Big Hollow History

Archaeology of Big Hollow

The Big Hollow Creek Valley

Big Hollow Creek, originally named “Sawmill Creek,” is a small, meandering stream that flows through Franklin Township and drains into the Flint River to the south. This unassuming stream carved a steep valley where people have lived for thousands of years. The history of the valley tells the story of the lives of its inhabitants, their challenges, and successes.

Prehistory of Big Hollow

Native Americans lived in this part of eastern Iowa for over 10,000 years. The earliest evidence of people in Big Hollow valley was found at an archaeological site known as 13DM1044, just downstream from the old bridge crossing, which is now under the lake.

The Early Archaic hunter-gatherers who lived in this area between 8,550 and 6,050 years ago used the valley for its natural resources, including game and plant foods, as well as for its source of high-quality chert, sometimes called flint, to make stone tools.

Chert nodules that formed in Burlington limestone are an excellent source of raw material for the manufacture of chipped stone tools. The Burlington Formation, which outcrops in Des Moines County, was one of the most important and widely used sources of chert for ancient Native Americans. Artifacts made of Burlington Chert are often found hundreds of miles away from their source in other states in the Midwest where such high-quality stone was not readily available.

Archaeological site 13DM1044 is an Early Archaic chert quarry in the Big Hollow valley excavated by archaeologists in 2007 prior to the creation of Big Hollow Lake. It is estimated that 2,000 or more Burlington Chert blanks for making tools were created at this quarry. This site is one of the best-excavated examples of an Archaic chert quarry in the entire state of Iowa.

Over time, Native American populations increased in eastern Iowa and new technologies emerged to support larger groups of people. Around 500 B.C., at the beginning of the Woodland Period, people began to make pottery vessels and new techniques became available for cooking and storing food. Cultivation of crops, including “weedy” seed crops like goosefoot and knotweed, as well as squash, beans, sunflower, and later maize became increasingly important components of people’s diets. The bow and arrow was introduced into this area during the Late Woodland period around A.D. 600.

Site 13DM1043 is a small habitation site occupied by prehistoric Native Americans in Big Hollow valley during the Late Woodland period (A.D. 400-1100). The site was likely occupied repeatedly over the years by a family or extended kin group during the winter months. The site lies on a small, sheltered side valley offering protection from the winter cold and wind. Excavated by archaeologists in 2007, artifacts recovered from this site suggest a range of domestic activities took place here including butchering game, skinning hides, and manufacturing wood, bone, and antler tools.

The Historic Era

Native American populations were decimated by the arrival and expansion of Euroamericans into their territories in the early nineteenth century. By 1835, the Sac and Fox, who had lived in this area when Europeans first arrived, were forced to leave as a consequence of the Black Hawk War. Euroamerican homesteaders arrived shortly later to settle the new territory of what is now Franklin Township and claim the land. These early settlers arrived by 1836, even before the land was available for purchase by the United States Government.

Tillman Smith was one of the earliest settlers of Franklin Township. He owned property now encompassed by Big Hollow Park. Smith’s land included numerous limestone quarries used for building stone by early settlers, as well as a lime kiln that produced quicklime, a hard mortar used in construction to hold the stones in place.

Though there was no platted town in the valley, a scattered community of people thrived there. Families who lived in the valley focused on farming for their livelihood but also engaged in stone quarrying, lime production, and building. Families gathered weekly at churches, and children attended school first in a log cabin and then in a stone structure built on the banks of Sawmill Creek.

James and Penelope McDonald, their 11 children, and their descendants lived on a small farmstead near a natural spring in the Big Hollow valley between 1852 and 1898. The McDonalds, like many Iowa farmers in the region, first practiced subsistence farming to feed their large family and later produced crops and goods for a growing regional market. Archaeological site 13DM1082, excavated in 2007, represents the remains of the McDonald farmstead. The farm may have been abandoned in 1898 when a catastrophic flood in Big Hollow valley destroyed the residence.

Back · Des Moines County Conservation