INDIAN CLIFF Ancient Relics Discovered by Mountain Girl

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 10: Built Environment
Indian Cliff Dwelling

INDIAN CLIFF Ancient Relics Discovered by Mountain Girl

Tags: Indian Cliff Ancient Relics Discovered by Mountain Girl; rock shelters; cliff dwellings; Frances Johnson; William Delbert Funkhouser; Major Victor Dodge; A.M. Miller; Greasy Creek; Katherine Pettit; Metcalf family; William Creech; Isaac’s Creek; L. and N. Railroad, Old Log House Cliff, students, Native American remains; artifacts



The following newspaper article in the Lexington Herald, May 6, 1923, details the discovery and subsequent excavation of the archaeological site under the so-called “INDIAN CLIFF” at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Frances Johnson, a 14-year-old student at Pine Mountain Settlement School, convinced that Indians must have lived under the shelter, was determined to show her fellow students that she knew about Indian dwellings. She diligently pursued her own exploration and soon unearthed the remains of humans beneath the cliff. Her over-zealous digging was quickly stopped by Katherine Pettit, the School’s Director, who knew  a professor of zoology, Dr. William D. Funkhouser, at the University of Kentucky. She sent for him after hearing his recent talk to the Women’s Club of Lexington advocating for responsible and careful archaeological exploration.

The following story gives the details of the investigation by Dr. William D. Funkhouser and his companions, Major Victor Dodge and A.M. Miller, all three of whom arrived on campus on April 25, 1923.

The archaeological site was not all that the scholarly group found at Pine Mountain. See INDIAN CLIFF DWELLING for additional details of their exploration of the area and their findings.

Newspaper article in Lexington Herald, May 6, 1923. Pine Mountain Settlement School Native American site.[scrapbook_news-clip_1913-36_082.jpg]

Article continues:

Newspaper article in Lexington Herald, May 6, 1923. Pine Mountain Settlement Native American burial site.[scrapbook_news-clip_1913-36_083.jpg]

TRANSCRIPTION: INDIAN CLIFF Ancient Relics Discovered by Mountain Girl

(NOTE: The text is lightly edited for clarity.)


Skeletons Are Uncovered Near Pine Mountain School by Archaeologists of Lexington


Work of Isolated Educational Institution Praised by Members of Party

A report of recent exploration in Harlan county for Indian relics made by Prof. A. M. Miller, Dr. W. D. Funkhouser, and Major Victor Dodd (sic) has just been made by members of the party.

The first to discover the existence of relics in this community was Frances Johnson, a 14-year-old student of Pine Mountain Settlement School, who, during a holiday went upon an “exploration” trip of her own. Her finds were reported by Miss Katherine Pettit, principal of the Pine Mountain school, to the university professors and resulted in their trip of investigation.

Story of Investigation 

The story of the Investigation as told by a member of the party follows:

Greasy Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky river, flows north from its head against the Pine Mountain range in Harlan county. It is formed by the union of two streams flowing directly toward each other along the foot of the steep up-thrust fault escarpment of the range. The one from the northeast is known as Isaac’s Creek and the one from the southwest as Shell’s Run. Isaac’s Creek heads against Line Fork of the North Fork of the Kentucky river. It flows northeast along the foot of the same steep face of Pine Mountain. On the north side of the ridge which forms the northwestern side of the valley of Line Fork at the upper end of same, heads Leatherwood Creek, another tributary North Fork of the Kentucky river. In the ridge separating the headwaters of Leatherwood Creek and Line Creek and very close to the head of Isaac’s Creek, is a notch known since pioneer days as “The War Gap,” because it was on the celebrated “Warrior Trail,” so-called because used by the northern and southern Indians in their forays [truncated] other.

At the lower end of Isaac’s Creek, where it joins Shell’s Run to form Greasy Creek, is situated the Pine Mountain Settlement School, founded in 1913 by Miss Katherine Pettit who, listening to the Macedonian call that came across the mountain ridges to her from old Uncle William Creech, gave up an assured success as head of the Hindman Settlement school after years of strenuous endeavor, to begin anew a similar project in a still more remote part of the Kentucky mountains.

Pine Mountain School 

With only the bare land itself donated by William Creech as a foundation, Miss Pettit and her able coworkers have built up a school for the mountain children numbering in enrollment between 90 and 100. Its teaching force now consists of about 12, and its material equipment, including sawmill, electric light plant. boarding commons, school house, and living or “community houses” etc. number upwards of 12. Most of the material for the buildings and their furnishing has come from the donated land itself, and much of the work has been done by the pupils. The place is reached over the L. and N. railroad system via Pineville, the road from the latter place passing up Poor Fork of the Cumberland which flows along the eastern foot of Pine Mountain range. From the vicinity of Nolansburg and Dillon, stations on this road, several foot trails lead across the range to the settlement school. Also, a wagon road and a coal and lumber railroad are now under construction which will give this settlement better communication with the outside world.

On the northeast side of the narrow defile of Greasy Creek, where it is formed by the union of the valleys of Isaac’s Creek and Shell’s Run, is a sandstone cliff, known as the “OId Log House Cliff,” so-called because it is close by the old log cabin home of William Creech, now dead. This cliff is about 100 yards from the right bank of Greasy Creek and faces south — an ideal location for an Indian rock shelter. It had an outlook over a beautiful little pocket in the mountains, well sheltered, with excellent water, good springs, small tract of tillable land, and formerly with abundant timber and rough country for game. It is near several gaps in Pine Mountain range and in the ridges to the north and northeast, one of the latter of which we have positive knowledge was on a main traveled route of the ancient Indians.

The slope of the hill below this “Old Log House Cliff” has long been known as a favorable place to pick up Indian flint arrow points.

The Discover 

Frances Johnson, a sturdy miss aged 14, a ward of the Pine Mountain Settlement School, has an imagination, a persistence and an energy worthy of a true archaeologist. She states that her mother now dead had told her the traditions of the Indian occupation of the valley, and that though then quite a small girl, she had remembered and cherished these tales and that it had ever since been her ambition some day to “dig up an Indian.”

Also, according to Frances’ story, an old man named John Metcalfe had been told by his grandfather that the Indians were formerly numerous in that section of Harlan County and “generally buried their dead under cliffs” (a statement entirely borne out by recent explorations by certain members of the teaching staff of the University of Kentucky). This story, Frances said, told by John Metcalf, was repeated to her by her mother. There are still several families of Metcalfs in the neighborhood so that Frances account of how she got the idea of digging for Indians is probably correct.

Digs Under Cliffs 

The opportunity to put her purpose into effect came several weeks ago when she had a holiday. On this day she put in her whole time unassisted by any of her schoolmates who were exceedingly skeptical about the burial of any Indians in the vicinity. The place chosen was under the “Old Log House Cliff.” At the close of the day, dead tired with use of heavy pick and shovel, and with the removal of large rocks, she had nothing to show to her doubting schoolmates as the result of her labors. Undiscouraged, she returned to her work on the following morning. and soon thereafter was seen running to the school wildly excited and carrying in her hand an Indian skull. Again resuming work under the cliff, she soon unearthed another. It was here that, fearing such unsystematic digging as was being pursued by Frances would destroy much archaeological material, Miss Pettit halted operations and notified Dr. Funkhouser of the department of zoology of the University of Kentucky, who she had recently heard make an address to the Woman’s Club of Lexington on the importance of careful archaeological exploration in Kentucky. As a result of this notification and invitation, a party from Lexington, consisting of Dr. W.D. Funkhouser, Prof. A[rthur]. M. Miller and Major Victor Dodge, on Wednesday, April 25, made a trip to the Pine Mountain school settlement to investigate the discoveries of Frances. During the whole course of the investigations, Frances worked with the party with such industry and intelligence that she was pronounced an ideal scientific worker. The aforenamed gentlemen were also assisted by volunteer workers from the young men of the school. who proved themselves to be able diggers.

Altogether the remains of nine Indians were found in the limited area under the rock shelter investigated. Owing to the short time at the disposal of the party only a small area was worked. An immense slab of sandstone, which had fallen from the roof and which was too large to be removed, covered part of the floor of the shelter and doubtless conceals other skeletons.

Those unearthed by Frances proved to be those of an old man of rather primitive type and of a young woman apparently buried at a much later date. The skull of the man showed a sloping forehead, pronounced supra-orbital ridges, wide cheekbones, and teeth worn very flat, the latter probably due to a long-continued chief diet of parched corn. Both the upper and lower molars showed evident signs of pyorrhea. The skeleton of the young woman was of more modern type. her approximate age at death being Indicated by the fact that the third molars were just appearing and the cusps of the other teeth were hardly \worn. Both of the skeletons discovered by Frances were in good condition and practically perfect.

Some of the other skeletons present features of considerable interest. One is that of a child that had not yet cut its second set of teeth, with the exception of the front incisors. One of the other skeletons showed that its possessor had worn In life a necklace of bear’s claws, the first of this type of ornament which the local investigators have found in Kentucky. One had apparently been buried with the hands and feet tied, and with the bones badly charred by fire, indicating possibly a burning of a victim at the stake, or it may be of a member of the tribe of a funeral pyre. All were very old.

Most Ancient Skeleton 

The last skeleton unearthed, one by Major Dodge, is probably the most ancient of all, being buried deeply in soil so hard that it had certainly not been disturbed for a great many years. The bones of this skeleton were so decomposed and fragile that they crumbled to dust at the touch and in spite of efforts to preserve them, nothing could be saved but a single tooth.

With the skeletons were found the usual flint arrow points, bone implements and bone, shell, and mineral ornaments. Curiously enough, however, not a single stone hoe was found in spite of the fact that the bottomland out on which the shelter opened was adapted for cultivation and that these primitive tools have been abundant in other like situations as revealed by excavation.

While at the Pine Mountain school Professors Miller and Funkhouser delivered talks to the students, the former on the mode of formation of Pine mountain and on meteorites and the latter on birds, snakes, and Egypt. Dr. Funkhouser also took a section of the school on a “bird walk.”

The party was royally entertained by the school during its stay, and its members were much impressed by the work being carried out there.

Photograph title: 14-Year-Old Girl Digs Up Relics.
Photograph Caption: “Frances Johnson, of Pine Mountain Settlement School, with skulls of Indians found under cliff.”


“The Repatriation NAGPRA Database,” Propublica Dec. 2022

Converse, Robert N. “On Marking and Cataloging your Indian Artifacts,” OHIO_ARCHAEOLOGIST_V60N4_14 (1).pdf . Robert N. Converse, 199 Converse Drive, Plain City, Ohio 43064.

Spears, Anita, “The Documentation of a Prehistoric Rock Art Site on Pine Mountain in Southeastern Kentucky: An Archaeological Contextual Approach. ” Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 2004. Accessed 2015-12-02.


Collins, Timothy. “Native Americans in Central Appalachia: A Bibliography”, First Edition
Foreword by Albert J. Fritsch, S.J., ASPI Research Series, Copyright (c) 1989
Appalachia — Science in the Public Interest, P.O. Box 298, Livingston, KY 40445. AVAILABLE FULL TEXT on ERIC 

“This bibliography lists available literature relating
to the American Indians of Appalachia. Containing approximately 540
entries, the list includes publications on American Indians from
prehistoric times up to the present. The materials focus primarily on the Shawnee and Cherokee tribes, which inhabited portions of what is
now called central Appalachia, embracing the mountainous parts of
Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and North
Carolina. The listed citations touch upon areas of history,
sociology, anthropology, and archeology, giving researchers access to
information on the world of the Appalachian Indian: eating habits,
migration routes, the use of African-American slaves, hunting
grounds, medicines, relations with other Indians and White colonial
powers, political systems, and intra-tribal struggles. Aside from
Appalachian states, the cited literature also extends to surrounding
areas, where the Shawnee and Cherokee carried their influence. This
bibliography includes monographs, periodical articles, museum papers,
bibliographies, handbooks, and other types of documents, organized
alphabetically by authors and titles. (TES)

Funkhouser, William Delbert. 1929. “Archeological Treasures in Kentucky.” Kentucky Progress Magazine 2(3):3-15. 1931.

Funkhouser, William Delbert, 1931. “Early Kentucky Cultures”.  The Times-Star, Cincinnati, OH. February 9, 1931.

Funkhouser, William Delbert. 1931. “The First Kentuckian”.  Leader. February 2, 1931.

Funkhouser, William Delbert. 1929.”Kentucky Prehistory Woman“. 9 (5):10-13.  The Lexington Herald,

Funkhouser, William Delbert. 1943. The Kentucky Club 1943.

Funkhouser, William Delbert. 1931. “Portraits of Kentuckians”. Brief Studies of

Funkhouser, William Delbert. 1931, Lexington, KY., “Prehistoric Man in. Kentucky.” Courier-Journal, Louisville. January 26. See also: “Prehistoric Man in Kentucky”.  Kentucky Progress Magazine 1931 4(14):15.

Funkhouser, William Delbert. 1931. “Wild Life in Kentucky”. Kentucky Geological Survey
Geological Reports, series 6, vol. 16. 

Funkhouser, William Delbert and Webb, William Snyder. 1928. “Ancient Life in
Kentucky: A Brief Presentation of the Paleontological Succession in Kentucky, Coupled with a Systematic Outline of the Archaeology of the Commonwealth”.  Kentucky Geological
Survey Geological Reports, series 6, vol. 14.

Funkhouser, William Delbert and Webb, William Snyder. 1932. Archaeological Survey
of Kentucky. Lexington: Dept. of Anthropology and Archaeology. University of Kentucky.

Funkhouser, William Delbert and Webb, William Snyder. 1931. “The Ricketts Site. in
Montgomery County, Kentucky”. University of Kentucky Reports in Archaeology and Anthropology 3 (3).

Funkhouser, William Delbert and Webb, William Snyder. 1936. “Rock Shelters in Menifee
County, Kentucky”. University of Kentucky Reports in Archaeology and Anthropology 3 (4).

Funkhouser, William Delbert and Webb, William Snyder. 1936. The So-called “Ash Caves” in Lee County, Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky.

See Also:


Dr. ARTHUR M. MILLER Biography

Dr. W.D. FUNKHOUSER Biography [includes bibliography]



FRANCES JOHNSON Photograph Collection

NOTES of the Pine Mountain Settlement School, NOTES November 1926