Excavations in 2003 and 2012 turned up traces of the area’s original residents
By Jeff LaLande
Consider that beloved public space, the present-day Ashland Plaza. It’s a very busy place, where today residents and tourists alike vie for empty parking places for their SUVs. Now, imagine if you will that a group of about 100 Indigenous people once lived right there — catching salmon in the creek, butchering deer and other game brought down from the hills, cooking meals over open flame, all the while minding and teaching their young children. Living snugly in wooden-plank lodges, these people made tools and wove baskets. During winter months, sitting around the lodge fire, they told ancient but familiar stories of “how things came to be.”
According to the personal account of a White settler of the early 1850s, that was indeed exactly the case: An important Shasta Indian village was situated at what later became the site of the Plaza. As downtown Ashland developed and grew over the past 170 years, the historical fact of that Native village became almost forgotten.
In recent decades, with the passage of federal and state archaeological site-protection laws, city governments like Ashland’s have begun to examine public spaces for archaeological values prior to major construction projects. So, the question arose: Might there — despite all the years of commercial construction and trenching for buried utility lines at the Plaza — remain any evidence of that Indigenous village along the banks of what we now call Ashland Creek? That is, might some artifacts made and used by those Shasta people still be found beneath the concrete?
Those two questions received an affirmative answer in 2003, when Southern Oregon University professor/archaeologist Mark Tveskov excavated a small area where the city’s Community Development Building was then under construction on Winburn Way on the west side of Ashland Creek. He found a deposit of Indigenous artifacts, some of them dating from a time when the increasing presence of White travelers passing through the area would have been causing concern among the Shasta and Takelma people of the Rogue Valley. Artifacts included some late-style arrow points as well as a blue-glass trade bead (the latter was likely the result of initial contact between the Shasta and White fur trappers in the 1820s).
But, what of the larger area of level ground located on the east side of the creek? That is precisely where early-day settler Thomas Smith later wrote that the main part of the Native village was situated, in his words, “where Ashland’s Plaza is today.” (In 1851, a year before the first actual White settlement of Ashland, Smith had paid the Shasta village’s chief, “Tipsiu Tyee,” for the right to grow a crop of potatoes on a nearby piece of Shasta land.)
In 2012, Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission began implementing a plan to re-do the Plaza’s design: new trees, walkways, benches, and so forth. Having been hired to do the required archaeological investigations for this project, I directed excavation of a number of test units placed across the Plaza, locations where the digging of new tree holes and other work might go deeply enough to extend down — i.e., below the Plaza’s layers of concrete, asphalt, and its underlying strata of post-1860s fills of decomposed-granite sand — to where long-buried archaeological evidence might yet remain.
In 2012-2013 such deeply buried evidence was indeed found but, alas, only in a few places on the Plaza. From the 1850s and into the late 19th century, the Plaza was a large and very busy open space where Ashlanders rode horses and drove wagons, trampling into the mud any evidence of site’s earlier residents. Soon, the town began to regularly spread layers of decompose-granite sand over the Plaza’s surface. By the 1990s, various disturbances from late-19th– and 20th-century activities had long-since removed most — but not all — evidence of the Shasta village.
In several of the excavation units, well below those layers of granitic-sand fills, we found a mixed deposit of Indigenous-period and early historic-period items. These included plentiful artifacts from the earliest days of Ashland Mills (the town’s first name). Among these were broken “black-glass” wine and liquor bottles; fragments of ceramic dishware; eating utensils; horseshoes (and even a horse-rider’s boot spur); “square” nails; and many other everyday objects.
More interesting to me was the presence of the Shasta people’s artifacts: Lots of waste-flake debitage (jasper, agate, and a few pieces of obsidian) from the making of flaked-stone tools, among them a few small, late-style arrow points made of jasper; as well as the quartzite-cobble hammerstones that Shasta men used to produce that very same debitage while making those arrow points and other stone tools. Also present were large “chopper” tools of basalt (likely used to dismember carcasses of deer and elk).
A number of pieces of fire-cracked and fire-exploded stream cobbles resulted from preparing meals; these rocks had been heated and then placed into the women’s wonderful water-tight baskets to bring the nutritious contents to a boil (the Shasta had no pottery to speak of). Fragments of apparent deer and other animal bone similarly testified to food preparation; some of these fragments were “calcined” (i.e., they were pieces of larger bones that had purposely been smashed into small pieces so as to free the marrow; these fragments, left in a cooking fire’s ashes, eventually turned into a whitish, chalk-like substance from the intense heat).
My purpose was not to excavate any more of these deposits than was absolutely necessary to be able to evaluate them as potentially archaeologically significant, as well as to confirm that those remaining deposits lay safely beneath the disturbance zone of the Plaza’s looming re-model project. Nevertheless, for me, it was a thrill to find remnants of the Shasta village right where Thomas Smith had said it was. Now I never walk across the Plaza without thinking about the people who once lived there: people who viewed — while they flaked jasper and obsidian into arrow points — the same Grizzly Peak that we admire today.
The archaeological report for the Ashland Plaza project can be viewed here. This is the first in a series of three articles that will explore the archaeology of downtown Ashland. A Rogue Valley resident since 1969, Jeff LaLande, Ph.D., was an archeologist and historian for the U.S. Forest Service. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.