Finding, Preserving Leetown
Standing at the edge of this field, it’s difficult to imagine what a member of the Civil War’s 36th Illinois Regiment called “a hamlet of a dozen houses” with “yellow hospital flags, fluttering from the gables.” There are no structures, not even a fieldstone chimney, the usual remains of a collapsed or burned-down 19th-century frontier cabin.
At the tract’s southern border, a scattering of trees picks up again, and there is a split-rail fence, historically accurate, but not historic. Otherwise, there is nothing but wild grass and an enormous white oak. All evidence of an area that once bustled with frontier life is buried underground.
Since the spring of 2017, this field and its surrounding acres, including a mostly unmarked cemetery in the woods, have been the focus of much attention. The Pea Ridge National Military Park has embarked on a four-year project to unearth Leetown, a Civil War-era hamlet that included a store, blacksmith shop, a Masonic hall, at least one church and several residences.
To restore Leetown – situated at the southwest corner of the park, the former hamlet is stop No. 2 on the park loop – park officials have turned to the Arkansas Archeological Survey.
“Pea Ridge is an amazing cultural and natural landscape,” says Jami Lockhart, staff archeologist and director of the Survey’s computer service program. “We’re just literally learning something new here every day.”
With Leetown, about which Lockhart was speaking, there’s much to learn. In March, he and archeologists with the Midwest Archeological Center, a regional office of the National Park Service, hosted a workshop on geophysical remote sensing technologies. Focusing on the Leetown site, researchers used the latest in highly sophisticated, noninvasive technologies – magnetometers, conductivity and resistivity meters, ground-penetrating radar and other remote-sensing methods – to gather as much information about what may lie under the surface before the first shovel blade is driven into the ground. In fact, the remote-sensing data, like that provided by an MRI done on a human, helped colleagues develop theories about where to start digging.
“This (the remote sensing) just makes what I do more surgical,” says Jamie Brandon, archeologist at the Survey’s UAF station, which includes 12 counties across northern and northwest Arkansas. “I’ve been doing this a while. In the old days, before these technologies, I would start a project like this by digging a long trench and see if we hit something. Then another trench, perpendicular to the first one, in the pattern of a cross. We don’t do that anymore.”
Brandon is also a research associate professor in the Department of Anthropology. He says these modern, noninvasive methods have been a revolution in archeology over the past 25 years. Much of the effort to develop the technology was pioneered by U of A anthropology professor Ken Kvamme, a “techno-archeology” expert. Brandon labels Kvamme as one of the founding fathers internationally of remote geo-sensing technologies.
Not far from the oak tree, Brandon and other archeologists are huddled around an open tailgate. They’re consulting documents inside a file folder, the other data they rely on to help them find the remains of Leetown’s structures. The file contains reports on previous archeological work at the site, first-person accounts of life there, photocopies of old photographs, including one of the Mayfield-Lee cabin, deeds and old maps, some of which are hand-drawn.
Inside the truck bed are tools – shovels, picks and trowels – and a large plastic container full of insect repellent. Even with boots and long pants, they’ll need it. It’s hot and humid, typical June weather in the Ozarks, perfect conditions for chiggers and ticks. But the researchers and the student archeologists digging the 2- by 2-meter-squared holes behind them don’t seem to mind. They’re hopeful and excited. It’s the first week of the Arkansas Archeological Field School, and they’ve already found many artifacts.
Brandon is leading the excavation. He works closely with Lockhart and several other station archeologists to pick apart this field and transform it, ideally returning it to the semblance of a community. Field school is the way they do this, but it also offers students an opportunity to practice the skills and methods of real archeological field work. Brandon, Lockhart and the other professional researchers teach archeological mapping, excavation techniques, artifact identification and processing and more.
There are ten students here, mostly undergraduates, toiling in one of six “units” or sifting “midden,” the term archeologists use to describe organic matter filled with artifacts. Always teaching, always engaging with students and the other professionals, Brandon roams the site. He has a wry grin. If there’s any other place he wants to be, he’s doing a great job of faking it. As he visits each unit, effusive students hop out of holes and present new artifacts, sometimes holding them right under his nose. Brandon smiles and shares their excitement. He asks questions to get them thinking.
“Okay,” he says, “what can you tell me about it?”
Breanna Wilbanks, an archeology graduate student, is holding a small, milky-white glass bottle. Her joy causes her to bounce on the balls of her feet. “It’s late 19th century…” she says, and then she rattles off a series of technical terms to describe the piece. Brandon confirms the identification and says it was probably a bottle of medicine. The students know this is an important find. They have dug through a century and are now reaching depths that go back to the 1800s, closer to the Civil War and the founding of this community.
The Importance of Leetown
Pea Ridge is one of the most intact Civil War battlefield in the United States. Indeed, the landscape of the 4,300-acre battlefield looks much like it did 150 years ago. If you’ve toured the park, you’ve seen the impeccable restoration of the Elkhorn Tavern, its grounds and the surrounding area, where the battle’s second engagement occurred on March 8, 1862.
But in some ways, the park is incomplete. The battle itself is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, which is inaccurate and misleading because the first engagement of the two-day conflict occurred in a field just north of Leetown, roughly two miles west of Elkhorn Tavern. Leetown – the battle and the community – played a significant role in the Battle of Pea Ridge. Decorated and infamous Confederate General Ben McCulloch was shot and killed by a Union sharpshooter at the Leetown battleground, and historians think that several, if not all, of the hamlet’s structures served as field hospitals. (Hence the yellow hospital flags.)
Park officials want to change this and give Leetown its due. They know preservation will enrich the experience of the roughly 100,000 people who visit park each year.
“Our interest and active participation in (the Leetown) dig is critical,” says park superintendent Kevin Eads. “Because right now, there’s so much about this area of the park that’s of unknown value to the public. So obviously we’re excited about the project. The archeologists’ work will help the Park Service develop more accurate maps and interpretation, and this will allow us to set the stage for life before and after the battle.”
Brandon, other Survey archeologists and a new group of students will return to Leetown next summer. The Survey will also host the Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Program for two weeks in the middle of June. The program will include between 80 and 100 volunteers working at the site.
about the Arkansas Archeological Survey
A unit of the University of Arkansas System, the Arkansas Archeological Survey studies the state’s archeological past by conducting excavations and other activities at important sites throughout the state. The purpose of the Survey is to preserve and manage information about archeological sites and share findings with the people of Arkansas. The Survey is comprised of 10 stations throughout the state. The Northwest Arkansas station, or UAF, is based at the University of Arkansas. In recent years, the UAF station has completed projects at Van Winkle Mill in Hobbs State Park; Cross Timbers, a Civil War campground and field hospital; and Cane Hill, site of the first institution of higher learning in Arkansas and one of the oldest colleges west of the Mississippi River.