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Burial mound to get historical marker

Sunday, May 13, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One day on a promontory in McKees Rocks, a boy named James J. Westwood used a bat to hunt for a baseball and struck a human shin bone instead.

Dick George, staff archaeologist at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, stands in front of a historical photo of anthropologists digging at the site of a Native American burial ground in McKees Rocks. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Westwood's buddies gathered around and, using sticks, dug up an entire skeleton, which they threw over the bluff.

Word of the find reached the Carnegie Museum. About a year later, in the summer of 1896, Frank Gerrodette led the museum's first archaeological excavation of the largest Indian burial mound in Pennsylvania and found 33 skeletons.

Long before Gerrodette and his men started digging, the promontory above the Ohio River known as McKees Rocks Hill played a role in the region. Maj. George Washington scouted it as a potential site for a fort in 1753.

Later, in the summer of 1909, Eugene Debs gathered Slavic workers there regularly to strengthen their resolve in a strike against the Pressed Steel Car Co.

By 1946, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania introduced legislation to turn the 19-acre tract on McKees Rocks Hill into a national park.

Nothing came of James Fulton's idea, and by the 1950s, a large chunk of the Indian burial mound had fallen into the Ohio River.

A portion of the mound, which is overgrown with weeds, trees and shrubs, still sits behind Wilson School near property owned by Gordon Terminal Service Co.

This week, community residents will discuss the best site for a historical marker for this piece of district heritage that is fading from memory. The meeting will be at Focus on Renewal, 701 Chartiers Ave., at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

The marker will commemorate the ancient Adena people, a group of Indians known as mound builders because they constructed mounds for their sacred burial ceremonies. The Adena, a culture that dates to around 1000 B.C., used their hands and baskets of dirt to build the mound in McKees Rocks.

The mound, which may have been begun as recently as 250 B.C., was 161/2 feet tall and 85 feet in diameter.

The excavation yielded religious artifacts and shells from both the Adena and the Hopewell people, who conquered and assimilated them. The artifacts, some of which were made of copper or marine shells, led archaeologists to believe that the Adena participated in widespread trade.

Archaeologists don't know whether the Adena are the ancestors of such Indian tribes as the Delaware, which once frequented the Ohio River Valley.

Mark McConaughy, a field archaeologist with the state bureau of historic preservation, said so many cultural changes occurred in 2,000 years that even if those connections once existed, time's passage has obscured them.

Taris Vrcek, 31, a third-generation resident of McKees Rocks and computer programmer at Federated Investors, recalls the mound from his boyhood.

"It's not entirely gone. The back side of it was purchased by Gordon Oil. The front side, which faces Wilson School and Ranger Field -- that side is still intact. It's huge," Vrcek said.

The Rev. Regis Ryan, executive director of Focus on Renewal, said longtime residents of the borough "have great stories about gatherings and socials and picnics" on the promontory.

Fran Beck, who grew up in McKees Rocks, said the promontory was a landmark where children played, hunted for arrowheads and attended family picnics.

"They should have really preserved all of that," Beck said.

When she was growing up in the Bottoms area of the borough, Beck said, the promontory attracted adventurous children.

"We used to climb up the sides. It was rocks. You could fall or break your arm or leg."

One possible site for the marker is a playground near Ranger Field. Charles McCollester, a professor of labor history from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said the marker should be in a place where young people can see it.

The state does not pay the full cost of historical markers. So, David Grinnell, an acquisitions archivist at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, applied for a matching grant and received $650 for the marker from the state Historical and Museum Commission.

But McKees Rocks residents will have to raise another $600, Grinnell said.

"We have to figure out where the rest of it is coming from before it is fabricated," Grinnell said.

The burial mound was constructed in three stages. A small primary mound of sterile clay covered the body of a woman. Other graves, known as cists, were hollowed out of sandstone and sometimes lined with bark or logs.

"We don't know how long they were using the mound for burials. It was excavated long before carbon dating was perfected," said Richard George, a staff archaeologist for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Artifacts taken from the mound are no longer on display but are stored at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The bodies were not mummified but some were cremated, George said, adding that the Adena people buried their dead in the mound once or twice a year.

As sophisticated hunters and gatherers, the Adena built homes, used tobacco and farmed squash, beans and corn. They lived in small bands of eight or 10 people.

"For making a living, it was easier to be in a smaller group," George said.

McConaughy said the first two stages of the mound were built by the Adena people.

"They went to a lot of trouble to prepare these tombs. People who were buried in the main tombs of these mounds were of high status. We believe these are the political or religious leaders of the group," McConaughy said.

"These guys aren't pharaohs or kings. If they're leading, they're probably leading with the consensus of their tribe or group," McConaughy said.

On some of the skeletons, archaeologists found slate gorgets, a neck adornment believed to signify political or religious office.

Other artifacts included cold-hammered copper.

"That's fairly typical of the Adena. They were trading what archaeologists called exotic materials," McConaughy said.

The Adena people recycled nature's remnants by sharpening animal bones into tools. The mound contained numerous, well-preserved examples of such tools. All are in storage at the Carnegie Museum.

After the Hopewell people conquered the Adena, they continued living next to the mound, where they buried some bodies. When the Monongahela people established a village on the promontory around 1550, they also used the mound for burials.

The Monongahela people carried an Algonquian name and farmed corn and beans.

Vrcek believes the Indian mound is just one rich slice of history that should be taught in local public schools.

"I think that most of the Bottoms residents are very familiar with the mound and the stories, but the community as a whole isn't. Newcomers probably have no idea. There is a tremendous amount of history in McKees Rocks."

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