- 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
Identifying the vanished race became a popular scholarly pastime. The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, of whom nothing had been heard since the conquest of Jerusalem by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. , were a favorite choice. Many accounts appeared of the Hebrew migration to the Americas, listing dates of arrival, routes taken by specific tribes, and the mounds erected by each. There was no shortage of other ideas, however. Caleb Atwater, an Ohio postmaster who was the first to carry out an extensive archaeological study of the mounds, cited the presence of Old World mounds from Wales to Russia, and brought the Mound Builders to America via Asia, the Bering Strait, and Alaska. Writing in 1820, Atwater provided parallels between the cultures of India and ancient Ohio to prove his point: “The temples, altars, and sacred places of the Hindoos were always situated on the bank of some stream of water. The same observation applies to the temples, altars, and sacred places of those who erected our tumuli.” The migration had occurred long ago, he says—”as early as the days of Abraham and Lot,” maybe—judging by “the rude state of many of the arts among them.” After building the humble earthen heaps in Ohio, though, the Mound Builders had begun gradually to move south, gaining in skill all the while, until they reached Mexico. This can be seen in the line of mounds that, Atwater says, “continue all the way into Mexico, increasing indeed in size, number, and grandeur, but preserving the same forms.”
In comparison with some of his contemporaries, At-water was a model of controlled, judicious thought. Among the fantasists was William Henry Harrison, who had first seen the mound country as a young officer fighting against the Ohio Indians in 1791. Some thirty years later, as a retired United States senator not yet thinking of the White House, Harrison produced a romantic analysis of the Mound Builders, imagining stirring battles, sweeping migrations of tribes, mighty hosts of enlightened beings streaming through the heartland of what one day would be the United States. He wrote:
We learn first, from the extensive country covered by their remains, that they were a numerous people. Secondly, that they were congregated in considerable cities. … Thirdly, that they were essentially an agricultural people; because, collected as they were in great numbers, they could have depended on the chase but for a small portion of their subsistence.
He imagined “that they were compelled to fly from a more numerous or a more gallant people,” abandoning their great settlements. As for the hilltop fortifications, “it was here that a feeble band was collected … to make a last effort, for the country of their birth, the ashes of their ancestors, and the altars of their gods. …”
Such vivid depictions caught the public fancy, and other “historians” were soon profiting from the fad. In 1833 a journalist named Josiah Priest published an elaborate explanation of the mounds in a jumbled volume, American Antiquities . It was a best seller: some 22,000 copies were bought in thirty months.
The speculative ferment over the mounds naturally had its impact on the imaginations of poets and novelists. The first domestic treatment of the subject in verse seems to have been “The Genius of Oblivion,” published in 1823 by the New Hampshire poet Sarah J. Hale. Her thesis was that the Mound Builders were refugees from the Phoenician city of Tyre, who fled to America. In “Thanatopsis,” the poem that established his reputation in 1817 when he was only twenty-three, William Cullen Bryant spoke of the ancient race of men interred in “one mighty sepulchre” among “the hills rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun.” Fifteen years later, in “The Prairies,” he was moved by a visit to the mound country to evoke “the dead of other days” and “the mighty mounds that overlook the river.”
… A race, that long has passed away, Built them;—a disciplined and populous race Heaped, with long toil, the earth. … … The red man came — The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce, And the mound-builders vanished from the earth. … … The gopher mines the ground Where stood the swarming cities. All is gone; All—save the piles of earth that hold their bones, The platforms where they worshipped unknown gods. …
Novelists, too, heeded the appeal of the mounds, and for a while the genre of Mound Builder fiction was an active subbranch of American popular literature. A typical specimen is Cornelius Matthews’ Behemoth: A Legend of the Mound-Builders (1839), which described the efforts of the Mound Builders to cope with a mammoth of supernatural size and strength that rampaged through their cities until slain by a hero named Bokulla.