The honor is given by the Natchez Historical Society
NATCHEZ, Miss. – Joseph “Smokye Joe” Frank, a retired archaeologist and local historian, is the winner of the 2024 Historic Preservation Award presented by the Natchez Historical Society.
Karen Hill, the society’s president, shared the news at a recent board meeting.
“On behalf of the Natchez Historical Society, I am so pleased that we could honor Smokye Joe for his archaeological and historical contributions,” she said. “His work over the years has played a vital role in helping us to better understand and appreciate our history.”
The Historic Preservation Award honors individuals or organizations who have made a significant contribution to historic preservation or the study of history within the Natchez area.
When Frank learned of his selection for the award, he said he was flattered. “I Just turned 80 this year,” he said. “There are places I want to go and get back to to do the actual fieldwork. But at my age, I simply can’t do it. This recognition makes a difference. It makes turning 80 not as bad. It makes growing old worthwhile.”
Frank said the last time he was surprised in this way was in 1980 when he was selected to sit on the Louisiana National Register of Historic Places Review Committee.
The preservation award will be presented to Frank at the society’s 2024 Annual Dinner at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, at the Natchez Grand Hotel, 111 N. Broadway St.
Frank currently serves on the Natchez Preservation Commission. He is also a tour guide at Elms Court and Hope Farm. He previously served as an officer with the Natchez Historical Society.
In 2004, the Mississippi Archaeological Society honored him as the winner of the Calvin J. Brown Award. Several years ago, he was also awarded the L.B. Jones award by the Mississippi Archaeological Association for his years of contributions to Mississippi Archaeology.
Frank’s work as an archaeologist in Natchez started in the early 1960s, a year after he graduated from Cathedral High School, where he played football.
“In 1962, Robert S. Neitzel, archaeologist, gave me a job digging at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians,” he recalled. “That made up my mind. From then to the spring of 1970, I worked, went to school, and looked for Natchez Indian sites.”
For six years during the 1960s, Frank served with the Mississippi National Guard. In the spring of 1970, he graduated from Northwestern State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and anthropology.
The next year found him working with Dr. Jeff P. Brain of the Peabody Museum, with whom he assisted with a Lower Mississippi Survey and spent his summer surveying the Natchez Bluff. During this time, he took college students to visit his studies. One of those students was Ian W. Brown, who is now professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama.
Brown recounted: “In 1971 and 1972, Smokye was a major aid to Jeffrey P. Brain’s Lower Mississippi Survey’s operations surveying the Natchez Bluffs. This was a Peabody Museum, Harvard University project. It was at that time that Vin Steponaitis and I got to know Smokye very well, as he was constantly tracking down new sites for us.”
Brown said Frank also conducted research with Dr. Elizabeth Boggess, another respected archaeologist in Natchez. Boggess refers to Frank as her “colleague and dear friend.” She said that she was only a graduate student when they were assigned to check on all the previously recorded archaeological sites in this area.
“Over the years, I realize that I probably learned more from him than from any of my professors!,” she said.
In 1976, Frank graduated from Northwestern with a master’s degree in social studies with an emphasis on anthropology.
Frank’s work as an archaeologist can be seen in various locations in Natchez and Adams County. In 2015, he spearheaded efforts that resulted in the Adams County Board of Supervisors designating the portion of Lower Woodville Road — from Col. John Pitchford Parkway to the Sibley post office — as the Tunica Trail Tricentennial Bypass.
Frank said that what is now known as Lower Woodville Road was at one time a trail used by the Tunica Indians. “The early travelers labeled it the Tunica Trail,” he said.
Prior to this designation, Frank successfully led efforts to have Morgantown Road designated as the Natchez and Hamburg Railroad Company Memorial Byway.
In addition to his work in Mississippi, Frank served as an officer in the Southwest Louisiana Archaeological Society and in the newly formed Louisiana Archaeological Society.
During the 1990s, Frank worked with the Natchez Trace Archaeologist of the National Park surveying the last nine miles of the uncompleted development of the Natchez Trace Parkway into Natchez.
When surveying a site, “the goal is to determine whether human occupation ever occurred there,” Frank explained. He said the work involves, among other things, going out and selecting an area, looking at the land, walking the land, looking for artifacts, digging test holes, studying plants, studying geological information, and putting the information in a report.
Surveying also involves researching the property’s history, going back as far as one can, he said.
Since he retired from the State of Louisiana in 2001, Frank has continued to research various projects. In addition to looking for Natchez sites, he is retracing the Natchez and Hamburg Tracks.
Between 2001 and 2010, Frank assisted an archaeologist on Fort Rosalie and The Natchez Trace sites.
Jessica Crawford, southeast regional director for The Archaeological Conservancy, and longtime friend of Frank, applauded his achievements.
“In 1971, he helped search for the Tunica Treasure, and he’s recorded hundreds of sites,” she said. “I know he deserves many accolades!”
For more information on the society’s 2024 annual dinner and the presentation of Frank’s award, visit natchezhistoricalsociety.org or call 281-731-4433 or 601-492-3004.
Story Submitted BY: Roscoe Barnes III