The Red Scare (?) at the Picric Acid Plant, 1918

So, I’ve done some historical work on the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant. This was a major munitions factory that stood where the Interstate 440 and Bankhead Drive now meet. During World War I, it made a high explosive called picric acid (bet you didn’t guess that), which was used in American shells sent to Europe.

Some months back, I found a listing in the National Archives online catalogs for two records groups relating to the facility. This was a potential boon, since I’ve been using primarily newspaper accounts up to this point. I requested copies, and hoped that they contained at least some photographs or drawing of the facility, which I haven’t found to date. I was, frankly, surprised by what popped up.

The documents are actually from the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Marlborough Churchill. They allege that the International Workers of the World were active and “influential” around Little Rock, and may be implicated in two deaths at the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant.

Whoa. That’s an entirely different aspect of the plant than has popped up in the papers…

We’ve known from newspaper accounts that a worker died during construction. This man, W.E. Woodard of Faulkner County, apparently fell to his death from the roof of one of the buildings. The NARA documents give more of the circumstances about the death. Apparently, on the night of June 3, 1918, about 10:35, Woodard and some others were working on one of the buildings when a channel iron slipped its guide rope and struck Woodard in the head, knocking him from the building. He fell 35 feet and landed on an I-beam, breaking both legs and causing massive internal injuries. One hour later (why did they wait an hour?), someone called for emergency services, but Woodard passed away soon thereafter.

Apparently, one of the foremen thought that this was no accident. He reported it to Churchill’s office, believing that International Workers of the World saboteurs had infiltrated the plant and were causing accidents. Woodard’s death was one, but apparently someone shut off the water supply to the fire extinguishers at around the same time. This foreman blamed the IWW.

Ultimately, the Military Intelligence officers sent to investigate decided that both incidents were accidental, not sabotage. Still, the hasty response to purported infiltration bespeaks the importance of military production at the time and the fear of anti-war IWW agitation present in Arkansas.

Carl Drexler
Magnolia, Arkansas

Archaeology is Anthropology or It is Nothing

Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips (1958) memorably wrote that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing,” and thereby laid the groundwork for a generation or more of archeological work. I am reminded today that this maxim has great force, but not always in the way it was intended. The Survey (by which I mean half a dozen or more of us, current and former, from stations around the state) has been working with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Arkansas Archeological Society, Delta Cultural Center, and dozens of people in Helena-West Helena, Poplar Bluff, and many other towns around east Arkansas, plus people in Chicago, Atlanta, and elsewhere to locate a small battlefield lost to official history. We’re spiraling in on the site, and today was yet one more step closer to it, thanks to a great lunch meeting. That’s not why I’m taking this moment to reflect, though.

Willey and Phillips said that archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing because they felt that the aims of archaeology should be anthropological, and geared towards answering questions about humans, culture, and society. We should do archaeology to do [cultural] anthropology on the past. Working in historical archaeology, though, particularly on recent(ish) sites, often happens because we bring the interviewing techniques of the cultural anthropologist to the table. Without the connections to the living community (without anthropology), our work proceeds at a snail’s pace, if at all. Without these connections to the community, work simply does not progress. Without anthropology, archaeology is nothing… as it never gets anywhere fast.

Of course, Phillips knew this well, as his foundational work Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947 relied heavily on talking with local farmers and others about where they were finding artifacts and where they saw mounds. As was the case then, so it is today that we progress in consultation with non-archaeologists. Arkansas has always been great for this. Let’s hope Arkansans remain so willing to be a part of the process.


Phillips, Philip, James A. Ford, and James B. Griffin. 1951. Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947. Peabody Museum Papers, vol. 25. Harvard University, Cambridge

Willey, Gordon and Philip Phillips (1958) Method and Theory in American Archeology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Finding Wallace’s Ferry: It’s all written down, isn’t it?

One of the banes of the historical archaeologist is the belief that their work is simple because it’s all in the documents. We’ve literally written books about how much the historical record misses, particularly if you’re not white, male, and rich. The belief that it’s all in the documents holds particularly true for conflict sites, as they seem unusually-well reported, given the Sturm und Drang of the event associated with the site. That doesn’t hold true, either, frankly. The search for the site of the Action at Wallace’s Ferry illustrates this well. We’ve got very little in the way of documentation from the Confederate side, and the Union side is mostly reported in the reports of white officers, with no known memoirs or letters from the men who fought in it.

There are other frustrations that crop up. One is frequently encountered when working with historic maps. We know that the Action at Wallace’s Ferry took place along the road leading from Helena to Little Rock. We’ve done enough fieldwork out there to know that the “Old Little Rock Road,” as it is known today, is not the alignment of the Little Rock Road at the time of the battle. I’ve been working with historic maps, trying to reconstruct the path of the road as a means of finding the battlefield. Currently, I’ve got ten maps dating as early as the original General Land Office maps, which were drawn in 1818 and 1820, and as late as 1935. These all show ostensibly the same road, but have vastly different interpretations of where that road lay. Observe…


I deliberately removed the scale and geographic reference points to keep possible site locations obscure, but the map you see covers about five miles north-to-south, so not only are there a lot of different routes, they are all over the place. All of these alignments were drawn from maps that have township lines on them, allowing them to be georeferenced with some surety. There are some chronological shifts, particularly in the 1830s-1840s compared to the 1890s-1930s, but no one map before the 1935 Arkansas Highway map really seems to capture the route well.

This makes the process of locating search areas for an engagement that supposedly took place along the Little Rock Road a lot less cut-and-dried than one would expect. This is why the first two attempts to locate the battlefield didn’t achieve their aim (they weren’t without important scientific gains, however). However, with the aid of archaeological fieldwork and additional historical research, the third time should do it.

The Death of Captain Jonas Frederik Lembke

I’ve been working through the compiled service records of the U.S. Colored Troops, as black units in the U.S. Army were known. One of the records I was able to track down was that of Captain Jonas Frederik Lembke, commander of Battery E, 2nd U.S. Colored Artillery (Light). Capt. Lembke is of interest to my research in that he was one of the men who fought and died at Wallace’s Ferry, a battlefield I am attempting to locate on behalf of the Arkansas Archeological Survey for the people of Arkansas.

The service records shed a little more light on Capt. Lembke’s life and death than the after-action reports filed by U.S. officers following the engagement, which tersely note that Capt. Lembke died during the engagement. I’d like to share a little bit about what more I know about this man.

First, we know that Capt. Lembke was a Swedish immigrant who settled in Chicago before the war. He stood 5′ 11″ tall, had a light complexion and light hair, and had blue eyes (I’ve heard Swedes tend to have those attributes). In 1861, he joined Battery B of the 1st Illinois Artillery. As a member of that unit, he would have fought at several major battles in the Western Theater, including Shiloh, Arkansas Post, Jackson, Champion’s Hill, and the Siege of Vicksburg. In the fall of 1863, then-corporal Lembke, an experienced artilleryman, put in for command of an African-American unit, when it formed. He was given the task of organizing and commanding a black artillery unit, to be formed in Helena, Arkansas. He took with him a fellow member of Battery B, 1st Illinois, named Edwin Bancroft. Bancroft made the leap from private to Lieutenant, and we can suggest that the two men had some level of rapport or friendship to be making this move together.

Captain Lembke recruited, trained, and equipped Battery E (originally known as the 3rd Battery, Louisiana Colored Infantry), and was for a time commander of Fort Curtis, one of the installations built in Helena to defend it from Confederate attack [since reconstructed near the original site].

On the day before the battle, Capt. Lembke took one section (two guns) of his unit to accompany Col. W.S. Brooks’ expedition towards Trenton. This expedition wound up with the Action at Wallace’s Ferry, where Lembke met his end. We know from the report of Lieutenant H.T. Chappell, who took command of the artillery after Lembke died, that the captain was killed instantly by a bullet through the forehead.

Lieutenant Bancroft drew up an inventory of Capt. Lembke’s effects after the battle, which show us the kinds of things a battery commander had with him. In addition to the expected clothes, and personal items (shaving kit, mirror, watch), Capt. Lembke carried a clock, copies of books on military law and heavy artillery tactics, a birch broom, and a music stand and book (no instrument listed).

Lembke Signature

While much of the documentation is the usual Army bureaucracy, there is one extremely poignant aspect to it. Capt. Lembke’s effects were sent to Chicago, and the last document in the file carries an acknowledgement of the receipt of them, signed by his widow. Her signature, written a few weeks after Capt. Lembke’s death, looks as though it were written by an almost-uncontrollably shaking hand.

Rank and the Service Records

It also strikes me that part of why we have learned so much about the life and death of Capt. Lembke is that as a white officer, his death entailed much greater levels of documentation than did those of the men who served under him. I have also been working to find information about the enlisted men in the unit, particularly looking for references to being wounded or killed at Wallace’s Ferry, because we don’t have a good casualty list.

Not surprisingly, the information available on the enlisted men is much less rich. We know names, birthplaces, and the barest of information about service records. Where men died (mostly of disease), there was a simple form filled out and filed with the government. Several men were noted as having “no effects.”

There are hints at stories that offer a tantalizing, though maddeningly incomplete stories about the men in the ranks. Private Harrison Beal, for instance, was recruited for another regiment in September of 1863, but within the space of a month was in serious trouble. On October 25, he shot a man named Peter Young. Two days later, he cut off “the forefinger of his right hand” [trigger finger] “to be discharged,” and deserted the following day. The severance of the offending figure speaks of guilt as much as it does of disloyalty.

Most of the stories are, based on these records, fairly mundane. The vast majority performed their duties with no ill marks recorded against them. A few deserted, a few died, and a few transferred or were promoted. It does strike me as interesting that a large number of them list Virginia as their place of nativity. Within African American history, the forced movement of people of color from the eastern seaboard to the western states in the antebellum period is a harrowing time often referred to as “The Second Middle Passage.” These Virginians who showed up in Helena to serve are mostly ex-slaves from the area around the Mississippi River. Their enlistment in Arkansas bears quiet testimony to the reality of this traumatic pilgrimage.

These happy notes are just some of the loose threads that tie into our ongoing archaeological work at Wallace’s Ferry.

Materiality and the King of Battle

I’m working on pulling together a talk for an upcoming NPS conference on battlefield archaeology. I’m focusing on artillery ammunition, because I’m that kind of geek (seriously, my master’s thesis was all about artillery ammunition).

One of the angles I’m looking at (and I don’t know if I’m even going to throw this into the final talk at this point), is the way in which we can use artillery ammunition as a referent (an index, if you want to whip out the semiotics) for the artillery piece itself. When we talk about deposited ammunition (small arms or artillery), we often use it as a direct connection to the weapon that fired it, which itself is a connection to the soldier(s) operating said weapon.

I’m pulling together anecdotal evidence on how gunners curated and maintained their pieces, and how big a deal it was when someone lost (gasp) or captured/saved artillery pieces in battle. There were 11 Medals of Honor earned during the Civil War for capturing or saving an artillery piece in combat.

I need to find more information on the relationships soldiers developed with their weaponry during combat and military service, particularly in the 19th century. It’s a profoundly different relationship than that which they had with most of the other things we find on a battlefield, which are almost all ammunition and therefore meant to be expended.

For those who feel like this last bit is a little too touchy-feely, I’ll leave you with a section of the Rifleman’s Creed, and you can file your complaints with the U.S. Marines.

My rifle is human, even as I am human, because it is my life.  Thus, I will learn it as a brother.  I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel.  I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready.  We will become part of each other.

Eggshells from Block Six, 2012

I spent part of this morning picking eggshells out of a screen. I know, riveting stuff. These weren’t just any eggshells, though. These were 150-or-so year old eggshells recovered from last year’s Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program dig at Block Six, in Historic Washington State Park.

Eggshell is not the most common find on an archaeological site. The fragility of the shell itself, the sale of chicken eggs off-site for side money (Peres 2008:99), and the likelihood that most of it will fall through the 1/4″ screen we use to sieve excavation fill means most of it, if present, will end up going unnoticed. We were lucky that the excavators last June noticed it and bagged the associated fill, allowing me to pick it out in the lab.

Now, obviously finding eggshell suggests egg consumption, but the explanatory possibilities inevitably blow past this meager insight. I wanted to get a little bit of a handle on what other historical archaeologists have done with eggshell finds, so I got on the SHA’s Publications Explorer and did a search for articles from Historical Archaeology that talk about eggshells. It returned a fair number of hits, and since this isn’t a formal paper, I’m only going to touch on a few of them.

As every credible archaeologist should agree, context is everything…

Returns included a number of articles that simply mention the recovery of eggshell as evidence of dietary preference. These contexts ranged from a 19th-century bordello in St. Paul, Minnesota (Ketz et al 2005) to an early integrated community at New Philadelphia, Illinois (Martin and Martin 2010) to privies in North Carolina (Carnes-McNaughton and Harper 2000), and finally (to return to a red light district) the Five Points area of New York City (Milne and Crabtree 2001).

But let’s go farther.

Markell, Hall, and Schrire (1995:28), working on a mill at Vergelegen, on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, found quantities of ostrich eggshells in their excavation units. In addition to being an indication of the consumption of ostrich eggs by the site’s residents, historical data suggest that such eggs were collected by hunters as roamed the surrounding veld, and were subsequently traded to Vergelegen residents. These eggshell fragments, are not just food, they are evidence of local exchange networks that tied together hunter and miller.

Brown and Cooper (1990:15) worked at the Levi Jordan Plantation in Brazoria County, Texas. They found eggshell throughout the site’s deposit, suggesting eggs were consumed at a fairly steady clip throughout the site’s history by African-American slaves and later tenant farmers. This gets more interesting when compared with other food remains. While eggshell remained a constant part of the fill, fish bones and scales, along with turtle remains, decreased over time, suggesting that domesticated species such as chicken were a staple of local diet, whereas wild species became less important over time. The fishing and collecting (“turtle hunting” doesn’t seem to be particularly challenging) that wild species’s bones suggest were less and less-frequently pursued over time.

Eggshells also relate to economic status. Rather, eggshells in comparison with chicken bones. What, isn’t that relationship immediately obvious? No? Basically, the way it works is if you have some disposable income, you can afford to buy chicken to eat, and an archaeologist, rooting around in your refuse decades later should find a goodly amount of chicken bone in addition to eggshell. However, if you don’t have the money to buy chicken (and we’re talking back before fast food made “chicken” cheaper than salad), you’re not going to eat chicken often. You might have some chickens scratching around in your yard, but you’re not going to eat them until they quit laying eggs. You do get to eat the eggs, though. As a result, your household refuse will have a lot of eggshell fragments, but only a few chicken bones by comparison, testimony of the meals made from aged hens (Peres 2008:99; West 1995:29).

So, what does this all mean for our eggshells from Block Six? Well, we’ve got an interesting interpretive opportunity here. Since Block Six was a commercial district, and most of the studies cited here relate to residential sites, we’ve got a bit of a task teasing out what these shells mean. They could have been someone’s lunch, could have been for sale in one of the stores, or some other as-yet un-researched possibility. I don’t have anything more concrete at this point, largely because my doctoral defense is coming up, and I’m up to my elbows in Dooley’s Ferry for the next few weeks. We’ll get back to this one soon, though.


Brown, Kenneth L. and Doreen C. Cooper
1990     Structural Continuity in an African-American Slave and Tenant Community. Historical Archaeology 24(4):7-19.

Carnes-McNaughton, Linda F. and Terry M. Harper
2000     The Parity of Privies: Summary Research on Privies in North Carolina. Historical Archaeology 34(1):97-110.

Ketz, K. Anne, Elizabeth J. Abel, and Andrew J. Schmidt
2005     Public Image and Private Reality: An Analysis of Differentiation in a Nineteenth-Century St. Paul Bordello. Historical Archaeology 39(1):74-88.

Markell, Ann, Martin Hall, and Carmel Schrire
1995     The Historical Archaeology of Vergelegen, an Early Farmstead at the Cape of Good Hope. Historical Archaeology 29(1):10-34.

Martin Terrance J. and Claire F. Martin
2010     Courtly, Careful, Thrifty: Subsistence and Regional Origin at New Philadelphia. Historical Archaeology 44(1):85-101.

Milne, C. and Pamela J. Crabtree
2001     Prostitutes, a Rabbi, and a Carpenter: Dinner at the Five Points in the 1830s. Historical Archaeology 35(3):31-48.

Peres, Tanya M.
2008     Foodways, Economic Status, and the Antebellum Upland South in Central Kentucky. Historical Archaeology 42(4):88-104.

West, Barbara
1995     The Case of the Missing Victuals. Historical Archaeology 29(2):20-42.

MORE About Worm Medicines

One of the members of the Kadohadacho Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological Society came by the Survey this morning, with some follow-up information from last night’s talk. I showed the picture of Wilder’s “Mother’s Worm Syrup” bottle recovered from Locus 9 (see the last post). The advertisement for Wilder’s syrup, published in the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin in 1870, lists among its attractive qualities that it is free of the “poisonous effects of all worm candy.”

Our Chapter member had done some internet research on worm candy to find out a bit more about what it was. He pointed Jamie and I to a few web pages which gave us a lot more information on 19th and 20th century worm medicines, specifically candies.

As with syrups and tonics, patent candy pill ingredients were proprietary information, so we don’t know what was in the worm candies that Wilder’s ad refers to. The Smithsonian Institution, though, has a picture of a box of DeWitt’s Worm Candy, dating to around 1930. The National Museum of American History has another image of it, too. The DeWitt’s box bears the words “For eradicating round worms a reliable preparation/The active ingredient of which is santonin.”

Santonin, as the great and powerful Wikipedia tells us, is an anthelminthic, a vermifuge (worm expeller). It is compounded from the flowers of Artemisia maritima, or Sea Wormwood, native to Turkestan and the Southern Ural region (Merck 1989 cited in NCBI 2013). In small doses, santonin could be effective at killing off the worms, though it could turn your vision yellow or green, and urine purple or red (Encyclopedia Britannica 1911).

Wow. It actually gets scarier.

In larger doses, however, it could produce aphasia (the inability to form or comprehend language), muscle tremors, epileptic convulsions, blindness, and death (Encyclopedia Britannica 1911).

We can’t be sure that the active ingredient in the worm candies Wilder’s ad referenced was santonin, as they were patent medicines and, as they predate the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, didn’t have to publish their contents on the label. However, if it was santonin or another medicine with similar properties, certainly the above-mentioned side effects would be consistent with the “poisonous effects of all worm candies” that Wilder’s medicine claimed to be free of.

So, now you know a little bit more of our history with battling intestinal worms…


Encyclopedia Britannica
1911     Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, Volume 24: Saint-Claire Deville to Shuttle. New York: Encyclopedia Britannica.

1989    The Merck Index: An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals. 11th edition. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck.

National Center for Biotechnology Information [NCBI]
2013    Santonin. Electronic resource (, accessed 13 February 2013.

George Bent and Pea Ridge

In working on a chapter on Pea Ridge, I came across some interesting history on one of the battle’s participants. I’ve been looking closely at Landis’s Missouri Battery, a unit of the Missouri State Guard that may or may not have participated in the battle. The unit commander, Captain John M. Landis, wrote a memoir after the war that said the unit arrived after the battle (Landis 1895), while other documents and artifacts suggest that they were (that’s a tease, but consider it a tease to order the edited volume when it comes out).

One of the people a mentor and colleague suggested I look at was George Bent. When I was a kid in Colorado, I remember distinctly visiting Bent’s Old Fort, a trading post established by brothers William and Charles Bent, so the family name was familiar, and very western.

George Bent was William’s son, and also the son of Owl Woman, a Cheyenne. Growing up of mixed race was a tough life, and it fed into his Civil War experience. Bent joined the Missouri State Guard following the Camp Jackson Massacre in 1861, becoming a cavalryman. There have been two biographies of Landis, both of which put Bent in Martin Greene’s First Missouri Cavalry. According to the more recent, that by Halaas and Masich (2004), Bent served with Landis’s battery at the battle.

After the battle of Corinth, Mississippi, Bent left Confederate service. He was captured by the Union army and paroled at his father’s post out in Colorado. He soon found himself in Black Kettle’s camp along Sand Creek, and was caught in the middle of the Sand Creek Massacre. Embittered by the attack, he becomes a Dog Soldier and fights against the U.S. Army in various places around Colorado.

After the war, Bent becomes an adviser and interpreter to Black Kettle, helping iron out the Medicine Lodge Treaty. He married Magpie Woman, daughter of Black Kettle. Bent’s background, part white, part Native American, continued to govern his life.

George Bent’s life is chronicled in Hyde’s Life of George Bent: Written from his Letters and David Halaas and Andrew Masich’s Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent. Halaas and Masich gave a podcast on their work to Colorado Public Radio, which you can find here.


Halaas, David F. and Andrew Masich
2004     Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent. Da Capo Press, Boston.

Hyde, George E.
1968     Life of George Bent: Written from His Letters. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Landis, John C.
1895     The Landis Battery. St. Louis Republic, May 12.

September Excavations at Dooley’s Ferry

The first of this fall’s three long-weekend digs at Dooley’s Ferry is, quite literally, in the books. Volunteers from as far away as Monticello showed up and helped excavate three new test units (TU6-8) in the area we believe was the back yard of the structure that appears in both historical documents and the geophysical data collected earlier this year.

DFSepDigThere are a lot of artifacts to process, as, like during the Spring Break Dig, the artifact density for the units was quite high. There are the usual lot of nails of different pennyweights, ceramics of different sorts (though primarily whitewares), and significant amounts of glass (both flat and vessel). The structure was definitely not a log cabin (which tend to be thin on nails) and had glass windows in them (some early cabins had paper coverings on the window that would be soaked in oil to make them translucent).

A clay marble and a jack suggests the presence of children playing at the house. A bone die could either be a child’s toy or evidence of more adult diversions. As we process the artifacts, we will find more such small finds that tell us about the inhabitants of the site. See Mary Beaudry’s work on small finds research.

The primary goal of this fieldwork was to identify the age of the site. We know there was a building there in the 1860s and later, but we don’t know how old it might be. A piece of blue shell-edged whiteware and a reed stem pipe suggest that there may be an antebellum component, which would push the date of habitation earlier than the documents tell us.

Amazingly, we had three rain days. We were chased out of the field by a gullywasher on Thursday, and we didn’t even try to go out on Sunday and Monday. Given the drought conditions the area has been laboring under for the past couple of years, I’m certainly not going to complain.

We’re set up well to proceed with our next round of excavations in October. Look for more posts before then, here on the Trowel ‘N’ Transit.