This Nov. 26, 1950 Times-Picayune photo shows the remains of a Tunica warrior, rifle by his side and knife under his head. The article at the time reported some items were removed to be positively identified and preserved before the remains were once again covered. Best estimates are that the man was a 25-year-old warrior who died in the early 1800s. {Photo by Cyrus Burley}

Recalling 1950 discovery of Tunica warrior’s grave

Series: Louisiana Archaeology Month

{Editor’s Note: October is Louisiana Archaeology Month. This is the first of a series of archaeology-related articles to help celebrate Avoyelles’ history -- and pre-history -- and those men and women who are dedicated to researching and preserving those links to our past.}

Over 200 years ago, a young Native American man was buried with his prized possessions -- a rifle, a long knife and his silver-adorned vest.

About 140-150 years later, an Avoyelles Parish farmer unearthed a rifle barrel while working in his field. He called an archaeologist, who excavated the site to learn more about Native American burial customs in the early days of Avoyelles Parish.

The discovery was made in November 1950.

The farmer was 28-year-old war veteran Sam Neck. The researcher was renowned archaeologist Robert S. Nietzel, who had done extensive work at the Marksville Mounds from 1938-41. The man in the grave was in his mid-20s when he died and, based on the silver plates that had once been sewn on his vest, was a warrior just like Neck.

UNCOVERING THE PAST

The field was located in an area that had once been granted to the Tunica Indians. Nietzel thought the man might be from that tribe, but he needed to expose the burial pit to uncover evidence to support that theory.

Nietzel painstakingly removed the topsoil and saw the outline of a burial pit taking shape. He carved the ground to a depth of 16 inches, brushing away the loose soil with a whisk broom. There he found the skeleton of an adult male, a rifle barrel by his side and a 13-inch bone-handled knife partially under his skull lying crossways on the body.

Nietzel found fragments of cypress and square nails in the pit -- many still in position -- which told the archaeologist part of the story of the young warrior’s funeral.

Based on those few clues, Nietzel theorized the man had been buried in a cypress box in a full-length grave. His head was to the northeast and his feet were to the southwest -- consistent with Indian burials. He was placed into a cypress box that was slightly too short for his 5 ft., 6 in. frame, based on the position of the leg bones found in the grave.

Nietzel said the man was “a young Indian, a warrior I’d say, not more than 25 years old.”

The arms were extended next to his sides. The .44 caliber rifle had a 44.5-inch long, octagon-shaped barrel encased in copper and was resting on the right arm with the copper-encased butt near his right ear. The metal of the lock and breech had disintegrated.

Nietzel said the copper plates on the rifle butt and side of the stock were in excellent shape. Several copper cleats that had held the ramrod were found under the barrel. Pieces of the wooden stock were also found. The rifle was unique and superior in quality to most used in the early-to-mid 19th Century Avoyelles.

Nietzel had hoped to find ammunition or flints in the burial site, as it was customary for those items to also be included in Native American burials of that era.

SILVER BANDS

Perhaps the most important clue to the young warrior’s past was the four thinly beaten strips of silver that were lying across the chest. They had double perforations at the ends, indicating they had once been sewn to a shirt.

Horace Pierite, the leader of the Tunica Tribe at that time, told Nietzel the Tunica adorned the shirts of their braves in that way in the 1800s.

The Tunica migrated from the Yazoo Valley in Mississippi and settled in Avoyelles between 1784 and 1804.

It was determined that the latest date for the burial would have been around 1858. However, if the man in the grave were a Tunica -- as all clues indicated he was -- it could have been considerably earlier, Nietzel said at the time.

Some other items found in the burial pit, including fragments of an iron pot, were removed for identification and preservation.

The young warrior’s body was not disturbed. Horace Pierite stood vigil as the grave was covered.

There is no marker and no document showing where on the Tunica-Biloxi tribal lands this lone grave is located.

John Barbry, the tribe’s director of development and programming and its Language & Culture Revitalization Program, said he has heard stories of the warrior’s grave on the tribe’s lands, but there is no documentation about the research done at the site.

The information used to write this article is from a New Orleans Times-Picayune article written by Ruth B. Sanchez of Marksville.

A SIMILAR SITE

NSU Professor Pete Gregory has worked several archaeological digs in Avoyelles. He was unaware of the 1950 Nietzel dig, but said the grave sounds similar to one he worked on as a graduate student in the early 1960s.

“The one I dug was on tribal land, which was a sweet potato plot then, behind where the tribe’s museum is located now,” Gregory said.

“That one was more elaborate,” he continued. “We worked it for the tribe and turned all of the artifacts over to them.”

The man in the later burial site also wore the silver bands on his chest but had two rifles, two knives, silver headbands and other ornaments.

“He was obviously someone of importance in the tribe,” Gregory said.

The man was also buried with a small box of personal treasurers that included U.S., French and Spanish coins that allowed archaeologists to date the burial between the late 1700s and 1805, Gregory said.

The similarities to Gregory’s site and Nietzel’s also bolster the argument that the warrior unearthed in 1950 died in the early 1800s.

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