There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the ancient “Bluff-Dwellers” of the Ozarks. Mark Harrington wrote a nice account of the archaeological evidence in a book entitled “The Ozark Bluff Dwellers”; he even lists the archaeological sites associated with these ancient peoples (I’ve been to several of these sites). The consensus amongst researchers seems to be that the Bluff-Dwellers were amongst the “Paleo-Indian” group of aboriginal peoples, who would have lived in the area beginning in about 12,000 B.C. and continuing on up until the Archaic Period at about 7,000 B.C. They are called the Bluff-Dwellers because, well, they took shelter on the many bluffs that are throughout the Ozarks. Chances are if you’ve hiked in one or more of the National Forests in the Ozarks you’ve seen one of these Bluff-Dweller sites. Many of them are now labeled on trail maps.
So why all the mystery? Well The Bluff-Dwellers are interesting to talk about because they figure into many folk beliefs in the Ozarks. The Ozark hillfolk knew about the Bluff-Dwellers long before any archaeologists came into the area. Many of the first researchers back in the 20’s used local guides to help them find the bluff dwellings, and many of the sites were on the property of hillfolk. Nobody really knows what happened to the Bluff-Dwellers, although it’s likely that the peoples either moved out of the area or were incorporated into other groups around the Ozarks. There are, however, many local legends surrounding what happened to the Bluff-Dwellers. I’ve talked to many old folks out in the hills who think they’re still living in the Ozarks, just deep down in the caves and under the mountains. One story I heard said that in order to avoid being killed by another incoming group of people the Bluff-Dwellers turned into deer and still wander the hills today. Another similar story says that they turned themselves into the giant boulders and piles of rocks you see scattered throughout the woods around here (see picture below).
The Bluff-Dwellers are interesting when it comes to Ozark folklore. When you think about it, the Ozark people already had with them stories from Ireland and Scotland about ancient peoples living in hills and rock cairns. “Elf shot” was a common folk sickness in much of Northern Europe, being derived from the finding of caches of arrowheads buried in fields. So, with that in mind, we can see how old folk tales of the “gentry” who live in the fairy mounds might merge with the finding of artifacts from the ancient Bluff-Dwellers. They are both treated in similar ways, e.g. the “sidhe” retreating to the hills to escape invaders and the Bluff-Dwellers turning into rocks or going down into the caves to escape a very similar danger.
I wouldn’t dream of going as far as to say that the Bluff-Dwellers are a sort of Ozark “sidhe” but I will say that many of the hillfolk treated them with the same sort of reverence and applied many of the same folkloric qualities to them as their Northern European ancestors did for the long dead ancient peoples they lived beside, and that gives us something interesting to think about.