Waselkov Discovers Ancient Native American Canal in Baldwin County

Dr. Greg Waselkov, emeritus professor at USA, and other archaeologists have discovered an ancient canal cut through the sandy soil of the Fort Morgan peninsula 1,400 years ago. The canal, once ran south from Oyster Bay to the northern shore of Little Lagoon in Gulf Shores in 600 A.D. It would have served as a prehistoric super highway, facilitating travel by dugout canoe from Mobile Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, in an area of rich fishing and full of shrimp, crabs and oysters.

The excavation of the six tenths of a mile canal near Little Lagoon was led by Waselkov. "There are other similar ancient canals, but they are very rare. All of the other canals, and there are only six known examples of this type, are all in Florida," Waselkov said. "The Gulf Shores canal is one of the best preserved ancient canals. There are many short canals found at coastal sites, but long ones like the Gulf Shores example, which ran for a kilometer or more are quite rare."

The Gulf Shores canal is a major treasure for the northern Gulf Coast. There is another canal that was located in the Florida panhandle area, but the others are in the Everglades and south Florida.

"The other ancient canals I know of in Northern America are the Hohokam irrigation canals of Arizona, which are similar in appearance and scale and very extensive, but very different in terms of function and hydrology," Waselkov said.

This canal is about 30 feet wide and six feet deep, and would have been created for conveyance in 600 A.D., during an era known as the Middle Woodland period. The Middle Woodland period featured extensive trade networks that connected tribes spread across the United States. Tribes in the Midwest, for instance, traded metals such as copper and silver. Tribes near massive obsidian deposits in Oregon traded shards of the volcanic glass, while Gulf Coast tribes traded large shells and animal teeth, such as from alligators and sharks.

During that time, one of the easiest ways to travel was by water. That was especially true along the Gulf Coast, where our forests often form dense grasslands. Look at a map of the Fort Morgan peninsula and the benefits of this particular canal are quickly apparent. As you study the map, remember that the Intracoastal Canal did not exist.

Traveling from the mouth of Weeks Bay to the tip of Fort Morgan, at that time, would require a 14-mile paddle across the bay, where two-foot waves are common. Then imagine making that trip in a hollowed-out log with paddles carved from trees.  That would mean an arduous trip, getting to the Gulf of Mexico from the eastern shore, requiring hours of paddle across the open and often rough waters of Mobile Bay. 

While the benefits of the canal for travel are obvious, it was clearly abandoned at some point and allowed to fill in. Only a few sections of the canal are apparent today, one where it dumps in to Little Lagoon.

Harry King, a resident of Gulf Shores, received tips from locals in the community and organized the volunteer effort with other archaeologists.