On Hemphill Hill

Hemphill Hill

The glacial stones that my grandmother and I would sometimes examine on Hemphill Hill when we hiked there together in the 1950s often bore markings other than those caused by ice.  There were scratches caused by plows and disks that had tilled the soil on Hemphill Hill for more than 150 years.  The southern part of the hill had been cropland for a very long time while the northern portion, from the crest of the hill down to the river, had always been wooded.  As my grandmother and I would climb Hemphill Hill, she sometimes told me of the pioneer Hemphill family who once lived there, and from whom the hill got its name.

Samuel and Margaret Hemphill emigrated with their four sons from Ireland to Indiana in the 1830s. They built a house on the hill and began to farm.  Although I never saw any pictures of their house, the thought of it once having been there stretched my mind just as did trying to imagine the glaciers that once covered that place.  In the freshly-tilled soils of Hemphill Hill in the spring, I still can sometimes find pieces of the brick that formed the foundation of the Hemphill house.  There are also fragments of broken crockery and dishes, which symbolize the daily lives of the family.   I’ve discovered two Hemphill tombstones in a nearby country cemetery.  One of them marks the grave of Samuel and Margaret’s twelve year-old son Stephen—my name–who died (probably of disease) on November 23, 1844, which was 102 years to the day before I was born.

Fragment of a ceramic bowl found on Hemphill Hill  (used by the Hemphill family –  c1840s)

The Hemphill family mostly died of diseases or moved away in the 1840s and their house was torn down long before my grandmother came to own the land.  By the time I went to Hemphill Hill with her as a boy in the 1950s, some of the locals had even begun to refer to the place by a shorter name—Hemp Hill.  I suppose two “hills” in the same name seemed redundant to the practical folk of that time.  But my grandmother always called the hill by its full name, and because of the dish, crockery and brick fragments in the soil that still give me a sense of the Hemphill family’s presence whenever I stand in that place, it will always be Hemphill Hill for me too.

But the Hemphills weren’t the only people who lived on that hill before my grandmother and I came along.  From the crest, especially when the trees had lost their leaves in winter, she would gesture towards the river and explain to me how an Indian village had once existed in that place centuries before the Hemphills came along.  The symbols of those people’s daily lives are also found in the soil of Hemphill Hill—stone tools and arrow points, as well as thousands of flakes of chert that are the by-product of the many objects of stone crafted there over the centuries.  I still have a collection of artifacts found on that hill and in nearby fields.  Some were discovered by relatives from earlier generations and handed down to me, and many of those are perfectly intact since they were found before the heavy tillage equipment used in more recent decades broke up the artifacts that remained.

The first arrowhead I found at Hemphill Hill – c1955  (initially created by a Woodland Indian about 1500 years ago)

I found my first arrowhead when I was about nine years old.  I was alone and walking across the field adjacent to Hemphill Hill one summer day.  My eyes, as they always did in that place, were scanning the soil’s surface ahead of me.  Although I had previously found flakes of chert, which were a product of the tool making process, I had never discovered an actual arrowhead before.  But on that particular day my eyes fixed on a perfectly-formed arrowhead lying exposed on the soil surface.  It was about an inch long and made of white chert; it was beautiful.  As I picked it up and ran my fingers along its still-sharp edges, I tried to imagine who had created this thing of beauty—and when—and why?

Hemphill Hill – April 1960 (I took this photo near the place where I found my first arrowhead)

The ice-smoothed stones in the soil of Hemphill Hill that were left by the ancient glaciers my grandmother told me about—fragments of pottery, dishes and brick in the soil left by the Hemphill family decades before my grandmother and I came to be there—and a small arrowhead created by an unknown prehistoric craftsman—each now cradled in my child’s hand.  These symbolize for me a presence of something that was well beyond my capacity to comprehend as a child.   Hemphill Hill, and all I observed and learned there, are an integral part of who I am now.  Geology, history, archaeology—each of these is a strong interest of mine today—and each traces to those early formative wanderings and wonderings on Hemphill Hill.

Collection of artifacts found at Hemphill Hill and surrounding area


This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011.  All rights reserved.

6 Responses to On Hemphill Hill

  1. Melanie Diedrich says:

    A wonderful essay. AND a wonderful collection of “points” you have there! I’m no lithics expert, but I can see not only arrowheads, but drills and knives as well. Is the area where your grandmother indicated was an Indian village under tillage, as well? If the landowner is truly interested, it might be worth hiring an archaeologist and doing some kind of excavation survey to see what’s there (they might have to dig a meter or more). Anyway, a very cool bit of family history…


  2. Don Coon says:

    Very interesting. You have a rich history and it continues down through you not only in your writings but also in your interests. Thanks for including me as a spectator to your life through your writings.

  3. steverobert says:

    Good eye, Melanie. Yes, there are drill bits and knife blades here, as well as at least one scraper, and of course many different varieties of projectile points. One archaeologist friend who has seen my collection identified many of them as archaic, which dates them to perhaps 1500 years before present or older. The triangular point in the upper right may be Mississippian, which would date to about 1000 years ago. I’m also intrigued my the variety of kinds of stone that was used to make these tools.

    Glad you enjoyed the essay, Don. Wonder what the Indians around Cheyenne used to make their points? I know that obsidian was sometimes used in the west, although I’ve never found anything made from that stone in Indiana.

  4. Ted Mellencamp says:

    I spent a lot of my time growing up on Hemphill, I also agree that it is one of the more spectacular places in Jackson County. In high school I would get on my horse and ride up there and spend the afternoon, mostly day dreaming, but I do know of one girl who lost her virginity on Hemphill.
    I have enjoyed reading your essays today Steve.Just as enjoyed growing up at the Rapp House.I was 14 when your grandmother passed. You had some characters in your family, old Grizz who always smelled like the hog pen, He taught me how to mend fences Aunt Ruth and I gathering persimmons, and me trying my best to act interested in her African Violets I mowed Matilda grass for years, and I was the taxi cab for anyone who was flying into Indianapolis, your mom was always my favorite fare.
    Back to Hemphill, I hear the Colonel will have some ashes spread there, so Hemphill just will be a little more special for me.

  5. Ted Mellencamp says:

    I just remembered another story of Hemphill. December 1975. I was a newly wed,our first Christmas. We were living in the little house next to the old school that belonged to your mom and John. I didn’t have money for rent so I was doing some chores for John around the farm. Being that it was Christmas and we had no money I decided to go up to Hemphill and cut down a Christmas tree. I had an 1964 Dodge Dart with a push button transmission. I drove it up the farm lane as far as I could because it was cold and snowy out that year. I got my handsaw with my 7 month pregnant wife and we headed up to Hemphill to score our first Christmas tree. When we got up there the deer had eaten most of the branches off of the trees but we found one that looked ok, so I cut it down with my very dull handsaw, drug it to the 64 Dart and put it in the trunk
    . Turning around I got stuck in the mud and snow. We ended up having to call a tow truck to pull us out and he charged me $40. That was the last time Deb and I ever wanted to cut our own Christmas Tree

    • steverobert says:

      It’s fun to have you post in response to this essay, Ted, and especially knowing of your own history with Hemphill Hill. The story of your $40 Christmas tree from there is a treasure! Not many of us folks left who remember ol’ Grizz, Aunt Ruth, Matilda and others from that day. Your memory of picking up persimmons with Aunt Ruth suggests you might like the essay “Stalking Wild Persimmons”, if you haven’t already read it. Thanks for offering your comment. 🙂

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