Winterset Chert: Home Stone
Updated: Nov 25
Just about everyone and their grandmother associates stone arrowheads with Native American ancestors. That's not wrong. The art of chipped stone goes back at least 16,000 years in the US. Stone tools are one of the most ancient parts of traditional culture that you can touch with your hands. However, an arrowhead is not just an arrowhead. Almost every old point is made in a particular style. That style is tied to a particular stone-working tradition that involves specific raw materials, tools, and flaking techniques that were developed by specific communities over the generations. These specific stone-working traditions are an artistic and cultural heritage for those communities' descendants. Unfortunately, archaeologists are often reluctant to connect today's Native American communities with ancient ancestors. For various reasons, most Native communities working to revitalize the art of stone tools are doing it in a general way, not necessarily dabbling in the stone-working traditions of their own ancestors; not yet. Together these factors result in a bit of a disconnect.
One way around this is to come at it from the perspective of homelands. Wonderfully varied types of siliceous stone (the rocks used for chipping stone tools) can be found on local landscapes all across the Unites States. There are so many different local types of chipable stone that I doubt that any one person could name them all. While they all break in basically similar ways to glass, each type has its own colors, textures, and quirks when it comes to shaping it. Each holds unique stories in the way it was formed from the land deep in the geologic past. Each has unique connections with the Indigenous communities who relied on it to meet their cutting edge needs down through the generations.
Winterset chert is a type of siliceous stone that comes from the four corners area of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. It's one of those local stone types that is not very widely known. I recently wanted to learn more about it, and was surprised to find that although a few articles mention this stone, it is not the main focus of any writing that I could find. Hopefully, this post can put a little more info out there for inquiring minds.
Some of our readers have heard me tell bits of this story before. I grew up in the Kansas City area. One day when I was 7 years old, my Uncle and I happened across some bluish, flint-like stone. He told me it was Winterset chert. Prying it out of the ground, he said, "Let's make some arrowheads out of this". That afternoon, I watched him use the head of a railroad spike to hammer off big chips of stone and use the beveled tip of the spike to push off finer chips. He made some nice-looking pieces. After a few days of practicing on my own, the "arrowhead" I eventually came up with didn't look like anything at all, but the experience kindled in me a desire to learn traditional arts and culture. That passion remains a huge influence in my life, in the work I do for Choctaw Nation, and even in Nan Awaya Farm.
In September, I was back visiting the Kansas City area. My Uncle and I were able to slip away on a couple of afternoons to look for some of this same stone. To get to do that with him again was more special to me than I can put into writing. Like the types of stone from the Choctaw homeland (see here and here), Winterset chert represents deep connections for me. The stone we recently collected was sitting there in the ground when I was born just a few miles away. It was there two hundred years earlier when the grass-covered lodges of the Kaw Tribe stood in the valley of the Little Blue River, which drains the eastern KC metro area. This very same stone was sitting there in the ground as dinosaurs walked over.
This chert is a part of the larger Winterset formation, which was made from the sediments laid down by a shallow sea that existed here 300 million years ago. These sediments have long since turned to stone, which today can be found eroding from the hilltops around Kansas City. The layers of shale formed from the near shore deposits; the layers of limestone formed in deeper water environments. Silica-rich solution infiltrated cavities within the limestone, forming nodules and bands of the bluish-colored chert.
The stone my Uncle and I recently collected came from lake spillways, a roadcut, a hilltop, and a tree-covered hillside. All are places where deposits of chert happened to be exposed at the ground surface. Deposits of Winterset chert can be massive, weighing hundreds of pounds. All of the big hunks that I've come across are filled with internal fractures, only partially healed. Those fractures cause irregularities that don't allow flakes to travel through the stone consistently. In other words, and unfortunately, the big pieces of Winterset chert can't be made into huge spear heads and knife blades. However, smaller solid pieces are often located within the mass. Water can be stronger than stone. When Winterset chert is exposed to the surface of the ground, cold winter temperatures freeze the water that has seeped into the seams in the stone. As the water expands into ice, the chert breaks apart along its weakest places. This tends to leave more solid pieces behind. Any remaining seams can easily be separated with a hammer stone. Often, this leaves thin-ish, flat-ish slabs of solid chert, an ideal shape to chip into a point or knife blade. From what I've encountered, these can be up to 5 inches long, but are usually less.
One of the objectively cool things about Winterset chert is that it has a lot of variations, and many of them involve bluish hues, which is a rare color for stone. The variations around the Kansas City area include some pieces that are dark gray to brownish-gray, internally consistent, and glassy (Scottsbluff point pictured below). This variation of Winterset is as easy to chip into a point as any stone in the world. Other Winterset variations are lighter blue-gray and contain ancient fractures healed with white quartz that can look a lot like lightening bolts on a background of storm clouds. Others have fine, alternating bands of colors. Still others are filled with tiny pockets hematite - handling a freshly broken surface of one of these bluish stones can color your hands red. Occasionally, these colorful variations of Winterset are consistent and easy to chip, but more often they're a challenge. Often, the lightening bolt fractures aren't completely healed and fall apart as the stone is worked. On some pieces of stone, it's possible to flake long the color bands, but not across them. Occasionally, fossils concealed inside the stone create hidden weak spots that lead you to break the piece in half as you shape it. For me, the connections as well as the beautiful colors in this stone more than make up for the frustrations even on the tough pieces.
I think the folks who used this stone back in the old days felt the same way. They made points and tools out of all of these variations - basically, from any piece that would hold together to be chipped into shape. The oldest Winterset chert quarry site around Kansas City that I know of goes back about 12,000 years, but it would surprise me if there are not even older points made from it. The KC area is best known archaeologically for the much later Nebo Hill and Kansas City Hopewell "phases". Although they didn't use it exclusively, the archaeological sites left by these communities are filled with Winterset artifacts. Later in time, the Kansa, Osage, and Ioway Tribes moved into the area from the east. Presumably, the Indigenous local groups who were already here amalgamated with them, blending their heritage in stone work, into these Tribes' stone-working traditions.
Until the recent stone-gathering trips with my Uncle, it had been more than a decade since I'd had the privilege of working rocks from my hometown. I'm enjoying getting reacquainted with this old friend. As I work this rock from my present home in Oklahoma, I my mind often goes to the family members that still live in the KC area and to the landscape and history of the area I grew up in. Some of the results of working this stone are pictured below. Unless otherwise noted, these pieces were made from the stone we recently collected and were shaped using antler and bone tools from Nana Awaya Farm.
The high point of this work involved our neighbor and Choctaw friend, Michael. This fall, I helped him make a traditional bow from a tree on his land, and he's done a great job. I made a set of Winterset points for his arrows, and he used one to harvest a beautiful buck pictured above. Outstanding job, Michael! - Taking a deer with a self-made wooden bow from your own home area using a stone point is something that few living people have done. I wonder, is this the first time Winterset has been used to harvest a deer since back in the old days? This winter, I'll use a piece of this stone to make a scraper to process the hide from one of our bison into a braintan robe. I'm sure that will be the first time Winterset has been used for that task in more than 200 years. Every time we wrap up in it, the finished buffalo robe will be a connection with the landscapes I grew up on.
Winterset is neat stuff, and not just because of its cool look or my personal connections with it. If something Indigenous can survive in a built-over metropolitan area that's home to upwards of 2 million people, the potential exists for elements of Indigenous lifeways to survive under practically any circumstances. That is Winterset chert. You can literally pick up a piece of it along a busy road right in the middle of town (as we did) and make it into an arrow point to harvest a deer. I've only worked a little bit of the stone we picked up. The best pieces are left and look forward to using them in the coming months.
I'm grateful to my Uncle and this stone for helping me get started in culture. I respect that Winterset is part of the homeland and heritage of Tribes other than my own. Being connected with something that goes back 300 million years and was used by the ancestors of other people reminds me that in the grand scheme of things, I'm just a little speck - as are we all. That is important to remember every now and then.