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Ancient mysteries of Maumee Bay State Park

Maumee Bay State Park in Lucas County is one of Ohio's most popular tourist spots drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. But long before this Lake Erie shoreline attraction became a summertime mecca for swimmers, campers and golfers, it was reported to be the site of a stunning and still mysterious archaeological discovery. ..

OREGON, OH (WTOL) - Maumee Bay State Park in Lucas County is one of Ohio's most popular tourist spots drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. But long before this Lake Erie shoreline attraction became a summertime mecca for swimmers, campers and golfers, it was reported to be the site of a stunning and still mysterious archaeological discovery.

In 1895, on October 24, it was widely reported in many newspapers throughout the country that a prehistoric Indian mound was found on the site, which was known as the Niles Farm at the time. It was owned by well known writer and lawyer, Henry Thayer Niles.

Inside the mound, about 12 feet below the surface, "20 skeletons were found in a sitting posture" and near each skeleton was a curious piece of pottery, "different from other mounds in other localities". The skeletons, however were said to have crumbled upon exposure to air and "fell to dust".

However it was reported that two skulls were recovered and stayed intact. They measured about the same size as a normal human skull, but had much larger, heavier and stronger jawbones".

It was also reported that the niece of Henry Thayer, Niles who was a student of ancient cultures was there for the excavation, along with her uncle Henry.

The newspaper wire accounts say each skeleton's face was turned toward the east. And estimated that each bowl of pottery would hold about a gallon of fluid and that the edges of the bowls were "fluted" or "crimped" unlike most pottery of this type. The pottery also had pictographs or hieroglyphic type images on its sides.

The age of the remains and mound were unknown, but Henry Nile's niece estimated that they could have been several thousand years old.

As to what other excavations may have followed on the Niles property, if any, is an unknown, as well as the eventual whereabouts of the pottery, the skulls and other artifacts that were unearthed that day. Such discoveries of earlier civilization in the Black Swamp during the 1800's were not uncommon.

Less than a year later in 1896, a similar revelation was made when several "ancient Indian" skeletons were recovered from an earthen mound in what used to be the Ironville neighborhood of east Toledo, roughly located in the area of Millard and Front Streets. That particular area was said by early settlers to be inhabited by Indian settlements along the riverfront at Maumee Bay.

However, what relationship those "ancient" burial sites might have had to the latter day Native Americans living in the area in the 1800's is unknown.

It's believed that in Lucas County alone there were as many as a dozen "ancient" sites. Perhaps more. Sadly though, most of them are invisible to us today, assigned to obscure newspaper articles, diaries of pioneers or the conjecture of researchers.

Most of the locations in the Toledo-area that were discovered were never excavated with any scientific method, so as a result, we know relatively little about them or where they were. The only place that is officially marked, noting the existence of these ancient people, is found on Miami Street in east Toledo.

It was there that the city's earliest settlers found a large earthworks of an aboriginal fort situated atop the banks overlooking the narrow bend in the Maumee river. The fort was likely placed there strategically so that the ancient inhabitants could detect any movement from any potential adversaries on the river in both directions.

Those earthworks and artifacts, however, were likely obliterated by the ambitions of a hungry plow.

As the new residents of the 1830's and 40's were eager to work the soil and get crops in the ground, they were likely unconcerned with such historical curiosities in the course of their labor.

A stone marker, with a metal plaque was placed at the site just upriver from the intersection with Fassett Street in the early 1950's as a commemoration of the site's archaeological significance. Today, the big stone marker still resides there as a mere roadside curiosity dwarfed by the grain elevators that tower above it and discolored by the exhaust of the cars and trucks that speed past it.

For what it's worth: A street adjacent to the marker was even named Fort Street at one time, but even that has been changed. So time moves on.

As time moved on into the 1970's, the desire by the state of Ohio to build a new state park on the area known as the Niles Farm in Eastern Lucas County was turning from talk to action. By 1975, the land of the old Niles Farm was sold to the state and was even called a state park in advent of the project.

One of the studies undertaken to determine what impact such an endeavor would have on this fragile wetlands environment along the lake was an archaeological evaluation. It involved some limited excavations in the sand bermed area known as Niles Beach, roughly, just east of where the current state park lodge is located.

The report from 1981 on the historical importance of the area was conducted by a team of well known and respected archaeologists. It included Dr. Michael Pratt, a familiar name in Northwest Ohio for other historic investigations he has conducted throughout the area.

This particular survey of the old Niles Farm and the heavily wooded beach area did turn up a variety of artifacts of ancient peoples. Almost 90 in all. Some ceramic, such as ceramic pottery or sherds, and some made of stone, such as grinding tools, points and flakes from chert or flint.

It was also noted that hundreds of artifacts had already been taken and removed from the site by a Dr. Eugene Paulsen of nearby Genoa. He told the investigators that he probably removed over 200 pieces of pottery and other lithic or stone items that he found embedded in the clayor washed ashore near the beach.

The final report said all of the artifacts found at the site in the 1981 search were probably from 1300 to 1500 A.D and were from the late Woodland people. Of the other artifacts found by other collectors. those artifacts represented every culture from the Paleo Indian through the modern day "Indians" of the 1800's.

Missing from their 1981 report was the story of the 1895 burial mound that was unearthed with the 20 skeletons inside on the Niles Farm. That historical event was never mentioned, either by ignorance of it, or design.

The report did say that earlier artifact discovery sites at Niles Beach were now obscured by the rising lake levels which had essentially puts hundreds of feet of previous shoreline underwater. The researchers concluded that the Niles Farm and Beach site had such little historical significance that it would not qualify for the National Historic Register and should not impact the building of a park.

Within a few years after the report was approved, the bulldozers and earth moving equipment began carving up the old Niles Farm into a plat of roadways, parking lots, campsites, a lodge and cabins and a golf course that we now known and enjoy as Maumee State Park is now a reality.

But one can only wonder what or whom may be buried beneath.