Leetown underground

Archeological research planned for Pea Ridge park site

Posted: May 11, 2017 at 1 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER Jami Lockhart (left) with the Arkansas Archeological Survey and Steven De Vore, archeologist with the National Park Service, look over maps of the area of the Leetown hamlet March 23 at the Pea Ridge Military National Park. Their work this spring sets the stage for a geophysical technology workshop for archeologists this week and a field school for University of Arkansas archeology students May 30 to June 30, both at the Leetown site.

"I found a ditch," said John Samuelsen, a doctoral student in archaeology at the University of Arkansas and a staff member with the Arkansas Archeological Survey. He spent his spring break walking through grid patterns with a gradiometer at Pea Ridge National Military Park.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER John Samuelsen with the Arkansas Archeological Survey uses a gradiometer over a grid in the area of the Leetown. Tw...

NWA Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER Michael Evans with the Arkansas Archeological Survey checks GPS coordinates in the Leetown hamlet area. The GPS coo...

The ditch -- which is obvious even to the untrained eye -- is thought to be part of an original road bed leading to the 19th-century hamlet of Leetown. Military maps from the Civil War record three roads in and around Leetown, which served as a field hospital for Union forces during the March 7, 1862, Battle of Pea Ridge.

Pea Ridge National Military Park

Although park guests will not be able to participate in the archeological work going on in the park, visitors are encouraged to visit the sites, view the work and ask questions of the participants.

Geophysical technology

What: Workshop, “Current Archeological Prospection Advances for Nondestructive Investigations of the Pea Ridge Civil War Battlefield”

When: Monday to May 19

Where: Leetown site

Park Day

When: May 20

What: Speakers will share and give demonstrations of the park’s staff work to preserve the natural landscape of the park’s 4,300 acres.

Cost: Free

UA archeological field school

When: May 30 to June 30

Where: Leetown site

Information: 451-8122

"One area looked like a trail cut," said Jami Lockhart, director of the computer services program for the Arkansas Survey. "We know we're interested in it, and we know another road intersected it."

The road was a critical route and major transportation corridor for the 1862 battle. It was the route taken by the Union army as they advanced north from Leetown to fight the Confederates. The road also served Union soldiers brought to the hamlet for care.

During March, Samuelsen, Lockhart and other staff of the Arkansas Archeological Survey completed a survey of the Leetown area using the latest in geophysical technology. Archaeologists from around the world will use the technology to further survey the town site and nearby cemetery during a workshop this week sponsored by the National Park Service. And during June, using the results found during the field survey and the workshop, archaeology students from the University of Arkansas will undertake a classic excavation at the site, hoping to uncover structures of Leetown and find clues as to their uses.

"One thing we're trying to do is understand ... the footprint of the town," said Jamie Brandon, station archaeologist of the University of Arkansas. "The town was probably strung out along this road."

The results will help staff of the Pea Ridge National Military Park preserve and interpret the hamlet, battle sites and roads and even return them to their 1862 condition.

HISTORY LESSON

Leetown was founded in 1840 by John W. Lee, a farmer from Tennessee, according to the 2014 cultural landscape report and environmental assessment compiled by the staff of Pea Ridge National Military Park.

"Little is known about the town prior to the Civil War," the report reads. "Census and tax records indicated that no more than two or three families lived in the town at the time."

"We have no first-hand accounts," said Troy Banzhaf, park historian.

The foundation of one structure -- believed to be the home of Will Mayfield in the 1940s -- remains visible in the town site, about a quarter mile south of the battleground.

"But we've been told the town included a store, a blacksmith's shop and even a Masonic building," Brandon said. "That's what we're trying to find out."

Historians of the Civil War's 36th Illinois Regiment described Leetown "as a hamlet of a dozen houses crowning the ridge, near the western extremity of the corn fields." They described the area as a small clearing, with "yellow hospital flags, fluttering from the gables of every house.

"According to Union surgeon D.S. McGugin, who treated the wounded, Leetown hamlet consisted of 12 fairly meager, single-story farm houses and log cabins. All had more than two rooms, were dark and poorly ventilated, and had 'apartments' (likely areas above the rafters for storage and sleeping quarters). Water was carried form the creek, 'half a mile distant.'"

The last of Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis' Union troops moved out of the Benton County area on March 19, 1862, and Leetown Hamlet was abandoned. In late October 1862, the Army of the Frontier camped on Leetown battlefield, the report adds.

The Civil War destroyed much of the infrastructure of Northwest Arkansas, with structures burned as armies moved through. Or the structures might have been dismantled over time for materials salvaged to be used elsewhere, Brandon said.

"By 1881, any remaining residents had moved on, likely due to opportunities offered by the construction of the nearby St. Louis and San Francisco railroad line," the park's report concludes.

TECHNOLOGICAL EXPERTISE

An international crew of archaeologists will survey the Leetown site with the latest technology in a workshop offered this week by the Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service in Lincoln, Neb. Instructors come from Canada, London, the Netherlands and Germany, as well as the University of Arkansas and the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

Instruction will be given in the use of magnetometers, conductivity meters, resistivity meters, ground-penetrating radar, metal detectors, magnetic susceptibility instruments and drones -- all noninvasive techniques available to investigate historic sites. The 26 students also will receive instruction in processing and interpreting the data developed during the survey.

Samuelsen's work this spring with the magnetometer, for example, measured changes in the magnetic field of the ground. The sites are then pinpointed with GPS equipment, which allows researchers to return to the same position, accurate to within four centimeters.

"We put all the data together, and we have a pretty good idea of what's below the soil," Lockhart said. "Areas with a lot going on will be chosen for excavation."

Lockhart and workshop participants begin their surveys based on early maps, aerial photographs and previous archeological surveys. Research in the 1950s by Edwin Bearss, a historian with the National Park Service, provided military records, plats, maps and surveys of the area, as well as first-hand accounts of former area residents -- which proved to be contradictory. But his work identified the town and several buildings, including the Masonic Lodge, according to the park's cultural inventory.

A more recent NPS survey located two historic wells, a spring house foundation and stone spring and several dump sites, all believed to be associated with the Mayfield-Lee House. In 2005, geophysical and remote sensing found the footprint of the Mayfield-Lee House, two road locations (one the site of a removed power line), and six unidentified rectangular features, of which three might indicate structures present in 1862.

Workshop participants will attend lectures on the various types of technology in the mornings and work hands-on with the equipment in the field in the afternoons, explained Steve DeVore, an archaeologist with Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service. Much of their work will be focused on the cemetery site, first documented in 1956 by Bearss, who noted that it dated to the period just after the Civil War.

An archeological investigation by Rex Wilson in 1965 located a cemetery with 17 grave sites 400 feet south of the townsite, documents the park's inventory. "He saw discoloration of the soil, and it made him think it was graves," DeVore said.

"There's something there, and it's linear, " said Lockhart, referring to the results of the spring's technological survey on the cemetery site. "We found depressions."

Today, the only above-ground marking of the cemetery is a triangle, tent-shaped rock sarcophagi, marked with "Robert Braden, who was born Feb. 14, 1864, died Feb. 5, 1866."

"And according to Bearss, local residents believed the cemetery included the grave site of a freedman, named Ike, freed as a result of the Civil War," the park's survey recorded.

"We're working on theory that the cemetery was heavily used at the time," DeVore said. "The National Park Service has thought for a long time that, especially if the town was used as a field hospital, there will be more graves.

"And there's a deeply incised road back to cemetery, we need to look at. We don't know how far the cemetery reaches, but we'll have all kinds of technology over it."

SCHOOL DAYS

From May 30 to June 30, about 15 archaeology students from the University of Arkansas will conduct an excavation at the Leetown hamlet site, based on the data recorded in the spring and by the workshop participants. The field school will include instruction on excavation techniques, how to map and process archeological finds and how to identify historic-period artifacts.

"There are still some mysteries to solve using the data," Brandon said.

"We may fix that," Lockhart replied.

Daffodils blooming in a row in the spring might indicate the site of a farmstead. "A lot of farmsteads had them, and they don't [grow far from where they were planted]," Brandon said.

In another location on the town site, lined rocks probably indicate a building foundation, and a pile of rocks might indicate a fallen chimney -- "which argues for it being a house rather than a barn," Brandon said. "And on the surface, they've found bed springs."

This is believed to be the site of John Lee's house, circa 1840, later expanded to a two-story home for the family of Will Mayfield and later Pierce Mayfield, who lived in the house when the national park was established in the 1960s. Family lore said the chimney, front room and foundation were from Lee's house and survived the Civil War. The Mayfield compound included a two-story house, with a barn to the west and cistern and granary to the north.

A large compound shows in this location in a 1940s aerial photograph, and Brandon links the rock foundation to this structure.

"But it might also be contiguous to 19th century," he said. "A log cabin becomes a house ... Metal scatter from that could be very useful."

Another large compound was located nearby, via technology, "but with no expression on the surface," Lockhart said.

The archaeologists believe the site also is related the Mayfield-Lee house, perhaps a tractor shed or a butcher shop. "It's use might be determined by the dig, whether we find artifacts buried shallowly or deeply, which could indicate a root cellar or a privy," Brandon said.

Brandon is also on a quest to find the Masonic Lodge. "We know the Masons owned a lot, but we don't know at what point. We don't know if we're looking in the right place," he said. "But we will go over it with fine-tooth comb, from the work we're doing today to the workshop to the field school."

"The work is tedious, but the results can be exciting," Lockhart said.

NAN Our Town on 05/11/2017