- 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
As Thomas laid his plans, another Bureau of Ethnology staff member, Henry W. Henshaw, fired the opening salvo of the campaign in the bureau’s second annual report, published in 1883. Henshaw took out after Squier and Davis, though paying homage to their “skill and zeal” and to “the ability and fidelity which mark the presentation of their results to the public.” He punctured certain erroneous zoological conclusions that they had drawn from animal-effigy pipes, which to them seemed to indicate Mound Builder commerce with South America and Africa. Then he turned on the famous elephant effigies “found” in Iowa, pronouncing them clumsy fakes. This drew outraged cries from the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences in Iowa, which had sponsored the discovery of the elephant pipes and resented the “intemperate zeal” of the Bureau of Ethnology, which from its “commanding position … in the world of science” had chosen to deliver “an attack of no ordinary severity … upon the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences.”
While Henshaw battled with the lowans over the authenticity of the elephant pipes, Thomas and his assistants roamed the Midwest and Southeast, collecting thousands of artifacts from mounds, including a good many of European manufacture, such as silver bracelets and crosses and specimens of machine-worked copper. All this served to reinforce Powell’s original conviction that
… a few, at least, of the important mounds of the valley of the Mississippi had been constructed and used subsequent to the occupation of the continent by Europeans, and that some, at least, of the mound builders were therefore none other than known Indian tribes.
Thomas’ first formal theoretical statement on the mounds occupied more than a hundred pages of the Bureau of Ethnology’s fifth annual report, released in 1887. Though he stated again and again that his conclusions were preliminary, Thomas’ agreement with the Powell position was evident on every page. He opposed the “lost race” theory, and said:
… whether the “Indian theory” proves to be correct or not, I wish to obtain for it at least a fair consideration. I believe the latter theory to be the correct one, as the facts so far ascertained appear to point in that direction, but I am not wedded to it; on the contrary, I am willing to follow the facts wherever they lead.
Thomas conceded that the picture of a mighty nation occupying the great valley of the Mississippi, with a chief ruler, a system of government, a vast central city, was “fascinating and attractive.” He saw the romance in the image of the disappearance of this nation “before the inroads of savage hordes, leaving behind it no evidence of its existence, its glory, power, and extent save these silent forest-covered remains.” But he warned that this theory, when once it has taken possession of the mind, “warps and biases all its conclusions.”
After publishing several subsequent shorter reports, Thomas settled down to the production of his magnum opus: the massive essay, covering 730 quarto pages of small type, that fills the whole of the Bureau of Ethnology’s twelfth annual report (1894). Here the Mound Builder myth was interred at last beneath a monument of facts. The heart of the report, covering nearly 500 pages, was simply a digest of field research, interspersed only occasionally with quotations from early explorers or with Thomas’ interpretative conjectures. This was followed by an essay of some eighty pages on the types and distribution of mounds, showing with considerable force and skill the implausibility of assigning all the earthworks to a single “race.” Lastly, Thomas reviewed the entire mound problem as it had unfolded since the eighteenth century, dealing in turn with each of the theories he was overthrowing. He deflated the lost-race fantasy with vigor and conviction. His basic conclusion, vital to any comprehension of American prehistory, was cool and rational:
The mound-builders were divided into different tribes and peoples, which, though occupying much the same position in the culture scale, and hence resembling each other in many of their habits, customs, and modes of life, were as widely separated in regard to their ethnic relations and languages as the Indian tribes when first encountered by the white race.
That statement needed refining—for actually the various mound-building groups did not occupy “much the same position in the culture scale.” But it went to the essential truth of the situation: the archaeologists, as they sought to unravel the mystery of the mounds, had to be prepared to deal with diversity, not unity. Thomas’ great report marked the end of an era. No longer could one speak of “the Mound Builders” in quite the same way, with the old implications of a single empire. But Thomas had raised as many questions as he had answered. It remained for archaeologists to examine the contents of the mounds more closely, to analyze the cultural traits of their builders, to study relationships—in short, to develop a coherent picture of the ancient American past.
That picture has largely come clear today, though all the problems are far from solved. In place of a monolithic race of Mound Builders, archaeologists have identified a succession of mound-building cultures spanning several thousand years. Careful excavation, comparison of artifacts and structural techniques, and use of such modern archaeological methods as carbon-14 dating have served to replace the old myth with reasonably certain scientific conclusions. Skeletal and cultural evidence shows clear kinship between the builders of the mounds and their less advanced neighbors and successors.