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Exploring Cole County's pre-history

Thousands of years ago, people occupied Mid-Missouri, living as wanderers and hunters in small campsites, eventually becoming small communities based around farming.

Local attorney and artifacts collector Terry Allen talks about some of the items he's collected Tuesday September 3, 2019 as he walks through the new American Indian Exhibit at the Cole County Historical Society. Allen will have several of items on display throughout the exhibit, most of which came from prehistoric Central Missouri Indians.

Photo by Sally Ince /News Tribune.

Thousands of years ago, people occupied Mid-Missouri, living as wanderers and hunters in small campsites, eventually becoming small communities based around farming.

How do we know? There's evidence all around.

Such evidence is now on display at the Cole County Historical Society, which has opened a new American Indian Exhibit showcasing pieces of pottery, arrowheads and other items left behind by the pre-Columbian cultures that inhabited this area so long ago.

Emily Luker, CCHS executive director, said the organization opted to put together the exhibit because it was a subject that hadn't really been broached before at the Historical Society.

"It sounded really exciting and interesting," Luker said. "The idea of going that far back in history, in pre-history, is nothing that the Society has done before."

However, it wouldn't have been possible without local collectors who have loaned out items, all of which are tied to Mid-Missouri.

"I think that's part of what makes it such a unique exhibit," Luker said. "It is Cole County and so much about Mid-Missouri."

Local attorney Terry Allen is one such collector. His interest began at the age of 13, when he found an arrowhead near where he grew up in Poplar Bluff, he said. Now 77, Allen said he continues the hobby and has loaned some of his personal collection to the exhibit at the Historical Society.

Allen said much of what is on display is from the Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian periods, which span from 12,000 BC to AD 1520. It includes collections of clovis points, knives and blades, as well as a few pieces of pottery and axes, all of which were found in Cole County and surrounding counties. One of Allen's pieces on display is of a stone doll from the Woodland period that he said he found on the Maries River. The legs are gone, which he said was likely done by a plow at some point.

"This is mostly an exhibit of prehistoric Central Missouri Indians, peoples," Allen said, pointing to several display cases full of local artifacts. "There must have been hundreds of thousands of Indians, pre-historic people, in this part of the country."

Many of the pieces on display are made of mozarkite, the Missouri state rock, and a material Allen said was a favorite for the Central Missouri Archaic people. He said it's really not difficult to find prehistoric material in Mid-Missouri, noting Hopewell pottery has been found at Algoa and Woodland mounds have been excavated in Tebbetts, among many other sites.

The exhibit includes some other pieces that show some of the recreational aspects of life in pre-Columbian cultures, including what Allen called vertebrae dice, which are two large stones shaped roughly into squares. Allen said they also played something called chunky, using either a "chunky stone or a disc coil."

"They loved to gamble," Allen said with a chuckle. "They were playing."

Allen said he hopes those who visit the exhibit will learn something, especially about those figures who helped spur further interest in the field and had Mid-Missouri ties, such as Judge Sidna P. Dalton, a former Missouri Supreme Court justice who found several prehistoric sites in Mid-Missouri and for whom the Dalton point, a type of arrowhead, is named after. Another local collector who helped spur interest in the field years ago was Ed Buel, Allen said, whose collection is also represented in the exhibit.

"I think that's important," Allen said, adding the other important factor is the sheer generosity of local collectors who were willing to temporarily part with their possessions for the exhibit.

On Sunday, the Historical Society will host an exhibit viewing starting at 2 p.m., with Allen speaking about Mid-Missouri archaeology at 3 p.m. Luker said the exhibit will be up until at least the end of the year. She noted she had contacted local schools to let them know of the exhibit and offer tours for students while it is on display.