Jim Lane / Almay

Kentucky locals worry about paving over site of historic Indian village

Centuries after Native Americans were driven away, development could cement forgotten history of original inhabitants

WINCHESTER, Kentucky — By the side of Route 15, on Ironworks Road, as the road passes through central Kentucky’s Clark County, there is a historical marker beside the road. It tells travelers that approximately 3,500 acres there is Indian Old Fields, the site of the once renowned Shawnee village of Eskippakithiki.

But in reality, no one is certain about the location. Despite decades of searching the area, the exact spot where the village once stood has not been determined.

And now they may never know. After an $8.5 million interchange for a highway was built there last fall, some residents of Clark County fear the village will remain lost forever, as development projects look set to flood into the area, possibly paving over the site and destroying its historical value.

"With the construction of the new interchange, development is inevitable," said Nancy Turner, the executive director of Winchester–Clark County Tourism Commission in Winchester, about a dozen miles from Indian Old Fields. "Folks haven't actively started to develop, but the rumor mill is abundant."

Most of the rumors have swirled around an equestrian center in the unincorporated community of Kiddville, which is in the process of trying to get the county's zoning changed so that it can become a horse park for professionals, with horse shows, and board horses. "If there are horse shows, there will be the need to satisfy traffic, and you'll want lodging facilities for people when they come to visit," said Larry Disney, the chairman of the Winchester–Clark County Planning Commission.

That would likely mean widening roads, adding a gas station or two, maybe a restaurant — increasing the odds that Eskippakithiki will never be found.

That, some historians and locals say, would be a loss. "Indian old field" is a term white settlers in the late 1700s and early 1800s gave to many areas around the country that had been cleared of Native Americans. It's believed that hunters and explorers went to Eskippakithiki and traded there. Two hundred families lived in the village; according to a French-Canadian census from 1736, about 1,000 Shawnee lived in the community.

Harry Enoch, a retired biochemist from the University of Kentucky, is a historian in the county and has been sounding the alarm about risks to the site for years, encouraging the Kentucky Archaeology Survey (KAS) to excavate the land and look for evidence of the village. Every year, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation compiles a list of historic central Kentucky properties that are threatened. This year, it added Indian Old Fields to its list, which it refers to as its "Eleventh Hour" document. And recently, Turner gave a presentation to the planning commission to coming up with a way to preserve Indian Old Fields.

"There could be amazing potential to develop a museum dedicated to this prehistoric and even more recent history," Turner said. "I think the biggest issue is that we don't know what will be lost [with more development], as minimal archaeology has been done in the area."

She added that the cost of hiring a team of archaeologists to spend an indefinite amount of time looking for lost cultures is an issue and that in some cases, landowners haven't been excited about allowing strangers to go on their land for excavations and study.

"Building over Indian settlements happens all the time," said Taylor Keen, a full-blooded Native American — half Omaha and half Cherokee. He is a professor of business at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and is writing a book about sacred Native American grounds and how they're disappearing.

The Shawnee were the last Indians to live in this part of Kentucky but hardly the first. Native American culture has thrived in this part of Kentucky as far back as 8,500 B.C. In May 2013 three archaeologists from the KAS found an Adena mound, circa 1000 B.C. to 200 B.C., on a homeowner's land in Indian Old Fields.

"The landowner was blown away. She almost wept. She thought it was so cool," said Gwynn Henderson, an archaeologist and the education coordinator for the KAS.

‘There could be amazing potential to develop a museum dedicated to this prehistoric and even more recent history. The biggest issue is that we don’t know what will be lost [with more development], as minimal archaeology has been done in the area.’

Nancy Turner

Winchester–Clark County Tourism Commission

More recently, last fall and earlier this year, Henderson; Greg Maggard, a staff archaeologist with the KAS; and David Pollack, its director, went to Indian Old Fields to see what artifacts might be found. They turned up arrowheads, shards of pottery and gun flints.

But what they didn't find was any evidence of Eskippakithiki.

"A lot of people believe it's there," said Pollack. He added that what may be adding to the difficulty of finding the village is that it may have not been a very concentrated community. "It could have been many households dispersed across the land. The village may have not been sitting in one place."

But nobody disputes that the Native Americans roamed these lands.

"This was an important location, an important landscape and a heavily traveled corridor," Pollack said, adding that Indian Old Fields was part of a trail that ran from the Great Lakes to Georgia. The French called it the Warrior's Path. "Many of the roads in the area likely follow the same paths the Shawnee created." 

As for the roads that the Shawnee didn't create, the ones that may come along if zoning changes, Disney said, "I'm all in favor of opening up the area for more tourism, and we have to have a reason to bring people in to tour the area. But if you take away all the historic sites, you've lost the reason to come."

Enoch said that in many ways, it's too late to preserve much of the Native American history in Indian Old Fields.

"People have been building houses, building roads and generally disrupting the area for over 200 years," he said. "Everybody who lives out there has a huge box full of arrowheads and other artifacts that they've found in their fields and yards."

He said that the real damage was probably done in the 1960s, when the mountain parkway was built. He doesn't remember anyone back then being concerned about the loss of prehistoric culture or antiquities from Eskippakithiki. From the research he has done, he thinks that there's a chance the village might already be underneath a freeway.

But Enoch does not want to see fast food outlets and strip malls covering the rest of Indian Old Fields.

Nor does Henderson.

"You know how sometimes you'll see a historic marker sign but the place the sign is talking about is no longer there? Well, if you can't get a sense of the place or identify it and if you can't feel it, then you can't be a part of it," she said. "And if you stand in Indian Old Fields, it's still a special place."

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