(being continued from 15/06/12 )
Interpretations of the Mound Builders:
The First Interpretations
The first theories to arise concerning these ancient works were that they were constructed by an unknown race of white people, that they were civilized to a relatively high state, that they were connected with the civilizations of Central America and Mexico, and that they were pressed militarily by some enemy, eventually being destroyed or driven to the areas of civilization in Mexico where they continued to live.
This theory, and variations of it, developed a following of considerable proportions.
There were many who were impressed with the greatness of the accomplishments of these ancient people, while critics of the theory felt that it was a ‘romantic embellishment’ of the truth. Still the idea of a great and glorious past for America was popular, and the theory of the Mound Builders as a great vanished race lingered on.
It is interesting to consider the circumstances that led to the abandonment of this theory as a myth. The fact is that by 1890 the tide of opinion had shifted, and men of science denied that there had ever been a highly cultured white race in Americas past. This very radical turn about came as the result of the scientific leadership of one man, Mr. John Wesley Powell. Powell was
born in New York in 1834 not far from Palmyra. His father was a Wesleyan preacher who had some difficulty with his parishioners leaving him for the newly organized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The senior Mr. Powell wanted his son to become a minister like himself, but young John had an inclination f or scientific endeavors. Powell became a Major in the Union
army during the Civil War. At the battle of Shiloh he was wounded in the left arm, and as a result it was amputated. His reputation as a scientist and a capable administrator grew, and in 1879 when Congress created the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology, this Civil War hero,already an influential man, received additional power and prestige as the Bureau’s first Director.
Major Powell was disposed to think that the Mound Builders were the ancestors of the Indians.
By 1880 he had already made his feelings known in the Bureau’s first annual report, in it he said:
With regard to the mounds so widely scattered between the two oceans, it may also be said that mound-building tribes were known in the early history of discovery of this continent,and that the vestiges of art discovered do not excel in any respect the arts of the Indian tribes known to history. There is, therefore, no reason for us to search for an extra-limital origin through
lost tribes for the arts discovered in the mounds of North America. (Bureau of Ethnology First Annual Report, p. 74.)
Within a decade the scientific community had adopted Powell’s opinion as their own.
This process of change involved a re-evaluation of the entire accumulation of evidence about America’s past. it did not involve significant new findings. This reversal on the part of the Smithsonian Institution meant that they must discredit a great deal of work that had been done previously. This included the venerable Squire and Davis. whose work “Ancient Monuments of
the Mississippi Valley,” was itself a Smithsonian publication.
Evidence contrary to Powell’s stated opinion was explained as fraudulent, as buried in the mounds intrusively, or simply re-interpreted to favor the new theory. A good account of the particulars of this re-interpretation may be found in Siverberg’s Mound Builders of Ancient America:
The Archaeology of a Myth. ch. 5.
The result of this type of reinterpretation by the federal giant was that the attitude of the scientific community followed. From this point forward, anything that referred to the original glorious Mound Builder theory was considered mythical. It was a very hostile academic environment for anyone who ventured to propose that there had ever been a highly civilized group of people in the New World.
The Mounds of Michigan
It was at this time that the mounds of Michigan began to attract attention, of course much of that attention was negative, the purported artifacts did not fit the popular theory of the day. and therefore they did not receive sufficient serious attention.
Evidence of Early People in Michigan
It is claimed that many of the mounds of Michigan are merely low rounded elevations produced by the uprooting of trees in the primeval forest and the decay of the roots which pried up the soil (American Anthropologist, Vol. 10, No. 1, p. 48.) It would therefore be profitable to note evidences of early inhabitants in that state.
First it should be said that all reliable reporters of ancient works have mentioned that there are authentic mounds in abundance in Michigan, anc there are many other indications that ancient peoples did inhabit that state; the following are some of those indications:
Native Copper. One of the unusual natural resources of Michigan i~ native lake copper.
This is not found in ore, but In a natural state of almost pure copper nuggets. Among the remains that indicate the activity of ancient people in Michigan is the evidence that they mined extensively for this product. In describing their efforts Baldwin says:
“…in Upper Michigan, near Lake Superior. Their mining was chiefly surface work; that is to say, they worked the surface of the veins In open pits and trenches.., the greatest depth of their excavations was thirty feet; and here, ‘not far below the bottom of a trough-like cavity, among a mass of leaves, sticks, and water, Mr. Knapp discovered a detached mass of copper weighing
nearly six tons. It lay upon a cob-work of round longs or skids six or eight inches In diameter, the ends of which showed plainly the marks of a small axe or cutting tool about two and a half inches wide. They soon shriveled and decayed when exposed to the aft. The mass of copper had been raised several feet, along the foot of the lode, on timbers, by means of wedges.’ At this place was
found a stone maul weighing thirty-six pounds, and also a copper maul or sledge weighing twenty-five pounds. Old trees showing 395 rings of annual growth stood in the debris.
All through this district, wherever modern miners have worked, remains of ancient mining works are abundant; and they are extensive on the adjacent island, known as Isle Royale.
The area covered by the ancient works is larger than that which includes the modern mines, (c.1871) for they are known to exist in the dense forests of other districts, to which the modern mining has not yet been extended. (Ancient America, pp.44-45.)
Remains of fortifications also exist in Michigan as the following account taken from the Buffalo Pilot reveals:
“…in the town adjoining Cooper, county of Megan, Michigan, about a mile distant from the fertile banks of the Kalamazoo, is a small hamlet, commonly known as Arnold’s Station. The first settlers of this little place, emigrants from the St. Joseph country, found In the township some extensive ruins of what had evidently been the work of human ingenuity, and which they
christened the Military Post. “It consists,” says the writer, “of a wall of earth, running north west and southeast, being about the height of a man’s head In the principal part of Its length,but varying in some places, as if It had been degraded, either by the hands of assailants or the lapse of time… .“
If the neighboring Indians are questioned upon its traditional history, the invariable answer is,
that it was there when they came– more, they either do not or can not say. That It was the labor of an extinct race is pretty evident, and it probably dates from the same era with the extensive works at Rock River. These latter are, however, of brick, a specimen of which material, taken from beneath the roots of an oak tree of great size, the writer has in his possession. (Quoted in Times and Seasons, Vol. 6, p. 906.)
The Soper Type Artifacts
With quotations enough to show that there were people active during Michigan’s prehistory,
we now turn to a more detailed account of the development of the Soper-Savage story.
In most respects, the information regarding the Soper type articles is fragmentary, being found in newspaper articles and journals. The late Elder Milton R. Hunter has compiled a great deal of this Information concerning the historical circumstances of the Michigan finds. His work appears to be the best compilation, and the most current on the subject. For these reasons it will be most
profitable to quote an extended portion of his research here.
It seems that these ancient Americans lived throughout the entire state of Michigan;
and that at one time the land was dotted with their towns and cities. As early as 1817, Mr.Brickinridge of Jackson County, Michigan, wrote:
“The great number, and extremely large size of some of them (cities) may be regarded as furnishing, with other circumstances, evidences of antiquity. I have sometimes been induced to think that at the period when they were constructed, there was a population here as numerous as that which once animated the borders of the Nile or Euphrates or of Mexico… . I am perfectly
satisfied that cities similar to those of ancient Mexico, of several hundred thousand souls,
have existed in this country.” (History of Jackson County, Michigan. p. 20.) The Mound Builders have left thousands of mounds as mute evidence of their historical past.
These mounds lay in groups in various parts of the state. For example, Mr. John A. Russell in 1911 wrote:
“One area which has been most productive in results, lies directly north of the city of Detroit, in the village of Highland Park. In this 40-acre wood lot there appear to be upward of 1,200 mounds, of which something more than 400 have been opened.” (Prehistoric Discoveries in Wayne County, Michigan, p. 6.) By the time modern Americans became Interested in these mounds and began their work of excavations, many of the mounds, no doubt, had become parts of farming lands and thereby had become obscure. Thus, the principle mounds excavated in Michigan have been those that were covered with dense
vegetation and even with heavy timber. Our most reliable and best information regarding these ancient mounds comes from the men who excavated them and so in this chapter we shall refer often to their statements. Two of the best authorities are the Reverend James Savage and Mr. Daniel E. Soper, both of Detroit, Michigan. They excavated over 500 mounds between the year of 1907 and the time Father Savage published a small book on the Michigan Mound Builders in 1911.”
Father Savage Describes Michigan Mounds
Perhaps no man helped to open more mounds in Michigan than did the Reverend James Savage,
Pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Detroit, and so his description of them should be accurate and of much value to us. He described these mounds as follows:
“On these mounds you may find large and aged trees– oaks, pines, and other varieties. The decayed roots of pine and other trees that grew, thrived and died on these mounds are there. They contain another peculiarity. There is a stria of charcoal and ashes in each mound. This stria often shows the basin-shaped contour of the interior of the mound when its possessor was laid away to
rest. There does not appear, as a rule, sufficient charcoal and ashes for cremation, only enough for purification. In some mounds, however, there is a heavy stria.” (Prehistoric Discoveries in Michigan, pp. 11-12.)
The Reverend James Savage pointed out that the mounds, or graves, as a rule, were found in groups. The following quotation will illustrate:
“The Silvan Club owns two forty-acre tracks (minus two acrcs) on the Ausable River, Crawford County, Michigan. On the west forty acres we found only one group of mounds. This group contained eleven mounds. On the east forty acres we found three groups of mounds-one of three another of seven, and another group which covered an acre or more of ground. In this group some
were close together, others from forty to sixty feet apart. We opened every grave we found on this group, and found but one specimen. It was a large, well made chilled copper spear point. In the group of seven mounds, we found two tablets-one of copper, the other of stone; one copper knife,and one medal of sandstone. In the group of three, we found only one specimen– a beautiful
medallion of dark stone. In the group of eleven mounds, on the west forty acres, we found six specimens– two slate tablets, three copper spear points and one very handsomely worked ceremonial.
We found groups and lonely graves along Ausable as far as we explored. Some of these groups were half a mile or more back from the river.” (Prehistoric Discoveries in Michigan, pp.11-12.)”
The following is a continuation of the Reverend Savage’s description of the Michigan mounds:
“On the mound in which one copper tablet was found there stood the decayed stump of a large pine tree. This mound was eighteen feet by nine, of oval shape, and stood in height three feet.
When we came to the roots of the tree the man in the pit remarked:
“We can’t dig any farther here til we get an axe; that hand axe is not heavy enough to cut these roots.”
“I jumped Into the pit and directed him to clear away the earth from the end of the root most exposed. When he did so, I got hold of the root. It was so decayed we tore it out and threw it onto the bank. I noticed that the roots of the tree had perforated the basin-shaped stria of charcoal and ashes on the sides of the mounds. Directly beneath the stump there were ten to twelve inches of sand between the lower center of the stump and the stria of charcoal and ashes at the bottom of
the mound. There lay this copper tablet, directly beneath the stump on the stria of charcoal and ashes.
“I was the first who saw Tablet No. 14 and 15 of booklet as it lay in its ancient bed. It alone was left to tell the story of the manner of its master’s death, whose bones had long since mingled with the ashes that covered the bottom of his grave. The mound in which this tablet was found was nearly round, ten feet across and flat, and more than eighteen inches in height. On the side
of the mound to the northeast stood a tree. One of the roots of this tree had grown across the tablet, binding it solidly down and might in time have broken the tablet as the tree was strong and vigorous. This mound was one of a group of eleven mounds. In this group we found six specimens.”
The Reverend James Savage also wrote:
“The Prehistoric mounds of Michigan. which Mr. Soper and myself have opened, are as a rule not more than ten to thirty feet in length. frequently oval in form. Some, are round or nearly so.
These latter are, as a rule, not more than eighteen inches in height. They are flat, with an indication of a moat around them. They are not more than two to three feet in depth. When found on highlands frequently an elongated basin-shaped stria of charcoal and ashes shows the contour of the open grave where the body was laid away. The outer and upper rim of the basin-shaped stria
came to within sixteen or eighteen inches of the surface of the ground. In Wayne County the country is flat and the formation of the soil is lake sand. Here the basin-shaped stria is not so marked.” (Prehistoric Discoveries in Michigan. p. 10)
Shrubbery and Trees Growing on Mounds
In confirming the genuineness and antiquity of these Michigan relics, it is a fact of great significance that many newspaper articles of the time of the excavations of the mounds, those who excavated the mounds, and writers in general of that period definitely claim that the ancient mounds were covered with vegetation, shrubbery, and even with trees and stumps hundreds of
years old. For example, in 1911 John A. Russell wrote:
‘The mounds are almost invariably overgrown with vegetation, many of them being covered with trees of ancient growth.’ (Russell, p. 8.) And later in his book, Mr. Russell pointed out that the thousands of ancient artifacts which had
been dug from the mounds throughout the state of Michigan, are similar to each other in the various locations found. He declared that they are:
“ composed of hardened copper, slate, sandstone, and limestone; that these objects are recovered from timber areas containing trees from ten to two hundred years old; that to follow the ash strata of the opened graves has called for the chopping away of tree roots representing many years of growth; that these objects are ornamented with drawings, fluting and decorations quite
out of touch with the culture of the American Indian; and that they carry in great quantity hieroglyphic writings which their finders cannot read and which they have so far found nobody capable of interpreting. This statements represents the sum of all the claims made regarding the discoveries.” (Ibid., pp. 19-20.)
Beginning of Discoveries
The earliest discoveries of ancient artifacts in Michigan that I have information about were those that were plowed up by a farmer in Gratiot County in 1877. (new information reveals that the first artifacts brought to light in Michigan was in the year 1858. editor). (Ibid.p. 15.) Those ancient artifacts seemed not to have caused much excitement nor to have attracted
the attention of many people at the time of their discovery.
In 1892, Mr. M.E. Cornell quotes from a newspaper article published in Genesee County,
Michigan, which shows that much great interest was now being shown in such finds. The quotation is as follows:
“An Interesting product of one of the lost arts has just been discovered in this vicinity. Mr. Robert Hon, while plowing on his farm a few miles south of this village, unearthed a perfectly formed and well preserved copper dagger. The blade is nine and one half inches in length, one and one fourth inches broad at, the hilt, double-edged, tapering to a fine point, and bearing unmistakable
evidence of great skill and efficiency in its maker. No smith or artist of this or any other period of science can show evidence of higher attainment. It is wrought of pure copper, and is as hard today as the finest steel.’
From what people this wonderful relic came, or at what remote age they inhabited this country,
and to what plane of civilization they attained, are but matters of conjecture and speculation, Mr.Dean Hawley of this village, is the possessor of this interesting souvenir. Hundreds have called to examine it.”
(Prehistoric Relics of the Mound Builders, p. 27.)
(TO BE CONTINUED )
Compiled by Glen W. Chapman- September 2000