Why are there huge rock stacks located throughout the Appalachian Mountains?

Photo courtesy of Paul Hopkins
Photo courtesy of Paul Hopkins

The mountains of Appalachia are filled with mystery and intrigue.

Having been occupied by a countless number of differing cultures for thousands of years, the land often yields questions but seldom offers any hint as to the vast underworld hidden beneath her leaves and ancient soil.

One question that is asked with surprising frequency has to do with the origins of mysterious rock piles located in overgrown forests — occasionally these rock piles are perfectly squared, whereas at other times, they seem as though they are merely a mound of stones gathered from across the hillside and collected into one location.

Paul Hopkins of Pike County, Kentucky, has one such rock structure in his area (pictured above), measuring approximately 20′ long, 8′ wide and 6′ high in the front. Perfectly square and plumb.

Hopkins says his great-grandfather died in 1981 at age 101 and had told him that the rocks had been there since at least he was a boy.

But where did they come from?

Were these stones laid by America’s first human inhabitants, ancient aliens or something less exotic?  Like so many others, the answer to this question all depends on whom you ask!

For most rock piles found throughout the mountains of Appalachia, there seems to be a general consensus that as early settlers would begin clearing a hillside in order to farm, they would stack all rocks gathered along the mountainside into one giant pile – this would allow opportunities to plant corn on what had previously been ground too rocky to farm.

One Internet commenter said that there “were numerous stacks in the hollow I grew up in. I have even helped remove a few in my great-grandmothers gardens.”

Regarding this particular photo, another person stated, “It’s a rock fence. When they plowed their fields they would stack the rocks that way. The woods in this picture is a growed up farm.”

If this is true, it’s both heartbreaking and reassuring to realize just how temporary man’s mark upon a hillside can be: only a few tons of displaced rocks stand as a silent witness to the lives of the individuals who once worked the land.

However, not all rock walls or rock mounds found in the Appalachian Mountains were laid by the hands of early settlers.

Hopkins says that the location in which this particular rock formation was found has no evidence of any roads or previous farming having taken place — which is on a “very steep mountain,” this begs the question, what else could have done this?

Numerous large rock mounds throughout Kentucky-West Virginia have been discovered as being grave sites of an ancient native nation known simply as “the Mound Builders.”

Other rock formations, though most often much smaller than the one in this photo, are known as cairns – a human-made pile (or stack) of stones that have been used by a variety of cultures for a countless number of purposes, including being erected as landmarks, burial monuments, defense and hunting structures, ceremonial purposes,  and sometimes relating to astronomy.

Massive rock piles have also been used to help individuals locate buried items, such as caches of food or objects; and to mark trails, among other purposes.

Unfortunately, the rocks on this eastern Kentucky mountainside are keeping their silence, unwilling to share a secret which only they know.

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  1. The most common type of rock structure found in Appalachia are simple piles. These were from cleared hillsides that were used to grow corn before the land played out. You can tell that they had no other purpose as they are in non-distinct locations and are not arranged in any way. In other places, particularly on Pine Mountain, there are piles that are located at distinct locales. These are said to be ancient burial mounds from pre-Columbus times. Another type are the rock walls that frequently corralled hogs for homesteads or excluded such from water sources and the like. The last example I can think of are columns that occur on steep hillsides in a specific location on Pine Mountain. If they were arranged slightly differently, I would say that they were foundational columns for a house or other structure, but they are irregularly placed and cover far too large an area. They are of a uniform height, but are arranged non-uniformly on the hillside. One suggestion from my wife’s grandmother (now 90) who grew up near the location and on the mountain, was that they were possibly used to dry apples. Seems like too much trouble for such a limited task and the location in a cool cove, rather than a sunny place where apples would easily cure. It remains a mystery.

  2. My mothers family raised corn on these hill sides in eastern Ky, there are a couple of these rockpiles on my property from long forgotten hillside corn patches. My mother and her siblings hoed corn around the sides of these hills in the 20’s and 30’s. when I was a just a boy we used to have people come and look for Native American artifacts in the rockpiles even after we told them how they got there. We let them, it was entertaining watching them plunder all day through those rockpiles. Knowing they weren’t going to find anything. Most came to the same conclusion albeit wrong . Someone had beaten them there. Shad is correct. I’m not saying that there aren’t burial sites but they are les common than plain old rock piles

    I’ll offer up,an explanation as to why the raised corn on the hillsides instead of the bottom land, it was usually reserved for raising grasses to cut for hay because the horse drawn mowers and rakes couldn’t work on the hillside and bottom land was at a premium in these steep hills. Interestingly enough they probably worked harder raising enough feed for their livestock as the did for the families.

    I’ve often joked that the decline in family size wasn’t due to better education and advances in birth control but due to the fact they didn’t need to raise from 6 to 10 farmhands as industry and coal mining came to the area.

    • Thanks for the great addition to the article! We always appreciate the feedback of our readers!

  3. perhaps they could have been done for protection, when battles were fought between states and neighbors? To hide behind when shooting? I grew up in Virginia and the stone walls there were fences. 🙂

  4. My neighbor recently erected one of these rock walls with his bare hands. The rock simply came from where he dug out a foundation for a garage he is planning on building. No mystery about that.

  5. My grandparents gardened on a hillside. The rocks removed from the clearing were used at the base to help collect the soil washed down from the rain, helped kept their cow out of the garden and made for a more attractive look than just a pile of rocks. I also suspect it kept their boys busy and out of mischief ?

  6. We recently bought a home on top of a mountain in West Virginia, that sits on ten acres. We haven’t as yet explored it all. So far we have found mounds of rocks and man made rock structures . These structures consists of three wall and a roof made of stone. This is forest area and very rocky.
    This area was very active during the Civil War. I am very curious about these and would love to learn more . Any knowledge or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  7. I’d be delighted to know the answer to this mystery– I have no authority to say what is correct or not– however, all of the mountains around here were logged completely back in the day…what if these same rock piles were structures relative to that enterprise?

  8. We found this huge rock wall years ago off of Highway 91 somewhere between Tennessee and Virginia. This is in the part of the Highway 91 when it becomes dirt. We’ve always wondered what this was from. It was 8-12 feet tall and quite wide at the bottom tapering as it got taller. Looks like it has been there for centuries. We thought maybe it was from the Revolutionary War or the Civil War.

  9. In Grayson County VA a lot of these piles has been reused for fire places. Most of these rocks are flat which lends themselves for this purpose.

  10. Lovely rock walls and cairns abound in the Highlands of Scotland. I understand the rock walls were chiefly just a way to clear the rocky soil of its stones to allow for farming. The Scots settlers of Appalachia were probably just doing what they did at home in their similar-looking Scottish Highlands! ⛰⛰⛰

  11. In Scotland and Ireland where many of our ancestors came from, these rock piles were from clearing land and became fences. A wall in a home. Or foundations of structures. Was also possible uses. My mother told me once that they used an old corner structure to store apples and some vegetables on the farm. The art of dry stacking stones is a lost art in most regions. Some of the old craftsman could do amazing things structurally with a simple rock and the craft was strongest where timber was no longer available.

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