Old Stone Fort is a prehistoric Native American
structure located in Coffee County, Tennessee, in the Southeastern United States.
structure was most likely built between 80 A.D. and 550 A.D. during
the Middle Woodland period
structure is now part of Old Stone Fort State
Archaeological Park, one of two archaeological parks in
Tennessee (the other being at Pinson Mounds near Jackson).
The site is listed on the National Register of
Big Falls on the Duck River, below the
Old Stone Fort's northwestern section
The Old Stone Fort is located on a peninsula created by the
confluence of the Duck River
and the Little Duck River
section of the Duck River upstream from its confluence with the
Little Duck is sometimes called "Barren Fork"). The Duck River
forms the peninsula's northwestern boundary, the Little Duck forms
the peninsula's southeastern boundary, and a westward bend in the
Little Duck forms the peninsula's southern boundary. The walled
area of the structure encompasses approximately 50 acres. (
Click for Map
The Duck River system spills over a limestone-rich shelf of the
western Cumberland Plateau
as the Highland Rim
. As the Duck and Little Duck
approach their convergence, they rapidly drop in elevation, and
have cut relatively deep gorges around the peninsula upon which the
ancient structure is located. Both gorges are highlighted by a
series of substantial waterfalls and whitewater rapids. The natural
waterpower in these two gorges attracted entrepreneurs and millwrights
throughout the 1800s.
Stone Fort is located entirely within Coffee County, and is
situated just west of Manchester, Tennessee.
Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park
encompasses and is managed by the Tennessee
Department of Environment and Conservation
The structure of the Old Stone Fort
The walls of the Old Stone Fort consist of stone and earthwork, and
are on average approximately 4-6 feet high. The walls originally
consisted of an inner and outer layer of crudely stacked rocks and
slabs with gravel and earthen fill in between. Over the centuries,
the earthen fill has spilled over the rock layers, giving the walls
their current mound-like appearance.
The walls can be divided into roughly three sections, with two
sections running roughly parallel to the Duck and Little Duck
Rivers, and a third section running parallel to the southern rim of
the peninsula. The sections paralleling the rivers gradually move
inward, away from their respective rivers, and approach one another
in a pincer-like formation at the northeastern half of the
peninsula. Here, both walls terminate just before converging,
allowing for a small entrance. Two ancient "pedestal" mounds— one
in diameter and the other in diameter— are located on either side
of the structure's entrance. The entrance continues through a
L-shaped corridor which opens into the structure's interior.
The sign describes a structure of the Old Stone Fort .
The fort's northwestern walls (following the Duck River) are
approximately long, and the southeastern walls (following the
Little Duck) are approximately in length. The southern walls, which
are basically straight with the exception of an area where the
ridge bulges outward, are long. Large open sections are found
between both the southern wall and the northwestern wall and the
southern wall and the southeastern wall. These areas were probably
left open due to the fact that they overlook steep bluffs carved
out by the Duck and Little Duck rivers whose waters probably
performed the same function as the mounds.
A substantial ditch, known as the "moat," parallels the southern
wall at the base of the ridge. This ditch is a natural feature and
is actually an abandoned river channel. Howvever, it is not known
if this channel was artificially kept open in prehistory.
The Old Stone Fort in recorded history
Old Stone Fort Mills exhibits in a museum.
By the time Euro-American long hunters and traders arrived in the
area in the mid-1700s, a system of well-worn trails traversed the
Cumberland Plateau, connecting what is now Middle Tennessee with
Georgia and Northern Alabama. One such trail passed near the Old
Stone Fort, closely following what is now U.S. Route 41
The ancient structure was no doubt an important landmark to early
travelers in the Middle Tennessee area.
The Nickajack Expedition
by Major James Ore in the latter part of the Chickamauga Wars
, was believed to have
encamped within the Old Stone Fort en route to the Chickamauga
towns. The structure also had an important symbolic significance
for early Coffee Countians. The county's first court was held at
the "Old Stone Fort Tavern" in 1836, and the county seat was laid
out upon "Main Stone Fort Creek."
The ruins of the Stone Fort Paper Mill near Big Falls at the Old
Stone Fort's northwestern section
The powerful Duck River made the Old Stone Fort's peninsula an
attractive site for mills as early as 1823, when Samuel Murray
built a rope factory on the Little Duck River. Although the factory
burned in 1847, it was followed by W.S. Whitman's paper mill
further downstream in 1852. In 1862, Whitman built a powder factory
adjacent to his paper mill to supply the Confederacy
with arms during
the Civil War
, although the mill was
destroyed by Union
the following year. In 1879, the Stone Fort Paper Company built a
large mill near Big Falls on the Duck River. The mill supplied
paper to newspapers throughout the Southeast— including the
and the Atlanta Constitution
until the early 1900s. The mill's foundations are still situated on
the bluffs overlooking Big Falls, and can be accessed via the Old
Stone Fort Loop Trail.
The property upon which the Old Stone Fort was located eventually
passed into the hands of the Chumbley family, who had ties to Stone
Fort Paper. The Chumbleys, seeking to protect the Old Stone Fort,
passed up numerous private offers for the land upon which the
ancient structure was located. In 1966, the State of Tennessee
finally purchased of the Chumbley estate that became the core of
Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park. The Old Stone Fort was
added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
The Old Stone Fort's builders and function
Who built the Old Stone Fort?
Stone Fort remained a mystery until the University of
Tennessee conducted excavations within the structure in
Looking across the Old Stone Fort's south wall
Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, numerous
theories were put forth regarding the identity of the structure's
builders, ranging from the overly-simplistic to the exotic.
the Pioneer, a Jackson, Tennessee newspaper, argued that the Old Stone Fort was built
by Buccaneers from Seville after one of
their ships wrecked off the coast of Florida and forced them
inland. In the mid-1900s, the discoveries at L'Anse aux
Meadows and the supposed recovery of Viking artifacts in
various parts of North America led many to believe the Vikings
built numerous stone structures throughout the Eastern U.S.,
including the Old Stone Fort.
In 1950, author Zella
Armstrong hypothesized that the fort was built by "Welsh-Indian"
descendants of Prince Madoc
serious investigation of the Old Stone Fort was conducted by Joseph
Jones at the behest of the Smithsonian Institution in 1876, uncovering several prehistoric
He was followed by Tennessee State Archaeologist
P.E. Cox's excavations in 1928, which dug several trenches and
analyzed the fort's composition.
In 1966, after the purchase of the Old Stone Fort from the Chumbley
estate, the State of Tennessee commissioned the University of
Tennessee Department of Anthropology to investigate the structure's
origins. After digging a series of trenches and test pits and
conducting extensive research, the investigators determined the
builders of the structure to be Native Americans of the Middle
Woodland period. Charles Faulkner, a member of the excavation team,
bases this theory on three findings:
- Radiocarbon analysis of
charcoal samples found within the structure's walls all dated to
approximately 30-430 A.D., within the Middle Woodland period.
structure's composition, setting, and layout is similar to other
structures built by Middle Woodland cultures, such as the Hopewell people of Ohio and the Pinson
Mound builders in West Tennessee.
- Between 1966 and 1971, five Middle Woodland settlements were
discovered within of the Old Stone Fort, including a substantial
habitation area just downstream.
The University of Tennessee investigators also determined that the
fort was built gradually over a period of several hundred years,
rather than all at once. The builders of the Old Stone Fort are now
believed to be two distinct local Middle Woodland cultures known as
the McFarland and the Owl Hollow cultures, with the former
beginning work on the structure in the 1st century A.D. and the
latter completing it.
What was the purpose of the Old Stone Fort?
The interior of the Old Stone Fort
For decades, it was largely assumed (as its name implies) that the
Old Stone Fort was used for purposes of military defense. Evidence
from the 1966 excavations, however, seem to point more to a
religious or ceremonial function, rather than a martial function.
Faulkner bases this theory on the following points:
- Defensive structures are typically constructed quickly in
response to a perceived threat, whereas the Old Stone Fort was
constructed gradually, over a period of several centuries.
- The walls alone are not high enough to have been of defensive
value, and no evidence of a palisade has been found.
- The area encompassed by the walls is relatively large and its
defense would require a force much larger than the typical Middle
Woodland fighting force.
- The 1966 excavations turned up almost no cultural artifacts
within the walls, which implies that the enclosure was kept clean,
and was probably never continuously inhabited by its builders.
The "moat" that parallels the base of the southwestern edge of the
peninsula was originally considered artificial, although
20th-century researchers believe this ditch may be a natural dry
The Old Stone Fort Museum.
The Old Stone Fort Museum
The Old Stone Fort Museum, built by Tennessee State Parks, is
located near the park entrance. The museum's exhibits interpret the
theories regarding the fort's builders, archaeological excavations
at the site, small theater, small welcome/gift shop center,
historical lineage of early Native Americans, and the culture of
its builders. An observation deck atop the museum displays
information about the Old Stone Fort and surrounding rivers and
views of the Blue Hole Falls.
- Information in the section obtained from Charles Faulkner,
The Old Stone Fort: Exploring an Archaeological Mystery
(Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1971), 3-6,
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, v.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, v.
- Basil McMahan, The Mystery of Old Stone Fort
(Nashville, Tenn.: Tennessee Book Company, 1965), 10.
- McMahan, The Mystery of Old Stone Fort, 10.
- McMahan, The Mystery of Old Stone Fort, 88.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, vi.
- McMahan, The Mystery of the Old Stone Fort, 44.
- McMahan, The Mystery of the Old Stone Fort, 65.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, 8, 19, 34-35.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, 23-25.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, 9-18.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, vi-vii.
- Charles Faulkner, " Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park."
The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture (2002).
Retrieved 28 November 2007.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, 28-29.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, 28-29.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, 28-29.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, 30.
- Faulkner, The Old Stone Fort, 53-55.