Stone Hatchet Man & The Troubling Unfinished Journeys to the Spirit World for Native American Bones
It was July of 1923, and a hot day in Clearlake Park, California. Charles Hesse had been excavating a pit for his new septic tank all morning. Just before lunch, Charlie dug a good-sized, waist deep hole with his trusty old pick and shovel. After lunch, he jumped back into the pit to continue digging. As Hesse landed, dirt fell away, revealing a human skull. He cautiously continued to dig, and an entire skeleton appeared, buried in the shamanic squatting position. This unexpected find would interrupt the spiritual journey of (perhaps) one of North America’s oldest known inhabitants and start the remains of this ancient shaman on a different kind of voyage. The ensuing story exemplifies a unique, prehistoric-to-modern-day American archeological dilemma.
The Hesse Specimen was an unexpected find. Representational image. (Public Domain)
After languishing in the possession of the family for more than a decade, the Hesse skeleton was examined by Mark Raymond Harrington; renowned archeologist of the Autry Museum of the American Southwest in Los Angeles, California. According to Ruth Hesse-Tennyson, Dr. Harrington suggested the bones her father uncovered might be the oldest human remains ever found in the American West. Keep in mind, Harrington’s opinion was uttered prior to the invention of carbon dating. This ‘old school’ archaeologist formulated his viewpoints based on the observations of his keen, well-trained eyes and decades of distinguished practical experience.
Harrington examined the Hesse skeleton as he was excavating a fascinating ancient habitation site called Borax Lake. This lake is located a few miles away from the shamanic grave Charles Hesse had uncovered. The entire area is attributed to a native clan known as the Elem Pomo. Borax Lake intrigued Harrington. After four seasonal excavations by he and his colleagues, it was claimed the area had been inhabited for at least ten thousand years by a clan of the Folsom Culture. (New Mexico’s Blackwater Clovis Culture was barely recognized at the time).
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Harrington’s disruptive claim set the popular perception of California’s pre-historic habitation on its academic ear. The accepted theory of the day insisted migrations over the Bering Straits initially bypassed California. Migrants first headed east to the Great Plains and beyond. The west coast of America was thought to have been populated just a few thousand years ago. Harrington’s peers, quite convinced of their beliefs, had a hard time believing Harrington’s folly of a Paleolithic culture at Borax Lake. It was two decades before Dr. Mark Raymond Harrington’s claims could ultimately be confirmed.
Borax Lake 2016. Photo courtesy Dwain Goforth.
Confirmation Using Modern Methods
In 1970, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Professor of Anthropology, Clement W. Meighan, and Southern Methodist University Professor of Geology, C. Vance Haynes published an academic paper regarding their 1968 excavations at Borax Lake. They stated this ancient site had been inhabited for at least eleven or twelve thousand years and proposed it was a much older, seasonal camp. The Meighan/Hayes findings were derived from an extensive stratification study and obsidian hydration testing. Results were augmented by artifacts obtained from Harrington’s 1940’s excavations. Clovis-style cherts, as well as Folsom-culture obsidian points, were part of that collection.
Examples of Clovis & Folsom Points. (Wikimedia Commons)
To view actual photographs of Harrington’s Borax Lake Excavation Site and artifacts, visit The Autry’s Collection Online .
Meighan and Haines findings at Borax Lake set a new identification standard for archaeologists of the American West. However, the artifacts found there are still puzzling. Point styles unique to the Borax Lake area, and a late Pleistocene timeline begs the proposal of a much older, pre-Clovis culture in Northern California. The significance of Borax Lake was recognized in 2006 when the site became a National Historic Landmark.
Pomo basket (collected in 1905). (Bin im Garten/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In 2006, Dr. John Parker discovered remarkable paleolithic artifacts at the Pomo Nation’s Elem Colony, located adjacent to Borax Lake. Parker published an academic paper on the artifacts he collected. In particular, a 14,200 BP wide stem arrowhead and a 21,000 BP Napa scraping tool were authenticated using obsidian hydration dating.
Dr. Parker’s discoveries are significant, nearly doubling the previous timeline of Borax Lake area habitation put forth by his predecessors. Hayes, Meighan and Parker’s findings combined, soundly confirm Harrington’s hunch that the American West was inhabited much earlier than previously proposed. The burning question centered on Harrington’s belief that Stone Hatchet Man was perhaps the oldest human ever discovered in the West. Was that a real possibility?
Elem Point & Napa Scraper. Photos courtesy Dr. John Parker.
The Hesse specimen was dubbed Stone Hatchet Man by local newspapers. Lower Lake School House Museum files indicate a forensic examination and cranial reconstruction was conducted on Stone Hatchet Man. He was described as a 45 to 50-year-old male at the time of death. The reconstructed skull displayed blunt trauma. The tip of an obsidian point was lodged in a shoulder blade. Skull shape and measurements alluded to a homo-sapiens of an Aleut/Caucasoid bloodline. The most peculiar observation was the cranial auditory canals were closed over with bone growth. This medical condition, known as Exostosis or Surfer’s Ear , is not unusual among people accustomed to hunting and fishing in frigid water . It was also determined one of Stone Hatchet Man’s lower legs had been missing for years before his death. An interesting find in the grave was “the head of a stone hatchet and a crude obsidian point.” These artifacts have mysteriously disappeared. The loss of these key artifacts is a travesty because modern technology could accurately determine exactly when this shaman was hobbling around on his crutch.
An Odd Collection
After the examination, Stone Hatchet Man traveled back to Lake County. He was displayed for many years at Ruth Hesse-Tennyson’s Indian Museum, located in her Silverado Gift Shop in Lower Lake, California. Before Ruth died, she donated her collection of remains and artifacts to the Lakeport Courthouse Museum. Stone Hatchet Man was shuffled around this repository for years, along with twenty-three other sets of native burial remains, acquired mostly by ‘anonymous’ donation. It was an odd collection. One specimen was a few finger bones exhumed in Merced County, California when a dam was built there. A skull was sent to the museum by the San Francisco Police Department with little explanation. Another box held a large femur bone. Museum Director Donna Howard stated that: “the femur belonged to a human estimated to be over seven feet tall.” Author’s note: Local Pomo legend speaks of giants living in the Blue Lakes area of Lake County ages ago.
Ruth Tennyson’s Silverado Gift Shop & Indian Museum (left). Photo by Kevin Engle, 2016. Lakeport Court Museum (right). Public Domain.
The Federal Mandate
In 1993, newly enacted U.S. legislation dubbed: The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) required that: all Native American remains collected by institutions or archaeologists, on federal land, using federal funds or permits, must be made available to the rightful owners, or reinterred with the tribe of origin. NAGPRA’s unfunded mandate, and Stone Hatchet Man’s fate became the responsibility of Lake County Museums Director Donna Howard. It seemed the modern journey of Stone Hatchet Man was over, and he would be respectfully reburied.
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Howard wished to return all the collected remains as directed by NAGPRA, but to whom? In total, only three of twenty-four sets of the burial remains had sufficient provenance to determine local origins. The complexities of the issue were directed to California’s Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC). The NAHC reviewed the case and determined the remains were: “in a state of unrest and must be reburied.” Local Pomo tribal advisor Nelson Hopper agreed with the NHAC. However, the Pomo people showed no interest in their long-lost ancestors. According to student researcher Amorilys De Von Gudmunson, a tribal member explained the remains could not, in good conscience, be re-buried in the old native burial grounds due to their state of spiritual unrest. It was next proposed the remains could be re-interred at Anderson Marsh State Park. This nature preserve was formerly an ancient village site of the Pomo Nation. It seemed to be the ultimate solution but legalities made that option impossible. Donna Howard then arranged for a burial plot in a local cemetery.
Before the County of Lake collection of native remains was reburied, local anthropologist Elyn Walker conducted an “informal” inventory on the county’s behalf. The tagged remains were then placed in a coffin donated by mortuary owner Randall Boyett and buried in an unmarked grave. Howard felt additional testing was needed on Stone Hatchet and the giant femur bone before re-internment. Unfortunately, her opinion fell on deaf ears, empty pockets, and a pressing federal edict. Nelson Hopper and White Wolf performed a traditional Forgiveness Ceremony.
“I want YOU to repatriate Native remains”. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Unfinished Journeys to the Spirit World
Museum Director Donna Howard and company had honorable intent, but under federal government pressure, the County of Lake collection of native remains was hastily buried and not re-interred directly into the earth, as part of the basic burial customs of the native people. Since 1995, twenty-four sets of remains have been metaphorically held hostage in a Christian coffin, ironically buried in a pioneer cemetery, en masse . In fact, these souls are still in: “a state of unrest.” An integral portion of their journey to the spirit world continues to be delayed.
This situation is not unusual in the world of archaeology in the USA. Despite the federal edict of NAGPRA, many institutions still retain countless boxes of native remains and burial artifacts. It is not that repositories wish to keep it all—rather, many are vaguely identified, or the tribe no longer exists. Native remains are sometimes unclaimed due to desecration and/or red tape. Various tribes warn some relics are finding their way to dubious private sales and overseas auction houses where NGPRA has no clout. The whole situation is a difficult dilemma requiring prompt and respectful resolution.
Will the collection of native remains sealed up in a Euro-American style coffin, and buried in a pioneer graveyard, ever complete the journey to the Native American Valhalla? Will the traditional belief of an organic spiritual cycle be acknowledged and shown due respect? The intent of NAGPRA was honorable, but the actual enforcement of this altruistic civil rights legislation has obviously fallen short of its intended goal. The enigmatic journey of Stone Hatchet Man still may be History in the Making.
Kevin Engle is an independent scholar, a student of California history, and an occasional journalist. He is an honors student pursuing a B.A. with emphasis on narratives of the Native People, the Spanish Californios, as well as the Asian Immigrants of California.
Many thanks to Dr. John Parker, Dwain Goforth (former Assistant Curator of the Lower Lake School House Museum), Donna Howard (former County of Lake Museums Director), Researcher Amorilys De Von Gudmunson, Eric Krenz (former Sexton of Lower Lake Cemetery), Jim Brown - Brown Eagle (Elem Elder) & Grandfather White Wolf. Your combined insights made this article possible. Many Blessings.
Top Image: Pomo Tule Canoe (Edward Curtis).
By Kevin Engle
Barnes, M. R. 2005. The Borax Lake Site, National Historic Landmark Study. Cultural Resources Division, National Park Service, Southeast Regional Office, Atlanta, Georgia.
Harrington, M.R. 1948. An Ancient Site at Borax Lake, California . Southwest Museum Papers. No. 16. Los Angeles, California. [Online] Available at: http://collections.theautry.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=keyword&keyword=borax+lake
Meighan, C.W. 1955. Archaeology of the North Coast Ranges. Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey.
Meighan, C. W., and C. V. Haynes, Jr. 1970. The Borax Lake Site Revisited. Science , Volume 167, No. 3922, pp. 1213–21.
Parker, John. 2008. Archaeological Monitoring of EPA Mine Waste Removal at the Elem Indian Colony Archaeological Sites . Bureau of Indian Affairs. PDF. [Online] Available at: http://www.wolfcreekarcheology.com/WaitingforInclusion/PARKERresponsetoEPA.pdf
Lower Lake School House Museum Files, County of Lake. 2014. Stone Hatchet Man/Borax Lake . Lower Lake, California.