A Pioneer Archaeologist’s Legacy Honored With Historical Marker
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WATER VALLEY – A project that has been in the works for over a decade became a reality with the unveiling of a historical marker Saturday honoring a founder of Americanist Archaeology.
James A. “Jim” Ford (1911-1968) was a pioneer in archaeology, conducting extensive surveys across the Southeast including the Mississippi Delta. He was also a native of Water Valley, a descendant of the Ford family that traces their Yalobusha roots to Ford’s Well founder William Boyd Ford.
“Thirty years ago as an undergraduate student, I took my first archaeology class and James Ford was featured in the first chapter of that textbook… as the founder of Americanist Archaeology,” explained University of Mississippi Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Dr. Maureen Meyers.
It was Myers’ idea for the historical marker noting Ford’s accomplishments be placed in his hometown.
“I was very fascinated by the story of a small-town boy from Water Valley who worked his way through the Great Depression, and who developed what we know as the seriation technique,” the professor explained during the dedication that included highlights of his esteemed career. “He allowed us to understand how humans lived in the past.”
Meyers shared a timeline of Ford’s career, starting when he was barely out of high school in Water Valley in 1927 when he was hired by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He was sent to look for Native American sites in Mississippi for three summers.
In 1930, he assisted Smithsonian archaeologist Henry Collins in Alaska.
By 1933, he was “uniquely qualified” to oversee excavations at the Ocmulgee Site in Macon, Ga. while the Great Depression was raging.
“One of the premier Southeastern sites. He oversaw hundreds of untrained men who were put to work so they could feed their families. He excavated some of the largest earthen mounds in the Southeast. He worked all down and taught the men the basics of archaeology by night,” she explained.
Ford also excavated at the nearby Lamar Mounds and Village Site in Georgia, overseeing 700 workmen at one point as they reconstructed the earthen lodge in 1935.
“Only a few people have been allowed to dig there. Ford was one and I am really honored to say I was another one,” Beyers added.
Ford completed an undergraduate degree and later a master’s degree at the University of Michigan.
“He did all of this in the summer,” Meyers added about his busy schedule. “He later got a Ph.D at Columbia and was named the assistant curator of North American Archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History.”
The dedication also included opening remarks by Water Valley Mayor Donald Gray. Eighth generation Ford family member, Steve Ford, provided history on the family.
“I am going to try my best to fill in for Uncle Melvin (Ford),” Steve Ford explained about his uncle who died earlier this year.
“Uncle Melvin was a lifelong Yalobusha County man and knew so much about the history of our family. We lost a lot of that with him,” Steve Ford added.
The family story started with Nathaniel Ford, Sr., who came to the United States from England in the mid-1700s.
“He was a Revolutionary War soldier and this is where it all began,” Steve Ford continued.
Four generations later, the family story continues with William Boyd Ford, the grandfather of the famous archaeologist.
“He came from South Carolina and moved out to Ford’s Well. He established a hotel. He had two wives and had children by each one of them. That is when the population of Fords in Yalobusha County exploded,” Steve Ford added.
“My dad was also named James Ford. He died in 1989. We are here to honor an archaeologist. I think my dad thought I was an archaeologist because he was in the construction business and everything we did was dug with a shovel,” Steve Ford joked.
“Our family is very honored to be here today. It is a great tribute to carry on the memory of Jim Ford and his work in archaeology,” he added.