Object Lesson: Moccasins

When was Mammoth Cave discovered by humans? The answer is elusive. While humans were in the region as early as 11,500 years ago, extensive exploration of Mammoth Cave began around 4,700 years ago. 

Archaeologists and geologists working in the cave have found evidence of extensive mineral mining by 3,200 years ago – suggesting that Native Americans of the Archaic period (8,000 BCE to 1,000 BCE) were the first to extensively use Mammoth Cave. They were seeking gypsum, selenite, mirabilite, epsomite, and other minerals. These were especially important to individuals living during the Woodland period (1,000 BCE to 900 AD), such as the Adena and Hopewell traditions. We don’t know why they sought these minerals – was it for medicine? Trade? Rituals? 

These explorations are evidenced by thousands of artifacts found in the cave. Today, Mammoth Cave National Park works with seven Native American tribes at over 1,000 archaeological sites in the park. In our exhibit, Gazing Deeply: The Art & Science of Mammoth Cave, one of these artifacts is on display.

Moccasins found in Salts Cave, now part of Mammoth Cave.

These moccasins are made of vegetable fiber and were found in Salts Cave (now part of Mammoth Cave). They were likely worn by Native Americans who mined the cave for its gypsum formations. The moccasins were discovered by Andy Collins, Gabriel Robertson, Cecil Wright, and Roy H. Owsley during a mid-1920s trip into the cave. As Owsley recalled in a 1973 letter: 

“Our second trip into the cave lasted several hours. During this trip, the three of us (Andy Collins, Cecil Wright and I) explored several branches off of the main cavern, and in one of these in particular we found names and dates that had been scratched on the walls of the cave with a knife…. In this same chamber…we found several Indian moccasins that were almost perfectly preserved, along with some other lesser items, all of which were very carefully carried and handled by Cecil and me…”

– Roy H. Owsley

Gabrielle Robertson, a WKU history professor who began what is now the Kentucky Museum and Library Special Collections, kept these moccasins for study by WKU students and faculty.

The Kentucky Museum ownsthe moccasins shown in this exhibit. If you would like to help preserve this artifact, please consider adopting the moccasins ($100) by making a gift to the Adopt an Artifact program

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.

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