Those Who Came Before – The Archaeology of Centre County’s Native Americans was an exhibit presented in 2011 by the Centre County Historical Society, the Bald Eagle Archaeological Society, and Penn State’s Matson Museum, exploring the rich history of the people who lived in Central Pennsylvania for thousands of years before Euro Americans arrived.
Native Americans first came to the region about at the end of the last Ice Age. For thousands of years, they moved seasonally from camp to camp, hunting animals and gathering food. Eventually, they began fishing, gardening and settling down in permanent settlements. About one thousand years ago, they lived in villages and survived by growing corn, beans, and squash while continuing to collect the bounty of the forest and rivers around them. By the time Andrew Boggs, James Potter and a few others had settled in the 1760s-70s in what would be named Centre County, the original inhabitants had left in response to the encroachment of colonists and other native peoples on their territory as well as the spread of disease and conflict that ensued.
This history is not written in a book but must be reconstructed from the material remains that archaeologists find of their camps and villages.
Small groups of Native Americans first came to this region at the end of the last Ice Age, during the Paleoindian Period (15,000-8000 B.C). The area had a tundra-like environment dominated by grasslands and shrubs. The Paleoindians hunted Ice Age animals, such as mammoth, and smaller animals like caribou and deer. They used long spears tipped with distinctive Clovis-style stone spear points, some of which have been found in Centre County. Paleoindians moved frequently in search of food and tool stone, living in temporary camps or rock shelters.
Foraging in a New Land
At the end of the Ice Age, the climate warmed and this region was dominated by forests that gradually became similar to modern forests. During the Archaic Period (8000-1000 B.C.) native people lived as hunter-gatherers, moving in bands of several families around a territory. They camped where wild foods were abundant in different seasons—by a river during spring fish runs, near a forest for fall nut gathering, or in the hills for winter hunting. Archaic hunters used atlatls, or spear throwers, to propel spears tipped with stone points. By 2000 B.C. Archaic people were experimenting with new foods, domesticating plants such as sunflowers and gourds. To cook or store new foods, they first made and traded steatite bowls about 2000 B.C. and then adopted pottery about 1500 B.C.
Archaic Sites in Centre County
The exhibit highlights three Archaic Period sites in Centre County that have been studied by archaeologists. The Milesburg Site, at the junction of Spring Creek and Bald Eagle Creek, was a good camp site for people traveling along those streams. Excavations in 1975 found cooking hearths and numerous stone tools. The Jacks Mill Site, on Spring Creek near Boalsburg, was excavated by two groups in the 1980s. They uncovered hearths, pits, and many stone artifacts, which showed that the groups who camped here were hunting as well as gathering and processing nuts for food. At the Mackey Run Bridge Site, in Linden Hall, groups camped there while collecting tool stone from nearby chert quarries. In addition to making stone tools, they were using the tools to work bone, wood, antler, fresh meat, and animal hides. Many of these same activities took place at other Archaic campsites in Centre County.
During the first part of the Woodland Period (1000 B.C.-A.D. 1600), the way of life for people in this region did not change much, as they continued to hunt and gather wild foods. About A.D. 600 they began to use the bow and arrow for hunting. Crops were introduced through trade—first squash, then corn, and later beans. People lived in farmsteads or small hamlets along streams, where they could plant gardens using wooden digging sticks and stone hoes. Population increased, possibly through reliance on these new foods. After A.D. 1250, central villages were established along the larger streams, such as the Susquehanna West Branch. Some of these included long houses. In Centre County, however, only small campsites, farmsteads, and hamlets have been found.
Ancient Farmers in Centre County
Two hamlets in Centre County provided information on lifeways at these farmsteads. The Fisher Farm Site, on Bald Eagle Creek near Unionville, was excavated in the 1970s. The Shuey Site, on Spring Creek near Bellefonte, was excavated in the 1990s. At both sites the remains of cooking hearths and pits were found in the subsoil, some of which contained corn or seeds of other plants that would have been grown in nearby gardens. Deer bones were common at the Shuey Site, showing that deer were still hunted for meat, hides, sinew, and bone for tools. Circular patterns of postholes were uncovered at both sites, showing where small houses had been built with sapling frames. Small “keyhole” shaped buildings may have been used for smoking, drying, or storing food. If native people only lived in these hamlets during the growing season, they may have taken their harvest to villages elsewhere for the winter.
The Arrival of European Settlers
The exhibit concludes with the Contact Period, (A.D. 1600-1780) , a time of stress for native populations. Many died from exposure to new diseases, such as smallpox and measles, which spread inland from contacts with European traders and settlers along the coast. Survivors moved away to join other tribal groups. Also, tribes from the coastal area moved west, as they were crowded out by settlers. The first settlers in Centre County in the mid-1700s encountered members of the Shawnee and Delaware tribes, who had moved here from their homelands to the southeast. By the end of the Revolutionary War, almost all Native Americans had left the territory of Pennsylvania.