Skip to main content

“…and The Mound-builders Vanished From The Earth”

July 2024
22min read

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

To the early European settlers of North America, this land had one serious shortcoming: it lacked visible signs of a past. Egypt had her pyramids, England her Stonehenge, Greece her Acropolis; but those who came to this green New World failed to find those traces of awesome antiquity on which romantic myths could be founded. It was not cheering to feel that one was entering an empty land peopled only by naked, wandering savages. Mexico and South America had yielded stone temples and golden cities, but here in the north was, seemingly, a continent only of woods and plains, inhabited by simple huntsmen and equally simple sedentary farmers. Were there no grand, imagination-stirring symbols of vanished greatness? In all this mighty domain, was there nothing to compare with the antiquities of the Old World?

Men in search of a myth will usually find one, if they work at it. In the Thirteen Colonies the mythmakers had little raw material for their fantasies; but as the colonists gradually spread westward and southward they came upon mysterious and tantalizing earthen mounds. It was obvious that they were manmade relics of an earlier time. How were they to be interpreted?

The mounds lacked beauty and elegance, perhaps. They were mere heaps of earth. Some were of colossal size, like the Cahokia mound in Illinois, standing one hundred feet high and covering sixteen acres; others were mere blisters rising from the ground. Some stood in solitary grandeur above broad plains, while others sprouted in thick groups. All were overgrown with trees and shrubs, so that their outlines could barely be distinguished. Once cleared, the mounds revealed a regularity and symmetry of form. Within them were found evidences of former civilization: human bones, weapons, tools, jewelry.

The greatest concentration of mounds lay in the heart of the continent—in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. There were subsidiary mound areas in western Tennessee and Kentucky, and nearly every major waterway of the Midwest was rimmed by clusters of them; there were also outlying mound zones from western New York to Nebraska. In the South, mounds lined the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to eastern Texas, and reached up through the Carolinas and across to Oklahoma. There were so many of them—ten thousand in the valley of the Ohio River alone—that they seemed surely to be the work of a vanished race which with incredible persistence had erected them in the course of hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, and then had disappeared from our land.

Why a vanished race?

Because the Indians of the Midwest, as the settlers found them, were sparse in number and limited in ambition; they were seminomadic savages who seemed incapable of the sustained effort needed to quarry and shape tons of earth. Nor did they have any traditions about the mounds; when questioned, they shrugged and spoke vaguely about ancient tribes.

The mounds naturally came under close scrutiny. By the early nineteenth century hundreds if not thousands of them had been examined, measured, and partly excavated. These early studies revealed a great variety of shape. Near the Great Lakes they tended to be gigantic effigies, in low relief, of birds, reptiles, beasts, or men—apparently of some sacred significance. These effigy mounds are most common in Wisconsin, although the best known is the Great Serpent mound in Ohio, an earthern snake twenty feet wide and a yard high that wriggles along for some 1,330 feet. In the Ohio Valley, the customary shape of a mound was conical, up to eighty or ninety feet in height; these usually contained tombs. Elsewhere, notably in the South, there were immense flat-topped mounds, truncated pyramids of earth, some terraced or having graded roadways leading to their summits. Mounds of this sort aooeared to have been platforms for temples.

In addition to effigy mounds, burial mounds, and temple mounds, two types of embankments were seen, mainly in the Ohio-Indiana-Illinois-Missouri zone. On hilltops, huge “forts” covering many acres had been erected with formidable dirt walls. In lowland sites were found striking geometrical enclosures—octagons, circles, squares, ellipses—with walls five to thirty feet high surrounding plots of as much as two hundred acres. Running out from the enclosures often were parallel walls many miles long, forming great avenues.

From the beginning, antiquarians worked hard to explain the mounds. Scholars ransacked history for evidence of ancient mound-building cultures and found it in Herodotus, in Homer, in the annals of Rome, in the Viking sagas; even in the Old Testament, which described how the Canaanites and Israelites had worshipped their deities in “high places”—surely, said the scholars, artificial mounds. The discovery of the American mounds opened the floodgates of speculation. If the Israelites had built mounds in the Holy Land, why not in Ohio? Learned men suggested that our land had been visited in antiquity by Hebrews, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Vikings, Hindus, Phoenicians—anyone, in short, who had ever built a mound in the Old World.

In this way was born a legend that dominated the American imagination throughout the nineteenth century. It was the myth of the Mound Builders, a lost race of diligent and gifted artisans who had passed across the scene in shadowed prehistory, ultimately to be exterminated by the treacherous, ignorant redskinned savages who even now were causing so much trouble for the Christian settlers of the New World. The myth took root, flourished, grew mightily; men spun tales of lost kings and demolished cities; a new religion even sprang from the legends. What was the truth behind all this supposition?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The pioneers of the earthworks were the Adena people, named from, the estate near Chillicothe, Ohio, where their characteristic artifacts were first identified. The Adena culture, it appears, took form about 1000 B.C. , and was typified by the burial of the dead in log-walled tombs beneath conical earthen mounds. One archaeological faction holds that the Adenas were migrants from Mexico, carrying with them cultural traits superior to those of the Ohio valley where they settled; a more recent thesis makes them indigenous to the Northeast and the lower Great Lakes area. The Grave Creek mound in West Virginia, the largest conical mound in the United States, is Adena work, as is Ohio’s Great Serpent mound.

About 400 B.C., apparently, a new group of Indians entered Adena territory: the Hopewells, named for a site in Ross County, Ohio, considered typical of their culture. These people were long-headed, unlike the round-headed Adenas, and they brought with them to Ohio an elaborate way of life that flowered wonderfully after the collision, peaceful or otherwise, with the Adenas. The Hopewell folk were, in effect, the Mound Builders of whom the nineteenth-century mythmakers dreamed. Although neither Phoenician nor Hindu nor Viking but merely American Indians out of the eastern woodlands, they did fill many of the qualifications of that phantom race of superior beings to whom the Ohio mounds had so often been attributed. They extended their influence out of southern Ohio into Indiana and Illinois and southeastern Iowa, northward to Wisconsin and Michigan, southward down the Mississippi past St. Louis. They evolved a complex funereal ritual including the erection of groups of conical mounds to house their dead notables; and they buried in the mounds a wealth of fine goods manufactured from exotic raw materials obtained through trade from such distant points as the Gulf coast and the Southwest.

Most of the mounds and earthworks that can be seen in Ohio today were made by the Hopewells. The most awesome, perhaps, is the great enclosure at Newark, which once covered four square miles. Only fragments remain: a joined circle and octagon, another circular enclosure, and some parallel walls. Though these structures are in part incorporated in a municipal golf course, they retain their majesty and splendor. From Hopewell mounds have come jewelry of bone, shell, and stone, breastplates and headdresses of copper, and ornaments cut from sheets of glittering mica. The abundance and high artistic quality of these burial goods mark the vitality and imagination of this remarkable culture. A strong Mexican influence is present in much Hopewell art, leading even the most conservative archaeologists to trace a flow of ideas out of Mexico and up the Mississippi to Ohio.

The end of the Hopewells came about A.D. 550, perhaps even earlier. They ceased to build their great ceremonial centers, and in another two centuries their distinctive way of life had disappeared, their territory was depopulated, and the people themselves had been absorbed into humbler tribes. We do not know why. “Cultural fatigue” has been suggested; a change of climate, perhaps; civil war; even that old standby, invasion by savages. There are indeed indications that toward the end the Hopewells took to the hills and tried to hold out behind high earthen walls. It was in vain; the forest closed over their mounds, and simpler folk took possession of their domain. Within a few generations, the newcomers had forgotten whatever they knew about the Hopewells. So mythical Mound Builders of non-Indian blood had to be invented by the white man, and fabulous tales woven about them, while outraged Hopewell spectres glowered in silent fury.

Long after the Hopewell collapse, the mound idea burst forth again in the Southeast, in a quite different form. Once again great ceremonial centers were erected; once more an elaborate social system came into being; there were developments in art and technology that rivalled and often exceeded Hopewell at its finest. The new mounds, however, were flat-topped platforms on which wooden temples, not burial structures, rose. These earthen pyramids, eighty to one hundred feet high and covering acres of ground, appeared first in Alabama, Georgia, and the rest of the Gulf coast states, and spread as far west as Texas and as far north as Illinois. By A.D. 900 most Indian tribes living along the Mississippi and its major tributaries knew something about the gospel of the platformmound religion, and within another three centuries a chain of major ceremonial centers stretched across the continent from Oklahoma to Alabama. The Temple Mound people were agriculturalists, apparently far more skillful farmers than the Hopewells; we have found their hoes, made of stone, shell, or the shoulder blades of animals, and even the traces of their fields. They made excellent jewelry and pottery which shows obvious influence from the arts and crafts of Mexico, and their giant mounds, too, seem earthen imitations of Mexico’s truncated pyramids.

Their culture flourished and expanded for hundreds of years, reaching a strange climax about 1500 with the development of the so-called Southern Cult, a religious movement typified by grotesque decorative styles employing figures of buzzards and snakes, flying horned serpents, weeping eyes, skulls, and eerie faces. The appearance of this cult has been explained as a shock reaction springing from the bloody and disastrous invasion of de Soto and his Spaniards in 1539–43, but recent research has shown that it antedates de Soto, and may have been an expression of vitality rather than terror, its symbols representing harvest and renewal rather than death and nightmare.

But by the end of the sixteenth century the Temple Mound culture was in decay, and its important centers —Cahokia in Illinois, Etowah in Georgia, Spiro in Oklahoma, Moundville in Alabama, and others—were abandoned. They were already in decline when the white man appeared, and they withered at his touch. The ancient customs lingered, reduced and diluted; about the huge mounds of revered ancestors the familiar rituals and festivals continued, but in a mechanical, ever less meaningful way, until their inner nature was forgotten and their practitioners could no longer remember that it was their own great-great-grandfathers who had built the mounds. The Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians who occupied the Southeast when the Europeans came were in all likelihood the unknowing descendants of the Temple Mound folk. But only the Natchez Indians maintained their old ways into the eighteenth century, when the French destroyed their culture.

Archaeologists today, having disposed of the Mound Builder legend, busily search for detailed knowledge of the development, decline, and possible relationships of the Adena, Hopewell, and Temple Mound people, reducing romance to a complex series of phases, aspects, and cultural traditions. They smile at the fancies of yesteryear. Some of the mounds remain, celebrated locally as tourist attractions; and it is difficult now to comprehend the intensity of interest they provoked a century and more ago, or to grasp the deeper motives that led so many to believe that they were the work of superior beings hidden in the mists of time. Yet there is magic in the mounds now, despite the labors of those who have shown us why we must not talk of a nation of Mound Builders. Looking at these mysterious grassy monuments, one succumbs easily to fantasy, and feels the presence of the ghosts of departed grandeur; and then, in warm understanding, one reaches out across the decades to the makers of the Mound Builder myth.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.