- 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
Ephraim Squier produced his era’s definitive study of the Mound Builders in 1847: Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley , a ponderous folio written in collaboration with an Ohio physician, Edwin H. Davis, and published by the newly founded Smithsonian Institution. Their book instantly established itself as a work of commanding importance in American archaeology. As a summary of the knowledge of its particular field at that time, it was remarkable; as a model for later workers, it was invaluable; as a detailed record of the Ohio mounds as they appeared about 1847, it was unique. Squier and Davis described, classified, and analyzed hundreds of mounds, suggested varying purposes for them, and provided detailed charts so accurate and attractive that blowups of them are posted today at many of the surviving Ohio earthworks. Yet Squier and Davis adhered to the lostrace theory. Any visitor to the mounds, they wrote, must surely come away impressed by the “judgment, skill, and industry of their builders. … a degree of knowledge much superior to that known to have been possessed by the hunter tribes of North America previous to their discovery by Columbus, or indeed subsequent to that event.” The handsome tools, weapons, and pottery excavated from mounds, the vigorous pipes carved in animal forms, and other finely wrought Mound Builder relics called forth from them the judgment that “as works of art they are immeasurably beyond anything which the North American Indians are known to produce, even at this day, with all the suggestions of European art and the advantages afforded by steel instruments.” It was an accurate observation, but it led the scholars to mistaken inferences.
The modern era in archaeology was now beginning. The cities of Egypt and Assyria were being exhumed; the Neanderthal skull had been found, transforming man’s view of his past; Heinrich Schliemann was planning his excavation of Troy. In the United States some archaeologists continued to revolve the Israelite, Viking, and Mexican theories of the Mound Builders’ origin; others introduced the exciting theory that they were survivors of the lost island Atlantis; and still others began to search for a more rational explanation of the earthen monuments. To most, the existence of the Mound Builders as a distinct, ancient, and vanished race still looked like the most probable alternative, especially after certain pipes in the form of elephant effigies turned up near Davenport, Iowa. It was generally agreed that the mammoths and other American elephants had died out thousands of years ago; and if elephant effigies were being uncovered in mounds, did that not prove the great antiquity of the Mound Builders? The voices of those who ascribed the mounds to the ancestors of recent Indian tribesmen were drowned out.
But then a new voice was heard through the land: that of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran best known for his 1869 journey down the turbulent Colorado River. He had become, ten years later, the founder of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology. With great eloquence and passion Powell had called for such a department to study the North American Indians. He did not at first intend that his department should do any archaeological work; he planned only to survey the languages, arts, institutions, and mythologies of extant tribes. But in 1881 a group of archaeologists quietly lobbied behind Powell’s back and got Congress to tack an extra five thousand dollars to the Bureau of Ethnology’s budget for “continuing archaeological investigation relating to mound-builders and prehistoric mounds.”
Powell was not pleased, for he did not have funds enough even to do the ethnological work as he thought proper; but he obeyed Congress’s behest, and set up a division within the bureau to investigate the mounds. He himself had done some mound digging in the Midwest from 1858 to 1860, and had found glass, iron, and copper artifacts in them that seemed plainly to have been acquired from white men. This led him to the conclusion that some of the mounds “were constructed subsequent to the advent of the white man on this continent.” Since Congress had mandated a mound examination, Powell decided to use the opportunity to check his own theories. Late in 1881 he picked Cyrus Thomas, an Illinois-born entomologist, botanist, and archaeologist, to take charge of the bureau’s mound explorations. When Thomas came to the Bureau of Ethnology he was, he said, a “pronounced believer in the existence of a race of Mound Builders, distinct from the American Indians.” Powell gave him one clerical assistant and three field assistants and told them to draw up a plan for a mound survey. The slayer of the myth was at hand, whether he himself knew it or not.