JONESVILLE, LA — The Troyville Archaeological Site was a major town in the Lower Mississippi Basin that was densely populated between around 400 AD and 1100 AD. Most of its mounds were always platform mounds for buildings, not burial mounds. Therefore, the town appears to have been one of the primary locations where the Mississippian Culture evolved. It once contained a massive mound that even when abandoned for a thousand years, was still 82 feet high and therefore the second highest known Native American mound. The site has been completely destroyed by late 19th century and mid-20th century construction projects. It is now just a section of the town of Jonesville, LA. The City of Jonesville in recent years has embarked on a comprehensive effort to preserve what remains of the ancient town’s site.
Analysis of old maps and photographs, plus excavation of small sections of the ancient town that were not developed, have enabled archaeologists led by Joseph Saunders, to piece together a description of this important archaeological site as it evolved. Much of the information on the site’s appearance in the 1800s and early 1900s comes from the published Catahoula Parish History – also available on the internet. The Troyville site is one of the largest and important Native American heritage sites in Louisiana, but few people know about it.
Early descriptions of the archaeological zone
During the late 1600s French explorers noted a cluster of large Indian mounds at the confluence of the Black and Catahoula (Little) River. The large, abandoned town site was also near where the Ouachita and Tensas Rivers joined to form the Black River. However, Indian mounds back then were extremely common in the Lower Mississippi Basin. Most were abandoned by the time the French arrived on the scene, but the Natchez Indians continued to construct important buildings on mounds, and occupy villages in the vicinity of other mounds. The hamlet of Troyville was settled near the mounds by French colonists in the 1700s after the Natchez were driven out of Louisiana. The name “Troy” came from the apparent ruins of an ancient city at the confluence of the Black and Catahoula Rivers.
We next hear of this mound site in 1804, a year after the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. President Thomas Jefferson appointed William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter to explore the Ouachita and Red River Basins. Dunbar was a Natchez plantation owner, scientist, inventor and explorer. The explorers experienced difficulty in measuring the mounds because they were covered in thick growths of river cane. A Frenchman named Heberd lived in a house atop the largest mound.
Early Anglo-American settlers also built their homes on top of the mounds, because the elevation gave them protection from seasonal floods. From time to time amateur Indian artifact hunters dug holes into the flanks of the mounds, hoping to find items, which could be sold to collectors or museums. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army converted the largest mound into a fort. Rifle pits were dug into the side of the mound for the infantry, while the top of the mound was flattened in order to facilitate the positioning of field artillery.
The town of Jonesville developed next to the archaeological zone in the late 1800s. Contractors and townspeople regularly excavated fill soil from mounds and embankments to raise building sites in Jonesville above flood levels. They even used dynamite to demolish mounds and make the soil easier to excavate and transport. Intact artifacts were typically retained as family treasures or sold to collectors. Sections of the town site were cleared for fields, gardens and pastures. During a series of severe floods between 1912 and 1927 the largest mound at Troyville was the only dry land for miles. During these floods, refugees crowded the top of the mound.
Intentional destruction of the mounds
When campaigning for governor of Louisiana in 1928, Huey P. Long promised the people of Jonesville that a bridge would be built across the Black River so that they would not be so isolated from the remainder of the state. By 1930 state engineers had designed a bridge whose access ramp would end squarely at the face of the largest Troyville mound. Rather than move the bridge’s location a hundred feet, the Louisiana Highway Department decided that the mound must go and the earth within the mound would be used as fill soil for the access ramp. A contractor leveled the huge mound and transferred 21,000 cubic yards of fill dirt to the bridge construction site. It is quite probable that the owners of the mound had requested or at least encouraged the location of the bridge because they considered the mound to be a hindrance to the development of their property.
Archaeologist Winslow Walker of the Smithsonian Institute heard about pending destruction of the great mound and raced down to Catahoula Parish to try to salvage what information and artifacts he could. He published a 103 page booklet on the Troyville archaeological zone that was not really complete. Desecration of key sections of the site by local townspeople made it impossible for him to complete his work.
Demolition of the largest mound began in early summer of 1931 and continued for about a month. The destruction of the mound reduced its height almost to street level. The work also created large dust clouds, which local mothers feared would cause tuberculosis. Children were kept indoors because of this unfounded fear.
The Natchez Indians had fought their last battles with the French just north of the Troyville site in 1730. A legend persisted that the Natchez owned large amounts of pure gold, which they hid in the landscape around the Troyville mounds.
While frantically excavating what was left of the Troyville site, archaeologist Walker uncovered a mass burial in a small mound. He planned to study the burials the next day. However, during the night, townspeople tore the burial asunder in search of the fabled Natchez gold. When Walker returned in the morning he discovered that the grave robbers had not only destroyed the burial but hauled off the skeletons. In disgust, he packed up his equipment and returned to Washington, DC.
Current understanding of the Troyville site
Archaeologists now know that the Troyville site in Jonesville, LA was once one of the largest Native American towns in what is now Louisiana, and contained what was probably the second highest mound in the United States. It is possible that Troyville was the town, Anilco, that was visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition in 1543. There is no way of knowing for sure without more archaeological discoveries at the site. Until then it will be called Troyville, although obviously, this was not the name used by its citizens.
Archaeologists currently believe that Troyville was founded around 400 AD. The archaeologists in Louisiana are still not sure if it was a ceremonial center or a town. However, the size of the site, the number of public structures and the longevity of the occupation certain suggest that it was a very important town of regional importance for many centuries.
Architectural similarity to Gulf Coast region of Mexico
The architecture of the largest mound at Troyville was extremely similar to the largest earthen pyramid at the Olmec city of La Venta. It also was similar to the giant pyramids at Cholula and Teotihuacan in central Mexico. They are the largest and second largest Native American structures in Mesoamerica and were still in complete condition, when the major changes occurred at Troyville around 700 AD.
Another interesting architectural feature of the ruins is the evidence of blue, white and red stucco, perhaps other colors, also. Centuries of rainfall have reduced most of these stuccos into being stains in the soil, but they are not natural colors of the soil around Jonesville. Blue and red were typical colors applied to Chontal Maya temples, which were constructed on earthen mounds. The more sophisticated Mayas in the Yucatan Peninsula, Chiapas Highlands and Guatemala also stuccoed their stone pyramids with bands of blue, white and red. Stone masonry temples were typically covered with a red stucco.
The approximate construction date of 700 AD is quite significant. This is when the population of Teotihuacan was collapsing. This city’s public buildings had been burned around 600 AD. However, Teotihuacan continued to have a significant residential occupation until around 750 AD. During the period of its rapid decline, there was much turmoil in Mexico as barbarians were sweeping into the civilized zones and sacking them.
This archaeological fact leads to the speculation that Troyville’s urban renewal program was the direct result of the arrival of Mesoamerican immigrants. The coast of Louisiana is but a few days sail from the coast of Tamaulipas and Veracruz States in Mexico. Mesoamerican sea-going merchant boats had sails. The distance could be paddled or walked in a few weeks. It is certainly plausible that some refugees from Teotihuacan or Cholula could have made their way to the fertile soils of Louisiana in order to escape the onslaught of Chichimec barbarians in Mexico.
Until artifacts associated with Mexico are discovered in or around the Troyville Archeological Zone, the speculation of a Mesoamerican immigration, must remain a speculation. However, whether or not it had a Mexico connection, Troyville clearly was one of the earliest and most important regional centers in the Lower Mississippi River Basin.