By Kelly Baughman
The Gulf Coast is rich in Native American history, but Betcha Didn’t Know….thanks to tips that came from local residents, archeologists have confirmed the existence of an ancient Native American canal in Fort Morgan that is estimated to be over 1,400 years old.
Then canal, which connects Oyster Bay and Little Lagoon, is a 6 ft deep by 30 ft wide, half mile trench, said to be hand dug by early native settlers in the Fort Morgan area to transport goods seasonally between the two bodies of water. So why has it taken this long to “find” it? Historians and archeologist say that the canal appears to have been filled in by storms that have pounded the area over time, and brush, trees, and ground cover took over, camouflaging the canal that should’ve been in plain sight.
While there have been rumors of the ancient canal in the area for years, the big break in the discovery came when, Fort Morgan resident, Harry King met the right person at the right time. King, who served as a charter member of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian, said, “I have always been interested in the historical Native American sites of Alabama, and I knew there was more on Fort Morgan that had yet to be discovered.”
After living in the Fort Morgan area for some time, King befriended his neighbor Pat Roberts, who upon learning of his mission, led him onto her property and directly to his long sought after treasure. “She wasn’t sure what it was, but she knew exactly where to find it,” King said.
King alerted city officials and organized a volunteer effort to discover more about this backyard marvel. Greg Waselkov, head of the archaeology department at the University of South Alabama, led the recent excavation of the canal and shared some insight into why this discovery is so important, not just to the Gulf Coast, but to Native American history as well.
“While there are a few similar canals throughout the U.S., they are all very rare. This particular canal is the longest known in existence, which makes it of particular interest,” Waselkov said. “We know it was used for transporting goods and for travel during a period known as the Middle Woodland period”
Waselkov said that due to the thick forest that covered most of the land during this time period, traveling by water would have been much easier for primitive cultures. The canal provided a safer and more protected way to travel from Weeks Bay to the Gulf and to Fort Morgan, cutting a treacherous trip facing rough waters down by nearly ten miles.
And while Waselkov said archeologist are working tirelessly to radiocarbon date samples removed from the canal, he added that many questions still remain unanswered. “We are certain of the era in which the canal was built, but we are still unsure of when and why the use of the canal ended. We are working to find these answers. There isn’t much by way of artifacts left behind, so we are making sure to look at the clues a little closer,” he said.
Now, Waselkov and many other historical archeologists are working together to preserve the ancient landmark. “While many people see prime real estate, we see a site of historical significance that must be preserved. Fortunately, the City of Gulf Shores is on board and assisting us in our efforts,” he said.
King and his army of local volunteers continue to work tirelessly in collaboration with Waselkov and others and hope that their efforts and discoveries will be recognized nationally with Universities, National Geographic, The Smithsonian, and more.
Waselkov said that while their research is still in its infancy, it is important for the community to support their preservation efforts. “It is important for us to see this canal for what it is. It’s an early engineering masterpiece. It’s a window into the history of climate change. It’s a diary of an ancient civilization that deserves to be recognized.”
So the next time you’re talking a walk on the Gulf Coast, Betcha Didn’t Know….you might literally be walking on ancient history.