Marked by evidence of violent death, the 500-year-old skeletons resting in the timeless Conneaut Fort Hill soil had hidden stories to tell. In 1971 President Jimmy Brand and the members of the Conneaut Archaeological Society were determined to unearth and piece together their story.
The story of the excavation at Fort Hill has as many twists and turns and tantalizing trails as sand dunes on a Lake Erie beach. Lake Erie beaches are themselves time capsules, offering fossil rocks imprisoning bits of the past. Worn and tossed by waves, they are kaleidoscope time machines, mixing the past and present often with no clear demarcation. The story of the Conneaut Fort Hill is part of the Lake Erie time machine.
S.F. Taylor repeated a description of Fort Hill by Aaron Wright, Esq., in “An 1841 Sketch of The Early History of Conneaut, Ashtabula County, Ohio. They called Fort Hill “the most remarkable Indian antiquity” and described it as in the form of a Delta, located a little below the center road on the southeastern side of Conneaut Creek, which at that date washed its northern base. Fort Hill was the same height as the surrounding country, but a ravine which almost as deep as the bed of the Creek cut it off on the south and the east.
The Fort contained about four acres and was covered with six to eight feet high brushwood. It was included by an embankment of earth about six feet high, with only one opening at its southern point and one on the northeast. Climbing to the fort is a difficult climb, except at its eastern point of termination which is an easy ascent. It must once have been a fortification of no mean importance in Indian warfare.”
Fort Hill slept away the centuries, snuggled in her protecting trees and bushes and hiding her human secrets in her Delta soil. As the skeletons slept away the centuries buried in their own secret place at fort Hill, the stories of the living continued to unfold. In1812, white settlers built a fort or shelter on the Fort Hill and used it for refuge from an anticipated British invasion of Conneaut during the War of 1812. The invasion ended in a cannon shot skirmish and the British moved on to encounter Oliver Hazard Perry at Put-In-Bay.
Enter, the Octagon House
A little over half a century later, in 1870 shortly after the Civil War, Silas Hicks added another layer to the Fort Hill story by building an octagon shaped house in front of Fort Hill. According to Conneaut historian Sharon Wicks, as the years progressed into the 21sth century, many different owners occupied the brick Octagon Home on Mill Road. Three generations of the Kaiser family lived in the Octagon House, with Wilfred and Kathleen Kaiser residing in it in the 1970s.
For most of his life, Wilfred – he was born in 1910- had been acquainted with tales of the burial mound behind the Octagon House. He knew that some relics had been discovered in a 1900 dig, and in 1917, when he was just seventeen, he decided to apply his own hands to the shovel and shifter. Despite his efforts, he did not discover the skeletons, but he continued to follow and assist in the excavation attempts at Fort Hill.
Into the 1960s, Fort Hill still fascinated Conneaut and non-Conneaut citizens and in 1969, committed excavators organized the Conneaut Archaeological Society. Wilfred and Kathleen Kaiser gave the Society permission to systematically excavate Fort Hill, and President Jimmy Brand and the other Archaeological Society members marked grids, and tested, dug and sifted. The first two summers of excavating produced an encouraging array of artifacts, including a jawbone belonging to a bear, an elk’s tooth, scraping and flaking tools and drills, tubular bone beads, a clay pipestem, animal tooth jewelry, and large pieces of pottery. Perhaps the most encouraging and significant discovery was two back sections of a Native American’s skull, but even more exciting discoveries were just a spade and sifter length away.
Found in a Fire Pit: The Skeletons of a Woman, a Man, and a Young Boy
The most significant discovery at the Fort Hill excavation was reported in an article discovered by Sharon Wick at the Conneaut Public Library. The article, dated July 1971, appearing in Dock Talk, reported that on June 19. 1971, President Jimmy Brand and Miss Mary Hawkins, Secretary-Treasurer of the Conneaut Archeological Society and anesthetist at Brown Memorial Hospital, were working together exploring a fire pit. They spotted a white gleam against the brown soil and ashes. Carefully brushing away the soil, they realized that they had uncovered the skeleton of a woman. Excited, but still careful, they worked around the woman’s bones and next found the skeleton of a man with one arm outstretched. Both of these skeletons were nearly complete, although the discoveries were not. Slightly higher and just a few feet away, Jimmy Brand and Mary Hawkins uncovered the bones of a boy, estimated to be about fourteen years old.
All three of the skeletons exhibited signs of torture, and there were signs that the woman may have been scalped. The man’s bones indicated a violent death and the boy had suffered a fractured skull.
A story by Faith Scott in the Conneaut Edition of the Erie Times News dated Sunday, May 14, 1978, reported that Conneaut Archaeological Society Vice President Robert Blickensderfer, who collected Native American artifacts and studied Native American history for at least twenty years and was considered an authority on Native people’s history, estimated that the skeletons were between 500 and 700 years old. He thought that the man, woman, and boy were members of the Erie Native American tribes or one of their enemies and they had died in an ambush during a war. Vice President Blickensderfer owned Blick’s Studio and Photo Supply, located at 212 Main Street and he arranged a showcase display of the findings of the Archeological Society including photographs.
As a young boy in 1920, Conneaut citizen Elman Hoskins began collecting Native American artifacts. He quickly learned that spring was the best time to find arrowheads and he followed the farmers ploughing. The plow turned over shiny arrow heads gleaming in the dirt and he ran to claim as many as he could find.
When he grew up, Elman continued to enthusiastically collect Native American artifacts, searching mostly in east Conneaut and west Springfield, and gathering an extensive collection with one piece dating to 1,000 B.C. His research provided a window into Native American methods of making spear and clubs. He said the tribesman would select a stone and then cut a six-inch notch into a young sapling. Next, the Native American would lash the stone to the sapling and leave it to grow with the sapling until they grew securely together.
Elman Hoskins explained his involvement with Native Americans and their craft. He said, “Indians fascinate me because they appreciate nature. The Indians feel that the earth and sky is God and He lived one day at a time.”
Eventually, the Conneaut Archeological Society turned over their artifacts and the skeletons to Case Western Reserve University where they were charted and collected.
Skeleton Stories: Long Ago on Lake Erie Shores
Before 1658, the Erie people, an Iroquoian group, -sometimes known as the Eriez or Nation du Chat, (Cat) -lived on the south shore of Lake Erie in western New York, Northwestern Pennsylvania, and northern Ohio.
Other names for the Erie were “Long Tail,’ possibly because the Erie wore raccoon tails on their clothing and the ‘Eastern Panther’, which played a leading role in Erie creation stories. The Erie lived in long houses sheltering multi-families and located in villages enclosed in palisades. Often, the palisades closed the fields of crops and provided defensive walls for the village. Cultivating what are called the “Three Sisters,” corn, beans, and squash, the Erie tribes fed themselves by planting and hunting. In the winter, the Erie ate stored crops and animals that they hunted.
From 1603 to 1701, the Iroquois League fought an ongoing conflict called the Beaver Wars, against the Huron people and their French allies for control of the fur trade. The Erie sided with the Huron people and the French. Despite losing some of the on-going battles, the Iroquois won the war and took terrible revenge on the Erie people.
The Iroquois destroyed their stored maize and other food that the Erie had stored for the winter and burned their villages. Many Erie were forced to make difficult survival decisions, whether to stay and try to put their lives back together or to leave and seek new homes and lives.
The Iroquois League had a policy of adopting captives and refugees into their tribes and historians believe that the surviving Erie were mostly absorbed into other Iroquoian tribes, especially into the Seneca nation, the westernmost of the Five Nations. The Susquehannock people likely adopted some Erie refugees as both tribes had shared hunting grounds. The survival decisions of the Erie meant that as they gradually assimilated into their captor’s cultures, they lost their independent tribal identity.
The” Dock Talk” article that Sharon Wick found in the Conneaut Library has a different version of the destruction of the Erie Tribes story. This version of the story goes that the Erie Native Americans lived on the Lake Erie shores of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, with the Iroquois tribes centered in western New York States. Since the Erie and the Iroquois tribes both belonged to the Iroquoian group and probably had trading contact with each other, they arranged for some athletic matches in Buffalo, New York in 1650. The Erie tribe lost and they planned to attack small groups of Iroquois one after another until the entire tribe was killed in revenge for their defeat.
An Iroquois widow of an Erie warrior heard of the Erie plan and secretly warned the Iroquois of the Erie plan. Forewarned, the Iroquois met their Erie adversaries with merciless fury, killed the entire tribe, and took over their land.
Dying Together, Buried in a Fire Pit
It is impossible to know if the skeletons had been from the Erie tribe when they had been covered with flesh and animated with living. Conneaut Archaeological Society Vice President Robert Blickensderfer thought they might be Erie Native Americans. But might they just as surely belong to the Iroquois tribe?
Imagination can provide a scenario of the deaths of the three people that the Conneaut Archaeological Society worked so diligently to free from their earthen time machines and piece together their stories.
Could events have unfolded this way?
They huddled together, stiff as a beaver skin frozen in death, trying to not sob with fear, trying not to breathe. The woman reached out her left hand and felt the man’s fingers, drawing strength from his touch. She wound her right hand around the wrist of the boy who kept crawling his fingers like a spider toward his stone arrowheads which he carried in a skin pouch tied around his waist. There! He was touching it! His thoughts flashed across her own, covering the fear with pride. She saw him stabbing the Iroquois warrior with a sharp arrowhead. She saw him hit another Iroquois warrior with his stone-headed axe.
Suddenly the figures flickered, and the Iroquois warrior was hitting the boy in the head over and over with a stone-headed axe until he lay motionless, his hand still touching his leather pouch. She reached out to the boy, but her hands hit the knife coming toward her. She looked into the diamond hard glittering eyes of another Iroquois warrior. She felt the scalping knife slice across her forehead and put up her hands to push it away. Blood ran into her eyes and darkness washed over her pain like a Lake Erie wave.
The Erie warrior spun around in a ferocious death dance, vowing to kill as many of the Iroquois as he could, fighting to keep them away from the woman and the boy. He wrested the stone-head axe from the hands of the Iroquois warrior and brained him with it, and then placed it in the stiffening hands of the boy. He wrested the scalping knife from the Iroquois who had scalped and stabbed the women and buried it in his chest. He took the woman’s hand in his.
The Iroquois kept spattering against him like raindrops. They bound him and pushed him down a gauntlet tunnel of clubs and knives. He ran with his head held high, his eyes fastened on the woman and the boy. He felt the knives pierce his flesh and the clubs break his bones, but he kept running. Then he turned and ran back down the gauntlet tunnel, until he reached the spot where the woman lay. He would reach her! He had to reach her! He fell in front of her with his hand outstretched, with just an inch between his fingers and hers.
His last breath carried them all over the dark death waters across a sunlight path of light.
This scenario is just imagination and even with educated imagination it is difficult if not impossible to know what tribe they belonged to and the story of their deaths. Their bones can reveal clues, but many questions remain unanswered.
These three Fort Hill Native people know the real story of their deaths. Some of the details can be discerned from their bones, but the mists of time blot out the events of that day as thickly and thoroughly as a Lake Erie fog can cover a flashing lighthouse lantern.
The Many Lives and People of Fort Hill
Over the centuries, Fort Hill and its stories have been equally covered in the mists of centuries and interpreted in conflicting and conflated ways. The second Fort Hill article, coming soon, will explore some of these historical, archaeological, and anthropological interpretations.
A Note and Photographs
Jimmy Brand, who was the President of the Conneaut Archaeological Society sent the Conneaut Historical Museum a booklet of photographs of the 1971 Fort Hill excavation. In an accompanying note dated October 4, 2001, he wrote: “Hope these pictures are useful to you. Keep them for whichever group can use them.”
We all can use them to reflect about our lives and our places in history.