WRITTEN BY: PATRICK CASH
September 1, 1977: a joint project between then Mars Hill College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill gave students the unique opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig aimed at proving a link between a Native American settlement in McDowell County to the large Cherokee Nation which controlled the western part of North Carolina.
The project was made available after a group of collectors interested in Native American artifacts raised their concerns that much of the archeological material found in western North Carolina was being shipped out of the region as well as out of the state. Charles Carry, then the vice-president of Drexel-Heritage Furniture Company, along with Mars Hill College Trustees “Red” Walker and Robert Rowe brought their concerns to the attention of administrators in the region and a decision was made between Mars Hill and UNC-Chapel Hill to collaborate on the project. The agreement between the two institutions stated that Mars Hill would provide housing and students while UNC-Chapel Hill provided the instructor that would oversee the project. There was also an added stipulation that would require any artifacts found to remain in western North Carolina and to be displayed at both McDowell County and the campus of Mars Hill College.
Dr. Joffrel Coe and Trawick Ward of UNC-Chapel Hill led a team of three Mars Hill students, which included Cathy Funk, Amanda Dobbs, and Conrad Plaut through the summer project. UNC-Chapel Hill Ph.D student Mike Trinkley along with the artifact collectors who helped start the program also joined the team in the field. Once the students had prepped the dig area by clearing the soil below the depth that a plow would usually reach, they got to experience the process of findings fragments of pottery and other artifacts that are similar to the artifacts if the Cherokee nation found throughout much of western North Carolina. At the end of the summer project, the students and the instructors believed that pieces they found might help conclude that there were in fact members of the Cherokee nation populating the McDowell County valleys long before European settlers ever-set foot in the region. The goal of Mars Hill at the end of the summer was to enroll 12 additional students in the project during the summer of 1978.