Excavating the Western Indian mounds


By editor Derek O’Leary

In the early 19th century, many Americans summoned the history of an antique race from the myriad earthen structures encountered across the expanding frontier. Ranging from small tumuli, to larger animal and human effigies, to colossal conical and pyramidal edifices, these earthworks sprawled from western New York to the Great Lakes, and clustered southward along the Ohioan river banks and up the Mississippi toward the Gulf Coast. The link between a mound-building civilization and contemporary Indians spurred debate until century’s end, but in the antebellum period, most assumed that these advanced predecessors did not—indeed, could not— share lineage with the latter, apparently degenerated tribes.

Summoning the antique mound-builder in this western theater may then seem like the narrative counterpart to vanishing the Indian in the East. (Jean O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting provides the clearest account of how the latter process played out in the historical…

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