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The following is an excellent introduction to the Mound Builders, written by J. P. MacLean in 1879.

The Mound Builders

Being an account of a remarkable people that once inhabited the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi, together with an investigation into the Archeology of Butler County, Ohio.

Published 1879 by Robert Clarke & Co., Cincinnati, OH

The Mound Builders



Origin of the, Name—Where Found—Description of the Country—Distribution of the Works—Principal Localities— General Classes—Enclosures—Sites.

An ancient race, entirely distinct from the Indian, possessing a certain degree of civilization, once inhabited the central portion of the United States. They have left no written history, and all that is known concerning them is gathered from the monuments consisting of mounds, enclosures, implements, etc., which they have left behind. These remains have been carefully examined, and after long and patient investigations, the archaeologist has arrived at certain definite conclusions, and so apparently accurate are they that we may safely say that we are very well acquainted with this lost race. By what appellation they were known during their existence is past finding out. They have been called the Mound Builders on account of the innumerable mounds which they erected, and which remained until the advent of the white man. Their works are traced through a great extent of country. They are found in the western part of the State of New York, on the east; thence westwardly along the southern shore of Lake Erie, through Michigan to Nebraska, on the west, and as far as Isle Royal, and the northern and southern shores of Lake Superior, on the north. From this line they extend to the Gulf of Mexico. They occur in great numbers in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. They are found in less numbers in North and South Carolina, western parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and Michigan, Iowa, and a portion of the Mexican Territory.

By some it has been contended that the Mound Builders did not penetrate into the State of New York, and the remains there found belong to a later age and another people. Others would have us believe that they erected the mounds found in Oregon and other districts or regions of the far West.

In choosing this vast region lying between the great lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, and extending from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains and consisting of a great system of plains, the Mound Builders exercised great foresight and wisdom. Along one of these plains, inclining towards the east, flow all the streams from the west that enter into the lower Mississippi. Of equal extent is another plain descending from the north, along which flow the tributaries of the Ohio, and even the Mississippi itself, until it reaches the Missouri. Still another plain descends from the Alleghenies, and is drained by the Cumberland and the Tennessee with their tributaries. Along the broad levels drained by this vast river-system the pre-historic remains of man abound. This whole country affords a perfect system of navigation. The Allegheny rises on the borders of Lake Erie at an elevation of nearly seven hundred feet above the level of the lake and one thousand three hundred feet above the sea. A boat may start from within seven miles of Lake Erie, and almost in sight of Buffalo, and float down the Connewango or Cassadaga to the Allegheny, thence into the Ohio, and finally into the Gulf of Mexico, the whole distance being two thousand four hundred miles. Add to this the great natural advantages and the fact that this is preeminently the garden spot of North America, with almost innumerable other considerations, we may be able to judge of the wisdom of the Mound Builders.

Distribution of the Works.—These works are very irregularly distributed, being found principally along the river valleys. They are only occasionally met with in the hill or broken country, and when thus found are always of small size.

Their number is very great; in Ohio alone there are not less than thirteen thousand, including both mounds and enclosures. Within a radius of fifty miles from the mouth of the Illinois River, in the State of Illinois, there are about five thousand mounds. All the mounds, located in the territory occupied by the Mound Builders do not belong to that ancient people, for many of them have been constructed by the Indians, and doubtless many in Ohio have been assigned to the epoch of the former, when in reality they belong to the latter.

In the irregular distribution of the works, it is noticed that in certain localities the remains are very numerous, and from this fact it is easy to point out their principal seats, or where the population was dense. In Ohio this is found to be in the vicinity of Marietta, Athens, Portsmouth, Chillicothe, Circleville, Newark, Springfield, Alexandersville, Middletown, Eaton, Oxford, Hamilton, and Cincinnati. Smaller settlements are found throughout the different parts of the State.

General Classes.—The ancient remains, composed of works of earth and stone, naturally divide themselves into two general classes, viz.: Enclosures and Mounds; and these again embrace a variety of works diverse in form, and designed for different purposes. The first is characterized by being bounded by embankments, circumvallations, or walls, and include fortifications or strongholds, sacred enclosures, and numerous miscellaneous works, mostly symmetrical in structure. Under the second head we have the true mound buildings which constitute one general or single system of works, and include what has been specially designated, sacrificial, temple, sepulchral, symbolical and anomalous.

Enclosures.—The enclosures, to the general observer, form the most interesting class of these remains. They are massive, sometimes of great dimensions, and required great labor in their construction. Their number is great, Ohio alone containing over one thousand five hundred of them. They are composed of clay,—sometimes of stone,—the walls having a height ranging from three feet to thirty, and enclosing areas of from one acre to four hundred. Enclosures of from one to fifty acres are common; of two hundred acres not infrequent, and of greater extent only occasionally met with.

The area enclosed is not always a standard for judging the amount of labor expended in the erection of the work. "Fort Ancient," on the Little Miami, in Warren County, Ohio, has between four and five miles of embankment, yet the entire amount of land embraced within the walls is only a little over one hundred acres.

A large proportion of the enclosures are regular in outline, being constructed in the form of the square, circle, parallelogram, ellipse, and polygon,—the first two predominating. The regularly formed works occur on the level river-terraces, and the irregular works, being used as places of defense, are made to conform to the nature of the brows of the hills upon which they are situated. The square and circle frequently occur in combination, and are either directly connected with each other, or else by avenues enclosed by parallel walls. Nearly all the embankments give evidence of having been fully completed. A few remain which were left in an unfinished state. The walls are usually accompanied by a ditch either interior or exterior to the embankment. From this ditch the earth was taken for the foundation of the walls. Where the ditch does not occur, pits, or excavations are usually found in the immediate vicinity.

Sites.—In selecting the sites for these earth-works the Mound Builders were influenced by the same motives which governed their European successors. The country is very attractive and the broad alluvial terraces overlook the flowing rivers, and the capabilities for development which fascinated the eye of the white man existed when it was made the resort of the numerous population of by-gone times, and the features sought for by the modern were equally of advantage to the ancient.

Attention was called years ago to the fact that nearly every town of importance in the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi and their tributaries is founded on the ruins of this ancient people. To the names of those already mentioned, other sites might be added, such as Norwalk, Dayton, Xenia, Frankfort, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and so on almost indefinitely.

The river-terraces or bottoms, upon which they occur, were selected because the rivers are the great natural highways, and afford the best means of communication among a primitive people where settlements are widely distributed; and not only because the rivers serve as the easiest mode of transportation, but also are filled with their many varieties of fish, and the valleys abound in game, fruits and rank vegetation. These valleys afforded every advantage which the mind could desire.

Where the alluvial terraces, or river bottoms, are most extended, there the principal monuments will be found. At the confluence of streams, where the valleys are broadest, some of the most extensive works are situated. The level bottom lands gave them a rich, warm and quickening soil, easily tilled, and furnished them the most desirable places for the erection of those structures within which they performed their mystic rites and ceremonies. They were afflicted by the inroads of a hostile people, and in this hour of danger nature had arranged for their assistance in giving them high bluffs. Upon these bluffs, or hill-tops they erected their works of defense, choosing such as were best calculated for constructing strongholds that might overlook their settlements.

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