Fort Ancient is the name given to a late prehistoric culture whose people lived in present Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and southern West Virginia between A.D. 1000 and 1650. The name was taken from the Fort Ancient Earthworks in Ohio, which was originally thought to be from the late prehistoric period, but was later found to be an earlier, Woodland-era site.
In West Virginia, Fort Ancient territory begins south of Sistersville, on the Ohio River, and includes the lower reaches of the tributaries of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. Archeologists now believe that Fort Ancient society developed from local Woodland peoples and probably represented different ethnic and linguistic groups who shared similar traits, such as maize horticulture, shell-tempered pottery, bow-and-arrow technology, and in many instances, circular, palisaded villages. At least one early Fort Ancient village, Roseberry Farm in Mason County, had a burial mound associated with it.
Fort Ancient people lived in permanent villages, where they grew corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers, and harvested a variety of wild fruits and nuts. They hunted white-tailed deer, elk, black bear, wild turkey, rabbit, beaver, ruffed grouse, quail, and turtle. They also ate a variety of fish, and fresh-water mussels from the shoals of the rivers. Mussel shells were used as spoons, hoes, and shell ornaments. Crushed shells were added as a ‘‘temper’’ to pottery, to prevent the clay from shrinking and cracking when the pottery was fired. Although there are numerous historic references to bison in West Virginia, no skeletal remains have been found at any Fort Ancient site east of the Ohio River. Dog skeletons have been found at several sites.
Development of the Fort Ancient culture took place over a period of several hundred years. Early Fort Ancient sites have been found at Mount Carbon and Shadle Farm on the Kanawha River, at Island Creek and Barker’s Bottom on the New River, and at Man and Gue Farm on the Guyandotte River. There were also early Fort Ancient sites at Roseberry Farm and the Miller site on the Ohio River. Protohistoric Fort Ancient sites, those from the very earliest historic period, with European trade goods have been found at Marmet, Buffalo, and Southside on the Kanawha River and at Logan on the Guyandotte River. Protohistoric sites were also found on the Ohio River at Clover, Rolfe Lee, Orchard, and Neale’s Landing. Some of these sites, such as Buffalo, appear to contain both early and late Fort Ancient occupations. Many of these sites have never been formally investigated.
Artifacts found at Fort Ancient villages indicate a significant level of interaction with other culture areas in North America. Most of these villages were located along a network of long-distance trails in use for hundreds of years, leading from the Southeast to the Great Lakes, the Northeast, and the Plains. Exotic artifacts such as engraved marine shell gorgets from eastern Tennessee, and European trade items, such as glass beads and metal objects found at later Fort Ancient villages (after A.D. 1550), indicate participation in trade and perhaps intermarriage with Indian groups in direct contact with Europeans.
Fort Ancient villages flourished along the river valleys in West Virginia and the Ohio River until sometime after A.D. 1650, when pressures from the Iroquois from the north forced them to move out of the area. By the time the first European settlers appeared, most of the upper Ohio Valley region, including present West Virginia, was largely abandoned.
This Article was written by Darla S. Spencer
McMichael, Edward V. Introduction to West Virginia Archeology. Morgantown: West Virginia Geological & Economic Survey, 1968.
Griffin, James B. The Fort Ancient Aspect. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1943.