© Marlene A. Condon
I wish there were more hours in a day. Then I could spend as much time learning about human history as I spend studying nature—two topics that I find thoroughly fascinating.
However, last fall I was able to combine my interest in these two subjects by making a trip to Wolf Creek Indian Village in Bland County, which is in southwest Virginia not far from Wytheville. If you haven’t been there, I highly recommend that you visit. You can learn about the Eastern Woodland Indians that inhabited that area about 500 years ago.
Many woodland tribes inhabited the forests of the eastern United States at that time. All of them were stationary, living in wooden structures and farming within a clearing located not far from a river or stream.
As you exit a door of the Wolf Creek Indian museum, you literally walk down into history by traveling along a lovely woodland trail to a recreated Indian village built in the forest. (The museum has recently purchased a motorized golf cart that can be used by those who have trouble walking to get down to the village.) The walled village of circular structures was opened to the public in 1996. Its existence is due to the construction of nearby Interstate 77.
In order to accommodate the highway, Wolf Creek needed to be rechanneled. A local resident contacted the Virginia State Archeologist (who’s on the staff of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond) with concerns about an historic Indian village site possibly being disturbed.
Howard MacCord, the state archeologist at that time, led the excavation of the site in 1970, during which time construction of the highway was stopped for a brief period. This was the first official state-recognized archeological site (State # 44BD1) in Bland County.
In 1992, members of the Bland County Historical Society decided to create a museum dedicated to the history of the first Native Americans who had lived in the mountains of Bland County. The idea was to provide a glimpse into the lives of the people who had called this area home so long ago.
The historical society found funding and with the help of the local community, built a village based upon the archeology report. Thus the village is equal in size and the same in layout as the actual archeological excavation that took place on the Brown Johnston farmland nearby.
I find it especially fascinating to know that this recreated village is very close to its original location. Situated not far from the rushing waters of Wolf Creek and surrounded by forest, you can easily feel as if you have truly stepped back in time, despite the traffic zooming by not very far away on Interstate 77.
An interpretive guide discusses the structures and explains what the variety of tools located inside each were used for. She demonstrates the skills honed by the people who had needed to understand the natural world in order to survive.
These native peoples lived among wolves and elk and they made ample use of both kinds of animals. Wolves were actually used for hunting deer and elk.
The wolves were not pets as their descendants, domesticated dogs, are today. The wolves roamed free, but would hang around a village. The Indians believed the wolves did this because they were the embodiment of their spirit ancestors who wanted to help them survive.
(Sadly, neither wolves nor elk still inhabit the area and our world is all the poorer for it.)
The guide also talked about several of the plants used by the Woodland Indians, including many that grow wild in Central Virginia, such as Indian Hemp and Spicebush.
Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), which is also known as Hemp Dogbane, is a North American plant that has a fibrous stem. American Indians used the fibers to make cordage (we were given a sample to bring home), bags, nets, and mats. This plant is not to be confused with True Hemp (Cannabis sativa) that is the source of marijuana and is sometimes called Indian Hemp.
Spicebush berries were dried and used to spice meals. They smell and taste just like black pepper! (We were given a sample.) This native, understory shrub tends to be especially plentiful along streams and rivers in central Virginia.
By 1998 the historical society was able to open a museum building to provide even more information on the Eastern Woodland Indians. Filled with drawings of village Indian life so many years ago and artifacts from the Wolf Creek excavation as well as other Woodland Indian sites, the museum is just as fascinating to see as the recreated village.
Children as well as adults can enjoy a visit to Wolf Creek Indian Village. You can even bring a lunch to enjoy in the picnic area.
The park, now run by the Economic Development Authority, is located in Bastian, Virginia, just minutes from Exit 58 off Interstate 77. It’s closed for the winter but will reopen in the spring.