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TitleOld America - The Mound Builders
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1875
AuthorsOttinger, G.M.
MagazineJuvenile Instructor
Issue Number19
Date Published18 Sept. 1875
KeywordsAncient America; Mound Builders; North America

Series of articles dealing with archaeological, anthropological, geographical, societal, religious, and historical aspects of ancient America and their connections to the Book of Mormon, which is the key to understanding “old American” studies.

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An ancient people who have left remains of their civilization in the valleys of the Mississippi and its tributaries are called "Mound Builders," this name having been suggested by an important class of their works -- mounds, most of them terraced and truncated pyramids, constructed with intelligence and great labor. These works are not found widely separated or isolated, but form an almost continuous chain down the Ohio and Mississippi from Western Pennsylvania to Mexico and Central America. Ross County, Ohio, alone contains about one hundred enclosures and five hundred mounds. The number of mounds in the whole State of Ohio is estimated at over ten thousand, and the number of enclosures at more than fifteen hundred; and yet they are more numerous in the regions of the lower Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico than anywhere else. Mounds and earth works are very numerous in Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, in fact, from Maine to Florida, but they are most abundant in Western New York and Central Pennsylvania in reference to the Atlantic States. The mounds are as variable in dimensions as are the enclosures, and range from such as are but a few feet in height and a few yards in diameter, to those which rise to the height of seventy feet and measure a thousand feet in circumference at their base. In form it may be observed that the larger part of the enclosures are regular in outline, the circle predominating, some are squares, some parallelograms, ellipses or polygons. The mounds are usually simple cones, sometimes truncated and occasionally terraced with graded or winding ascents to their summits. Most are circular, some elliptical, others pear shaped, and others squares with aprons or terraces and graded accents. A class found most frequent in Wisconsin and the North west takes the form of animals and reptiles, and another variety of remains are elevated causeways or roads, graded descents and covered ways to rivers and streams, or from one terrace to another. The regular works are found mostly on level grounds. The irregular works are those which were evidently works of defense, and are usually made to conform to the nature of the ground on which they are erected; they run around the brows of hills, across narrow rocks or isthmuses, which are protected on the sides by deep ravines, streams or steep and inaccessible precipices, and vary in the height of their walls and the depth of their ditches. The square and the circle are often found in combination, frequently communicating by avenues of parallel embankments. Where excavations are made, skeletons, fragments of pottery and other relics are usually found.

Antiquarians have divided the works of the Mound Builders into three grand classes: -- works of defense, religious structures and sepulchral monuments. These relics are almost always found in districts and places where the soil is rich and fertile. Mr. Flint, the geographer, says, "The most dense ancient populations existed in precisely the places where the most crowded populations will exist in ages to come. Sites selected by our own people for settlements are often found to be those which were the principal seats of the Mound Builders. Marietta, Newark, Portsmouth, Cliilicothe, Circleville and Cincinnati, in Ohio; Frankfort, Kentucky, and St. Louis, Missouri, all stand on the sites of extensive ancient works which have in some instances determined the plan of the existing cities."

Although the works of the Mound Builders are all of one general type, they vary materially in the different sections of the country. Enclosures and tumuli, evidently religious, are found mostly in the Southern and Western States, while defensive works are abundant in Western New York, Central Pennsylvania and Ohio. The nearer we approach the Gulf of Mexico the regular mounds or truncated and terraced pyramids, coinciding in type with the "teocallis" of Mexico, become more numerous and larger, and in some cases adobies, or sun-dried bricks were used in their construction. Relics of art have been dug from some of the mounds, consisting of a variety of ornaments and implements made of silver, copper, obsidian, porphyry and green stone, finely wrought. There are single and double axes, adzes, chisels, drills or gravers, lance-heads, knives, bracelets, pendants, beads and other ornaments of copper; pottery of elegant design and finish, with ornaments of bone, mica, silver and shells; articles of stone of fine workmanship, some of them elaborately carved, while in a few cases written characters or glyphic writing has been found. At an archaeological congress hold at Norwich, England, in 1868, one of the speakers related the fact that "Fragments of charred cloth made of spun fibres have been found in the mounds. A specimen of such cloth, taken from a mound in Butler County, Ohio, is in the Talisbury Museum."

The Mound Builders used large quantities of copper. Remains of their mining works were first discovered in 1848 by Mr. Knapp near the shore of Lake Superior. A point or projection of land resembling in shape an immense horn, projects into the lake; it is about eighty miles long, and about forty-five miles broad where it joins the mainland. All through this district the remains of ancient mining works are found. Usually the civilized life of the Mound Builders has been classed below the ancient people of Central America and Mexico, this inference being drawn from the lack of stone work and finely carved inscriptions and decorations surmounting their mounds, but we have every reason to believe that originally the pyramids of the Mississippi Valley were crowned with temples and altars, but constructed of perishable materials. Mr. Baldwin remarks that "It can be seen without long study of their works as we know them, that the Mound Builders had a certain degree of civilization which raised them far above the condition of savages. To make such works possible under any circumstances, there must be settled life, with its accumulated and intelligently organized industry, used habits of useful work, directed by intelligence."

Prominent among the remains of those ancient people is the great mound at Grave Creek, West Virginia. It is 70 feet high, and 1000 feet in circumference at the base. A mound in Miamisburg, Ohio, is 68 feet high and 852 feet in circumference. The great truncated pyramid at Cahokia, Illinois, is 700 feet long, by 600 feet wide, and 90 feet high. Within a circuit of a few miles from this mound are the remains of over one hundred and fifty ancient tumuli; and within the vicinity on the Missouri side of the river are the remains of two ancient cities of vast proportions. At the mouth of the Missouri there stood a pyramid with three stages or landing places. Fifteen miles west of St. Louis, on the Maramec River, is a group of mounds. In one of them were found stone coffins containing human bones. The mound known ae Mount Juliet, in Illinois, is sixty feet high, four hundred and fifty yards long, and seventy-five yards wide. It is erected on a bed of limestone formation, and Mr. Schoolcraft says in its construction 18,250,000 solid feet of earth were required. At Piqua, Ohio, on the Miami River, is located a circular wall of stone enclosing about twenty acres. This wall is built of limestone taken from the bed of the river. The stones are laid in mortar. Lower down the river are extensive ruins upon the plain. The wall of a fortification here is twelve feet high, of earth, and encloses one hundred and sixty acres. Surrounding Chilicothe, Ohio, are extensive ancient ruins. From a map by Mr. Squires, embracing a section of about twelve miles of the country surrounding this city, over one hundred mounds and forty enclosures, many of large size, can be counted. At Seltzertown, Mississippi, there is a mound 600 feet long, 400 feet wide, and 40 feet high. Its summit measures four acres, while its base covers six area of ground. There was a ditch around it, and near it are smaller mounds. Dickeson says the north side of this mound is supported by a wall of sun-dried brick two feet thick, filled with grass, rushes and leaves.