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The Harrell Site: Peace and Violence on the Upper Brazos River

Salt Fork of the Brazos
The sandy, intermittent Salt Fork of the Brazos winds its way toward its confluence with the deep Clear Fork where the two unite to become the Brazos River. The Harrell site overlooks the confluence.
WPA workers dig through sandy Brazos River deposits
Wielding picks and long-handled shovels, WPA workers dig through sandy Brazos River deposits in the dusty afternoon glare at the Harrell farm. Photo from TARL Archives.
sweet-watered Clear Fork
The sweet-watered Clear Fork of the Brazos River teems with fish and other water creatures and provides a sheltered habitat for other game along its tree-shaded banks.
small triple-notched arrow points
The Harrell site is the "type site" for these small triple-notched arrow points. Harrell points are found in Late Prehistoric sites across north-central Texas, the Panhandle-Plains and Great Plains area, as far north as Canada. Dating to a period from roughly 1200 to 1500 A.D., the points were used by Plains Villagers at the Harrell site who grew corn, hunted buffalo, and made shell-tempered pottery vessels.
A slab-covered grave from the cemetery at the Harrell Site.
A slab-covered grave from the cemetery at the Harrell site. Investigators found that many of the burials had been carefully covered over with stones or placed in small rock enclosures by the prehistoric occupants at the site. Photo from TARL Archives.
Wild turkeys take flight
Wild turkeys take flight over the tree-lined river banks, a lush habitat for many types of game. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
cover page of "Culture Complexes, and Chronology in Northern Texas"
The Harrell site was one of several examined by noted Texas archeologist Alex Krieger in his landmark book, Culture Complexes, and Chronology in Northern Texas, an effort to understand the chronological relationships and contacts between cultures of the Southwest, Plains, and the eastern United States.

The junction of the sand-choked Salt Fork, or main branch of the Brazos River, and its sweet-watered Clear Fork tributary in southern Young County has been a favored place to live for at least 5,000 years. The wide curving river terraces here provide choice spots for camping with ready access to water, woods, and the myriad plants and animals inhabiting the river-fringe woods and the surrounding scrubby grasslands of the rolling plains.

The Clear Fork teemed with mussels, fish, and waterfowl. Pecans and many other trees could be found in the narrow woodlands lining both rivers along with deer, turkey, and many other kinds of game. The fertile river floodplain was suitable for agriculture, while the nearby grasslands attracted bison and antelope. Limestone caprock along the flat-topped hills flanking the river valley provided a ready source of stone for building hearths and cooking ovens. The river junction is one of many places in Texas where permanent water and the favorable lay of the land have attracted generation upon generation of people throughout changing times.

For thousands of years the river junction was just another stopping place on the hunter-gatherer circuit, a fine place to camp for a few days or weeks at a time. But around a thousand years ago people began staying longer and establishing villages, a pattern that intensified after A.D. 1200. The villagers raised corn and other crops along the fertile floodplains and hunted buffalo.

In the early 1850s a remnant group of Kickapoo Indians chose this very spot to establish a small village, just upstream from the Brazos Indian Reservation where the Caddo, Tonkawa, Kichai, and Waco tribes had their last refuge in Texas. After the Kickapoo fled to Mexico and the Caddo and other remnant Indian groups sheltered in the Brazos Reservation were forcibly moved to Oklahoma Territory in 1859, white settlers moved in and soon claimed all the choice land parcels along the Brazos and its many feeder drainages. Ever since, the Brazos River junction has been home to several generations of farmers including the Matt D. Harrell family for whom the site is named.

Pioneering archeological excavations at the Harrell site in 1937-1938 found evidence of prehistoric villages that had existed there about 500-1000 years ago as well as traces of a great many earlier Indian camps, some buried by up to 25 feet of mud and sand. The remains left behind by the villagers, including bison bone hoes, corn cob fragments, shell-tempered pottery, and diamond-shaped beveled flint knives, represent the southernmost example of Plains Villager culture.

Between A.D. 1100-1500 corn-farming and bison-hunting peoples lived in settled villages along the major river valleys throughout the Southern Plains including the Texas Panhandle, southeastern Colorado, eastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma, and Kansas. Odd bits of Caddoan and Puebloan type pottery and shell ornaments and tools made from materials from distant sources show that the villagers who lived at the Harrell site were part of an extensive, if informal, network of late prehistoric groups linked by trade, kinship, languages, and many shared cultural traditions.

The excavators also uncovered a small prehistoric cemetery with the remains of 32 individuals, some buried together in mass graves, others individually. The age of the cemetery is uncertain, but probably dates before or at the outset of the main period of Plains Villager occupation at the site, about A.D. 1200-1500. Based on the arrangements of the skeletons in the mass graves and the finding of arrow points among the bones, it is clear that the Harrell site was once the scene of violent events—perhaps raids from competing enemies.

Several of the skulls have faint cut marks which may indicate scalping, a rare finding in prehistoric human remains in Texas. Since the Harrell site was excavated, evidence of violence has been found at dozens of Late Prehistoric sites across the Southern Plains. Archeologists now believe that the Late Prehistoric era was a turbulent time during which the onset of widespread drought conditions coincided with burgeoning populations and competition for increasingly scarce resources such as fertile, well-watered farmland.

While fascinating and provocative, the mass graves at the Harrell site seem to represent an unusual period in the site's long history, a brief violent interval that punctuated an otherwise peaceful and ordinary record of life on the upper Brazos. The archeological excavations uncovered all sorts of evidence of daily life including over 135 cooking hearths—small circular arrangements of limestone rocks that had been heated and used to bake roots and other foods.

In one area of the site a sizable burned rock midden was found that represents one of the northernmost examples of a pattern more common in central and southwestern Texas. This accumulation of fire-broken limestone and sandstone rocks is probably a specialized baking locale where basketloads of roots were once cooked in the layered arrangements of hot rocks, plants, and dirt known as earth ovens. Much of the extensive evidence of hearths and baking at the Harrell site probably predates the Plains Villager era by thousands of years.

Understanding the Harrell site today requires an appreciation of its archeological history. The 1937-1938 excavations were carried out under the auspices of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), a Federal make-work program that put the nation's unemployed back to work during the Great Depression. At the Harrell site, one minimally trained archeologist, George Fox, oversaw the work of dozens of unskilled laborers. The excavations were extensive and very systematically done, but Fox did not have the training and experience needed to fully comprehend what he found. And while the excavations produced many artifacts as well as extensive field notes and records (more than 6 inches thick), a formal report was never written.

As soon as the fieldwork was completed, the team moved on to other sites. By 1941 World War II was underway and the WPA program soon ended, leaving the analysis and reporting of the Harrell site and many others unfinished. A young graduate student from east Texas, Jack T. Hughes, wrote a Master's thesis on the site in 1942, but he was hampered by the limitations of the original work and by the state of archeological knowledge.

Recognizing the importance of the Harrell site, famed archeologist Alex D. Krieger reexamined the site collection while he was studying the prehistory of northern Texas. The Harrell site, he thought, lay at a crossroads of sorts between the more technically advanced moundbuilding cultures of East Texas and the Puebloan cultures to the southwest. In his landmark 1946 treatise, Culture Complexes and Chronology in Northern Texas, Krieger defined the Harrell site as the "type site," or ideal example, of the Henrietta focus, an archeological concept he applied to sites in north Texas that had Plains Villager materials such as the pottery, bison-bone hoes, and beveled knives. The Harrell site, he believed, was the southernmost expression of the Plains Village tradition.

But this was before Willard Libby's discovery of radiocarbon dating had revolutionized archeology. Krieger had no real way of determining how old the finds at Harrell were except by relative dating. While the chronology of the Puebloan Southwest was comparatively well known because of tree-ring dating, that of the mound cultures of the Southeastern United States (including East Texas) was not yet known except in relative terms. The archeologists of the day had only a rudimentary understanding for how river terraces form through time. Krieger assumed that virtually all of what was found at the Harrell site—hearths, burials, and Plains Villager debris—was left behind by a single culture at more or less the same time.

Today the Harrell site remains enigmatic. It is still one of the few intensively excavated sites in the west-central part of north Texas, but it has never been critically reevaluated. While some of Krieger's most important ideas are still accepted, others are now seen as outdated or clearly wrong. The Plains Village occupations in north Texas between about A.D. 1200-1500 are still poorly known. Krieger's term, the Henrietta focus, is still in use, although some believe the concept is outdated and prefer the term, Henrietta phase or complex. Today we realize that the archeological evidence from the Harrell site is much more complex than the archeologists of the 1930s and 1940s recognized and that some of its cultural debris accumulated long before the Plains Villager era. Lacking radiocarbon dates and other kinds of modern scientific evidence from the Harrell site, we can only make educated guesses about the site's human history and hope for more research in the future.

Making sense of the past, particularly when there appear to be influences from several different cultures, is not an easy task. As Jack Hughes noted in his 1942 thesis, "reconstructing the history of the part of the Brazos on which the Harrell site is located is like trying to visualize a motion picture on the basis of a few still photographs." The history of the region, he noted, was complicated by the arrival of diverse cultures bringing a variety of new traits, by the assimilating effects of a common environment on all these cultures, by local cultural developments, and by relationships spawned through trade.

Despite problems of interpretation, the story of the Harrell site's investigation and of the remarkable finds made on the banks of the upper Brazos is well worth telling. In the following sections, we look at the pioneering excavations and at the evidence uncovered at the site, illustrated in compelling black and white photographs from the WPA-era investigations as well as more-recent color photographs of the artifacts. We also offer a modern perspective on a site that played an important role in the history of archeological research.


Click on any photo below to see complete image

Environmental Regions of Texas map
The Harrell site lies in an area of mixed environmental resources, where the Rolling Plains meet the Oak Woods and Prairies. The prairie grasslands and river valley woodlands would have provided habitat for a wide variety of animals and plants-and ready resources for early hunters and gatherers in the region. Map courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife.
White-tailed deer
White-tailed deer were prized by prehistoric peoples of the Brazos who ate their meat, used their skins for clothing, and carved their large bones into hoes and other tools. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Tangles of berry vines
Tangles of berry vines cascade over low hills and shrubs in the river valleys, providing plentiful fruit in late spring. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Bison
Bison, or buffalo, were an important resource for the inhabitants of the Harrell site. A single animal yielded enormous quantities of meat as well as bone, sinew, and skin for tools, clothing, and cover. Photo courtesy of Center for Bison Studies, University of Montana.
long-handled hoe
Farming implements, such as this long-handled hoe, could be made using the scapula (shoulder blade) or other large elements of bison and other large mammals. (Figure redrawn by Lynet Dagel from Gilbert L. Wilson, Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians, copyright 1983 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. Used with permission.)
processing lab
Materials recovered during the extensive WPA surveys and excavations were processed in labs such as this one at the University of Texas. Artifacts were washed and catalogued, vessels reconstructed, and skeletons analyzed.
stands of hard- and softwood trees line the rivers and cover fields and slopes
Within a 30-mile radius of the Harrell site, stands of hard- and softwood trees line the rivers and cover fields and slopes, providing habitat for many types of game. Today, much of the Harrell farm area has been cleared for cultivation or grazing, although it may have been more heavily wooded in earlier times.