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Sugar Run Mounds tell little-understood part of county history

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission image Included in a blog post on the Sugar Run Mounds is this image, specifically highlighting one of the cists as well as a purported bird effigy.

It’s really to get in the trap of writing about written history.

That means when I sit down to write these stories each week, I’m somewhat limited to the last 250 years or so of this area’s story.

I was reminded recently though that there’s a lot more to it.

I was reading the county’s comprehensive plan and there was an early mention of the “Sugar Run Mounds” which could be 1,000 years old.

Now, to be clear, I don’t intend this to be a comprehensive understanding of the Sugar Run Mounds but, rather, what I’ve learned as I’ve been reading about this unique site.

A portion of Indian Mounds Regional Park in St. Paul, the capital city of Minnesota and, with Minneapolis, one of the state’s “Twin Cities.” This is one of six Native American burial mounds high atop 450 million-year-old limestone and sandstone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River and downtown St. Paul. The oldest were constructed 1,500–2,000 years ago by people of the Hopewell tradition

There were several layers to this story where I didn’t bring any prior knowledge with me and that was actually refreshing.

One example? Corydon Township, Warren County. Defining this sets the stage for what comes next.

According to the information from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, the township was incorporated in 1846 “from territory set off from McKean County” on the eastern edge of the county.

Census data showed that the municipality peaked at 646 in 1900 but had declined to just 206 by 1960.

While the decline had been nearly consistent since 1900, the incoming inundation of the Kinzua Dam certainly played a role in the 20 percent decline seen in the population between 1950 and 1960.

Just a couple years later, much of what was Corydon Township was under the Allegheny Reservoir and what was left, according to the text “Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps” was annexed to Mead Twp. in 1964.

If you read between the lines and assumed that this site is now under the Allegheny Reservoir you would be right.

To lay a shared understanding for what we’re discussing here, I want to start with a brochure from the 1940s that the Warren County Historical Society shared with me. The excavation work at Sugar Run that we’ll be discussing was part of a Civilian Conservation Corps project.

The Historical Society of the 1940s realized that there would be interest in what was being excavated at Sugar Run and got Dr. C.E. Schaeffer, the assistant ethnologist with Pennsylvania’s State Historical Commission, to answer a series of questions about the effort.

Their first question was brilliant – “What is this thing, anyhow?”

“The ‘Sugar Run site’ is a low-lying earth mound made some centuries ago by an American Indian group, as a burying place for its dead,” Schaeffer wrote. “Before actually digging started the site was surveyed and laid off in equal, numbered squares on a map, to locate the exact spot on which any material might be exposed. The series of open squares and trenches now cutting the site follow this map and lay bare the mound’s inner structure.”

He provided some detail regarding how the site was being examined: “As each square is dug, the soil is carefully examined for human remains which – when found – are examined for their nature and their relation to other features. The various soil strata are traced to determine how the mound was constructed. As the work progresses, all such data are transferred to maps, supplemented by photographs and sketches of the more important finds. Trowels and brushes substitute for shovels in exposing more delicate features. Some areas, such as those enclosing burials, are screened for small beads and ornaments. The artifacts (arrow-heads, gorgets, awls, axes, etc.) are catalogued according to location; the pottery cleaned and restored and the vegetable and animal remains preserved for future expert identification. All of these things are significant for a reconstruction of the life of these preliterate men.”

Schaeffer identified three reasons why this site in particular was suggested.

Two were obviously, there was a “low rise” in the ground that suggested the presence of a burial mount and many artifacts had been collected from the area, which gave them reason to believe the area had been inhabited.

The third was equally as practical but spoke to the culture of the people that Schaeffer believed to have lived there.

“The location at the junction of the Allegheny River and Sugar Run offered advantages,” he wrote, “as, good fishing and hunting; protection against extreme winds and temperatures; wood and water for domestic use; a river highway for inter-tribal trade and travel; rich bottom land for cultivation. Experience has shown these things were regarded as important in the selection of village and camp sites, of which the burial mounds are adjuncts.”

He was writing in Sept. 25, 1941, just three months before Pearl Harbor. At that point, just the burial ground had been uncovered. Any work that may have extended to finding the associated village was thwarted by World War II.

But he outlined what, by that point, had been found.

“Ten cremated burials, consisting of small quantities of burned human bone, were scattered throughout the mound. With them and about them were what seem to have been burial offerings, such as mica, red ochre, cache blades, arrow points, marine shells, copper and other implements. The central and most important find, however, was of two rock cists each containing an uncremated skeleton in good preservation. Deposited with one of these, beneath the skull, were 53 cache blades; near its feet, quantities of red and yellow ochre, a gorget and a sheet of mica. Near the center of the same burial was a lump of galena (crystal lead). Mica and cache blades were found, too, with the second skeleton. Following this discovery a burial, laid down into the mound margin after its construction, was exposed. Beside it lay a small clay pot. This may prove to be a prehistoric Iroquois burial.”

With what had been found to date, the Historical Society asked what could be gleaned about who these people were.

“The earlier Sugar Run people appear to represent an eastern outpost of the well-known “Mound-builders” of the Mississippi drainage basin,” Schaeffer wrote. “The term ‘Hopewellian’ may be tentatively applied to the Sugar Run occupation, to distinguish it from other mound sites of the Middle Atlantic area. The Allegheny River suggests itself as the corridor through which these people penetrated into Western Pennsylvania and New York.”

He speculated that these “people probably flourished about 1000 A.D.

According to the National Geographic Society, the term “Hopwell” dates to an 1890s discovery of earthworks on the Ohio farm of Mordecai Cloud Hopewell.

“Hopewell civilization may be said to represent a stage midway between the wandering hunting groups of the northern forests and the high civilizations of Middle America,” Schaeffer continued. “These people possessed a knowledge of maize cultivation and clay vessel manufacture – two important milestones in the evolution of New World civilization.”

Schaeffer added that there appeared to be “no intimate connection” between this civilization and the Seneca Nation and he was also clear that the cultural customs of these people would remain a mystery until the village could be found and investigated.

He said a report would be completed once the archaeological work was finished but World War II appears to have gotten in the way of that effort.

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