The Mystery of Flint Ridge

By Stephen D. Bowling

Evidence of Native American life and activity in Breathitt County can be dated to more than 10,000 years ago. Through the ages of human exploration of the area, artifacts from the generations of native inhabitants have been classified into three basic eras: the Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland (Adena) eras. Numerous sites in our county have been identified and excavated by licensed researchers and by unlicensed relic seekers.

Several sites in Breathitt County contain evidence of native writings (pictographs), hominy holes, and fire pits. Graves and human remains have been recovered in several sections of the county, especially on the Middle Fork, near Round Bottom on Quicksand Creek, on Troublesome Creek, and a large village site that has only partially been explored at Kragon on the North Fork. Few Breathitt Countians have the opportunity to see and visit these sites, but many have encountered native culture by means of a found arrowhead or point.

Examples of the die variety points and arrowheads found across Kentucky.

Over the years, thousands of Native American artifacts have been found in cornfields and creeks. One Breathitt County farmer had five-gallon buckets full of these curious stone relics. Despite their large numbers, researchers have never proved precisely where most of them originated or the processes used to create them. An article written by John Goff, printed on page 23 of The Louisville Courier-Journal on Sunday, January 6, 1901, attempted to shed some light on one of Breathitt County’s most significant Native American sites.

The Mystery of Flint Ridge

Curious Workshops of the Early Inhabitants of Kentucky in Breathitt County.

Jackson, Ky.- January 4.- Near the eastern border of Breathitt county is a small chain of mountains, familiarly known in this section the country as the Flint Ridge, and which, having a much greater elevation than the surrounding landscape, furnishes from its crest a splendid view of the entire score of the Eastern Kentucky hills.  On clear days one can even see, in the far hazy distance, the gloomy outlines of the Big Black Mountain of North Carolina and the smoky glimmer above the horizon of the high peaks along the skirts of Virginia.  Of late years Flint Ridge has been rather prominent before the public on account of the immerse coal deposits found there, and it may not be amiss here to state, that taken in the aggregate, the workable veins, which have already been opened in the sides of this great ridge, present a face of sixty-five feet of solid coal.

But Flint Ridge furnishes another source of interest besides its coal, one, perhaps, which will never engross the attention of the general public so much but which is destined to become a vast field of delight to the future student of Kentucky history.  The ridge gets its name from the immense beds of flint, which cap its summit throughout its entire length.  Ordinarily, the flint is a stone of such homely guise that it is looked upon as one of the most menial of nature’s quarry products, but seen upon the brow of this ridge, glowing in nearly every color known to the artist’s brush, its charms are magnified many fold, and the mind of the observer of transported from the vista of common rocks to the thoughts of “precious stones.”

It has always been a source of wonder to many where the Indians, who once roamed the “Dark and bloody ground,” secured the flint from which they made their arrowheads and spear points.  The myriads of these relics plowed up in the fields of Central Kentucky each year since the settlement, gave evidence that they must have had inexhaustible stores somewhere, from which they drew their supplies, and since flint is a comparative stranger to the geological formations of the Bluegrass region, it was almost definitely known that these deadly little implements, used both to make horrors of warfare and the ecstacles of the chase, were carried by their savage inventors from some other portions of the country.  But a careful study of the slopes of the Flint Ridge removes all mystery as to the source of the red men’s supply of flint.  The numerous overhanging rocks, which are commonly known as “rock-houses,” found along the steep side so the ridge, were apparently the shops where the ancient artisans, with cunning hand, wrought the implements, so perfect in design and so exquisite in finish that the “Stone Age of Man” will remain a study for ages to come.

While historians and novelists have vied with each other in describing the Indian warrior and hunter’s accuracy in the use of his weapons, little has ever been written of those who toiled in the rude shops, transforming the rough stones into shapely pieces.  For it is now believed that warriors and hunters followed those occupations alone, and left the labor of manufacturing the weapons used by them to a class of their people, bred to the toils of the artisan and who from childhood up, pursued this trade to the exclusion of everything else.  And when future writers come to do exact justice to those who have taken part in filling history’s ample page, not of the least import in the great story of the past, will be the artisans, even those who lived and wrought so long ago as the mystic cycles of the “Stone Age.”

Even to this day the great piles of flint chips found under the shelter of those rock houses tell of the wonderful amount of labor which must have been done there in the other days, labor which was not accomplished in a day, a week or a year, but must have required a long period of time.  A careful study of these piles of flint chips will also aid in settling another question which has always been debatable among those interested in Indian lore.  How did the red men make their implements of flint?  Some have contended that they were made by means of fire, using the heat in such a way as to cause the stone to chip off gradually, chip by chip, until the desired shape was reached: other have argued that some peculiar acid was brought unto service, which had the power to melt the stone, and which was handled with such care and in such a way that only the parts of the rock not needed were dissolved, and thus from the rough mass was evolved the shapely weapon.  But neither of these theories is correct, although both are plausible.  The implements were evidently hammered out; for in the ancient shops to this day, stones can be seen which were formerly used as anvils and other which took the place of hammers.

Another noticeable feature in regard to the Flint Ridge can be found in connection with the Indian roads to and from it.  In a timbered and mountainous country like this, there was always imminent danger of wanders getting lost, besides, numerous rapid streams which at certain seasons of the years, were almost impassable.  To overcome the latter of these difficulties the Indians so far as practicable, made their roads on the tops of the ridges, and to avoid the former the trees along the way were scarred with tomahawks, while at certain intervals great piles of stone were thrown up to serve for guide posts.  These tomahawk hacks can be discerned on many trees yet, while the piles of stone remain just as they were in the days when Kentucky was dark and bloody, except in those instances where vandals of a later day, thinking to find hidden treasures of some kind, have torn down the heaps and scattered their fragments.

One of the roads which went out from Flint Ridge led toward Big Stone Gap, another toward Cumberland Gap, another toward the breaks of the Sandy, which ultimately led into the Great Warrior’s Path and on to the Ohio, while still another led down with the trend of the Kentucky river toward the “cane lands” of the central portion of the State, which was the grand hunting ground of “ye olden times.”  Kentucky historians have almost to a man evaded this section of the State in writing their books and except from casual mention of certain persons and places, the reader would scarcely know that the Stat had an eastern par, or that this eastern part was a field full of historical information, ripe for the pen of the careful investigator.  Hence such places as the Flint Ridge have never had even a part in the annals of Kentucky lore, but there it stands with all its mementoes of bygone days, a silent monument to the part its region has taken in the drama of Kentucky life.

John Goff
Examples of arrowheads from across the United States.

Many sites remain unspoiled in Breathitt County, and others have been wiped completely. Over the years, treasure seekers and the curious destroyed a large observation mound in the bend of the Kentucky River at Quicksand by digging into the structure. All that remains there now is a swampy pit, and no evidence of the mound remains. Other sites are destroyed by sifters who work the rock shelters with shovels and screens, carrying away important historical knowledge to augment their private collections.

Sadly, mining activity in the area during the 1970s and 1980s destroyed most of the large rock shelters that once lined the hillsides in the Flint Ridge area. Large fields of flint chips and unworked chards still remain on the slopes, but the largest of the cliffs are blasted away and are only memories. Like so many sites, the history of those who visited what is Breathitt County first has been destroyed and lost to generations of strip mining or careless adventurers.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Native American, Pioneers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Mystery of Flint Ridge

  1. Anna Hardin says:

    I have ancestors buried on Flint Ridge. This place is important to me. Would love to see pics of any early times, perhaps pics of Absolum, Ab, Russell. Would love to hear any stories passed down about Flint Ridge and/or Ab Russell.


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