Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ellsworth Cowles and Spanish Hill

As most of you may know, for me, the beginning of my interest and later co-founding of SRAC all was the result of my interest (ok - some would call it an obsession...) in a place in South Waverly, Pa, called Spanish Hill.

Spanish Hill - around 1915

Spanish Hill in the 70's

The east side facing us in the picture above shows where they removed the side for highway fill. In fact, they were going to take the whole hill for highway fill at one time, but a bunch of concerned citizens teamed up with Mr. Ellsworth Cowles went to the state archaeologist and had that plan revamped to only take the side. Ellsworth also made some audio tapes seemingly for the radio to support the cause - You can listen to the first clip here and the second clip here in my podcasts in iTunes.

The way that the state archaeologist was convinced to change the highway fill plans was by having Ellsworth bring actual artifacts from Spanish Hill itself. You see, Ellsworth was our local amateur archaeologist and well noted historian for over 50 years, and he actually found the ancient village site that was located at the foot of Spanish Hill in 1933.

Ellsworth and his sons and nephew at the site in 1933

You can read his own 1933 description of the site here. As well as see a survey of the site here.

Ellsworth also was convinced that he had found an effigy shape of a horned animal around a fire pit made of coconut sized granite boulders that were not native to the river flats area that they were found on. Here is Ellsworth's drawing of the effigy hearth -

And here is an actual photo of the effigy hearth:

I found it strange then as I was doing so much work to uncover information about the hill..I mean it didn't exist anymore for the average person to find - and even more important - why wasn't I told about all this when I was there on my field trip in fourth grade? But when I fianlly read the past PA archaeologist Barry Kent's book "Susquehanna's Indians" the light finally came on - THIS was the source that said that Spanish Hill was not the site of Carantouan. (Which I later rebuked in PA Archaeologist) You see, I had studied enough to know what I was reading in this book was clearly incorrect. Strangely, I found myself in a place of knowing that although Mr. Kent knew ALOT about the Susquehannocks, he did not do the research I had concerning Carantouan and/or Spanish Hill, or the two sources he uses to make his claims.

Even worse, in just a few paragraphs over pages 300 and 301 in that book, Mr. Kent had closed the door on Spanish Hill and the story of Carantouan, and had made a comment about a local amateur archaeologist and historian, Mr. Ellsworth Cowles that I could not forget, because when I read this paragraph about Ellsworth, it sounded like a personal attack:

  • "...Cowles conducted investigations in the vicinity of Spanish Hill. As a result, the Carantouan myth continued to have at least some local perpetuation." (Kent:1984)

I had to wonder, "Why such strong feelings?" "Why so disrespectful to Mr. Cowles?" And most importantly...."Why call a documented historical event, a MYTH?"

By early spring in 2004, I had contacted Bobby Rockwell of the Rockwell Museum in Corning and asked him if he had any info on Ellsworth Cowles. Sadly, he told me that Ellsworth had passed in 1992, but his son Dick was alive and well in Caton, NY, and Bobby asked Dick to allow me to call on him. I did so a few months later, and to my surprise, Dick had all of his dad's artifacts still in his basement (which became the base artifact collection for SRAC later,) along with documents, letters, maps and just about everything that you could imagine...

When I finally brought up the Barry Kent quote about Ellsworth, his son Dick pulled out some old letters between Ellsworth and Ted Keir, who in 1984 had submitted a request to the PA Historical and Museum Commission to preserve Spanish Hill as a historical landmark. Interestingly, Barry Kent's book came out in 1984 as well, and in these letters that I read, Ted and Ellsworth actually were discussing what Kent had said about Spanish Hill and Carantouan, as well as what he said about Ellsworth.

Even more importantly in 1984, the same Barry Kent cast the deciding vote on the request made by Ted Keir to preserve the hill...His exact words on the "decision sheet" for Spanish Hill's need for preservation for it's historical significance can be seen here (at the bottom of the page.)

They say:
"This is not the site of Brule's Carantouan and very little archaeological material has been found on the hill. It is a significant geological feature, but only by misinterpretation has it become a place of historical interest." BCK 10/10/8

And so you now know why the hill found itself in jeopardy and could have actually been highway fill if it had not been for Mr/ Ellsworth Cowles...

As I read Ellsworth's letter to Ted that day that was 15 pages long with a whole time line drawn out of when the Carantouans (Susquehannocks) would have left this region and why, as well as when the fur trade and guns to the Iroquois had occurred and so on...I smiled and knew that Ellsworth Cowles - whom I found out also that day was also voted as one of the top ten people to ever live in Corning, NY - knew what he was talking about.

Unfortunately, Ellsworth's life by that time had other priorities, and he never went to battle with Barry Kent on the story of Carantouan and Spanish Hill. That year his wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and soon his eldest son would die as well...

While Ellsworth Cowles was as his granddaughter has told me recently "the type of man that when he walked in, he could fill the room," I know that he was not yet satisfied with all that he had hoped to accomplish in his life. I know of other research he was doing right up to the end of his life concerning Spanish Hill and Carantouan and that truly saddens me to think he died before having time to be able to do what he had set out to do...especially when he knew he could.

And so when Dick, Ellsworth's son handed me the piece of paper one Sunday at our SRAC board meeting, the realization of what my article in the Pennsylvania Archaeologist which challenges Kent's book "Susquehanna's Indian's" claims about Carantouan, Spanish Hill and yes - Mr. Ellsworth Cowles has meant, not just to me, but to everyone who has been involved with this issue for the past 100 years.

You see, the piece of paper Dick handed me was a copy of the front inside page of Ellsworth's bible...all tattered and torn with notes all over it and with just one quote above his name that I could now understand...

Note: This piece of paper now resides in my copy of "Susquehanna's Indians," between pages 300 & 301.

Thank you to the Cowles family for allowing me to be inspired by Ellsworth, a man I am sorry I never got a chance to meet.

Ellsworth Cowles (1897-1992) and son Dick Cowles (current Board Chairman and Co-founder, SRAC)
in 1933 at the Spanish Hill site.

I have since written a book called
"Spanish Hill and Carantouan: The History, the People and the Politics"
and it is available here
~~ALL proceeds benefit SRAC.~~

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