Alt-history Part 1: The mound builder myth and ethnic cleansing

Throughout the 1800s, most white Americans believed in an alternative history– that they were here first; they are the true “natives”, related to the Mound Builders; and that “redskins” have no real claim to the land.

Marietta, Ohio

Traveling down the Ohio River in 1788, General Rufus Putnam came upon what were clearly the remains of an ancient civilization. The earth was contoured into walls, courtyards, terraces, and mesas stretching in a geometric array over a hundred acres. At this site he founded the town of Marietta, Ohio.


The population of Cahokia around 1200 AD may have exceeded that of London.

In the coming decades, from Manitoba to the Gulf Coast, over a thousand ancient mounds and earthworks were documented, measured, and excavated by white settlers, amateur archaeologists, and academic researchers. There were conical pyramids with tombs inside, temple mounts with roads to the top, and earthworks in the shapes of people or animals. The Great Serpent mound in southern Ohio stretched nearly a mile in length, aligned with the solstices. Monks Mound near St. Louis is the largest earthwork in the Americas. Expertly constructed, it was part of Cahokia, a great city laid out on a grid using the four cardinal directions.


The Great Serpent mound, Ohio

By Putnam’s time, the mound complexes were hardly novel. Europeans had encountered them since DeSoto’s foray in the 1540s, sometimes still in use (by the Natchez). Nor were the mounds at Marietta unheard of. The French had explored and traded along the river since 1669. Valued for its trade opportunities with Native groups, they marked the spot with leaden plates in 1749. The British took over the trading rights in 1763 after the French and Indian War, a subset of the Seven Years’ War which spanned three continents. The Ohio River valley was one of its prime rewards. In 1783, with the Treaty of Paris, the river, and the various mound complexes along it, passed into the hands of the young United States of America, at least as far as white people were concerned.

In fact, Marietta was still contested land in 1788. When General Putnam founded it, he was leading a party of forty-eight men who had been given title to the land by the United States as payment for their services in the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, the Delaware, Shawnee, Iroquois and a dozen other nations had allied two years earlier as the Western Confederacy, formed to meet the new US threat. And the Western Confederacy had the upper hand, inflicting large casualties upon US troops in what is now called Little Turtle’s War. Among the first structures built at Marietta were two defensive forts.

The myth of the Mound Builders


Cahokia today

Europeans had struggled to understand just who the Native Americans were for centuries. The Castilian Council of the Indies debated their rights as humans—or sub-humans—in 1520. The theory that they were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel started in 1650. But the mounds, evidence of a sophisticated ancient civilization, posed a new question. How could the “merciless Indian savages”, as the Declaration of Independence called them, have built such a complicated society?

The answer was the “mound builder myth”, which grew along with the United States’ territory. Here is the basic storyline: Before the red-skinned Indians there was “a race of people more enlightened than the present Indians,” to quote Francis Baily in 1796. They built the great mounds and ancient cities. These Mound Builders were of noble stock, probably descending from Europe or Asia. But then the Indians came. The savages either overwhelmed the Mound Builders by force or, worse, caused this great civilization to decline and disappear thru inter-racial marriage.

This was the foundation of an alternative history that gained widespread popularity and academic support in white society. The entire nascent field of archaeology and anthropology in America revolved around it. The growth of the myth was remarkably coincident with, and provided justification for, massive ethnic cleansing from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, exactly where the mounds were located.

In 1787, just four years after the end of the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Smith Barton of Philadelphia posited that the Vikings must have constructed the earthworks, and then journeyed on to Mexico and Central America where they further perfected their art with even grander pyramids. Benjamin Franklin suggested the mounds were constructed by Hernando de Soto. As early as 1807, a school textbook supposed that the most “civilized” Natives, the Toltecs and Aztecs, had fairly recently arrived from Tartar. In 1817, just five years after Tecumseh’s pan-Indian revolt across the Midwest, William Cullen Bryant published a poem, Thanatopsis, offering an explanation for the fall of the ancient civilization:

The red man came,

The roaming hunter tribes,

warlike and fierce,

And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.

It was Putnam’s secretary who first mapped and excavated the historic sites at Marietta. In 1820, Caleb Atwater used these in the publication of the first book about American archeological sites, Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States. The final third of the book is dedicated to “conjectures” regarding the builders of the mounds. Appreciating that they represented a past great civilization, and unable to attribute such an accomplishment to the present “savages”, he concluded they were built by actual Indians– the “Hindoos” of India. A remarkable proportion of the early mound builder theorists were also local politicians. Atwater was later appointed by Andrew Jackson to negotiate with Native peoples.

The Book of Mormon played its part in 1830, relating that the mounds were built by refugee Israelites. These wayward Hebrews later split into two factions: one industrious and one ungodly. God punished the latter by turning their skins red. These “redskins” rose up and destroyed the others, leaving a sole survivor who wrote down his story on gold tablets to be discovered by Joseph Smith.

That same year white Americans were embroiled in a fervent debate over the fate of Native Americans. The Indian Removal Act passed by a slim margin and was signed into law by Andrew Jackson. The nation had consciously decided to ethnically cleanse most of the land east of the Mississippi. Jackson, in his State of the Union speech, described the mounds as “memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated, or has disappeared, to make room for the existing savage tribes.”

Three years later, in 1833, the myth took off in earnest with the publication of Josiah Priest’s best seller, American Antiquities. According to Priest, the Mound Builders were possibly Europeans, or maybe Egyptians, Israelites, Chinese, or Polynesians. As the book was gobbled up by the public, Georgia was auctioning off Cherokee land to white speculators.


One-third of the Cherokees died while white settlers took over their farms, cabins, houses, lumber mills, and other businesses.

In 1838, as the US Army was going door to door in northern Georgia, rounding up Cherokee families and herding them into stockades, the Grave Creek Stone was discovered a few hundred miles to the north. By the inscriptions on the rock, it appeared to show the Mound Builders had Gallic, Phoenician, and Hebrew origins. The Trail of Tears was underway and the mound country was being “reclaimed” by Europeans.

As skulls and skeletons were exhumed from ancient burial mounds and contemporary Native cemeteries, experts pronounced them proof that the Mound Builders were a separate, and superior, race. They claimed to find differences between the skulls of the Mound Builders and those of modern Native Americans. Samuel George Morton, professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, provided the science behind the supremacy of the white race in a three-volume set released between 1839 and 1849: Crania AmericanaAn Inquiry into the Distinctive Characteristics of the Aboriginal Race of America. With Native Americans, Morton wrote, the “eyes are black and deep set, the brow low, the cheekbones high, the nose large and aquiline, the mouth large, and the lips tumid and compressed. In their mental character the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure. They are crafty, sensual, ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling, and much of their affection for their children may be traced to purely selfish motives… Their mental faculties, from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood: they reach a certain limit and expand no further.” Simply put, Native Americans could not have built great works of civilization. Morton’s work also provided justification for the enslavement of “the negro”.

During the decade of Morton’s publications, the Comanche were pushing the white frontier backward in Texas, the Cayuse were wiping out the Whitman mission to stop white pioneers with measles, John Sutter was putting Maidu and Miwok heads on stakes at the gates of his fort, the US was inheriting Navajo land from the Mexicans, and the term “manifest destiny” was coined.

In 1847, the Smithsonian Institution put its stamp of approval on the myth with the publication of Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley by Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis. One of the seminal research papers in the field of archeology, it provided a thorough scientific description of hundreds of mounds, complete with detailed charts and maps. Their interpretation, however, was influenced by the politics of the times. They concluded that “as works of art they are immeasurably beyond anything which the North American Indians are known to produce, even at this day, with all the suggestions of European art…”


High school textbook, 1857

By the mid-nineteenth century, the mound builder myth was dogma, widely accepted across all levels of white society and taught to children in schools. A high school textbook from 1857 dismissed the notion that Native Americans descended from the lost tribes of Israel, concluding, “It seems far more probable that the first settlers of America were from Egypt. Their taste and skill in building would indicate this…” They migrated to North America via the Bering Sea, “to have erected the mounds and ancient works whose remains are still visible in the valley of the Mississippi…. The Indians of America must have sprung from later bodies of Asiatic adventurers…” The formerly Egyptian Mound Builders were either driven off by “less civilized bands” or mixed with them and then forgot “the mechanical arts through the allurements of forest life”, repeating a theme that, by relying on subsistence hunting and fishing, Natives were lazy, decadent and unbiblical, and would rather live off the land than farm it and build permanent settlements.

Ironically, at this time the removed Cherokee in Oklahoma were establishing some of the first institutes of higher education west of the Mississippi. Prior to removal, they had their own alphabet, printing press, newspaper, and a ninety percent literacy rate that exceeded that of the Georgia colonists that displaced them. Regardless, this alternative history left no doubt that the “Indians” were recent uncivilized interlopers with no legal or moral claim to the land.

As the mounds were measured and mapped and the myth repeated, there were some voices of caution and restraint. Both anthropologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and botanist William Bartram argued that the earthworks were likely constructed by ancestors of the current Native Americans. It is worth noting that Schoolcraft’s wife was half Ojibwe, and from her he learned to speak that language. Bartram was also sympathetic to Natives, having spent considerable time among the Seminole, who regarded him as a friend. In one unusual twist, an amateur archeologist in Ohio sought to humanize Native Americans by re-connecting them to the lost tribes of Israel, but his discovery of stones with Hebrew inscriptions, including the Ten Commandments, were quickly determined to be a hoax.


High school textbook, 1872

The myth persisted, migrating in space and time to the next center of ethnic cleansing. In January 1877, just six months after the Battle of the Greasy Grass (aka Custer’s Last Stand), with the Sioux War in full swing, mysterious tablets were discovered on a farm in Davenport, Iowa. Inscriptions and hieroglyphics on the tablets purported to link the Mound Builders to Europe. In October of that year, as the nation marveled at this ultimate proof of early white ancestry in North America, the US Army was chasing Chief Joseph and hundreds of Nez Perce families through the northern Rockies.

In 1882, Ignatius Donnelly revived Plato’s fictional continent in his wildly popular Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, using “scientific” proofs to assert its place in history. The people of Atlantis, the book asserts, were the Mound Builders.

In 1886, Geronimo and his small band of “off the reservation” Apaches surrendered, ending the last military conflict between the US and Natives in that era. At this point, nearly all Native Americans in the US were confined to concentration camps called “reservations”. In 1890, in a final act of violence, the 7th Cavalry exacted revenge on hundreds of elders, women and children at Wounded Knee for the crime of dancing. This is often called the “last battle” of the Indian Wars; in reality it was a massacre of innocents thirteen years after they had turned themselves in. The “red menace” was over and Custer was avenged.


Four years later, archeologists at the Smithsonian and Harvard’s Peabody Museum definitively put the Mound Builder myth to bed. All archeological evidence suggested that the Mound Builders and Native Americans were one and the same. The Grave Creek Stone, the Davenport tablets, and many other similar discoveries, were all frauds and hoaxes.

Colonialist archaeology

Famous explorer John Wesley Powell, in his role as Director of the Bureau of Ethnology, knew full well the racial motivations that made the mound builder myth so appealing. In 1894 he wrote in his annual report, “It is difficult to exaggerate the prevalence of this romantic fallacy, or the force with which the hypothetic ‘lost races’ had taken possession of the imaginations of men… It was an alluring conjecture that a powerful people, superior to the Indians, once occupied the valley of the Ohio and the Appalachian ranges… all swept away before an invasion of copper-hued Huns from some unknown region of the earth, prior to the landing of Columbus.”

The use, or misuse, of archeology to support a political agenda is not new. Trigger (1984) lists many examples of governments past and present directing scientists to focus on certain narratives, or restricting other lines of inquiry. Archeology, he demonstrates, is regularly used to support nationalist, colonialist, and imperialist agendas. In a parallel example to the US, he describes ancient ruins in Zimbabwe which were so impressive that white colonizers attributed them to Phoenicians. Trigger explains:

Colonialist archaeology, wherever practised, served to denigrate native societies and peoples by trying to demonstrate that they had been static in prehistoric times and lacked the initiative to develop on their own. Such archaeology was closely aligned with ethnology, which in the opinion of the general public also documented the primitive condition of modern native cultures. This primitiveness was seen as justifying European colonists assuming control over such people or supplanting them.

He considers the “lost race of the Moundbuilders” in the US as “the oldest and most complex example” of colonialist archaeology, which “identified the Indians not only as being unprogressive but also as having wilfully destroyed a civilisation; which made their own destruction seem all the more justifiable.”

Trigger, Bruce G. 1984. Alternative Archaeologies: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist. Man, New Series 19 (3): 355-370.

Alt-history Part 2: The mound builder myth reborn, Nazis, and Solutreans

About Stephen Carr Hampton

Stephen Carr Hampton is an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation, an avid birder since age 7, and a former resource economist for the California Department of Fish & Game, where he worked as a tribal liaison and conducted natural resource damage assessments and oversaw environmental restoration projects after oil spills. He writes most often about Native history and contemporary issues, birds, and climate change.
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6 Responses to Alt-history Part 1: The mound builder myth and ethnic cleansing

  1. Eric LoPresti says:

    For a more accurate story, I’d take out the part about reanalyzing Morton’s skulls… its been discredited.

  2. Eric, thanks, I read conflicting things about SJG’s analysis, but I’ve followed your advice and removed it since it’s not central to my thesis anyway. Thanks for reading! Check out Part 2, which gets a little scary.

  3. Tom Mellett says:

    Hello Stephen,
    Jason Colavito is about to publish a new book about the Mound Builder Myth and how it justified the genocide of Native Americans in the 19th Century. And the publisher is the University of Oklahoma Press.
    Best regards,
    Tom Mellett

  4. Pingback: Honorific bird names facts and figures | The Cottonwood Post

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