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Golden Age of Moundbuilders
About North Georgia

Introduction

Ranging from Vermont to Florida, north to Minnesota, along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and west to New Mexico, the prehistoric Moundbuilders were America's first civilization. Beginning at Poverty Point in Louisiana and spreading out like spokes on a wheel, the earliest Spanish explorers met them on their journeys and may have related them to the Aztecs based on their affinity for building mounds, however, no relationship has ever been proven scientifically.

Throughout their culture the Moundbuilders would inhabit an area, rise as a civilization, then leave hundreds of years later. Archaeologists have been unable to determine the reason why these Indians would abandon developed areas, but unlike other Indian cultures the abandonment appears to have been gradual and not sudden.

Earliest mention

Emerald Mound in Mississippi
Hernando deSoto's men wrote of the unusual mounds found near rivers. While in Georgia he may have visited the mounds at Coosawattee, a village near present-day Carters in 1541. One of his men, Moyano, returned in 1560 to find the mounds to be abandoned. French explorers found mounds along the Southern Mississippi River and mistakenly assumed that they belonged to the prevalent tribe, the Yazoo Indians. Ocmulgee Mounds in Georgia were shown to James Oglethorpe in 1735. One of the guards who accompanied him noted it in a diary. William Bartram wrote of a number of mounds he encountered in the Southeast before the American Revolution.

Four Americans are frequently credited with the initial theories put forth about the Moundbuilder culture: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ezra Stiles (President of Yale University) and Noah Webster. Each had concepts about the Moundbuilders, mostly dealing with the effigy mounds common along the Mississippi River and Ohio River basins.

First theories

About 1780 Thomas Jefferson began to excavate a mound near his Virginia estate, Montecello. Jefferson described his excavation in detail in his 1783 book, Notes on the State of Virginia:
There being one of these in my neighborhood, I wished to satisfy myself whether any, and which of these opinions were just. For this purpose I determined to open and examine it thoroughly. It was situated on the low grounds of the Rivanna, about two miles above its principal fork, and opposite to some hills, on which had been an Indian town. It was of a spheroidical[sic] form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base...

Thomas Jefferson may have been the first person to excavate an Indian mound
He attended to this task in an organized manner and observed stratified human remains. In his published conclusions he stated that this particular mound was an ancient Indian burial place. This was perhaps the first systematic archaeological excavation in North America and the first realization that mounds might serve different uses, which has been proven correct again and again.

While Jefferson found himself content with observations based on his excavation, the others proposed theories of the origin of these symbols of an early American Indian civilization with little fieldwork. Benjamin Franklin believed the mounds were leftovers built during the explorations of Hernando deSoto as deSoto and his entrada marched across the United States. Noah Webster extended this view. Stiles put forth his theory that the mounds were a remnant of a Canaanite culture (as were the advanced civilizations in Peru and Mexico) shortly after settlers discovered the mounds in Marietta, Ohio in 1787. Stiles was not the first to propose such a relationship; William Penn and Roger Williams believed the Aztec and Mayan cultures to be the Canaanites.

Benjamin Barton published the first work on the Moundbuilders in 1797, New Views on the Origin of Tribes in America. Barton believed the mounds indicted a higher "cultural level." Soon after Barton's work was published, Reverend T. M. Harris of Massachusetts expressed his belief that the Moundbuilders were a civilization, a word not commonly applied to any Indian tribe of the time. Until relatively recently, writers tended to believe that the Moundbuilder culture was distinct from the surrounding Woodlands or Archaic cultures and some went so far as to hypothesize that the Moundbuilders were a separate race. Others combined Moundbuilders and specific tribes because some American Indians would mound dirt as a defensive structure.

Dr. James H. McColloh began studying Moundbuilders about the time the United States entered the War of 1812. McColloh published Researches in America in 1816 and revised it a number of times over a 12 year period. One of the earliest to surmise that the Ohio Moundbuilders came from the South, McColloh also stated that Native Americans were the ones who created the mounds based on skull similarity but this work lacked scientific evidence. Constantine Samuel Rafinesque and John Clifford proposed that the mounds were created by Hindus.

In early 1820 Circleville postmaster Caleb Atwater expanded on Rafinesque's earlier Hindu theory in "Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States." He believed that the Moundbuilders were a more stable population than the surrounding Woodlands Indians and that two migrations occurred from Asia to the Americas, one to North America and one to South America. Atwater's maps were helpful to modern archaeologists because they show mounds long since destroyed, but he was accused of plagiarism for not citing Rafinesque's earlier work.

William Henry Harrison, just before he ran for President of the United States in 1840, again offered the theory that the Aztec Civilization rose from the Midwestern Moundbuilders. He became interested in the mounds shortly after arriving at Fort Washington (Cincinnati) in 1792. Harrison hypothesized that because these Moundbuilders seemed to disappear in the early 700's A. D., and the Aztecs rose about that time, that the two civilizations were related. He believed that the Moundbuilders lost a tremendous battle along the Great Miami River.

Golden Age of the Moundbuilders

The so-called "Golden Age" of the Moundbuilders occurred between 1839 and the The Civil War. In 1839 the new field of American archeology could best be described as muddled by the wide variety of theories regarding almost every aspect of the early research into the Moundbuilders. During the "Golden Age of Moundbuilders" the study of American Antiquities exploded across the continent but was mostly centered on the Moundbuilders. While much of the science was interjected with the prevalent racist attitudes of the day, archeologists began forming the story of the Moundbuilders.

In 1839 Samuel George Morton published Crania Americana; or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America: To which is Prefixed An Essay on the Varieties of the Human Species. Although the book reflects the prevalent attitudes of the time and some of his assumptions have since proven wrong, Crania Americana had a dramatic effect on the scientific beliefs of the era. Morton, who began studying fossils brought back by Lewis and Clark, spent years studying Moundbuilders and Native Americans and concluded there were no significant differences between the two. A second volume about Egyptians was published in 1844. These works are considered to be influential in the development of anthropology, and contributory to the sciences of mineralogy, paleontology, and natural history. It was this work that began to link archeology with physical anthropology.

Montroville Wilson Dickeson began excavating Southern mounds in 1837, while Morton was working on Crania, with whom he would share his discoveries and findings. In 1845 he discovered the Nachez man in Mississippi loess and the following year presented it to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. At the time it was believed Nachez man was the "missing link" between the Moundbuilders and local Indians. Later carbon-14 dated the Natchez man to well before the rise of the Moundbuilders. Others active in the South included Benjamin Wailes, James Gettys McGready Ramsey, and Freemason Rob Morris (Oxford, Mississippi). J. G. M. Ramsey gained later fame for writing a history of Tennessee.

Edwin Davis and
Ephraim Squire
Chillicothe, Ohio is the seat of the Ross County government. The Scioto River flows through the town on its journey to the Ohio River. It would be this 7,000 person town (1840 census) that attracted New Yorker Eprham (E. G.) Squire who would team with native Ohio physician and amateur archaeologist Edwin Davis to change world beliefs on both Moundbuilders and science.

At the time archeology was little more than collecting antiquities, but Edwin Davies took his science far more seriously than most people of the time. Bringing with him a keen eye, trained mind and existing work on nearby Moundbuilders, Davies began his study of the mounds by trying to find similarities between certain mounds. He believed the mounds could be grouped by base shapes (circle, square, parallelogram). While educating Squire on the art of observation and deductive reasoning, Davies let Squire study his extensive collection of Moundbuilder artifacts. Squire served as writer and artist at first, eventually offering observations himself with Davies help. Their only collaborative effort was titled Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley and was the first volume of the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge series.

Ancient Monuments described the Moundbuilders as homogeneous, numerous and widespread. Early in their book Squire and Davies defined the area of Moundbuilders:
Lewis and Clarke saw them on the Missouri river, 1000 miles above its junction with the Mississippi. They are found all over the intermediate country, and along the valley of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. They line the shores of the Gulf from Texas to Florida, and extend, in diminished numbers, into South Carolina. They occur in great numbers in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi , Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. They are found, in less numbers, in the western portions of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; as well as in Michigan, Iowa, North and South Carolina, and in the Mexican territory, beyond the Rio Grande del Norte. In short, they occupy the entire basin of the Mississippi and its tributaries, as also the fertile plains along the Gulf.

Portion of a map from Squire and Davis of Scioto River
Even more exciting for Squire and Davies was the unusual concentration of the mounds in the Scioto River valley near Chillicothe. Although they did use information from other mounds, most were within a 30 mile radius of the city. One issue that Squire and Davies left for future archaeologists was the vitrified rock pits at the top of some mounds. While they believed the pits represented a form of signaling and not furnaces, Squire wrote it was "...a point which remains to be settled by more extended observations"

One mistake Squire and Davies made, however, was believing that the mounds near Chillicothe were representative of the Moundbuilder culture as a whole. When Samuel Morton showed them Bartram's book they were dismissive about the Southeastern mounds and their differences with the Ohio mounds. Then Morton introduced Squire and Davies to Dickeson, who interested them more. They examined his collection of American Antiquities but never realized the differences between the Ohio mounds and the Mississippi mounds. In fact, Squire felt that Dickeson's work had covered too much area.

Moundbuilder effigy identified by Squire and Davis as a Turkey Buzzard (Vulture)
After work was completed on Ancient Monuments Squire tried to take credit for the entire work, in spite of being the junior partner of the manuscript. He published a pamphlet in 1847, using pieces of the work to promote the upcoming publication under his own name. Davies, unhappy about having portions of his work published under Squire's name, wrote to the Smithsonian editors detailing his complaint. Squire admitted the pamphlet should have been published under both names but did nothing to curtail the promotion of "his" book. Squire's actions created a rift between the two that never healed.

Squire continued to write after the rift but never again gained the widespread recognition he did following his collaboration with Davies. After studying mounds in Western New York he pronounced the civilization had become the Iroquois. One of the overseeing editors of Ancient Monuments, Samuel Haven published Archaeology of the United States in 1856. Joseph Henry contacted Haven, who was librarian of the American Antiquarian Society. In the work he brought into question most of the common beliefs about the Moundbuilders.

During the start of The Civil War the "Golden Age of Moundbuilders" came to an end, although two major discoveries were made. In 1861 coastal mounds and shell middens were explored. Later investigation of the findings led archeologists to believe that they, too, were part of the vast Moundbuilder network. In 1862, two brothers from Newark, James and Charles Salisbury, were working on a survey to identify remaining mounds in the Newark complex (many had been destroyed by the construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Central Ohio Railroad). They looked at the "Van Voorhis walls" and realized the walls were part of the 200-foot wide road. The Salisburys identified and surveyed the road for 6 miles, doubling the known length of the structure. They also reported that the "Great Hopewell Road" connected the Newark Earthworks Complex to Circleville.

As scientists returned to the study of archeology following the war the field changed, no longer intent on the Moundbuilders specifically, but a wide range of subjects. During the 25 years before the war that has been dubbed "the Golden Age of Moundbuilders" theories about the first American civilization began to emerge that would form a basis for later thought. Wild ideas based on little scientific analysis were dismissed and the history of a forgotten age was being formed based on reasonable observations of trained observers.

Moundbuilders and Modern Man


American Indians of Georgia
Moundbuilders, Creek and Cherokee all called North Georgia home
Georgia Moundbuilders
An advanced pre-Colombian people who inhabited most of the present-day United State

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