Mound Builders: Speculations

This short article by Reuben Gold Thwaites is added to the Mound Builders collections as an example of the desire to diminish the uniqueness of the Mound Builder culture. The suggestion that the Americas were sparsely populated at the time of first contact - Wisconsin, for instance, was said to have perhaps 9,000 inhabitants at the time of the Pilgrim landing - is contradicted by no shortage of first contact narratives describing coast teeming with people, which over time devolve to desolation as a result of the introduction of diseases to which to the natives had no immunity. The widespread distribution of the mounds is attested to, but their engineering uniqueness denied. And a short review of the Aztec connection is added in the reference to the Aztalan works.

The apparent mystery of why the building stopped is held as an open question.

Images have been added to the article.
— Orly


In the basin of the Mississippi, particularly in that portion lying east of the great river, there are numerous mounds which were reared by human beings, apparently in very early times, before American history begins. They are found most frequently upon the banks of lakes and rivers, and often upon the summits of high bluffs overlooking the country. No attempt has ever been made to count them, for they could be numbered by tens of thousands; in the small county of Trempealeau, Wisconsin, for instance, over two thousand have been found by surveyors. Most of the mounds have been worn down, by hundreds of years of exposure to rain and frost, till they are but two or three feet in height; a few, however, still retain so majestic an altitude as eighty or more feet. The conical mounds are called by ethnologists tumuli. Other earthworks are long lines, or squares, or circles, and are probably fortifications; some of the best examples of these are still to be traced at Aztalan, Wisconsin. In many places, especially in Ohio and Wisconsin, they have been so shaped as to resemble buffaloes, serpents, lizards, squirrels, or birds; and some apparently were designed to represent clubs, bows, or spears—all these peculiarly shaped mounds being styled effigies.

The mounds attracted the attention of some of the earliest white travelers in the Mississippi basin, and much was written about them in books published in Europe over a hundred years ago. Books are still being written about the mounds, but most of them are based on old and worn-out theories; those published by the Ethnological Bureau, at Washington, are the latest and best. Many thousands of these earthworks have been opened, some by scientists, many more by curiosity seekers, and their contents have, for the most part, found their way into public museums. Many of the mounds have been measured with great accuracy, and pictures and descriptions of them are common.

Aztalan Settlement, Near Lake Mills on WI 89, Jefferson County, Wisconsin, USA

Aztalan Settlement, Near Lake Mills on WI 89, Jefferson County, Wisconsin, USA

Until a few years ago, the opinion was quite general, even among historians and ethnologists, that the mounds were built by a race of people who lived in the Mississippi basin before the coming of the Indians, and that the mound builders were far superior to the Indians in civilization. Many thought that this prehistoric race had been driven southward by the Indians, and that the Aztecs whom the Spaniards found in Mexico and Central America four hundred years ago were its descendants. We have in Wisconsin a reminder of the Aztec theory, in the name Aztalan, early applied to a notable group of earthworks in Jefferson county.

There were many reasons why, in an earlier and more imperfect stage of our knowledge concerning Indians, this theory seemed plausible. It was argued that to build all these mounds required a vast deal of steady labor, which could have been performed only by a dense population, working under some strong central authority, perhaps in a condition of slavery; that these people must have long resided in the same spot; and must have been supported by regular crops of grain, vegetables, and fruit. It was shown that Indians, as we found them, lived in small bands, and did not abide long in one place; that their system of government was a loose democracy; that they were disinclined to persistent labor, and that they were hunters, not farmers. Further, it was contended that the mounds indicated a religious belief on the part of their builders, which was not the religion of the red men. The result of these arguments, to which was added a good deal of romantic fancy, was to rear in the public mind a highly colored conception of a mythical race of Mound Builders, rivaling in civilization the ancient Egyptians.

The name Aztalan was given to this place by Mr. Hyer, because, according to Humboldt, the Aztecs, or ancient inhabitants of Mexico, had a tradition that their ancestors came from a country at the north, which they called Aztalan; and the possibility that these may have been remains of their occupancy, suggested the idea of restoring the name. It is made up of two Mexican words, atl, water, and an, near; and the country was probably so named from its proximity to large bodies of water. Hence the natural inference that the country about these great lakes was the ancient residence of the Aztecs.

The nature of the mounds - being primarily earth works - made them easy spoils. Until protected in the modern era, most to the mounds’ surface were plowed, the mounds were leveled for easier farming, pottery shards and “Aztalan brick” were hauled away by the wagonload to fill in potholes in township roads, and souvenir hunters took numerous artifacts, a description of not only Aztalan but of the vast majority of the Mound Builder legacy.
— Orly

But we are living in an age of scientific investigation; scientific methods are being applied to every branch of study; history has had to be rewritten for us in the new light which is being thrown upon the path of human development. This is not the place to set forth in detail the steps by which knowledge has been slowly but surely reached, regarding the history of the once mysterious mounds. The work of research is not yet ended, for the study of ethnology is only in its infancy; nevertheless, it is now well established that the Indians built the mounds, and we may feel reasonably certain for what purpose they used them.

Indian population was never dense in North America. The best judges now agree that the entire native population consisted of not over two hundred thousand at the time when the Pilgrim Fathers came to Plymouth. Of these, Wisconsin probably had but nine thousand, which, curiously enough, is about its present Indian population. But, before the first whites came, many of the American tribes were not such roamers as they afterward became; they were inclined to gather into villages, and to raise large crops of Indian corn, melons, and pumpkins, the surplus of which they dried and stored for winter. We shall read, in another chapter, how the white fur trader came to induce the Indian agriculturist to turn hunter, and thereby to become the wandering savage whom we know to-day. Concerning the argument that the modern Indian is too lazy to build mounds, it is sufficient to say that he was, when a planter, of necessity a better worker than when he had become a hunter; also, that many of the statements we read about Indian laziness are the result of popular misunderstanding of the state of Indian society. It is now well known that the Indian was quite capable of building excellent fortifications; that the most complicated forms of mounds were not beyond his capacity; and that, in general, he was in a more advanced stage of mental development than was generally believed by old writers. Modern experiments, also, prove that the actual work of building a mound, with the aid of baskets to carry the earth, which was the method that they are known to have employed, was not so great as has been supposed.

It has been recently discovered, from documents of that period, that certain Indians were actually building mounds in our southern States as late as the Revolutionary War. In the north, the practice of mound building had gone or was going out of fashion about a hundred and twenty-five years before, that is, in the days when the French first came to Wisconsin. It is thought that some of our Wisconsin mounds may be a thousand years old; while others are certainly not much over two hundred years of age, for skeletons have been found in some of them wearing silver ornaments which were made in Paris, and which bear dates as late as 1680.

It is easy to imagine the uses to which the Wisconsin mounds were put by their Indian builders. We can the more readily reason this out, because we know, from books of travel published at the time, just what use the southern Indians were making of their mounds, in the period of the Revolutionary War. The small tumuli were for the most part burial places for men of importance, and were merely heaps of earth piled above the corpse, which was generally placed in a sitting posture; he was surrounded with earthen pots containing food, which was to last him until his arrival at the happy hunting ground, and with weapons of stone and copper, to enable him there to kill game or defend himself against his enemies. The larger tumuli were, no doubt, the commanding sites of council houses or of the huts of chiefs. Each Indian belonged, through his relationship with his mother's people, to some clan; and each clan had its symbol or totem, such as the Bear, the Turtle, the Buffalo, etc. The Indians claimed that the clan had descended from some giant animal whose figure, or effigy, was thus honored. Many white people place their family symbol, or crest, or coat of arms on their letter paper, or on the panels of their carriage doors, or upon their silverware; so Indians are fond of displaying their respective totems on their utensils, weapons, canoes, or wigwams. In the mound building days, they reared totems of earth, and probably dwelt on top of them. As in each village there were several clans, so there were numerous earth totems, many of them of great size. This, no doubt, is the origin of the so-called effigies. Add to these the mystic circles of the medicine men, the fantastic serpents, and the fortifications necessary to defend the village from the approach of an enemy up some sloping bank or sharp-sided ravine, and you have the story of the mounds. An Indian village in those old mound building days must have presented a picturesque appearance.

Just why the Indians stopped building mounds is not settled; but it is noticeable that they were being built in various parts of the country about up to the time of the white man's entry. It may be that the coming of the stranger, with his different manners, hastened the decay of the custom; or perhaps it had practically ceased about that time, as many another wave of custom has swept over primitive peoples and left only traces behind.

The mounds, with which the forefathers of our Indians dotted our land, remain to us as curious and instructive monuments of savage life in prehistoric times. No castles or grand cathedrals have come down to us, in America, to illustrate the story of the early ages of our own race; but we have in the mounds mute, impressive relics of a still earlier life upon this soil, by our primitive predecessors. It should be considered our duty, as well as our pleasure, to preserve them intact for the enlightenment of coming generations of our people.


Source:  Stories of the Badger State Author: Reuben Gold Thwaites

Aztec: the Relaciones and their Authors

Aztec: the Relaciones and their Authors

Mound Builders: Cahokia Settlement