The Ipswich discovery of PaleoIndian artifacts at Bull Brook

The Bull Brook Paleo-Indian Discovery

Native Americans began moving into New England after the retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier, around 12,000 BC. Artifacts discovered at Great Neck and along the riverbanks have been identified as belonging to the later Archaic period (8000-5000 years ago) and the Woodland period (2000 years ago). Evidence of a 3000-year old village was discovered along the Merrimack River in West Newbury.

Native Americans grouped in tribes and moved seasonally for agriculture, fishing and hunting. By the 1500s, all of the many New England tribes shared the Algonquian language, with varying dialects, but they did not develop a written language. Within a century of the arrival of European settlers, our American Indian predecessors and almost all evidence of their existence had vanished.

Stone points discovered at Bull Brook on display at the Essex Peabody Museum in Salem

Treadwell’s Island

In September 1882, Mr. I. J. Potter of the Ipswich Chronicle discovered a 100′ x 60′ shell heap on Perkins (Treadwell’s) Island that had never been disturbed. Its contents included crude stone points and knives, and what that writer believed to be human bones. The 135 acre island at the mouth of the Ipswich River sits between Labor in Vain Creek and Little Neck and was originally granted to settler John Perkins. It is still known as both Treadwell’s Island and Perkins Island although the latter name also refers to another island in the Ipswich River near Topsfield.

Gravel and sand excavation at the end of Paradise Road in Ipswich uncovered the oldest Paleo-Indian site in American, known today as the Bull Brook Site.
Gravel and sand excavation at the end of Paradise Road in Ipswich uncovered the oldest Paleo-Indian site in American, known today as the Bull Brook Site.

Bull Brook

At about the same time in the late 19th Century, behind what is now Lane’s Farm on High Street, a plowshare uncovered a cache of forty finely-fashioned stone spearheads.

A half mile behind that site, in the early 1950s, a group of young amateur archeologists men now known as the “Bull Brook Boys” discovered one of the largest Paleo-Indian sites in North America along the banks of Bull Brook and the Egypt River in an area being cleared for a sand and gravel operation at the end of Paradise Road. Over 6,000 artifacts were uncovered in a large circle about the size of four football fields, and are on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. With 42 loci, the site was nearly four times larger than the next largest site in North America. Two more discoveries were made in the late 1960s, but the site is now a gravel pit.

Approximate area of excavation at the Bull Brook site in Ipswich

Approximate area of excavation at the Bull Brook site in Ipswich

Bull Brook map
Map of Bull Brook based on 1952 and 1954 excavations. Inset: location of Bull Brook in relation to Jeffreys Ledge.
The “Bull Brook Boys” William Eldridge and Joseph Vacaro

Radiocarbon dating at Bull Brook places the settlement at around 10 – 11,000 years ago, during or just after the cold Younger Dryas period. Glaciers had receded from the North Shore area but sea level was still low enough that the Bull Brook site would have been about ten miles from the coast. Calcified remains of caribou and the constricted valley of the Eagle River suggest that the location may have been ideal for drive-hunting.

The Bull Brook site provides some of the oldest physical evidence for large-scale Paleoindian gatherings in North America. More recent discoveries at a Central Texas archaeological site by a Texas A&M University-led research team prove that people lived in that region as much as 2,500 years earlier than previously believed, rewriting what anthropologists know about when the first inhabitants arrived in North America. That pushes the arrival date back to about 15,500 years ago.

Stone points from the Bull Brook PaleoIndian site in Ipswich MA
Bull Brook spear points on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem MA
Bull Brook spear points on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem MA

The Archaeological Conservancy acquires a portion of the Bull Brook II site

Artifacts from the Bull Brook II site, photo courtesy Erica Cooper

The Archaeological Conservancy acquires a portion of the Bull Brook II site

A 2-acre property containing a portion of the Bull Brook II archaeological site is now permanently preserved. Jennifer Ort, an archaeologist currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of New Hampshire, has undertaken extensive research on the Bull Brook sites and began conducting archaeological testing on the Bull Brook II site with permission of the owners, Christopher Conley and Candace Christianson. When they expressed their interest in preserving the property according to the wishes of Chris’ mother, Mary Conley, Ort put them in touch with the Archaeological Conservancy, the only national nonprofit dedicated to the permanent preservation of archaeological sites.

Chris Conley inherited the property from his mother, Mary, who was dedicated to the preservation of historic sites in the Ipswich, Massachusetts area. Her efforts are recognized by the Mary P. Conley Preservation Award that is given out annually by the Ipswich Historical Commission for exemplary restoration and preservation projects. Because of Mary’s dedication to preservation, Chris and Candace wanted to ensure that the two-acre property containing a portion of the Bull Brook II site will always be protected and available for archaeological research. To further help offset the costs of transferring and protecting the property the Elfrieda Frank Foundation has also kindly committed $15,000 to the Conservancy.

Sources and further reading:

10 thoughts on “The Bull Brook Paleo-Indian Discovery”

  1. alot of my early cowboys and indian playing was done at a place they called “Bull Brook Sands”. We use to find arrow heads there………

  2. I have a question: Is there any surviving examples of pottery or weaving from these people who lived in and around Ipswich? Are they displayed anywhere?

  3. wondering if anyone knows who i can contact to come to my home and give info on all the stone artifacts i found and am finding,,i must have at least 20 5 gallon buckets full of stone artifacts,,im in rowe,ma,,thank you

    1. I’m also local. I began doing research after discovering an unmarked stone structure with standing stones similar to those found used in astronomical alignments. I found a lot of these sites seem to have similar landscape features in their locations. Recently in 2010 Native Americans began to speak up about ritual sites of their ancestors. The housing market is threatening the protection of them. Nothing really has been done since on the East Coast, where as out west they are trying to preserve theses sites. It bothered me to find such a relic in antiquity just out in the woods and not cared for as it should be if it is part of our missing history. Just recently a Montana Native American was found to have the oldest DNA on record… 17,000 years. We should be more pro active on understanding these sites as well as the Native American Culture they derived from. We haven’t given these people the credit they deserve in the past. My only hope is 2020 bring this to the surface as well. Seems to be the year to break old cycles and stigmas! In the mean time my research and hunting for stone structures and Native American artifacts continues!

    2. James, I am also in Rowley. 35-40 years ago when I worked in the nursery fields in town that are now developed we found spear points often . I have a hand full still and always thought they where pretty cool, I think there about 10-12 thousand years old.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s