The genius of arrowheads

During the summers of my senior year in high school and my freshman year at the university, as an Eagle Scout, I was fortunate in being employed as an instructor in swimming, life saving, and canoeing at the Boy Scouts of America camp in the hill country west of Fort Worth, Texas. The camp was located on the beautiful and wild Brazos River near the towns of Palo Pinto and Mineral Wells.

That area of north central Texas was a favorite hunting ground for roving bands of Comanche Indians until late in the 1800s. The director of the camp was intensely interested in Comanche lore (he claimed to be 1/32nd Comanche), and he was always on the lookout for campsites used by this warlike tribe. When he found such a site he would recruit his staff to excavate the area to search for relics.

As a participant in several of these “digs,” I acquired a never-ending thirst for knowledge of Indian lore. We unearthed many stone implements, including dozens of perfect arrowheads, knives, and tomahawk heads, and these reminders of a great people’s way of life were placed in a mini-museum established by the director. As far as I know, the artifacts are still there.

The Indians were Stone Age people before the white man came. Their weapons and implements were made of stone, bone, shells, and wood, and in fashioning them, they were extremely ingenious, skillful and patient.

The arrowhead, or arrow point, is a prime example of their skill. The late Drs. Louis and Mary Leakey found stone tools made by early man some 1.75 million years ago in Olduvai Gorge in Africa, and they concluded that our Indians used the same methods of creating these implements as did the prehumans they discovered during their long anthropological careers.

Arrowheads were chiefly made from rock with a fine grain structure that could be easily flaked. The Indians did extensive searching and trading to obtain suitable arrowhead stone.

Obsidian, called volcanic glass, was the preferred raw material, and the Plains Indians traveled far and wide to obtain a supply of this so-called “black ice.” Unfortunately for them, obsidian occurs naturally only in the immediate vicinity of Yellowstone Park. The next best rocks for fashioning arrowheads, knives, and hatchets are fine-grained silicates such as hornstone, agate, chert, jasper, and especially flint.

A chunk of rock was reduced in size and shape into one or more rough blanks by hammering it with another stone. This required considerable skill as each blow had to be of the proper force made in the right direction. A blank was placed in the palm of the hand that was protected by leather and held tightly near the base of the thumb by the four fingers. The other hand wielded the flaking tool, and by applying pressure to the blank, the arrowhead took shape. The final sharpening was accomplished by removing tiny flakes from the tip and sides using crude pinchers made of bone.

An arrow maker was always a man and was a highly respected craftsman. Each arrow had to be perfectly straight, aerodynamically feathered, and a suitable arrowhead had to be chosen and expertly attached. Men who were too old for hunting or warrioring usually did this important work and occupied a special place in the tribal organization.

I feel certain that many individuals, especially farmers, in the Rock River Valley have extensive collections of arrowheads they have amassed over the years. Arrowheads lost during a hunt can be found almost anywhere, but they can be encountered more frequently at the site of a former campsite or village.

Being alert for arrowheads as one communes with nature makes being out of doors more pleasant, and the thrill of actually finding a stone artifact is exhilarating. For those interested in seriously seeking arrowheads and other Indian relics, the following suggestions are given: (1) Hunt where there could be arrowheads. This means learning to predict where Indians camped or hunted. (2) Hunt only those areas where the surfaces have been exposed by erosion, farming, or construction. (3) Concentrate on a suspected area after a heavy rainfall. It is a waste of time to go to an area you suspect as being productive if there has not been sufficient rainfall to wash artifacts from the soil. (4) Give attention to creek beds as many things are washed into and collected there. (5) Examine carefully every piece of stone on the surface that appears to have been worked. Carry a staff with a sharp point to help examine suspected flakes without straining your back.

I was walking along Pebble Creek behind my property in Loves Park last summer and found an imperfect arrowhead, probably rejected as not being perfect by the long-dead craftsman. But the thrill of finding this historical object momentarily took me back many years, to the exciting times along the banks of the Brazos when we found indisputable evidence that a Comanche war party had once camped where we stood.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!