- 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
Deserted and overgrown earthworks were found by the settlers who began to enter the Ohio Valley in the seventeen fifties, and within two decades sporadic and tentative descriptions of them were appearing. In 1787 a contingent of New Englanders arrived in Ohio and founded a village they called Marietta. Shortly, accounts of the extensive Marietta earthworks were exciting eastern scholars. Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, argued that they proved the descent of the Indians from Canaanites expelled from Palestine by Joshua. Benjamin Franklin, however, asserted that the Ohio mounds might have been constructed by Hernando de Soto in his wanderings. This contention was echoed by Noah Webster, although the lexicographer later abandoned the idea and credited the mounds to aborigines.
General Rufus Putnam, one of Marietta’s founders, made a careful map of the earthworks there. One feature was an irregular square enclosure covering about forty acres and containing four truncated pyramids, the largest of them 188 feet by 132 feet at the base, and ten feet high. Other mounds lay nearby, and at right angles to the enclosure was an avenue 680 feet long, 150 feet wide, bordered by embankments eight to ten feet high. “This passage,” wrote the archaeologist Ephraim George Squier in 1847, “may have been the grand avenue leading to the sacred plain above, through which assemblies and processions passed, in the solemn observances of a mysterious worship.”
The founding fathers of Marietta ordered the most impressive of these mounds preserved as public parks, and they remain to this clay. A clever Mariettan, the Reverend Manasseh Cutler, attempted in 1788 to compute the age of the mounds by counting the growth rings in the stumps of trees found on them; he calculated that the mounds had been erected no more recently than the early fourteenth century, and might well be over a thousand years old.
As the westward migration accelerated, interest in the mounds and their builders became intense—and theoies of their origin multiplied. Benjamin Smith Barton, a Philadelphia naturalist, suggested in 1787 that they were Viking tombs; for it had been noticed that Norsemen had interred their lords in burial mounds not much different from those in Ohio. Barton went on to suggest that after their sojourn in Ohio the Vikings had moved along to Mexico, whose stone pyramids seemed to many like improved versions of the earthworks in the United States. Barton’s fanciful notions contrasted with the more conservative ideas of another Philadelphia, the famed botanist William Bartram, who had taken a solitary jaunt through the mound country of the Southeast in 1773–77. Bartram examined dozens of mounds, such as the Ocmulgee group opposite the present city of Macon, Georgia, and Mount Royal on the St. Johns River in Florida. It seemed Io him likely that some of the mounds were the work of the Creek and Cherokee Indians who still occupied the regions, and that others, the grandest, had been constructed by unknown predecessors. Yet when he queried the Cherokees he reported that they “are as ignorant as we are, by what people or for what purpose those artificial hills were raised.” Still, at no point did Bartram postulate Vikings or other non-Indian transients as their builders; to his sober way of thinking, the mounds were probably the relics of some vanished Indian civilization. Thomas Jefferson, who not surprisingly was intensely interested in the mounds, was even more open-minded. “It is too early to form theories on those antiquities,” he wrote in 1787. “We must wait with patience till more facts are collected.”
Jefferson himself, a lifelong student of Indian lore, excavated a Virginia mound sometime prior to 1781 and published an account of his findings in his monograph Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). His archaeological technique was strikingly modern, giving careful attention to stratification and the position of artifacts; but he offered no imaginative explanations of the mound’s purpose or origin.
Others were less hesitant, especially after the founding of such towns as Cincinnati, Manchester, Chilli(othe, and Portsmouth brought a deluge of new data about the Ohio mounds. The English astronomer Francis Baily, accompanying a party of settlers down the Ohio in 1796, stopped to examine a group of mounds on what is today the West Virginia side of the river, and made the first recorded notice of the striking Crave Creek tumulus, which unknown pioneers had already discovered and partly excavated. The mounds, Baily wrote, must have been “built by a race of people more enlightened than the present Indians, and at some period of time very far distant.” This viewpoint was to be prevalent in the controversy that raged over the mounds for the next hundred years.