The Mound Builders

The Anglo-Saxons were not the first people to occupy this country, neither were their precursors the red Indians. There are throughout a large portion of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, as well as other sections of the country, remains of a former race of in-habitants found, of whose origin and history we have no record, and who are only known to us by the relics discovered in the tumuli which they have left. The Mound-Builders were a numerous people, entirely distinct from the North American Indians. Their footprints may be traced wherever the Mississippi and its tributaries flow. Says a writer upon the subject: ” Traces of them are found in the fertile valleys of the West, and along the rich savannas of the South; upon the Ohio, the Kentucky, the Cumberland, the Licking, upon the streams of the far South, and as far north as the Genesee and the head waters of the Susquehanna; but rarely upon mountainous or sterile tracts, and almost invariably upon the fertile margins of navigable streams.” These ancient people were industrious and domestic in their habits, and enjoyed a wide range of communication. From the same mound, antiquarian research has gathered the mica of the Alleghenies, obsidian from Mexico, native copper from the Northern Lakes, and shells from the Southern Gulf.

The most interesting fact, perhaps, connected with the Mound-Builders is that they had a written language. This has been proven by some in-scribed tablets found in the mounds, the most important of which belong to the Davenport Academy of Sciences. These tablets have attracted considerable attention from archaeologists, and it is thought they will some-time prove of great value as records of the people who wrote them. It is still by no means certain whether this written language was understood by the Mound-Builders, or whether it was confined to a few persons of high rank. In the mound where two of these tablets were discovered, the bones of a child were found, partially preserved by contact with a large number of copper beads, and as copper was a rare and precious metal with them, it would seem that the mound in question was used for burial of persons of high rank. The inscriptions have not been deciphered, for no key to them has yet been found; we are totally ignorant of the derivation of the language-of its affinities with other written languages.

Their Antiquity

The Mound-Builders lived while the mammoth and mastodon were upon the earth, as is clearly proved by the carvings upon their stone pipes, but our knowledge of them is very incomplete and mostly conjectural. It is sufficient, however, to show that at least a portion of this country was once inhabited by a people who have passed away without leaving so much as a tradition of their existence, and who are only known to us through the silent relics which have been buried for centuries in the mounds heaped above them. Thorough excavation, careful survey, accurate measurement, exact delineation and faithful description may assist materially in the formation of sound and definite conclusions concerning these peculiar elevations. Were they sepulchres, temples or fortresses? Beneath this sloping area, the Mound-Builder might have buried his dead; from it flung defiance to a foe; upon it made sacrifice to the gods. These conjectures suggest many knotty questions, questions that have never been satisfactorily answered, and perhaps never will be, but they form at least a sound basis for extended and systematic investigation (Dr. Pickett).

The number of mounds in Kentucky has never been accurately estimated. It has been suggested that these elevations of earth were natural formations-the results of diluvial action, “but the theory was scarcely reconcilable with the facts, and has long since passed into the limbo of exploded hypothesis.” The form, position, structure and contents of the mounds afford convincing proof of their artificial origin. The Altar Mounds, which are supposed to have been places of sacrifice, are found either within, or near an enclosure, are stratified, and contain altars of stone or burned clay, whereas the mounds of sepulture or the burial places are isolated, unstratified and contain human remains. The Temple Mounds, which are “high places ” for ceremonial worship, differ from the preceding in containing neither altars nor human remains. In addition to these there are certain anomalous mounds-mounds of observation, signal mounds, etc., which defy all precise or satisfactory classification. The Temple, or terraced, Mounds are said to be more numerous in Kentucky than in the States north of the Ohio River, a circumstance which implies an early origin and application of the familiar phrase ‘sacred soil.’ The striking resemblance which these Temple Mounds bear to the teocallis of Mexico has suggested the purposes to which they were devoted, and the name by which they are known. Some remarkable works of this class have been found in the counties of Adair, Trigg, Montgomery, Hick-man, McCracken, Whitley, Christian, Woodford, Greenup and Mason. (Collins)

Mounds in Kentucky

One of the most perfect specimens of the Temple Mound, and one of the best preserved, even as late as 1820, was near Lovedale, in Woodford County. In shape it was an octagon, and measured 150 feet on each side. It was about six feet high, and had three graded ascents, one at each of the northern angles, and one at the middle of the western side. Another very interesting mound of this character, and one that has excited a great deal of interest, is in Greenup County. It is described as ” a circular work of exquisite symmetry and proportion, consisting of an embankment of earth 5 feet high by 30 feet base, with an interior ditch 25 feet across by 6 feet deep, enclosing an area of 90 feet in diameter, in the center of which rises a mound 8 feet high by 40 feet base; a narrow gateway through the parapet and a causeway over the ditch lead to the enclosed mound.” Near this mound is what appears to be the remains of a fortification, and is thus described by Prof. Pickett:

It forms part of a connected series of works, communicating by means of parallel embankments, and embracing the chief structural elements peculiar to this class of works. On a commanding river terrace stands one of the groups of this series-an exact rectangle, 800 feet square, with gateway, bastion, ditch and hollow-way, with outworks consisting of parallel walls leading to the northeast and the southwest, from opposite sides of the rectangular enclosure. The work has many of the salient features of an extensive fortification, and appears to have been designed for purposes of military defense; and yet there is nothing to forbid the supposition that its sloping areas were also devoted to the imposing rites of a ceremonial worship.” These works, described by Dr. Pickett, seem to be but a corresponding part of a similar group on the opposite side of the river at Portsmouth, Ohio. Whether these works were of a religious or military origin, the architectural skill of construction, the artistic symmetry of proportion, and the geometrical exactness of design certainly suggest the idea that the originators, or builders, were not unacquainted with a standard of measurement and a means of determining angles.

Local Works

In Christian County there are a number of mounds and earthworks that are supposed to be relics of the Mound-Builders, and several of which are still plainly discernible. A list of all the ancient monuments, mounds and earthworks in Kentucky, was made in 1824, by C. S. Rafinesque, at one time Professor of Natural Sciences, etc., in old Transylvania University at Lexington, and published in the second edition of Marshall’s History of Kentucky. In this list Prof. Rafinesque puts the number of works in Christian County at 17: 5 ” sites,” and 12 ” monuments.” Some of these have been examined by citizens of the county, and a number of bones, and even perfect or almost perfect skeletons discovered. The writer has conversed with several persons who have been present at the opening of mounds in the county, in which skeletons were found, and their descriptions agree with archaeologists, that these bones and skeletons must have belonged to the pre-historic people. In subsequent chapters further reference will be made to these local works. The Indians – After the Mound-Builders came the red Indians. The means by which the latter came into possession of the country have been discussed at length by archaeologists, but with no satisfactory results. Whether the Mound-Builders lived their time upon the earth, and then passed away entirely, to be, in the long course of ages, succeeded by another race of human beings, or whether they were exterminated by the Indians whom the Europeans found in possession of the soil, we do not, and probably never will know. The Delaware Indians had a tradition, that many centuries ago, the Lenni-Lenape, a powerful race which swept in a flood of migration from the far West, found a barrier to its eastern progress in a mighty civilization, which was entrenched in the river valleys east of the Mississippi. The Lenni-Lenape formed a military league with the Iroquois, proclaimed a war of extermination against these people, and drove them southward in disastrous retreat. There is another tradition that the primitive inhabitants of Kentucky perished in a war of extermination waged against them by the Indians. Upon such traditions as these is based the theory that the Indians conquered the Mound-Builders, and drove them from the country or exterminated them altogether. The origin, also, of the Indian race is a question at once puzzling to those who have given it their study, and many theories have been advanced, all alike more or less unsatisfactory. One hypothesis is that they were an original race indigenous to the Western Hemisphere; another, that they are an offshoot of Semitic parentage, while some imagine, from their tribal organizations and faint coincidences of language and religion, that they were the descendants of the ancient Hebrews. Others still, with as much propriety, contend that their progenitors were the ancient Hindus, and the Brahmin idea, which uses the sun to symbolize the Creator of the universe, has its counterpart in the sun-worship of the Indians. An able writer of the period says: ” Although the exact place of origin may never be known, yet the striking coincidences of physical organization between the oriental types of mankind and the Indians, point unmistakably to some part of Asia as the place whence they emigrated. But the time of their roving in the wilds of America is probably thrice the period which has been assigned to, them. Scarcely 3,000 years would suffice to blot out almost every trace of the language they brought with them from the Asiatic cradle of the race, and introduce the present diversity of aboriginal tongues. At the time of their supposed departure eastward (3,000 years ago), a great current of emigration flowed westward to Europe, and thence proceeding farther westward, it met, in America, the midway station in the circuit of the globe, the opposing current direct from Asia. The shock of the first contact was the beginning of the great conflict, which has since been waged by the rival sons of Shem and Japheth.” These are some of the many theories and conclusions arrived at by archaeologists and writers upon the subject. But in the absence of all authentic history, and even when tradition is wanting, any attempt to point out definitely the particular theater of their origin must, as we have said, prove unsatisfactory. Their origin is involved in quite as much obscurity as that of the Mound-Builders who preceded them.


Perrin, William Henry, ed., Counties of Christian and Trigg, Kentucky, Historical and Biographical, Chicago : F. A. Battey Publishing Co., 1884.

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