Jefferson County Prehistory

Prior to about 14,000 years ago, Jefferson County was buried beneath an ice sheet two miles high. The Laurentian Ice Mass plunged as far south as Long Island, and its weight crushed Jefferson County more than 600 feet in elevation. Once the glacier receded, Watertown had an elevation of just 71 feet above sea level. With ice damming the St. Lawrence Valley, the Ontario Basin rose to spill over into the Mohawk River Valley at Rome. The Black River was also inundated, rising to drain through West Canada Creek into the Mohawk River. It found successively lower outlets through Sandy Creek and Rutland Hollow. But by 10,000 years ago, all the glacial lakes had drained, leaving Lake Ontario some 60 feet lower than it is today.

The First People
The first people to enter Jefferson County likely did so from the south, following the glacial beaches left behind by the lakes. They were nomadic hunters and gatherers. Their principal quarry was caribou, which could be taken very easily when intercepted at streams where they were forced to swim. The first people, called Paleoindians, probably date as early as 11,000 years ago, and they left their mark in the form of fluted lanceolate spearpoints, called Parkhill/Barnes points, found at sites within the county. The fact that some of these points have been found as far north as Clayton, demonstrates that they entirely post-date the last of the glacial lakes.

Forest Foragers
By 9,000 years ago, forest succession had ensued, and the caribou herds no longer ranged through Jefferson County. Woodland species took over, and a new cultural adaptation emerged based on the atl-atl, a tool for spear-throwing that provides greater distance and accuracy. These atl-atl-users were foragers, but unlike their predecessors, could not rely on seasonal kills. So they likely relied much more on gathering, and later, fishing, for their subsistence. This lifeway was very stable, however, sustaining populations through the next six millennia. Archaeologists call this period the Archaic.

Harvesters
By 3000 BC, populations in Jefferson County had a pretty good handle on the seasonality of local resources, and began to turn to cyclic exploitation of wild resources, or harvesting. Chief among these were anadromous fish, fish that spawn seasonally. What are called Laurentian cultures throughout the region, specialized in harvesting the fish runs of every major stream. Of course, surpluses of foods created a problem in the absence of proper methods of preservation, so in essence, they invited all of their friends over for dinner every spring. Thus, the fish runs became a sort of “fair” during which families and clans reunited, swapped marriage partners, traded information and resources, and ate as much fish as they could stand. Trading evolved into an important ritual, and the more exotic the gifts, the greater the prestige that accompanied the gift.

By the beginning of what is called the Early Woodland period, c. 1000 BC, raw materials were coming to Jefferson County from as far away as southern Indiana. Elaborate burial rituals developed in which gifts were given to the dead, perpetuating a prehistoric system of supply and demand that kept exotic commodities in constant production. Blades made on Onondaga chert even became a form of currency during this time period. The Early Woodland period in Jefferson County is characterized by the Meadowood culture. Meadowood people are the first to have acquired fired clay pots in Jefferson County.

In a clear sequence of cultural evolution, Meadowood culture transformed into what is known as Middlesex culture. During this period, lasting from about 400 BC to AD 200, people in Jefferson County built burial mounds, much like Adena cultures in the Ohio Valley. One of these burial mounds was destroyed during the construction of the first railroad to reach Cape Vincent. Only a few artifacts survive in the collections of the Jefferson County Historical Society. Other mounds have been documented throughout the St. Lawrence Valley.

The last of the harvesting cultures is known as Point Peninsula. Lasting from about 200-1100 AD, Point Peninsula people continued to produce elaborate burials with exotic trade goods, signaling the continuation of both a prestige economy and ritual trade. These people loved narrow inlets on the lake shores, where they could cast nets across the mouths of the inlets and seine the fish into the shallows and gather as many as they could eat. Point Peninsula people also made elaborate pottery that is found throughout Jefferson County.

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians- Corn People
By 1200 AD a new culture had appeared on the Jefferson County landscape. These people were unlike any before them. They lived in inland villages away from the lake shore. They made distinctive collared pottery, and grew maize, beans, and squash. Some believe that these newcomers, believed to be Iroquoian, actually displaced the earlier Point Peninsula people, but this idea remains to be proven. At any rate, Jefferson County became home to at least four villages of this culture, distributed through the western Pine Plains, the Ontario Lake Plain around Sandy Creek, and the area below Dry Hill. Through time the villages merged and split, creating new villages. But by 1520, they had vanished from the archaeological record. Archaeologists for more than 150 years have been studying what happened to the St. Lawrence Iroquoians.

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians did not “vanish,” as has been many times suggested, Instead, they likely evacuated Jefferson County to merge with expanding rival groups- the Huron and Iroquois confederacies. The effects of the Little Ice Age also may have played a role in St. Lawrence Iroquoians abandoning Jefferson County. For whatever the reason, however, Jefferson County was vacant of settled populations after c. 1520.

This is by no means to say that Jefferson County was void of activity. Some sites suggest that St. Lawrence Iroquoians may have returned frequently to Jefferson County to hunt and fish. War parties also actively used Jefferson County as a staging ground for attacks. In the mid-18th century, mission sites were established at Ogdensburg and Liverpool, and travel between them by Native traders was through Jefferson County. That, however, is a story for another page.

Also see:
History

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  • Last modified: 2018/12/06 17:17
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