Ancient stone walls on Armstrong Mountain no old-timer’s tale

A historical marker along US 60 near Boomer, West Virginia, promotes the location of Mount Carbon Walls.

If you grew up listening to classic car lore in southern West Virginia, you’ve probably heard of mysterious stone walls on Armstrong Mountain.


Passed down as chimney tales, stories of their construction and strange purpose may have become legends, but scholars have confirmed that they are barely sprung from the imagination.
The locations of the stone swaths on Armstrong Mountain were determined by Glenn A.The locations of the stone swaths on Armstrong Mountain were mapped by Glenn A. White.

The walls are real, although the goals of their construction are no more understood today than they were 200 years ago when European settlers first met them in the wild. Was it huge pens for huge cattle? Fortresses built against a formidable enemy?

As a young newspaper reporter who grew up in the area in the 1980s, I had received a lot of information about the walls, but I was advised against it when expressing interest. Archaeologists changed the subject when I started asking questions. Coal operators would discredit the walls as unimportant.

Why did the walls inspire such secrecy?

In retrospect, I find that scholars tried to quell rumors about the walls in order to protect them. And I suppose coal operators were wondering how news of such old works could get in the way of operations. In fact, the “Mount Carbon Stone Walls” are not the only earthworks of mysterious origin suspected in the coal-bearing mountains of the southern state.

More than a quarter of a century has passed since my first research, and secrecy seems to have done little. The mountain has never been mined extensively, and archaeologists who have visited the walls report that important relics may have been carried away over the past 200 years.
Archaeologists examine Mount Carbon Stone Walls No. 3 on March 27, 1961.  Photo courtesy of the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.Archaeologists examine Wall # 3.

With the advent of the internet, reports and rumors about the walls spread further and faster than the academics could suspect, and intrepid relic hunters had no trouble locating the ruins. At least those who have the energy to hike high into the mountains don’t have it, for the walls wander through rugged, stony forests and over steep slopes, tangled in old trees that towers hundreds of meters above the banks of the Kanawha River .

Two questions about the walls remain unanswered, at least for the time being: Why were they built? and why were they built in such a rough place?

Three archaeologists presented their discoveries about the site to the West Virginia Archaeological Society and concluded that these questions could not be answered. Sigfus Olafson, Joseph W. Inghram, and Edward V. McMichael spent much time visiting the site and reading written records dating back to 1876:

“The first definitive comment on knowledge of the walls would probably be in 1818, for Atkinson (1876) relates that Dr. Thomas S. Buster, who told Atkinson about the walls, first seen them 58 years ago. Dr. Buster took the title on several tracts of land around the mouth of Armstrong Creek and appears to be the first permanent settler in the immediate vicinity of the walls, although Paddy Huddleston previously lived across the river and had little interest in the walls to have lived at a time when Indians were still a threat, not a curiosity. ”

Olafson, Inghram and McMichael spent a good part of 1958 exploring the mountain and provided the best description of the site yet:

“The northernmost limit of the site is about a mile south of the mouth of Armstrong Creek and extends from this point for a flight distance of about three miles or five miles to the south if you follow the meanders of the crest. The main features of the site are of course the” Stone walls. ”In fact, rents would be more suitable, since the walls are not piled up, but rather coarse rows of loosely piled rock …

“Starting in the north, the first one encountered (See Map 2) was identified as Wall 1. This is a U-shaped swath of loosely piled rocks that crosses the ridge as it slopes down to Kanawha, east of the mouth of Armstrong Creek: It’s about half a mile south of the river, but it’s 1,200 feet above river level, or 1,790 feet above sea level. This structure rests on a fairly level bank or shelf where it crosses the ridge and is well preserved. It’s approximately two meters high and about 20 meters wide. ”

You can find more detailed information about the website here: Mount Carbon Stone Walls.

In their report, the three archaeologists came to the conclusion that the origin of the walls could remain a mystery, despite their best efforts. Of three options suggested for their origins, the three indicated that the most mysterious was also the most likely:

Were the walls defensive?

“The authors cannot consider these walls defensive for a number of reasons. They are not well placed for defense as they are generally on steep slopes rather than on the foreheads of ridges where they should have been placed to be effective They are not “high enough to offer much protection unless they are used to hold up a blockade or similar structure and there is no evidence of a palisade.”

Were the walls intended as an enclosure?

“Nor does it seem likely that these were enclosures into which wild animals were driven in the manner of some Western tribes. The buffalo, the only animal that could have been taken like this, appears to have come to the area late since there is no evidence of its presence, except possibly very late. It was also an animal that didn’t like rough terrain, and Mount Carbon is the last place you’d expect it to be. The idea that these were fences to keep animals out of the fields hardly needs any further comment. ”

Were the walls solemn?

In the absence of any other explanation, maybe so. “This leaves the possibility that these structures could have had a ritual or ceremonial meaning in the life of their builder. However, this can only be supported by the fact that other explanations are inadequate and are omitted. ”

Like many other scholars, I tend to agree with Olafson, Inghram, and McMichael: the origin of the walls may never be known unless a pioneer in the field brings new information to light.

Perhaps in the years to come our understanding of the cultures that inhabited the region in ancient times will be understood. For now, these walls are evidence that people had inhabited the mountains here for eons before the arrival of Europeans, and that their intentions were apparently as ceremonial as the Egyptian pyramids and Mesoamerican ruins.

Think you have found an archaeological site? Here’s what to do next

Archaeologist Charity Moore during an excavation.Archaeologist Charity Moore during an excavation.

Some of the most common requests from the Council for West Virginia Archeology come from members of the public who may or may not have located an archaeological site.

Inevitably, there is a lot of excitement as the site’s mystery begins to unfold. How old can it be? What artifacts could it contain? Will the government be ready to excavate the site? Read the whole story here.


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