Halifax County, Virginia
Upstream from Brookneal on the Staunton River
(Source and Date Unknown)
BROOKNEAL - - This week and next, a team of professional archeologists and amateur helpers will excavate a small cave on the bank of the Staunton River a few miles upstream from Brookneal.
Here they hope to find clues to the lives and habits of the Indian families who made their homes in this area long before recorded history. Legend has passed on to us the name of one of the local Indians, and the cave bears his name.
"Indian Jim" is generally acknowledged as the last full-time tenant of the cave and it is believed that he is buried nearby. Local old timers have heard stories about him from the old-timers of their childhood but most specific details of his life have been lost. We do know that he was mentioned in The True Patrick Henry by George Morgan (here quoting Elizabeth Henry Lyons, great-granddaughter of Patrick Henry):
"One of these aborigines, "Indian Jim," intermarried with a slave woman and her grandson, Harrison, was living until a few months ago in a cabin on the hillside, near the family mansion. He had the high cheek-bones and copper skin of his grandfather, but in other respects he was a typical body-servant of an old and almost forgotten regime. He was trained in the house by the widow of Patrick Henry."
Harrison is said to have been 101 years old before he died, shortly before the book's publication in 1907.
His grandfather is believed to have lived in the cave in the 1700's.
Generations of hunters and fishermen who have used the cave for shelter during a sudden downpour have kept its location known. It was once a part of Patrick Henry's "Seven Islands Plantation" on the south side of the Staunton River in Halifax County. It is now owned by J.T. Davis, Jr. of Brookneal.
Davis has heard descriptions of the cave as it was before alterations in the flood plain, caused by damming of the Staunton, and natural weather changes, which deposited several feet of silt all around the opening and in the cave itself, obscured the interior.
The cave is remembered as having three separate rooms with a rock "bed" carved into the side of one of the rooms. A rock basin for washing also carved out, and a natural spring supplying fresh water within the cave.
Many generations of Indians, no doubt, took advantage of these deluxe accommodations in an area limited in its natural rock shelters.
Local interest in the cave has prompted two previous digs. In the fall of 1969 researchers unearthed fragments of clay pots,and bones. That spring workers started a total excavation of the area in and around the cave, but had to stop far short of finishing.
This preliminary work has shown promise of pre-Colombbean habitation, which puts Indian Jim as a relative late comer to the cave.
The dig starting this week will be the result of a real community effort. Jane Burke Williams was involved in the other digs and it is largely her dedication that has kept the cave and its importance in area pre-history in the public eye.
Williams and Davis, together with archeologists from the Archeological Society of Virginia, have done the preliminary work that is necessary for a successful dig. The project is being sponsored by the Staunton River Historical Society and financed in part by them and in part by other local group and private contributions.
Early this summer, the pipeline bed cut across Davis' land in a way that provided much better access to the opening of the cave. Bannister Construction Co. offered its big bulldozers free of charge to cut a large path right to the mouth of the cave and to clear the underbrush around it. Southern States donated the culvert pipe necessary to drain the access through the soggy bottom land.
All involved agreed that the area must be totally excavated now. Although the artifacts have no monetary value, the site is always in danger from vandals. Constant flooding is another danger along with repeated threats of new dams on the Staunton.
Lyle E. Browning of Richmond is the archeologist directing the dig, and he will proceed today with a crew of amateur and professional helpers.
Col. H.A. MacCord of the Archeological Society of Virginia sent letters to the members asking them to donate several hours to the excavation of the site and to the classification of the materials found. Col. MacCord was at the site early in July when it was being prepared and he talked about the life of the Indian families who traveled along the banks of the Staunton River.
Unlike the Indian culture made popular by movie westerns, our area Indians, mostly Saponis, of the Monocan confederation, did not band together in tribes. They existed in small family groups, finding shelter wherever they could in places like Indian Jim's cave.
They stayed in their small camps as long as they could, hunting and foraging as far afield as a day's safe return would allow.
When the nearby resources were depleted, they moved on.
Although an occasional mountain lion or bear roamed the woods along the Staunton, the real enemy of the red man was starvation.
"Indians learned from each other what plants were poisonous," Col. MacCord said. "But sometimes times were so hard that they were forced to eat mildly poisonous plants, preferring temporary illness to death."
The virgin forest was too thick and dark to support wildlife, so partially clear areas along waterways were extremely important to the Indians.
Life was brutal and short for these hardworking red men. More babies died at birth than survived. The life expectancy was about 30 years.
According to MacCord, somewhere in their travels the Saponis were given seeds for corn and squash which drastically changed their lifestyle for the better.
With dried corn stored away, their chances for winter survival were much greater.
With no mules to clear the land or plows to turn the soil, the Indians did their farming in the sandy bottom land, where only a stick was needed.
The first colonists found the Indians friendly and peaceful and learned their farming techniques.
From the colonists' accounts we learned what little we know of the early Indian culture.
All those involved with the Indian Jim's Cave dig hope that the old shelter will give up some more pieces to the ancient puzzle.
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