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History in the Hills: The skulls of Steubenville

The Ohio River was vitally important to our ancestors here in the valley. For thousands of years, people have lived right here on this land, and the river and hills serve as an ever-present backdrop that is just as familiar to us in 2019 as it was to our ancient ancestors.

On this ancient landscape we can, if we know where to look, find evidence of the earliest inhabitants. I have often imagined finding something here of our distant past; perhaps I might come across an ancient site or maybe a stray arrowhead — I’m still searching!

I love looking at old maps, and one I particularly enjoy is the “Beers-Panhandle” map made in 1871 of the northern counties of West Virginia. Looking closely at the area just directly across the river from Steubenville, just south of the ferry where the Market Street bridge would be built in 1905, there were a few natural features.

There was an area consisting of a natural outcropping of rock known as “Town Rock.” This was a place where the early inhabitants of the area would visit and picnic among the cliffs. You can still find some old postcards that show “Town Rock,” and, evidently, it looked similar to the rock shelter in Avella.

Just south of this area, was “Castle Rock” and below that, was an “Indian Cave where human skeletons were found.” This would be just over the hill from where the Panhandle Archaic Culture had its camp 4,000 years previously.

As a historian, I always ask the obvious — what happened to these remains and where did they end up? The answer, I felt, was lost to history. It turns out that the answer was still out there after all waiting to be rediscovered.

Beginning in 1830, a prominent Philadelphia physician, Dr. Samuel Morton, began collecting cranial specimens, or skulls, from all over the world. His aim was to collect skulls from different ethnic groups of people and then study and argue the differences between them, among other things.

Morton sent out letters to friends and acquaintances all over the world asking for examples of skulls to be sent for his collection. At some point around the mid-1820s, Morton met Benjamin Tappan, an attorney, judge and United States senator from Ohio and a Steubenville resident. Although it is not clear how Tappan and Morton met, it could be due to the fact that Tappan’s mother was a grandniece of Ben Franklin, giving him a Philadelphia connection. Tappan corresponded with Morton, and when he asked for specimens for his cranium collection, Tappan knew just where to look.

In May 1835 a cave was discovered across from Steubenville containing what appeared to be Native American remains. Tappan said “the bones appear to have been deposited at different periods of time, those on top being alone in good preservation. They were of all ages, and thrown indiscriminately after the removal of the flesh, for it is well known that some tribes were accustomed to gather, at times, all the bones of their deceased relatives, and place them in a common receptacle.”

Tappan and other prominent folks from Steubenville sent eight skulls found there to Philadelphia, leaving behind many others which were in poor shape. Morton published his research, including an image of one of the Steubenville skulls, in his 1839 book “Crania Americana.” After Morton died in 1851, his collection of 867 skulls from around the world were donated to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Later in the 1960s, it was donated to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology where the collection is housed today.

The cave, Town Rock and Castle Rock are probably gone, undoubtedly destroyed at some point during the construction of state Route 2.

The skulls of Steubenville still exist, however, and are an interesting connection of our local history to the wider world. Look at old maps, study them and pay attention. There are places still out there with stories to tell, so join me to discover our history in the hills.

(Zuros is the director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben.)

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