The age-old adage regarding art says that every picture tells a story, but regarding the Indian Rock art of the Upper Ohio Valley, every picture portrays a mystery.
The native American representations are called petroglyphs, which are crude images of wildlife, humans and symbols scratched or pecked into the surface of large flat sandstones lining the shores of the Ohio River and other sites across the country. Some of the more renowned local petroglyph sites include Smith’s Ferry, Babb’s Island, old Dam Number Eight and the head of Brown’s Island, although evidence suggests, the two-mile mid-water flood plain could have centered four different petroglyph sites.
“Rock Art chronicles the long histories, the hunting ceremonies, and the religions of diverse native peoples, “wrote James D. Keyser and Michael Klasser in Plains Indian Rock Art. “They reveal their relationships with the spirit world and record their interaction with traditional enemies and the earliest Europeans.”
Native Americans considered boulders prominent features of the landscape, and the Ohio, itself a Native American name, meaning river with whitecaps, or just simply beautiful stream, was a major route of transportation and trade centuries before the first Europeans arrived.
Archaeologists have often calculated the time periods when the Native Americans etched their work in rock, ancient peoples ranging from Hopewell, Adenas, woodland and modern Indians, but often have been left with only educated guesses of the true artists as in the case of the late James L. Swauger of Ohio State University, who studied the local petroglyph sites in 1969.
“Babb’s Island is the only site investigated in Ohio which holds water bird figures,” Swauger wrote in Petroglyphs of Ohio. “It’s affinities are with Brown’s Island in W.V. and Smith’s Ferry in Pa. The generally more sophisticated artistry of the carvings on these sites, as well as their common possession of water bird figures suggest a ‘school’ of petroglyph artists working along this 30-mile stretch of river.”
Swauger also theorized that the local rock art could be attributed to Mongahela Man, also called proto-Shawnees from 1200 a.d. to 1750 a.d.
Work by Charles Whittlesley suggests otherwise. Or perhaps he knew of a site other than the Brown’s Island one, recorded in the archaeological ledgers as site 46HK8. Whittlesley noted in the American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal that Newburgh founding father Michael Myers “saw from the south shore of the river, opposite the head of Brown’s Island, an Indian at work on the flat rocks. He shot the Indian, and, getting to the island on a raft, he saw effigies of animals, among them that of a deer which the Indian had partly executed.”
Using the Deer Rock incident as conclusive evidence, Whittlesley went on to write. “It is nearly demonstrated that they are not the work of the Mound Builders unless that race and the historical Indian are one.”
Indeed, on the last page of Dr. E. R. Giesly’s epic poem about Myers, Stalwart Auver, is a drawing of a boulder with 1797 on top, and below this date are several crude drawn images. What they represent is indistinguishable because of the poor quality of print.
One petroglyph site overlooked by Swauger was thought by antiquarian James McBride to be situated above the old Half Moon Farm on the West Virginia side. On July 4, 1838, McBride crossed the river from Cable’s Eddy, present day Pottery Addition.
“We found the rock lying on the Virginia side of the river. It lies about three feet above low water mark, having a flat surface of about nine feet by seven inclining a little toward water. It is of hard stone, and all over the surface are various figures cut and sunk into the hard rock. Amongst these figures are rude representations of the human form, tracks of human feet representing the bare foot and print of toes as if made in soft mud, tracks of horses, turkeys and a rabbit. Several figures of snakes, a turtle and other figures not understood.”
During that period existed another landmark bearing the title “half moon,” a wing dam opposite the head of present-day Hancock County and perhaps the petroglyph about which McBride wrote sat farther north than the farm on the big bend of the river.
“One (carving) represents a wild turkey and is about life size,” wrote Joseph B. Doyle in History of Jefferson County. “Stretched across its neck, apparently in flight, is a wild goose with neck extended at full length. The heart of the goose is indicated by a small circle, with a line extending to the head.”
Other figures carved into this rock included a fox, a bear and some outlines of feet. Doyle wrote that the rock bearing these figures stood at the upper entrance of Holliday’s Cove, now downtown Weirton.
One of the prominent Indian carvings upon the Brown’s Island site that James L. Swauger had investigated were two sand hill cranes approximately four meters square. Curiously, like one goose at the Half Moon site, the heart of one crane is represented by a small circle with three lines running to the neck.
|Petroglyphs at Smith's Ferry, Pennsylvania. These flat rocks abounded on shoreline before submerged by modern dams.|
|Sandhill cranes petroglyph of Brown's island.|