I have often written about John Pitchlynn and Fort Smith at Plymouth Bluff during the Creek Indian War of 1813-14 and the French army that camped there in 1736, but what fascinated me about the bluff when I was a child was fossils.
The chalk bluff is the remains of a 77 million-year-old Cretaceous sea floor where the fossils of shells, fish, marine reptiles and even a hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur) have been found. On top of the chalk is a soil bed, which dates to the Pleistocene or Ice Age. Fossils of mammoths, horses and giant ground sloths have been found there.
During the Cretaceous period, the age of dinosaurs, a great inland sea began stretching about 100 million years ago from the Gulf of Mexico through Canada. Its eastern shore was located in present-day western Alabama between Columbus and Tuscaloosa. There were volcanic islands where Jackson and Midnight, Mississippi (in the Delta) are located. The ocean deposits at Plymouth Bluff are from that period and date from 82 to 77 million years ago.
Plymouth Bluff has been nationally known as an important site for fossils since the 1850s, when Dr. William Spillman of Columbus collected fossils there that became important specimens at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The 1857 Preliminary Report on the Geology and Agriculture of the State of Mississippi even included the drawing of a cross section of the bluff.
Unfortunately, the 80-foot tall bluff no longer appears as it once did. A new river channel for the Stennis Lock and Dam at Columbus bypassed the bluff to preserve it. However, there was an unintended consequence. Yearly high waters no longer scoured the face of the bluff keeping it clean, and much of the bluff’s face is now covered by vegetation. The face of the bluff is not as spectacular a sight as it once was but is still beautiful and fossils can still be found.
Shark teeth are common in some of the strata as are large, ribbed oyster-related shells called exogyra. On the sandstone shelf at the base of the bluff are often found the impressions of a large muscle type shell named inoceramus and sometimes ammonites, a coiled shell of a mollusk related to the chambered nautilus. In the 1850s part of a fossil ammonite was found there, which if whole would have been about 12 feet in diameter.
The bluff is one of the few places in Mississippi where dinosaur fossils have been found. A few fossil bones of hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs) have been found there and a good many fragments of fossil turtle bones and shell have also been found. Shark teeth are common especially below the sandstone shelf.
Probably the most interesting fossil I ever found was from Plymouth Bluff. When I was about 12, Will Hardy and I were at the bluff collecting fossils and discovered a good bit of the skull and jaw of a mosasaur. It was the remains of a 15-foot-long, large toothed marine reptile that looked much like a lizard but with flippers rather than legs.
The soil at the top of the bluff dates to the Late Pleistocene, which is often referred to as the Ice Age. Common fossils include the teeth of extinct horses and fragments of mastodon and mammoth teeth. Fossil bones of llamas, long horned bison, wolves and bears have also been found. The saber-toothed cat was here but its fossils are rare. One of the largest animals and most unusual, whose fossils may be found, is the giant ground sloth.
While much of the bluff’s face is now covered with vegetation there are still places relatively open where fossils can be hunted. As much as anything, though, there is the enjoyment of exploring a beautiful and sometimes mysterious place. It is a place overflowing with both geologic and human history. And it is a place where who knows what you might find, a pretty view or the bone of a dinosaur.
In 1771, British surveyor Bernard Romans descended the Tombigbee River and passed Plymouth Bluff. He wrote a lengthy description of the bluff which he called “a very remarkable bluff.” He concluded by saying, “it looks as if made by art, and if placed near any town of note, I do not doubt would be much used as a walk … its being in the form of a crescent makes it have a very romantic appearance.” Along 4 1/2 miles of public walking trails the reason for Roman’s statement is still very evident today. Though the white chalk bluff face is now mostly overgrown the bluff remains an incredibly beautiful and remarkable place.
Today the bluff is home to the Mississippi University for Women Plymouth Bluff Center, which is both an environmental education center and a conference center located on about 190 wooded acres at the crest of the bluff with 4 1/2 miles of nature trails. The center also has guest cabins totaling 24 rooms which can be rented. The center contains a small but excellent museum of natural and cultural history which includes a significant display of fossils either found or the type found at the bluff. Although the walking trails are open to the public the center itself is presently, due to COVID-19, open only by appointment.