When the first Europeans entered the Ohio valley, they encountered hundreds of mysterious earthen mounds and enclosures. According to University of Cincinnati architectural historian John Hancock, a primary reason the ancient American earthworks seemed so mysterious was their vast scale and subtle geometries.
When the first Europeans entered the Ohio valley, they encountered hundreds of mysterious earthen mounds and enclosures.
According to University of Cincinnati architectural historian John Hancock, a primary reason the ancient American earthworks seemed so mysterious was their vast scale and subtle geometries. That made them fundamentally different from traditional Western ideas of what architecture should look like.
Wanting to learn more about these strange and monumental structures, European-American settlers, soldiers and missionaries often asked local American Indians about them. The answers the Indians provided tell us much about what the historic tribes of the eastern Woodlands thought about the earthworks, but they do not appear to cast much light on their original purpose and meaning.
In the current issue of the Journal of Ohio Archaeology, I reviewed early historic American Indian testimony about the ancient earthworks of eastern North America and found that the indigenous peoples living in this region in the 18th and early 19th centuries actually knew little about them.
For example, in 1772, the Presbyterian missionary David McClure asked the Delaware Indians living at Newcomerstown about several ancient earthworks. He reported that the Delawares could “ give no account of the builders, or the design of them.”
The early anthropologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft reported that the Iroquois believed that the earthworks were forts built by their ancestors “to protect themselves from the inroads of monsters, giants and gigantic animals.”
This appeal to the supernatural likely reflects an attempt to explain the enormous earthen enclosures simply as larger versions of the superficially similar Iroquoian fortified villages — the larger the enemy, the larger the fort.
Although many tribes appear to have paid little attention to the earthworks, some clearly viewed them with a mixture of awe and respect.
Warren Moorehead, the Ohio History Connection’s first curator of archaeology, repeated a story heard in his youth that Shawnee Indians periodically visited the Fort Ancient earthworks in southwestern Ohio to pay “homage to the spirits of its makers.”
In contrast, the 19th-century historian Joshua Clark reported a tradition of the Iroquois that the earthworks had been “theatre(s) of blood; and such is their abhorrence of scenes once enacted here, that except in a few very rare instances, they do not visit the regions near the ancient forts and burying grounds.”
Some 19th-century authors mistakenly concluded that the indigenous peoples’ lack of knowledge of the earthworks meant that they had not built them.
We now know that many of the earthworks are more than 2,000 years old. Oral traditions simply cannot be passed down reliably over that span of time. Moreover, the centuries of disease, warfare, forced migrations and acculturation that followed the arrival of Europeans in America effectively erased much traditional knowledge that might otherwise have been preserved.
In spite of these limitations, it’s important to consider American-Indian oral traditions relating to the ancient earthworks. They are a source for hypotheses about the purposes and meanings of these sites, which can be tested using archaeological data.
And they provide insight into how indigenous peoples incorporated ancient monuments into their histories.
Bradley T. Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio History Connection.