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The Mound-Builders

The Mound-Builders

by Henry Shetrone

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A Dan Josselyn Memorial Publication

A classic resource on early knowledge of prehistoric mounds and the peoples who constructed them in the eastern United States.

With this accessible volume, Henry Clyde Shetrone made available to general readers the archaeological research data and conclusions concerning the ancient mounds and earthworks that dot the landscape


A Dan Josselyn Memorial Publication

A classic resource on early knowledge of prehistoric mounds and the peoples who constructed them in the eastern United States.

With this accessible volume, Henry Clyde Shetrone made available to general readers the archaeological research data and conclusions concerning the ancient mounds and earthworks that dot the landscape of eastern North America. Dismissing popularly held theories of mysterious giants who built these structures, he explained that their purposes were defensive and ceremonial, that they had been used for habitation, burial, and worship. Their builders were antecedents of the native peoples of present-day America and had been skilled artisans and engineers with successful agricultural practices and structured leadership.

Twenty chapters discuss aspects of mound-builder cultures: quarrying of flint and obsidian for knapping into points; mining of copper and iron and its fashioning into tools and ceremonial objects; spinning and weaving materials and methods; smoking customs; carving of calumets and their use in ceremony; freshwater pearls and other items for body ornamentation; and the use of stone burial vaults, cremation basins, and concepts of an afterlife. Data is presented from excavations ranging broadly from Massachusetts to Florida and from Texas to North Dakota.

As Bradley Lepper points out in his new introduction, "The Mound-Builders is a testament to Shetrone's success at working towards 'correlation and systematization' of data, as well as public education. . . . Shetrone was no armchair popularizer. His work was based on years of excavation and first-hand familiarity with much of the data. His popularizations [still] echo with the ring of the shovel and trowel in gravelly soil."


Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Classics in Southeast Archaeology Series
Edition description:
New Introduction Edition
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.60(d)

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The Mound-Builders

A Reconstruction of the Life of a Prehistoric American Race, Through Exploration and Interpretation of Their Earth Mounds, Their Burials, And Their Cultural Remains

By Henry Clyde Shetrone

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5086-4



Speculations of the pioneers—Early literature—Thomas Jefferson, pioneer archæologist—William Henry Harrison and Caleb Atwater—The classical contribution of Squier and Davis—Activities of the Bureau of American Ethnology—Recent contributors.

WHEN European colonists shouldered their way westward from the Atlantic Coast to take up their abodes in the country of the Mound-builders, their attention naturally was attracted to the numerous old mounds and interesting minor relics, mute evidences of former human occupancy. Discovery that the mounds contained human remains dispelled any tendency toward belief that they might be of natural origin. Here, then, was romance and mystery indeed. True, the task of gaining a foothold in the inhospitable wilderness and of conquering the forbidding forest was one to tax the indomitable energy and courage of the early settlers. Nevertheless, there must be an outlet for their mental and spiritual needs, and as means for recreational activities were scant, the mounds and their unknown builders fitted nicely into the pattern of pioneer life. Then and there originated the basic queries as to who, when, whence, why, where, what, and whither. A puzzle worthy of their best mental efforts and a stimulus to their imaginations was ready provided for the pioneers in the newly discovered territory which was henceforth to be their home land.


A complex of romantic and fanciful theories regarding the vanished hosts who had been their predecessors in the land was inevitable. From the first the human tendency to exaggerate and embellish the unknown was manifest; and it was just as inevitable that much of the theory formulated without precedent and in the absence of even a nucleus of fact should prove eventually to be erroneous. Viewed from the present and softened by time, the experiences of the pioneers in taming the wilderness constitute an epic romance in themselves; but those engaged in the actual project were too close to reality to see it as other than commonplace. So it was that the American Mound-builder became for them, and has remained for many of their successors, the great American epic.

An early composite word picture of the Mound-builders, not yet entirely faded, may be restored by slightly paraphrasing the words of the late J. W. Powell, the noted anthropologist:

For more than a century the ghosts of a vanished nation ... ambuscaded in the vast solitudes of the continent, and the forest-covered mounds [were] usually regarded as the mysterious sepulchres of its kings and nobles. It was an alluring conjecture that a powerful people, superior to the Indians, once occupied the valley of the Ohio and the Appalachian ranges, their empire stretching from the Hudson Bay to the Gulf, with its flanks on the western prairies and the eastern ocean; a people with a confederated government, a chief ruler, a great central capitol, a highly developed religion, with homes and husbandry, and advanced textile, fictile and ductile arts; with a language, perhaps with letters—all swept away by an invasion of copper-hued Huns from some unknown region of the earth, prior to the landing of Columbus.

And now that science, in its own good time, is able to supply definite answers to some (not all) of the queries regarding the Mound-builders and their culture, who shall say that the traditional story of our pioneers, with all its fanciful imaginings, has not served a justifiable end? Like our Old World forbears, we have taken the unknown and have woven it into the fabric of the larger human story. To the writer, the Mound-builder epic, as developed by the American pioneers, is in itself a most interesting and worth-while phenomenon—a present day, or rather an historic, illustration of human tradition in the making.

As is generally true, the reaction from the traditional to the historic, the definitely proven, has been to the other extreme. Some modern writers are too much inclined to discredit altogether the earlier theories and beliefs and to strip the Mound-builders entirely of the interest and cultural importance which really are theirs. In all such reactions the truth is usually to be found in the middle ground; and in presenting the latest findings in the matter, the writer will assume what he feels to be true, namely, that the Mound-builders, while not the fancifully freakish race formerly supposed, were, all in all, a most interesting and important branch of the human family.

Inevitably, speculation as to the origin and racial affinities of the Mound-builders was in evidence from the first. The belief held by some that they were native or indigenous to America was an early and a natural one. It was noted that the buffalo, the beaver, maize and tobacco, and many others of the fauna and flora were, so far as known, native to America, and it seemed quite logical to suppose that the Mound-builders, and the Indians as well, originated on the continent and, like Topsy, "jest growed." Aside from the theory of native origin, the Mound-builders were traced variously, through some apparent or fancied resemblance, to practically every known people of the world. From the ancient Chinese, Phœnicians, and Egyptians at the one end to the Welsh and the Irish at the other is but a suggestion of the range of supposed sources of origin. The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel seem to have been an alluring subject of consideration for those who saw an opportunity of clearing up two major mysteries in the simplest possible manner. Even mythical isles and lost continents were evoked to aid in solving the perplexing problem.

All this early speculation and theorizing furnished good "copy" for pioneer newspapers and periodicals; and ere long articles, pamphlets, and books began to make their appearance, presenting the views of their authors and discussing those of others. Some few writers admitted that they did not know; but most of them assumed very definite and confident attitudes and were assiduous in marshaling evidence in support of their theories. One thing, at least, was certain: since the mounds were indisputably the work of human hands and thus of the greatest possible human interest, no stone, and no mound, was to be left unturned in the effort to solve the mystery.


Casual reference to the mounds of the southeastern states, where exploration and settlement were comparatively early, and particularly to those of Florida, are found in the writings of the chroniclers of De Soto; in Adair's Account of American Indians (1775); in Bernard Romans' History of Florida (1776); and in William Bartram's Travels in Florida (1779). As early as 1772 the Rev. David Jones, of Freehold, New Jersey, after a sojourn among the western Indians, submitted a plan and description of the imposing works at Circleville, Ohio.

With the opening of the Ohio country and the establishment of Fort Harmar and the town of Marietta, at the mouth of the Muskingum, came numerous reports of the now famous Marietta earthworks. These included descriptions of the Marietta Group and the Grave Creek Mound, on the (West) Virginia side of the river, sent by General Samuel H. Parsons in 1786 to President Willard of Harvard College and to President Stiles of Yale College; plans and descriptions of the Marietta works, attributed to Captain Jonathan Heart, transmitted by General Harmar to General Thomas Mifflin of Philadelphia in 1787; and in the same year a similar contribution by Colonel Winthrop Sargent. Shortly after the turn of the century came the well-known descriptions of this great group by Bishop James Madison and the Rev. Thaddeus M. Harris.

Of by far the greatest interest and importance among the early reports, however, is the rare old map of the Marietta works prepared by General Rufus Putnam for the Ohio Company in 1788. This venerable document, carefully preserved in the library of Marietta College, may be regarded as the genesis of the science of archæology in the United States. General Putnam, it will be recalled, made an enviable record as an officer in the War of Independence under General Washington. As surveyor and military engineer, he selected the site for West Point and constructed the fortifications there. He was a leader in the Ohio Company, which opened the great Northwest Territory to white settlement, and is credited with preventing the introduction of slavery in the country north and west of the Ohio River.

The Rufus Putnam map has come to be an archæological treasure; and although it has been reproduced at least once with its original appearance restored by photographic methods, it is thought fitting here to present this time-stained document (Figure 2) and its accompanying "References" (Figures 3 and 4) in the handwriting of General Putnam, only slightly retouched in the interest of legibility. Few readers may care to take the trouble to decipher the "References" in this reduced reproduction, but the purpose of this volume is served by the mere presentation of the earliest important document of the now highly developed science of American archæology.

In what may be termed the speculative period, the literature on the mounds and their builders, though not voluminous, was varied and interesting. An entire volume might be devoted to a compilation and consideration of these early contributions, but a few selected references, as typical of the whole, will suffice for our present purpose. The list of early writers on the subject contains such notables as the versatile Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster; Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College; Thomas Jefferson and Bishop James Madison of Virginia; Caleb Atwater and William Henry Harrison of Ohio; DeWitt Clinton of New York; and others.

Because of the lack of information and precedent it was inevitable that there should be divergent theories among these early thinkers as to the origin of the mounds and the identity of their builders. But few of the ancient tumuli had been observed, and perhaps none of them examined, when Franklin and Webster first took cognizance of them. Their early belief was that the mounds toward the south were erected by De Soto and other Spanish explorers, although later Webster came to believe that they were attributable to the ancestors of the native Indian tribesmen.

When, in 1797, Dr. Benjamin S. Barton published a work entitled New Views on the Origin of the Tribes of America, he materially strengthened the already widely held theory that the mounds had been built by an extinct and superior race of people. Rev. Thaddeus M. Harris, of Massachusetts, a few years later reiterated the belief in the "lost-race" theory in his Tour into the Territory Northwest of the Alleghany Mountains (1805). Opposed to this school of writers and scholars were those who believed that the earlier representatives of the native Indian tribes were the actual builders of the mounds. Among the first to voice this theory was the Rt. Rev. James Madison, first Protestant Episcopal bishop of Virginia and one-time president of William and Mary College. In 1803, in the Journal of the American Philosophical Society, Bishop Madison discussed the mooted question and strongly upheld the view that the American Indians were the authors of the mounds.


In the galaxy of notables who at this early date were finding time to devote attention to the Mound-builder puzzle was Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. With the War of Independence just concluded, he perhaps found welcome diversion from the strenuous part he had played therein through indulgence of a natural interest in the mysterious and unknown. At any rate he not only has the distinction of being among the earlier writers on the mounds, but has established himself as one of the very earliest real explorers of them. In his quaint volume, Notes on Virginia, written, as set forth in the "Advertisement," in 1781-82, and published in 1801, Jefferson discusses the mounds of his native state and describes his examination thereof. The fact that his explorations were among the earliest recorded, together with the importance and standing of their author, is sufficient justification for transcribing here portions of his notes; moreover, they are timely for the reason that they are sufficiently early and primitive to be regarded as archæological in themselves; and again, they afford an interesting comparison with the now highly developed technique of archæological exploration.

Jefferson, speaking of the mounds as "barrows," goes on to say:

That they were repositories of the dead, has been obvious to all; but on what particular occasion constructed, was a matter of doubt. Some have thought that they covered the bones of those who have fallen in battles fought on the spot of interment. Some ascribed them to the custom, said to prevail among the Indians, of collecting, at certain periods, the bones of all their dead, wheresoever deposited at the time of death. Others again supposed them the general sepulchres for towns, conjectured to have been on or near these grounds; and this opinion is supported by the quality of the lands in which they are found ... and by a tradition, said to be handed down from the aboriginal Indians, that, when they settled in a town, the first person who died was placed erect, and earth put about him, so as to cover and support him; that when another died, a narrow passage was dug to the first, the second reclined against him, and the cover of earth replaced, and so on.

There being one of these [barrows or mounds] 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 form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base, and had been of about 12 feet altitude....

I first dug superficially in several parts of it, and came to collections of human bones, at different depths, from six inches to three feet below the surface. These were lying in the utmost confusion ... Bones of the most distant parts were found together, as, for instance, the small bones of the foot in the hollow of the skull.... I proceeded then to make a perpendicular cut through the body of the barrow, that I might examine its internal structure.... At the bottom ... I found bones; above these, a few stones, brought from the cliff a quarter of a mile off, and from the river, one-eighth of a mile off; then a large interval of earth, then a stratum of bones, and so on. At one end of the section were four strata of bones, plainly distinguishable; at the other, three; the strata in one part not ranging with those in another.... I conjectured that in this barrow might have been a thousand skeletons.

Every one will readily seize the circumstances above related, which militate against the opinion, that it covered only the bones of persons fallen in battle; and against the tradition also, which would make it the common sepulchre of a town, in which the bodies were placed upright, and touching each other. Appearances certainly indicate that it has derived both origin and growth from the accustomary collection of bones, and deposition of them together; ...

The reader will gather that Jefferson, considering only the sparse occurrence of simple, unpretentious mounds in Virginia and unacquainted with the more striking and complex mound groups and earthworks farther west, readily attributed them to the native Indian tribesmen. In this vein he proceeds to speculate on the origin of the Indians thus: "Great question has arisen from whence came those aboriginals of America?" He discusses the possibilities of America being peopled from Europe by way of Iceland, Greenland, and Labrador, and from Asia by way of Kamchatka or Behring Strait, finding the second theory more tenable. Comparing and contrasting the languages of the native Americans and the "red men" of Asia, he notes the striking linguistic diversity of America as compared with the latter. Assuming a common origin for the two and supposing diversity in the form of numerous language groups and dialects to be dependent on the lapse of time, he naïvely concludes that "a greater number of these radical changes of language having taken place among the red men of America, proves them of greater antiquity than those of Asia."

Additional mound locations are recorded farther along in the Notes, as follows:

There is another barrow, much resembling this, in the low grounds of the south branch of the Shenandoah where it is crossed by the road leading from the Rockfish gap to Staunton.... There is another on a hill in the Blue Ridge of mountains, a few miles north of Wood's gap, which is made up of small stones thrown together.... There are also many others in other parts of the country."

Although Jefferson's explorations failed to solve the problem of the mounds and their builders or to produce much in the way of "relics," his estimate of a thousand burials for his tumulus probably has not been equaled in any single mound. Nevertheless, his archæological activities and his quaint account thereof may well be taken as the classical inception of the science of archæology in America.


Excerpted from The Mound-Builders by Henry Clyde Shetrone. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Bradley T. Lepper is Curator of Archaeology of the Ohio Historical Society.


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