum; PlumbPrunus americana
PoplarLiriodendron tulipifera
SassafrasSassafras albidum
SpiceLindera benzoin
SumacRhus glabra
SycamorePatanus occidentalis
TamarackLarix laricina
ThornCrataegus spp.
Black WalnutJuglans nigra
White WalnutJ. cinera
WillowSalix spp.
BriarsRubus spp. ?; Rosa multiflora ?
Cat tailTypha latifolia
CrabMalus coronaria
Haw; Red HawCrataegus mollis
IndigoBaptisia sp.
IvyToxicodendron radicans
Paw pawAsimina triloba?
Red BudCercis canadensis
RosinSilphim terebinthinaceum
Red rootCeanothus americanus
Vinesvitis spp. ?
WhortleberryVaccinium spp.

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