Mystery pipe washes up at Fort Wool

Hampton History Museum curator J. Michael Cobb has seen a lot of unusual objects wash up at historic Fort Wool during nearly three decades as the chief caretaker of the tiny island.

But when he was handed a small pipe found by a visitor on the jetty last year, he knew he was looking at something special.

Measuring less than 4 inches long -- and stained red and green across its stony-looking surface -- the pipe shows convincing signs of age as well as some carved decoration on the bowl that may identify it as Native American.

But exactly how old it is and where it came from before splashing up in the waters of Hampton Roads has Cobb and a couple of experts buzzing.

As the keeper of the vaults at Historic Jamestowne, curator Bly Straube has won international renown for her ability to zero in on and identify virtually any artifact that archaeologists bring in from the site of English America's oldest permanent settlement, including Native American material.

But after reviewing several pictures of the pipe by e-mail, she can only say that it doesn't look like anything made by Indians in this region -- and that it's a pretty interesting find worth some additional study.

Archaeologist Dennis Blanton, the former head of the College of William and Mary's Center for Archaeological Research, examined the pictures, too, and came away wanting to know a lot more about this mysterious little object.

"A critical piece of evidence will be the source of the stone," he wrote in his reply, noting several colleagues who might be able to identify its origin by chemical analysis.

"At this point I'd say the best explanation for it is loss by some modern interloper or a bona fide connection with some of the Native captives. Cool stuff."

Perhaps the most famous of the Native Americans with whom the pipe may be connected is Chief Black Hawk, who was sent to Fort Monroe along with more than half-a-dozen companions -- including Whirling Thunder and The Prophet -- after their defeat by American forces in the 1832 Black Hawk War.

The Indians became a tourist sensation during their 6-week stay, which included frequent social meetings with Fort Monroe commander Abraham Eustis at Quarters #1. But despite being given the run of the fort, it's not known if they traveled out to Fort Wool, then under construction under the supervision of Robert E. Lee, for any kind of visit.

Still, the group did meet with President Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C., after their capture, and Jackson's fondness for Fort Wool brought him there so frequently that the island became the first summer White House in the 1820s and '30s.

So some kind of connection with Black Hawk and the Sauk Indians is not completely out of the question.

Blanton hopes to examine the pipe in person when he visits Virginia in a couple of weeks.

More then if he makes it.

-- Mark St. John Erickson



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