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