- 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
Such fictions were avidly consumed by a New York farm boy named Joseph Smith, who was to found a major religion with tenets based on the Mound Builder tales. (See “The Farm Boy and the Angel” in the October, 1962, AMERICAN HERITAGE .) Born in 1805, Smith as a boy was given to experiencing religious visions, and also to speculating on the origin of the mounds. His mother later recalled:
He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.
In 1823, Smith declared, an angel named Moroni came to him at night and showed him a book written on golden plates, which he could find buried in a hillside near Palmyra, New York. Four years later he began, with divine aid, to translate the plates, and by 1830 he produced the 588-page Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon, which inspired a religious movement that endured vicious persecution, the martyrdom of its leaders, and the official opposition of the United States government, reveals that Joseph Smith had carefully studied the Mound Builder legends. Owing much in style to the King James Bible, and deriving many of its themes from the Old Testament, it tells how, about 600 B.C. , a party of Israelites escapes from Jerusalem just prior to its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. Through God’s guidance they cross the ocean to America, where they prosper and multiply, building mighty cities and great mounds and surrounding them with huge fortifications. But they split into two factions, the Nephites and the Lamanites. The Nephites till the land and become rich, but the Lamanites are ungodly, and sink into savagery. To punish them, God turns their skins red. They are, in fact, the ancestors of the American Indians. The Nephites, too, grow corrupt, backsliding into idolatry, and God, angered by their sins, sends the Lamanites to destroy them. In a climactic battle in A.D. 401 the last of the Nephites are engulfed by the red-skinned barbarians; one priest survives to compile the record on golden plates, which he buries and which remain hidden until discovered and translated by Smith.
By some two million Americans today The Book of Mormon is regarded in the same light as the Gospels or the Five Books of Moses. To their critics, however, Mormon beliefs are merely amusing fantasies, and the sacred Book of Mormon itself is just another literary expression of the Mound Builder mythology.
In the middle years of the nineteenth century came a reaction against the more extravagant expressions of the lost-race myth. New archaeological research helped to foster this cooler attitude. Abelard Tomlinson, a member of the family that owned the property on which the vast Grave Creek mound stands in what is now West Virginia, excavated it in 1838. Sinking a seventy-seven-foot shaft, he found a stonecovered log-walled chamber that enclosed a skeleton decorated with a profusion of copper rings, shell beads, and mica plates. The Grave Creek artifacts were examined by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, one of the great early figures of American anthropology, who pondered the problem of the mounds and in 1851 concluded: There is little to sustain a belief that these ancient works are due to tribes of more fixed and exalted traits of civilization, far less to a people of an expatriated type of civilization, of either an ASIATIC or EUROPEAN origin, as several popular writers very vaguely, and with little severity of investigation, imagined. … There is nothing, indeed, in the magnitude and structure of our western mounds which a semi-hunter and semi-agricultural population, like that which may be ascribed to the ancestors of Indian predecessors of the existing race, could not have executed.
Schoolcraft was a generation ahead of his time. Americans, scholarly and otherwise, ignored his strictures and continued to relish the fantasies of a departed civilization.