Old Stone Fort, Tennessee

It’s the middle of the summer. It’s hot, and humid, and steamy outside. I wanted to get out and visit someplace I’d never been, someplace with some interesting history, but on this particular day I wasn’t terribly inspired to drive too far, or hike too far, or do anything that would result in excessive sweating. I pulled out a map and gazed out the tiny towns within a few hours of home. I settled on a small state park near Manchester, Tennessee called Old Stone Fort. The name makes it sound like a military park, but it’s not. It’s an archaeological park with a few old mills thrown in. I’d visited the park many years ago but didn’t spend much time there, I didn’t take any pictures, and I didn’t remember much. So, I decided to drive up and spend a few hours checking it out.

The area is gorgeous. The top of the plateau is covered with a deep, dense forest and lined by two beautiful rivers that have carved deep gorges along the edges of the site. I could immediately tell it’s worth exploring.

Entrance to Old Stone Fort

I was pleased to find a small museum and bookstore close to the parking lot at the beginning of the trail. The museum is very small but has some wonderful historic maps of the site over the years. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for my checking account), I already own all of the books (mostly about archaeology) that interested me in the bookstore! There is also a large relief map of the area showing the Duck and Little Duck Rivers, the site, surrounding communities, and nearby archaeological sites. I really found the relief map and associated information interesting. Evidently, the Cumberland Plateau was very different in the days of the Woodland Indians. Instead of heavy forest, the top of the plateau was more of a grassland. The area where the park is located was an intersection of two very different ecological niches, the upper highland region and the lower river valley and forest. It would have been a great place for native people to look for many different types of plants and animals.

Here’s a terrain map from Google Maps that shows the park (the cleared area in the middle). You can see the road into the park in the upper right. The confluence of the rivers can be seen in the lower left.

Old Stone Fort terrain map

Compare the actual terrain view to a map from 1824 called the “Klinkowstrom Map.” A. L. Klinkowstrom drew this map and published it in 1824 in a book called Travels. It’s one of the few very early maps that shows a triangular intersection of the rivers. It doesn’t depict the openings at the entrance and at the confluence of the rivers.

Old Stone Fort 1824 map

I headed out to the trail, and when I got to this sign, I didn’t follow the instructions.

Old Stone Fort Trail signOld Stone Fort Trail sign

The trail is supposed to “start” by going to the left, but the map indicated large waterfalls to the right. That’s what I wanted to see first.

Old Stone Fort trail Map

I headed down the trail and soon came to a lovely little waterfall. You can see a small waterfall in the distance. That is a waterfall running over a small dam next to the visitor’s center. It’s a popular swimming hole and a great place to canoe or fish.

Old Stone Fort Tennessee

Heading down the trail a bit farther led to yet another small waterfall. I will admit I tried to find a way to climb down from the trail to the base of the waterfalls to get some better photos. There is unfortunately a steep dropoff from the trail to the river. I saw a few places I could have climbed down, but it was fairly treacherous and I thought that clambering around off-trail by myself was a pretty stupid idea. I just settled for photos from the trail.

Old Stone Fort Tennessee

I eventually reached the section of the trail that led to the confluence of the Duck and Little Duck Rivers. I have visited several river confluences, and this one was much less dramatic than I expected, mostly because the rivers are actually very shallow where they meet. I’m sure I could have waded quite far out into the water. Except that I saw a baby copperhead swimming around near the bank and decided to stay out of the water!

Old Stone Fort Tennessee

Hello little snake.

Old Stone Fort baby copperhead

After visiting the confluence I retraced my path to get back up to the mounded walls. This section of trail is a bit confusing, with interconnecting trails going several different directions. Pay attention to the map and trail markers! Along the way, I stumbled upon an old mill next to Bil Falls on the Big Duck River.This 50-foot waterfall is the tallest one in the park. It’s quite spectacular!

Old STone Fort Big Falls

A man named W. S. Whitman built a paper mill next to the river before the Civil War, and he also built a gunpowder mill that the Confederate Army used during the war. When the war was over, Whitman sold the property and left the area. The new owners, the Hickerson and Wooten families, expanded the existing mills into the Stone Fort Paper Company.  Old Stone Fort Tennessee

It’s not clear which ruin represents which mill. There are two large mill foundations along the trail. One mill is called the Main Mill (or the rag mill/print paper mill) and pressed paper made from rag. The other is the Pulp Mill, which pressed paper made from wood pulp. The mills were quite productive and supplied paper to many businesses throughout the southeast, including many newspapers. Paper for the Nashville Banner and the Atlanta Constitution came from this mill until the early 1900s. Historians believe that the mill next to the Big Falls is the Main Mill. There is a third mill in the area on the lower section of the Big Duck River called the Wrapping Mill (it made brown wrapping paper). The photo above is the ruin of what is likely the Pulp Mill. The people who built the mills evidently tried to preserve as much of the walls as they could. Here’s a bad photo from one of the trail markers that shows photographs of the mills in the 1930s.

Old Stone Fort mills in 1930sOld Stone Fort mills in 1930s

After exploring the western side of the trail, I headed up to look at the mounded walls encircling the site. The wall is strange and mysterious. What was it for? Here’s what the official park webpage says:

The Old Stone Fort is a 2000 year-old American Indian ceremonial site. It consists of mounds and walls that combine with cliffs and rivers to form an enclosure measuring 1-1/4 miles around. The 50-acre hilltop enclosure mound site is believed to have served as a central ceremonial gathering place for some 500 years. It has been identified as, perhaps, the most spectacularly sited sacred area of its period in the United States and the largest and most complex hilltop enclosure in the south. Settlers tended to name such enclosures “forts.”

The spectacular setting occurs where two rivers drop off the plateau of the Highland Rim in Middle Tennessee and plunge to the level of the Central Basin of Tennessee. As the forks of the Duck River cut down from the plateau level they isolate a promontory between them before they join. This promontory was further set apart by the construction of long, wall-like mounds during the Woodland prehistoric period.

At the narrow neck of land between the two rivers there is a set of parallel mound walls oriented to within one degree of the summer solstice sunrise. It was typical of ancient societies to recognize this significant farthest north sunrise and to hold reenactments of creation myths at such times. Mound sites such as the 50-acre Old Stone Fort provided modified landscapes for ceremonies that may have represented in some way the culture’s concept of their place in the cosmos and a separation of the sacred and mundane or pure and impure.

Here’s one section of the mound in the forest.

Old Stone Fort Tennessee

Near the confluence of the rivers I found some great signs explaining more about the background and history of the mounds. Mounds are a style of native ceremony found throughout the eastern US during the middle Woodland period (approximately 30-430 AD). The native people living in the area constructed the walls from stacked rocks (probably mostly limestone) to a height of 4–6 feet. Inside the walls the builders placed loose gravel and dirt. After the site was abandoned and the terrain changed, dirt blew up over the walls, creating the mound appearance we see today. How do we know? The first person to seriously investigate the Old Stone Fort was Joseph Jones with the Smithsonian Institution. In 1876, he visited the site and found several unique artifacts, but everyone still thought the site was some sort of fort of military outpost. The next investigation at the site happened in 1928 when the Tennessee State archaeologist P. E. Cox visited the fort, dug a few test trenches, and investigated artifacts he found. There are some gorgeous artifacts from the site, most notably a spectacular eagle effigy pipe uncovered in 1876 that is now housed at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.

Of course, people had speculated about the origins of the fort for well over a hundred years. Some of these theories are documented in Basil McMahan’s book The Mystery of Old Stone Fort (printed in 1965). The earliest theories were some of the most entertaining. The Pioneer, a newspaper in Jackson, TN, speculated in 1823 that the fort was “built by Buccaneers from Seville after one of their ships wrecked off the coast of Florida and forced them inland.” Later, after Viking artifacts were discovered in North American, many speculated that Vikings had built all of the stone and mound structures in the eastern US, including Old Stone Fort.  In 1950, Zella Armstrong hypothesized that the fort was built by “Welsh-Indian” descendants of prince Madoc, a Welsh prince who sailed to America in 1170.

In 1966, the state of Tennessee bought the property with plans to turn the popular area into a park. Shortly thereafter, one of the last century’s most productive southeastern archaeologists, Charles Faulkner, decided to investigate the site. His team dug test pits then dug trenches at promising locations to try to uncover the truth about the site. He is the researcher who determined that the site was associated with the Woodland period. First, his team carbon dated charcoal associated with the site, and all of the charcoal was within the Woodland period. He also compared the “fort” to other known sites throughout the eastern US, such as Hopewell sites in Ohio (like the Serpent Mound), and also the Pinson Mound site in western Tennessee. All were similar (although the Serpent Mound is a bit later than other mound sites). In addition, there were actually very few artifacts unearthed at the site, leading to the theory that people didn’t live there, but was instead important for ceremonies. Around the same time, archaeologists also uncovered other significant Middle Woodland sites very close to Old Stone Fort, including a site where native people did live.

Old Stone Fort sign

All of the evidence pointed to a ceremonial site. Faulkner found that the site was built over a long period of time, likely a few hundred years. Faulkner believed that two separate cultures built the fort. The first group, the McFarland, started the project around the first century AD. The Owl Hollow culture finished the site several centuries later.

There are some interesting patterns in the wall that rings this huge site. There is a hole in the wall near the river confluence, almost directly opposite the hole representing the “entrance” to the site near the parking lot. The wall is also highest near the hole in the wall near the river. The mound follows the edge of the cliff, but as the terrain drops in elevation, the wall rises in built height. This is a common architectural detail in other mound sites. What was the hole in the wall for? Did it have some association with the rising of the sun, or moon, or stars? Did they use this site to honor creation myths or to hold ceremonies to honor the sun or the moon? One of the reasons I find archaeology so fascinating is because you can visit sites like this, stand in the same places totally different cultures lived hundreds of years ago, and contemplate what they were doing when they stood in the exact same spot.

Old STone Fort walls

As I reached the end of the trail, I heard screams of delight from the river. I poked my head through the trees and saw people swimming and frolicking in the shallow water and step waterfalls on the eastern side of the park. I could tell that the park is a popular destination for swimmers, especially in the heat of the summer. I was in fact so hot by this time that I bypassed this last set of falls and headed back to the beginning of the trail.

I left the woods and the mounded wall and emerged in the central field of the site. The view is beautiful. I tried to imagine what it would have looked like so many years ago when there were no trees, just grass and stone walls. I could see it in my mind’s eye, people arriving here from all across the region for a ceremony to honor the natural world. I have no idea what people were actually doing here, but it’s a great place to visit to contemplate our rich and mysterious past.

Old Stone Fort Tennessee

Visiting the park:

This is a great park for people interested in both history and outdoor recreation. In addition to the hiking trail and outstanding interpretive signs, the park also has a large shaded picnic area and an extensive campground. The campground is situated a short distance away from the hiking trails and is on nice, flat terrain. All of the campsites are in the forest so are nice and shaded. Electricity and water are available at the campsites. The park is so nice that I am planning to return for a camping trip when the weather is cooler.

Park Information: find all of the information you need about the park, including a phone number and email address, on the park’s webpage.

Map of the park: This shows everything you need to know.

Hiking, swimming, fishing, boating: the park is open from 8:00 am to sunset every day. Entrance to the park is free.

Camping: $20/night. You can make advance reservations, including selecting your site from an interactive map. The reservation system gives you information about the site you want to select.

Other activities: The day I visited, a park employee was demonstrating how to use an atl-atl. I saw a flier advertising other programs that day, including a flute demonstration, native storytelling, an interpretive hike, and artifact interpretation. Check the schedule for the day you’re visiting.

Directions: Find Manchester, TN on your map. Old Stone Fort is slightly west of Manchester. It’s very easy to get to and to find. It’s right off of interstate 24 that runs from Nashville, TN to Chattanooga, TN.

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