Historians/Anthropologists/Geologists: Any idea what these piles of rock are?

I grew up on a rather isolated cattle farm in central Alabama, 20 miles from the nearest (small city) and much further from the nearest city of any size. In the woods between our house and our pasture are many piles of rock, mostly granite but with occasionally quartz and limestone thrown into the mix.

These pictures were taken two weeks ago. (I have many many more- I took pics of about 18 of the rock piles and there are others.) In the picture where my sister and her husband are looking and pointing, what they are pointing to is a solitary rockpile on a bluff on the other side of and overlooking the stream. (It was very cold that day and we didn’t feel like risking a plunge by leaping the unbridged stream.)

When I was a kid my mother and my sister and I once spent days taking the (very heavy) rocks out of one to solve the mystery of “is it a grave or just a big pile of rocks or… what?” After about three days we said “To hell with it” because the rocks are extremely heavy and after clearing about 3 feet (and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of them) we’d found nothing and were still nowhere near the bottom of the cairn.

My aunts were born on the place in 1889, their brother 8 years earlier, and I heard them all say that the rocks were on the place when they were children. Their father had nothing to do with them being placed there. Nothing quite makes sense, though they’re obviously manmade.


They are Graves

This seems logical because of the size- most are approximately the width and length of an adult. The problems with this seemingly logical hypothesis, however, are:

This land was not settled by whites until, at the earliest, the 1830s, and even to this day there was never a significant population of them. Besides this, if they were graves of white people it’s odd that there are no markers- just rocks.
The land was part of a plantation that in 1850 and 1860 had 18 and 24 slaves respectively (source: census slave schedules), so slave cemetery would seem a possibility. However, there are more piles of rocks in this area than there would have been slaves within miles, and its doubtful that 2 dozen or more adult slaves died on the place in the fewer than 30 years it was a plantation.

It could be Indian graves. However, most of the Muskogee had very simple burials. The most common mode of burial in this part of the state was that the deceased would be buried with a few possessions a few feet beneath the dirt floors of their house, then eventually the house would be burned over the grave. Post contact there were some graves that were outlined in a circle made of rocks, but nothing anywhere near this elaborate: these rocks are piled several feet deep.
The exception to the simple graves were burial mounds. Muskogees were moundbuilders- some are quite impressive (Ocmulgee Mounds , Moundville) . There are mounds all over the two counties this farm skirts (the farm is on the county line). However, while there are burial mounds built by Muskogee speakers in Georgia and Tennessee, the mounds in Alabama were ceremonial and have not yielded any graves. Besides which, these aren’t mounds. (There is a small hill on the property that I think may be a mound- it rises about 10 feet and it’s just a bit too steep to be natural, but it’s heavily wooded and has lost a lot of shape due to erasion.)

Even so I lean towards the grave theory most. One reason is found in the pics: there is a cemetery about 3 miles away that in its oldest section has a couple of these. However, they’re much nicer and more even. This church was founded in the 1830s with a membership of 18 according to its sign; the cemetery has about 10 antebellum graves.

THEORY 2: Stones from where fields were cleared

This is a very rocky region of Alabama- it’s in the thin portion of a pie shaped wedge of granite known as the Pinkney Ridge. Parts of our pastures, which is large and open, were planted in cotton when this was a plantation and rocks would need to have been cleared.

The problem with this theory: there’s no evidence this particular part of the land was ever cleared and it would have been very illogical to do so. It’s on a slope- it would have been next to impossible to plow, and then erosion would have made it counter productive anyway. It’s not very far at all from what was used for cotton fields, but this would seem a very illogical place to dump the rocks as it would require crossing two very deep streams (one is seen in the pics- it’s about a 6 feet drop from the land around it). Also, why dump them in individual “body sized” piles? Plus personally I’d have used them to build fences or outbuildings. (An average rock from these piles can weigh from 10 to 50 pounds.)

On the other side there has never been anything but hills, rocks, and pine trees- it’s not good land for planting at all. My mother had a small vegetable patch on our hillside but even that was low yield for everything but watermelons, cucumbers and wild grape plantings.
So, does anybody have any other theories or knowledge as to what these might be? (Ironically the closest thing in appearance to them are the cairns found in Wales, Ireland and Scotland.)
Here’s a brief history of this land for further info:

Pre-history to 16th Century AD Indian occupation

16th Century-18th Century Indian occupation with some European trade but not much settlement by non Indian

18th century-ca. 1815 Increasing white presence but Indians are still by far the majority; part of historical entity known as the Upper Creek Nation. This particular land was part of the enormous plantation of Alexander McGillivray but was probably never cultivated.

1815-ca. 1840Creek cessions and removal

ca. 1835-ReconstructionThe land where our farm sits was part of a 1200+ acre cotton plantation known as The Holy Fields (disappointing etymology: the original family to purchase the place was named Hollifield). The plantation big house (current pic -it was moved to Montgomery ca. 1985 and beautifully restored) was approximately 4/10 of a “crow fly” mile from the rock piles.

Reconstruction-present: the land was owned by my great-grandfather, grandfather, father and currently my sister.

For those interested in such, I’ll include a “non-brief” history as well. It’s easily skippable if you’re not interested.

A Non-Brief History of Weokahatchee

Arrowheads we found in the woods and pastures over the years have been dated from (probably close to the end of) the Archaic Period (ca. 10,000 BCE-ca. 2500 BCE) to the Historical Era (ca. 1500 AD- present) so the site has been used many times by indigenous peoples. Because it’s miles from the nearest river (about 5 miles as the crow flies) it was probably never a village of any size but more likely hunting land and occasional camping site.

The exact relationship between the Alabama Indians of the ancient era and the post-Mississippian to present Era (ca. 800 AD onward) is a matter of debate and ultimately unknown. Perhaps the area was settled continuously by the same tribes or perhaps they came and left frequently. What is known is that the area that’s now central Alabama was thickly populated by Muskogee (or “Creek Indian”) communities by the time of Hernando de Soto’s expedition (1540-41).

The Muskogee were a mostly autonomous (only very loosely confederated when they ever were) scattering of tribes across the southeast. They were united by a common language family but lived mostly as a network of clans comprising tribes and autonomous villages. Some were peaceful, some were not, their culture changed so much in the historic era that not even they remembered all of their heritage and traditions.
Muskogee were settled (i.e. not nomadic) and some of their villages numbered thousands of people and were centuries old by the time of the conquistadors. They had fairly advanced agriculture considering the lack of pack animals, they were matrilineal and matrilocal (i.e. your clan affiliation was 100% decided by who your mother was and when a man married he moved into his wife’s [maternal] family’s house). Property that was more than personal or household goods was held communally by clans or tribes (including land, livestock, eventually even slaves and cash).

de Soto and aftermath

There is a lot of debate as to the exact route of de Soto’s march, but by most estimates he came within a very few miles of the land our farm is on.

Map 1 and Map 2 of de Soto route

Location of Weokahatchee {border of this county and the one directly south}

However close he came, hundreds of Alabama Indians died from warfare along his route and thousands upon thousands more died within a generation from European disease. By the 17th century the native population of the region was a fraction of what it had been. (Mass graves have been found within 15 miles of where I grew up that are probably the graves of Indian plague victims; whole villages were depopulated, but those who survived were very hardy stock.)

In 1717 a French fort was founded at the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers (about 13 “crow flies miles” from our woods) specifically to capitalize on the Indian deer skin trade (Louis XIV had created an artificial market for deer skins to get wealth out of the New World). The garrison was headed by a Captain Marchand. Trading posts sprouted all through the landscape. One appears on old French maps that would have been near, possibly even on, our property, though its exact location is a mystery and it was burned to the ground around 1813. A very few whites began to settle (all of them traders or soldiers) as some white men, including Capt. Marchand, took Indian wives as a matter of diplomacy and convenience, but the area was still 99%+ Creek…

Captain Marchand’s Franco-Creek daughter, Sehoy Marchand, married a Scottish trader named Lachlan McGillivray who earned a huge fortune in Alabama and in Georgia. Their son was Alexander McGillivray, who though only ¼ Creek was the closest the Creek Nation ever had to a king or dictator. He was a two-faced and sometimes backstabbing leader but no more than he probably had to be and he managed to play British against Spanish against Americans against Creeks against Cherokee and all manner of combinations for most of his short life; had he lived the Creek Removal may have gone much differently.

He owned hundreds of slaves through his life, most of whom he gave to Creek villages, studied Peter the Great and made some attempts to bring capitalism to the Creeks and to drill the warriors in European fighting styles. McGillivray was also extremely rich and that’s relevant to Weokahatchee. His personal plantation was over 100,000 acres (there are many counties in the nation much smaller) and included the land our farm is on. His main house, “The Apple Orchard”, was about 4 “crowfly miles” from our land. The house (long gone and archaeologists have never been able to deduce the exact location) was said to be a blend of mansion and Creek lodge. His clothing also reflected his mixed heritage: he wore white cotton (sometimes silk) blouses embroidered and beaded, a buckskin kilt (homage to his Scottish father and his Creek mother), epaulettes (he was a general in the Spanish, American and British armies) and a sword (supposedly his French grandfather’s, though highly doubtable), a tomahawk, wore moccasins when at home and English boots when traveling. He spoke several native and European languages (his father paid for his education in Charleston and Savannah [where Lachlan had another wife] and once met with Washingtonian dignitaries in Philadelphia in a fine tailored suit and a headdress of turkey & eagle feathers and dyed ostrich plumes (which Indians loved so much that live ostriches were imported just to furnish the feathers). He owned vast tracts of land in his own name like a white man but he allowed Indian villages to live on “his” land without charge or demand for fealty. He owned carriages and horses like a white man but had several wives as befitted a powerful mico of the Creek and Seminole nations. He always kept a buckskin and stocking clad leg in the white and Indian worlds- if I haven’t mentioned it I’ve always found him fascinating.
Anyway, as mentioned McGillivray’s mansion was a few hours walk from our house, our land was then his land, though it’s doubtful he ever personally saw it or profited from it. He did allow his ex-brother-in-law, a notoriously drunk Scotsman named Charles Weatherford and one of many white men consecutively married to McGillivray’s half-sister Sehoy (every generation of the family had a woman named Sehoy), to run a trading post and horse racing track near the river about 4 or 5 miles from our house. Charles and Sehoy had a son named William Weatherford.

William Weatherford was of roughly the same ancestry as his uncle- mostly European, about ¼ Creek, but because of matrilineage his clan affiliation was completely determined by his mother. He was a member of the Wind Clan, an extremely influential clan, seems to have detested his father and his mother’s other white husbands, but most especially he detested his uncle Alexander. This was unfortunate for a number of reasons, one being that to the matrilineal Creeks a great-man’s sister’s son was more important than his own son, for his son was of his mother’s clan but the nephew was of his own. Weatherford would have been McGillivray’s designated heir to a vast amount of property and extremely high leadership position if he and his uncle had been close, but unfortunately none of Alex’s nephews were “worthy” to be his successor. Letters he wrote to his father (who returned to Scotland during the Revolution after the Continental government confiscated all of his property- he was a Loyalist) imply McGillivray have been considering a really iconoclastic act by leaving everything (property and chiefship [if possible] and otherwise) to his son, Alleck, rather than to his sister’s son, but Alleck was only a boy when his father died and was sent to Scotland to live with his grandfather (and died there as a young man before returning to Alabama).

to be continued

The link below discusses several possibilities, although it admittedly refers to Georgia sites. (See pp 209-210).

So anyway, this area of the state was so thickly populated by the Creek Nation by 1800 it was known in some writings as “the Hornet’s Nest”. Even though the Creeks were still firmly in control and the vast majority of this area of the state, however, they were changing: Creek women were marrying white men more often and creating a metis class, in addition to guns and horses Creeks were reliant on white trade goods including chicken and cloth and whiskey and slaves. Some, especially chiefs and biracials, were moving more towards private wealth (a VERY big move), farming for themselves rather than communally in the villages, while some clans and villages who did still farm communally were beginning to grow cotton and herd cattle instead of subsistence crops. A growing faction of Creeks passionately hated this rejection of “traditional values” and traditional self-reliance. One was the blue-eyed, red haired but, so far as he was concerned, all Indian, William Weatherford, who like a modern name Muslim extremist dedicated his life to driving out the corrupting influences. He ceased being William Weatherford and became exclusively Lume Chathi, or “Red Eagle”, a name taken ironically for the color of his hair.

Well alright, I’m just going into this stuff because I find this “Wind Dynasty” fascinating, so let me get back to the rock piles, via Red Eagle. Red Eagle aligned with Tecumseh (NOT the British as some say) and led the Creeks in a bloody war against the growing white presence. This is when that trading posts and many others were burned, and in some ways it was a civil war; members of Red Eagle’s immediate family died on both sides, for example.
The war ended with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (20 crow fly miles from Weokahatchee). Red Eagle was not there (though he had a half-brother who was with the Creeks under Menewa and another half-brother fighting alongside Andrew Jackson). The Creeks were totally crushed as a military force. Jackson devastated every village he came to, marched through our woods (that we know for a fact- his route is well documented), came to the ruins of Ft. Toulouse at the Tallapoosa/Coosa confluence and rebuilt it as Fort Jackson. Lume Chathi/aka Red Eagle/aka William Weatherford had a big price on his head, dead or alive, and shocked many people by walking into the fort unarmed to surrender. His unapologetic words to Jackson: “I am a soldier. I have done the white people all the harm I could. I fought them and fought bravely. If I still had an army I would fight them yet.” But he did not and his people were starving, their crops and villages burned if they were in Jackson’s path and Jackson was setting in for a long campaign of total annihilation. Jackson was at least impressed with Red Eagle’s bluntness and bravery and when asked by a subordinate if he wanted to hang him responded “Who would hang this man would rob the dead.”
Instead he accepted Red Eagle’s unconditional surrender and the indemnity of MILLIONS AND MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of acres of Creek land to the white governments. WW1 Germany did not have as vile a peace terms. Red Eagle himself became William Weatherford again and settled on a farm in the south for the last few years of his life, while most of “the Hornet’s Nest” was ordered cleared of Indians, including Weokahatchee, the humiliating defeat signed in a fort built atop a fort founded by Weatherford’s French great-grandfather.

Speeding it up: the Gotterdammerung of the Muskogee took a couple of decades during which Alabama became a state and at the end of which concentration camps in what’s now downtown Montgomery were packed to the brims with Indians waiting to be relocated on steamboats and wagons to Oklahoma. (Hundreds died just in overcrowded steamboat fires and sinkings.) About 1200 acres (probably 1,280- or two 640 acre “sections”), on a few of which the rock piles sit, became “the HolyField/Hollifield/Kyser Blade” plantation which passed through members of the same family for the next few decades. The plantation owners were destroyed financially by the Civil War and their land was subdivided into small farms and sold. 80 acres was bought in 1869 by a man who had also been ruined by the war; he built a dogtrot cabin and planted cotton, and when he died it was bought by his half-sister as a gift for her son and his newlywed wife, my great-grandparents J.W. and Louisianna [sic].
My grandfather inherited most of the original 80 acres and added hundreds more, some of which was sold again until ultimately under my father the farm was about 240 acres and included the rock piles. The land is now owned by my sister, who purchased it from its post “our daddy” owner, and THE FAMILY as a group owns about 75 acres around it that recently returned to us in a complicated boomerang deal from the 1970s.
The oldest members of my family swore that their father did not put those rock piles there and that in their lifetime that land had never been cultivated, so they’re probably antebellum and possibly ancient. I’m thinking historical era and possible part of the metis culture.

My sister has been dismantling one of the piles not for archaeological reasons but because she wants the rocks for a building project. When I asked her “WOMAN AIN’T YOU EVER SEEN POLTERGEIST! YOU DON’T MESS WITH WHAT COULD BE AN INJUN GRAVE!” her response was “If the Indians here had any black magic to use, I kinda think Andy Jackson would have been a real damned good time to use it.”
When I suggested that the place was home to all manner of fauna and flora: “I don’t think snakes and bunnies and lizards evolved on this two or three acres of land here. They were alive before the rocks were put here and they can move when they’re gone. Or not, they’re choice.” And when told “I think that it could be archeologically or geologically unwise” she responded “I think I own it and I think I can’t stand paying $200 for a ton of granite when I got a whole Injun graveyard chocked full of ‘em.” Ah, what can ya do?

So while they’re still there I’m trying to find out what they are.

I had these on my farm in Virginia that was about 45 miles from the Tennessee border. I don’t have any pictures of those, but I do can take pics of the 15 or 20 arrowheads and knives found on the same acerage-

Sorry, distracted by company. The arrowheads that I have will not give any info about the rock piles, but maybe an expert can determine from what tribe or area the arrowheads came from and whether or not the rock piles here have any link to those in your region. A couple of the arrowheads are unusual-one is agate, another is black and gray marble, neither of which is common to this location.

I’d vote for “field cleared” rocks. We have the same sort of pile in my back yard, (NE Ohio). Despite the apparent lack of suitability for farming, the woods in the photo is clearly a second growth (or even third growth) forest with far too many trees that are simply too young to have been growing at the time that de Soto ramped through the neighborhood. (You’d be surprised at the type on landforms that supported farms before tractors all weighed 17,000 lbs. and needed two ladders to reach the cab.)

tomndebb, that would have been the reasonable assumption for my piled rocks as well, except for one peculiarity. I am sorry that I don’t have a picture, but the large rocks piled on my property were carried to the top of a very steep ridge with a sharp slope on either side that was far too rocky to farm on. In fact, most of the ridge top was cluttered with rocks that pushed up perpendicular to the ground, and the sides of the slope covered in rhododenron hells.

It wouldn’t seem very productive for someone clearing rocks to carry them up a very steep slope. Most of the piled rocks range from a diameter of 3’ to 6 feet across, and we puzzled over who could have moved the stones. An animal couldn’t have been pressed into service because the perpendicular rocks were too plentiful and too sharp to lead a hooved animal across.

The land has had only 5 recorded owners since 1775, and the link here explains that the land obviously already belonged to the natives who hunted there. The first white settler was killed by natives, and subsequent white landowners used the tillable area for cattle, but did not clear or touch the steeper slopes which are still covered in rhododendrons and the occasional gigantic cedar tree.

Sampiro, I just want to say thanks for your interesting post about your family land, it is SO interesting!

I’ve been through lots of woods in Virginia and West Virginia and I may have seen similar rock deposits… I vaguely recall that I have been told or heard somewhere that these types of rock piles are glacial deposits. But then again, were glaciers present that far south??

So it could be that… or my other vote is for piles from the clearing of land.

I can’t wait to hear some other ideas. I hope you can figure out what they are!

This is something touched upon in Weird New England, since those sorts of rock cairns are found all over the the woods in New England too. (there were several in the woods behind my house growing up, too) Apparently they’ve been there for hundreds of years and there’s historical record of them being there when settlers got to New England.

Bottom line, no one has any idea what their intended purpose is - not even the native americans that anthropologists have spoke to have any idea what they are. They must not be graves, though, since someone in the scientific community must have dug under them, right? Even if bodies have faded into dust, there’d still be traces.

Obviously the work of aliens.

I used to think so if only because of all the slaughtered cows and radiation burns around them, but then I realized Mama was just off her medicine again and being careless with the .45 and the Pall Malls.

If the land and surrounding land was a cotton planatation in the mid 1800s, this would have required the clearing of rocks from fields. As there was slave labor, it is possible that these are piles of rocks from carts that the slaves hauled the from the fields.

I know you mentioned the deep creek beds, but they may not have been all that deep 150 years ago, or been there at all. Also the soil quality could have been better as well.

Then again they could be ancient indian carins, as mounds and similar structures are found across the area. As from the pictures, they definitly do not look like natural structures.

But either way, it is an interesting tidbit if history you have with your family land. Thanks for sharing. :slight_smile:

FWIW there may be much to be learned from the types of trees in various parts of the land. In my area, Maples and Tulip Poplars move in first, with Oaks and eventually American Beech taking over many hundreds of years later. A plot of land I am studying has huge trees all over its fairly steep and somewhat rocky slopes, but this wisdom got me to notice the big ones are all Tulip, so maybe the woods aren’t as primordial as I thought. Then a couple weeks ago I lucked into a 1937 aerial photo that shows this unlikely land under cultivation.

Dig underneath it, it’s more than likely either cleared field stone, or a midden. Or colonial trash dump. I’ve dug up many of these in my explorations of Conencticut and Massachusetts rock walls… You could find some cool things in it if it is a midden.

Is it possible that the size and shape of the heaps represents the manner in which they were brought to the site - dropped off the back of a cart, for example - perhaps being brought to this location with the intention of use as building materials at the same time as clearing fields elsewhere?

FWIW, I also vote for “clearing the fields.” By process of elimination, I don’t arrive at much else. When the land is covered with trees, it takes some mental adjustment to imagine that the land was once completely cleared. Maybe the tenant farmers or slaves farmed the less flat land, and they’d have probably had a new crop of rocks to clear every spring.

And by the way, how much was rock used as a building material in that part of the world? My basic guess would be “not much.”

Off-hand I can’t think of a single old structure built with rock down here. Most old houses are frame, richer folk’s homes and public buildings were often built of brick (often purchased cheaply from ships that used them as ballast when empty) but you almost never see stone.

Anyone know why that is? I can understand why initial structures would have been wood or bousillage (a type of waddle/daub used in the colonial era) but over the years they’d have some time to make stone walls. As often as houses burned in those days it would have seemed a natural. They certainly knew how to make mortar, and on the coasts from the Carolinas to Louisiana they even used tabby (wonderful material- it’s a concrete mortar made from shells, moss and clay) but the only large stones you see in construction are usually in chimneys and pilings.

I think the cart loads is probably the best theory as well (disappointing, of course- I wanted Injun voodoo mystery gravemounds ;)). If that’s the case the stream was probably bridged, which would only require a fairly simple structure. Does anyone know if there were carts or wagons with a “dumptruck” type feature or would the rocks have to be thrown off my hand?

Speaking of changing topography and landscape, what’s amazing to me is how COMPLETELY all evidence of a structure can disappear. The plantation big house that’s linked above stood on the same spot from the late 1830s to the mid-1980s. The old couple who lived there when I was a kid (not related to me but our nearest non-relative neighbors in straight-line progression [over a mile as the road goes]) kept an acre around the place golf-course flat and smooth with goats and sling blades and occasional hired lawn mowers. Today, you cannot tell there was EVER a house there- the whole place is covered in pines and rowan oaks and wild grasses and briars.

Ditto my own family’s homeplace (pics in the same catalog as the rocks). My great-aunts kept that place covered in flowers and mostly dirt. Today, not much over a decade since somebody last occupied that house (it was used as a flea market for a while), there are trees and grass taller than I am in their front yard and I couldn’t even find their vegetable garden. (Daffodils and roses and petunias are abundant, though, descendants of the ones from their flowerbeds that have now scattered all through the woods.)

I think it was simply the building culture of the first settlers to use wood, and everybody thereafter did the same. The building trades are very conservative in many ways, and people tend to stick to what they know. And initially, a wooden house could be built more quickly and easily than a stone one.

It’s the same in New England – except for a few areas in central Vermont, almost everything is wood or brick.