The Controversy over the Origins of the Moundbuilders

Long before America came into being, there lived people, who, at some point long ago, used the earth to build mounds. These mounds took many shapes and forms, from animal effigies, to symbolic forms, to tumuli that were used to bury their dead. Although they have been located in some shape or form throughout the American continent, and even the world, the most curious of these could be found in the fertile land of the Mississippi Valley, in what is now Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other Midwestern states. Settlers, as well as the Native American tribes they inhabited the land with, knew little of the people who built these curious structures. In the spirit of discovery, settlers and researchers (both amateur and professional alike) began to open the mounds and formed theories based on the relics and bones that they found inside. In fact, it is said that even Thomas Jefferson opened and studied one of these mounds, attributing its creation to the ancestors of the Native Americans that lived near the east coast. “Professional” evaluation didn't really begin until the early 19th century, when the interest in archeology increased, and professional groups such as the American Antiquarian Society (inc. 1812) were formed with help from the government in order to conduct studies on the prehistory of America(1).

Early on, the archaeologists studying the mounds, both amatur and professional, argued on one major question; Who built the mounds? Today it is widely acknowledged that the builders of these structures were in fact the ancestors of some of the Native American tribes, but in the 19th century stories about their creators often implied that either some unknown “civilized” race built them or that the builders were somehow of European decent. Either way, the Indians were often thought to have wiped these “civilized” races out, or at least replaced them. This story allowed for justification of the abuse that settlers and the government gave to Native Americans. It served to strengthen the view that the Indians should be removed, a justice of sorts, because the Indians had done the same to the moundbuilders so many years ago.

These Eurocentric beliefs were repeated or at least alluded to in the media through the 19th century, even after the scientific community came to a consensus on the topic. The myth of the moundbuilders were consistent with the dominant view of the Native Americans, which were a driving force in the atrocities committed against them such as fraudulent land deals, violent clashes(2/3), removals to reservations, total expulsion from states, liquor prohibitions that led to arrests(4), grave robbing(5), denial of citizenship, and lack of voting rights. These beliefs also helped to disconnect Native American groups from the mounds themselves. This aided in the destruction of these sites and institutionalized forms of grave robbing to occur, because the society that created the mounds, whose dead were buried inside, were considered long extinct.

One of the first professional studies into the Midwestern earthworks was performed by Caleb Atwater, who, according to later researchers E.G. Squier and E.H. Davis, “deserves the credit of being the pioneer in this department.”(6) His study, “A Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the Western Country”(7) was conducted under the American Antiquarian Society and published in 1833. In first portion of this report, he condemns the amount of speculation by amatures concerning the mounds, saying, “whilst the common herd of scribblers on this subject, resemble the ignis fatuus, which, as the poet says, 'leads to bewilder, and dazzles to blind.' ”(8) He then describes the three types of artifacts that he had identified: those of Indian origin, those of contemporary European origin, and those created by “the people who raised our ancient forts and tumuli.”(9)

Of the Native American artifacts, he says they “are neither numerous nor very interesting.” He describes the Indian graves, saying that, “ten chances to one but some article is discovered, which shows that the person had been buried since America was visited by people of European origin.”(10) Although Atwater never directly says so in his report, his description of the Indian burials, and the concentrations of Indian populations implies to readers that the Native Americans are a relatively new addition to the American continent.

He then goes on to describe the artifacts from early European settlements in America from the 16th and 17th centuries and explains that although sometimes these artifacts may be found alongside of those belonging to the moundbuilders, there is no reason to believe that the two had any relationship. He uses this to refute one of the moundbuilder myths that believed the Spanish Conquistadors or the French missionaries were the builders.

He also asserts that there have been no relics found with writing on them that did not belong to the time after Columbus discovered this continent. (11) The finding of “tablets” in mounds was common during this period, and often could be attributed to hoaxes, perhaps done to further a belief that claimed the ancients were of Hebrew or European origin. These hoaxes or stories continued to surface in the news throughout the 19th century often surrounded by sensationalism. Although some news articles stated the doubt in such objects (12) some reported the finding as fact or at least failed to comment on the likelihood that the object was not from ancient biblical societies. (13) The latter of these surely was an influence in the false beliefs surrounding the mounds.

Of the mounds, Atwater claims that they “owe their origin to a people far more civilized than our Indians, but far less so than Europeans.”(14) He describes and compares the Midwestern earthworks various structures built in ancient Europe, Siberia, Egypt, Asia, and Russia calling for the reader to draw his or her own conclusion but also implying that the origins must owe themselves to somewhere other than the Indians.(15) He did not believe that the Native Americans had the ability to construct the earthworks due to their savagery. The view that Indians were not able enough to accomplish such feats was perhaps the most common argument for the idea that an ancient civilized race MUST have existed before the Indians.

This idea was often repeated in the media through the 19th century. Commonly, it was presented with racist undertones implying stereotypes that existed about Indian people. An illustration of this media construction was found in an issue of the Baraboo Republic (Feb. 13, 1878) that describes the discovery of a millstone in Wisconsin by a man named Rice. The article stated that Rice noticed a resemblance between the stone and a description of an ancient Hebrew millstone. The stone, according to the article was believed to be from the same period as the moundbuilders due to its age. The article also states that the makers of the stone “must have been partially civilized – at least far above the grade of Indian today,”(16) reinforcing the view that Native American people were somehow inferior to Europeans, or other “civilized” groups.

In 1847, researchers E.G. Squier and E.H. Davis published what is today considered to be the most comprehensive survey and study of the Mississippian earthworks. Their work cataloged and described a number of works, and compromised the first volume of the Smithsonian's “Contributions to Knowledge” series. This is often cited by later researchers, such as Increase Lapham, and is perhaps responsible for the increased interest in this subject during the later half of the 19th century. Although Squier and Davis attribute to Atwater credit for the first attempt to catalog the earthworks, they also condemn his methods, saying his work, “contains many errors, for which however we can find ready apology . . . -- errors which, under the present advantages of research, would be inexcusable.”(17) Squier and Davis's treatment of the mounds' origin is somewhat more objective than Atwater's. They claim that the “ancient population was exceeding dense”, and that they were an agricultural society, unlike the modern Indians.(18) These assumptions, Squier and Davis based on the number and quality of the works they surveyed.

The study considered to be the end-all for the debate about the moundbuilders was written by Increase A. Lapham and published by the American Antiquarian Society in 1855. In this study, entitled “The Antiquities of Wisconsin”, Lapham states that, “We may, without assuming any far-fetched theories, suppose that a nation or tribe of red man formerly occupied the country now known as Wisconsin . . . “ and that these people were the builders of the mounds.(19) He also agues against Squire and Davis's idea that an agricultural society existed, claiming that the ancient works were in the same locations that the modern Indians used, indicating that their ways of life were similar. His conclusion, based on surveys taken, was that “the mound-builders of Wisconsin were none others than the ancestors of the present tribes of Indians.”(20) Lapham's work and later works by Cyrus Thomas (21) were essentially the final word in the debate, as their studies were seen as proof of the idea that the moundbuilders were ancestors of Native Americans.

The media, however, continued to propagate the myths, with stories such as Mr. Rice's discovery of his Hebrew stone(22), or a 1906 article in the Madison Democrat, titled “Who Built the Wisconsin Mounds?”, where the author states that, “No such Indian settlement as we have knowledge of could have built them,” and that the question of the moundbuilders remains unsolved.(23)

Indeed, so long as theories from the dominant culture are repeated without question, the mystery will remain unsolved. It is important to understand that historically, even “scientists” are affected by the popular views and stereotypes that are repeated in the media and that these views can have negative and long term impacts. Many of the bones and artifacts taken from the earthworks are now stored in the Smithsonian museum, and the current fight surrounding the origin of the bones is preventing interested tribes from their lawful right to rebury their dead. The assertion that the tribal origin cannot be determined, and further study of the bones is needed, is not all that different than the 19th century debate of their origin. Lapham and Thomas may have decided the debate, but they were far from the last word.

1. A.J. Conant, Foot-Prints of Vanished Races in the Mississippi Valley (St Louis: Chancy R. Barns, 1879): Page iii
2. “North Western Fronteer”, Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, Morning Edition, January 9, 1846.
3. Untitled Article, Milwaukee Sentinel, September 11, 1862.
4. Untitled Article, Milwaukee Sentinel, November 16, 1867.
5.Untitled Article, Milwaukee Sentinel, May 7, 1868.
6. E.G. Squier and E. H. Davis, “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley”, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, vol. I (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 148): Page xxxiii.
7. Caleb Atwater, “A Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the Western Country”, Writings of Caleb Atwater (Columbus: Caleb Atwater, printed by Scott and Wright, 1833).
8. Atwater, “A Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the Western Country”, 10.
9. Atwater, “A Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the Western Country”, 10.
10. Atwater, “A Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the Western Country”, 12.
11. Atwater, “A Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the Western Country”, 15.
12. “Important Discovery in Ohio”, Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, Morning Edition. July 11, 1860.
13. Untitled Article, The Baraboo Republic, Feb. 13, 1878.
14. Atwater, “A Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the Western Country”, 18.
15. Atwater, “A Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the Western Country”, 108-115.
16. Untitled Article, The Baraboo Republic, Feb. 13, 1878.
17. E.G. Squier and E. H. Davis, “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley”, xxxiii.
18. E.G. Squier and E. H. Davis, “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley”, 301-303.
19. Increase A. Lapham, “The Antiquities of Wisconsin”, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge (Washington D. C.: The Smithsonian Institution, June 1855): 89.
20. Increase A. Lapham, “The Antiquities of Wisconsin”, 90.
21. Cyrus Thomas, The problem of the Ohio Mounds (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1889)
22. Untitled Article, The Baraboo Republic, Feb. 13, 1878.
23. “Who Built the Wisconsin Mounds?”, The Madison Democrat, March 25, 1906.