The Old Cabin Excavation

The cabin's chimney as it looks today.

The cabin’s chimney as it looks today.

Landmarks’ maintains the Fort Payne Cabin Site, is now an officially certified historic site on the Trail of Tears Historic Trail.

Article & photos by Sharon Freeman-published in the Trail of Tears Association — Alabama Chapter Newsletter.

Excavations at the Fort Payne Cabin Site Project have been exciting and fun. A log cabin that was on the property was likely constructed prior to 1830 and was demolished in 1942. All that remains of the cabin is a 5—meter—high stone chimney and a rock outline of the foundation. The site is associated with the Benge Detachment during the Cherokee Indian removal in northeast Alabama. The Cabin Site is now listed with the National Park Service as a Certified Site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

Even though in terms of the integrity of subsurface deposits the site has been compromised by disturbances and the passage of time, it remains a significant source of history on a local, regional and national level.

Ownership of the property during the time leading up to the removal is in question and I do not anticipate current research will answer all of the lingering questions regarding the site. However, I do look forward to gaining a more complete record of possible activities and lifestyles of early occupants, and how this site is significant to the Cherokee Indian Removal, and the subsequent colonizers who took over after the Indian removal was complete.

Shovel tests and test units were excavated for cultural materials in and around a rock cabin foundation outline and a privy, in addition to exploring a 22—foot stacked stone well. The cultural materials range from the early 1800’s to modern times. Of the more than 5,000 artifacts recovered, many are quite interesting. They include over 1,000 glass fragments, around 15 intact bottles and jars, over 1,000 ceramic fragments with no intact vessels, and over 700 metal artifacts. Additionally, we have excavated numerous unidentified animal bones, 600 lithic flakes, and over 30 fragments of chipped stone tools. Unfortunately, we cannot establish a specific prehistoric component from the lithic flakes and chipped stone tool fragments excavated from the site. Although the vast majority of recovered artifacts are from around 1860 to the 1940s, there is a small amount of artifacts that were in circulation prior to and during Cherokee removal. The chimney itself is an artifact dating to the late 1920s.

Two lead seals were excavated which were in widespread usage during the time of removal for textile transportation, and were often used as merchant identification.

Metal buttons excavated at the site. The eagle button is bottom row left. The London button is bottom row right.

Metal buttons excavated at the site.
The eagle button is bottom row left.
The London button is bottom row right.

The collection of buttons [n=66] represents clothing typical of pioneer through modern times. Several buttons exhibit a great deal of importance. Beginning with what I refer to as the “eagle button” we see an eagle depicted with an olive branch in one claw and a serpent in the other. The chest shield has some damage making it difficult to determine if there is an emblem or a letter. The buttons recovered from the Cabin Site are very similar to buttons recovered from the site believed to be Fort Lovell. The eagle button could be as early as the late 1820s. I have seen other buttons referenced that resemble the Cabin Site button with varying dates from 1820-1850s. An exact date has not been determined.

The word “LONDON” is visible on one of the other metal buttons and the wording on the two other buttons is not readable. If anyone has any information on similar buttons please contact me.

Also included are shell buttons that vary in size. The bottom and middle rows show a variety of shell buttons with the top row depicting several wooden buttons with one wooden buttonmold [far right].

Ceramics from the Cabin Site are numerous and varied with Refined Earthenware as the largest group of those recognized. Among the excavated earthenwares are those with transfer printed ceramic decorations which were very popular beginning with the introduction of blue transfer printing in 1750s, with dark blue being introduced in America in 1818. By the late 1820s, red, green, black, and brown transfer prints had also gained acceptance in the American market. We found a variety of edge treatments and edge decoration patterns. Unfortunately, we cannot definitively say when the ceramics were deposited at the Cabin Site; we can only surmise they were deposited sometime after their introduction to the market.

We excavated a much corroded key that has not been identified. We also have a possible piece of a flintlock gun. Both artifacts are promising, yet require additional research. Another interesting metal artifact was collected from the surface — a very simple 22—inch—long fire poker. There is nothing elaborate about the poker’s construction; moreover, it has simply been shaped by bending over one end to fashion a handle.

The top row of buttons are wood. The middle and bottom rows are shell.

The top row of buttons are wood.
The middle and bottom rows are shell.

Artifacts from the stacked stone well at the Cabin Site were not only interesting, but were difficult to obtain to say the least. Artifacts were retrieved from the well by lowering large hooks and lassos from a sturdy steel tripod. We pulled out several large limestone blocks with obvious burn stains. Carve or chip marks were visible as well. These may be the original blocks to the fireplace, having been tossed down the well at some point in the past. The date of construction of the well is unknown at this time.

I am in awe of the depth of determination exhibited by members from the Alabama Chapter of the Trail of Tears regarding the preservation of removal sites, and I deeply appreciate the hard work and dedication of the many volunteers who assisted with the excavations and research at the Cabin Site. Landmarks of DeKalb County kindly opened its doors to me and permitted this research to take place, allowing the archaeological testing of the Cabin Site to develop into a project composed entirely of excited volunteers. Olivia Baxter of Landmarks has been a tremendous resource of assistance with whatever was needed.

Sharon Freeman


Comments are welcomed and can be left via email for Sharon Freeman.

Ceramic artifacts excavated at the site.

Ceramic artifacts excavated at the site.


January 2009 – Townsel Stone Company employees work to repair and stabilize the Cabin Site chimney after time and vandalism had taken their toll.