Last month I took a small road trip to check out another Tennessee State Park that I had never had the opportunity to visit before: Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Manchester, Tennessee. It was a dreary, rainy fall day, but it still made for a beautiful, refreshing hike in the rain through the crisp woods along where the Big Duck river and the Little Duck rivers converge.
There is a small museum at the park that had information about the history of the park and about the archaeological studies that have been conducted in the last few decades in the area including the digs conducted in the 1960’s that provided much of the information that is now known about the park. The park has an interesting history that isn’t fully understood, but the one thing that seems to be clear from archaeological studies is that the area’s rich ecological systems have been utilized by the civilizations that came before ours for thousands of years. The “Old Stone Fort” was likely never a fort at all, but was called so by Europeans settlers to the middle Tennessee area. The enclosure was built by Native Americans and used as a ceremonial gathering place and the original entrance of the fort was designed to face the exact spot on the horizon where the sun rises during the summer solstice. Historians estimate that the enclosure was built during the Middle Woodland period approximately 1,500 to 2,000 years ago and was maintained for hundreds of years by generations of Native Americans. When European settlers arrived in Middle Tennessee, no one knew what the area had been used for and it was called a “fort” and attributed to many different groups including early Spanish settlers such as De Soto.
There were also two paper mills that operated along the Big Duck River in the late 1800’s and the remnants of one of the mills’ foundation remains along the trail overlooking the river. The mills supplied paper for newspapers leaving Nashville and Atlanta. One of the mills was also used later as a gun powder mill during the civil war.
There is plenty of beautiful scenery with several waterfalls along the main trail and the interesting structure of the enclosure itself to explore that make for a great day of hiking even without knowing anything about the history of the place, but like so many other historical places, much of the interest of hiking around is considering all the other people who have come through those paths before such as a culture of Native Americans who dedicated generations to the building and upkeep of walls that still remain today some 2,000 years later. I guess it is part of human nature to relate everything we come across to ourselves in some way and explain things to ourselves through the context of our own stories. When the early European settlers came to the area, they thought it had been other European settlers who had built the walls as a fort, a belief that lingered until relatively recent history when the archaeological digs in the 1960’s gave us more information about the true builders of the enclosure. But those early settlers related the builders of the enclosure to themselves and that their purpose for building such a place would be similar to their own for military purposes. As I walked through the entrance of the enclosure, I found myself wondering if there had been a Native American woman similar to myself coming to the ceremonial location and feeling some of the same things I was feeling as she went through similar circumstances and I laughed a little at myself as I realized I was doing the same thing those early settlers had done and trying to tell myself something about the people who had previously occupied that place by making it all about myself. But maybe there really was a woman not unlike myself that had come through those walls before. And even if like those European settlers, I had all the big details of those wall builders completely wrong, maybe her similarities still lie right there in the small details of her life- and in hope, faith held, love felt- all the things that tie us together as humanity as we all travel through the same places of the world and as Whitman said “that the powerful play goes on” and we each contribute our verses.