- Historic Sites
“…and The Mound-builders Vanished From The Earth”
What became of the prehistoric race that built the elaborate ceremonial mounds found in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys? Nineteenth-century America had a romantic but self-serving answer
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
To the early European settlers of North America, this land had one serious shortcoming: it lacked visible signs of a past. Egypt had her pyramids, England her Stonehenge, Greece her Acropolis; but those who came to this green New World failed to find those traces of awesome antiquity on which romantic myths could be founded. It was not cheering to feel that one was entering an empty land peopled only by naked, wandering savages. Mexico and South America had yielded stone temples and golden cities, but here in the north was, seemingly, a continent only of woods and plains, inhabited by simple huntsmen and equally simple sedentary farmers. Were there no grand, imagination-stirring symbols of vanished greatness? In all this mighty domain, was there nothing to compare with the antiquities of the Old World?
Men in search of a myth will usually find one, if they work at it. In the Thirteen Colonies the mythmakers had little raw material for their fantasies; but as the colonists gradually spread westward and southward they came upon mysterious and tantalizing earthen mounds. It was obvious that they were manmade relics of an earlier time. How were they to be interpreted?
The mounds lacked beauty and elegance, perhaps. They were mere heaps of earth. Some were of colossal size, like the Cahokia mound in Illinois, standing one hundred feet high and covering sixteen acres; others were mere blisters rising from the ground. Some stood in solitary grandeur above broad plains, while others sprouted in thick groups. All were overgrown with trees and shrubs, so that their outlines could barely be distinguished. Once cleared, the mounds revealed a regularity and symmetry of form. Within them were found evidences of former civilization: human bones, weapons, tools, jewelry.
The greatest concentration of mounds lay in the heart of the continent—in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. There were subsidiary mound areas in western Tennessee and Kentucky, and nearly every major waterway of the Midwest was rimmed by clusters of them; there were also outlying mound zones from western New York to Nebraska. In the South, mounds lined the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to eastern Texas, and reached up through the Carolinas and across to Oklahoma. There were so many of them—ten thousand in the valley of the Ohio River alone—that they seemed surely to be the work of a vanished race which with incredible persistence had erected them in the course of hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, and then had disappeared from our land.
Why a vanished race?
Because the Indians of the Midwest, as the settlers found them, were sparse in number and limited in ambition; they were seminomadic savages who seemed incapable of the sustained effort needed to quarry and shape tons of earth. Nor did they have any traditions about the mounds; when questioned, they shrugged and spoke vaguely about ancient tribes.
The mounds naturally came under close scrutiny. By the early nineteenth century hundreds if not thousands of them had been examined, measured, and partly excavated. These early studies revealed a great variety of shape. Near the Great Lakes they tended to be gigantic effigies, in low relief, of birds, reptiles, beasts, or men—apparently of some sacred significance. These effigy mounds are most common in Wisconsin, although the best known is the Great Serpent mound in Ohio, an earthern snake twenty feet wide and a yard high that wriggles along for some 1,330 feet. In the Ohio Valley, the customary shape of a mound was conical, up to eighty or ninety feet in height; these usually contained tombs. Elsewhere, notably in the South, there were immense flat-topped mounds, truncated pyramids of earth, some terraced or having graded roadways leading to their summits. Mounds of this sort aooeared to have been platforms for temples.
In addition to effigy mounds, burial mounds, and temple mounds, two types of embankments were seen, mainly in the Ohio-Indiana-Illinois-Missouri zone. On hilltops, huge “forts” covering many acres had been erected with formidable dirt walls. In lowland sites were found striking geometrical enclosures—octagons, circles, squares, ellipses—with walls five to thirty feet high surrounding plots of as much as two hundred acres. Running out from the enclosures often were parallel walls many miles long, forming great avenues.
From the beginning, antiquarians worked hard to explain the mounds. Scholars ransacked history for evidence of ancient mound-building cultures and found it in Herodotus, in Homer, in the annals of Rome, in the Viking sagas; even in the Old Testament, which described how the Canaanites and Israelites had worshipped their deities in “high places”—surely, said the scholars, artificial mounds. The discovery of the American mounds opened the floodgates of speculation. If the Israelites had built mounds in the Holy Land, why not in Ohio? Learned men suggested that our land had been visited in antiquity by Hebrews, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Vikings, Hindus, Phoenicians—anyone, in short, who had ever built a mound in the Old World.
In this way was born a legend that dominated the American imagination throughout the nineteenth century. It was the myth of the Mound Builders, a lost race of diligent and gifted artisans who had passed across the scene in shadowed prehistory, ultimately to be exterminated by the treacherous, ignorant redskinned savages who even now were causing so much trouble for the Christian settlers of the New World. The myth took root, flourished, grew mightily; men spun tales of lost kings and demolished cities; a new religion even sprang from the legends. What was the truth behind all this supposition?