Editor’s note: In honor of the 80th anniversary of Fort Polk, the Guardian will offer stories throughout the year from an historical standpoint. This article looks at archaeological pre-World War II with an emphasis on Native Americans.
FORT POLK, La. — Most military history buffs know about the Louisiana Maneuvers that prepped U.S. Soldiers for the rigors of battle in World War II and led to the creation of Fort Polk.
They could probably also tell you about the Vietnamese villages built in the Fort Polk training area that prepared Army infantry Soldiers for what they would face in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam.
More recently, they could point to the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk as the Army’s premiere training center and the last stop before brigade combat teams head to the Middle East.
But how many know that the JRTC and Fort Polk was once the stopping off place for Native Americans long before European settlers arrived in the U.S.?
“We have evidence of Native Americans being here 12,000 years ago,” said Brad Laffitte, Fort Polk cultural resource manager. “We have points (commonly referred to as arrow heads) from that time period that were found in the JRTC training area.”
Scott Faris, Fort Polk field archaeologist, said the older pieces found on Fort Polk, were from Native Americans known as the Paleo people.
“They were hunter/gatherers and carried spears and hunted the last of the mega-fauna that were left over from the Ice Age,” he said. “They didn’t have villages here that we know of, they were using the resources they could find. I think they were primarily coming here for the stone to make tools.”
Faris said a gravel deposit runs through the middle of Fort Polk.
“It’s that brown stone you see in all the parking lots here; it all came from the gravel quarries on Lookout Road,” he said. “They mined gravel here since before the Army came. The Civilian Conservation Corps was mining gravel out there to build their roads during their time (1930s).”
The Civilian Conservation Corps was a voluntary public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 for unemployed, unmarried men ages 18–25 and eventually expanded to ages 17–28. The CCC was a major part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that provided manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state, and local governments.
While the CCC workers and lumber mill employees lived on what is now Fort Polk in the early 1900s, Faris said, by far, the majority of the historical collection on display at Fort Polk’s Rock Shop is from Native Americans.
Lafitte said there have been numerous surveys conducted on Fort Polk since the early 1970s.
“If we found something significant, we’d go back and dig test units,” he said. “The finds are what you see at the Rock Shop. We have the curation facility where we keep all of the artifacts, and what we lay out in the Rock Shop are some of the examples of the items we’ve found over the years. And we find stuff, too, just here and there, when we go out in the field. We’ll see points (arrow heads) eroding out of the side of the road.”
Faris said the vast majority of the items were found during systematic archaeological investigations that have gone on since the early 70s. He said the Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979 makes the investigations mandatory.
“The Act says all federal land has to be surveyed for cultural resources,” he said. “We were one of the first installations to actually implement that. We were one of first installations in the United States to have an integrated cultural resource management plan.”
Most everything on Fort Polk has been investigated, Faris said.
“We pretty much know where everything is,” he said. “You never find everything. It’s like an iceberg — when you see an iceberg, you see the tip sticking up out of the water, but a lot of it is still under the water. Depending on the survey method used, you might miss something.”
Faris said what is known is that Native Americans came to the area to exploit the resources — stone, hunting and fishing — and were hunter/gatherers who maintained little camps.
“We don’t know exactly how long they stayed, but then they would return to their villages,” he said. “Their lives were based on the phases of the moon and seasons. Certain seasons of the year they would come up here, hunt, fish and collect stones to make tools, and then they’d leave. We have evidence that in some places they came back over and over and over again, for thousands of year.”
Most likely they lived in villages along major waterways, Faris said.
“We don’t know exactly who they were or where their villages were,” he said. “We have a better idea of tribes who came later, after European settlers arrived. This place seems to have been a nexus, a place where people from all over the southeast came to collect stone to make tools. They’ve found tools made of this type of stone at Poverty Point, in northeast Louisiana. And we’ve found Poverty Point tools here.”
Laffitte said most of the survey work was completed in the mid-2000s.
“That is until the recent purchase of new lands,” he said. “Now there is a big push to see what is on those lands. We might find sites with a few artifacts. We’ve got to find out which ones are important and we want to try to protect, that are eligible for the National Register of Historic places. If it’s eligible — or might be — there are certain checklists we have to follow.”
While maintaining the integrity of archaeological sites is important, Faris said there is another aspect to the jobs by the team at the Rock Shop.
“Our main job is to clear these areas so the Army can go out and train,” he said. “We do that by identifying places that must be protected, and set them aside — mark them — so they are easily identified. The Soldiers and OC/Ts (observer, controller/trainers) know where they are. We want to keep them out of those areas. Luckily, we’ve had relatively few instances where sites were encroached upon.”