The meaning of "Mound Builder"



The Meaning of  "Mound Builders"

      PAST of our race is irradiated here and there by the light of science sufficiently to enable us to form quite vivid conceptions of vanished peoples. As the naturalist, from the inspection of a single bone, is enabled to determine the animal from which it was derived, though there be no longer a living representative, so the arch├Žologist, by the aid of fragmentary remains, is able to tell us of manners and times now long since removed. In the words of another: "The scientist to-day passes up and down the valleys, and among the relics and bones of vanished people, and as he touches them with the magic wand of scientific induction, these ancient men stand upon their feet, revivified, rehabilitated, and proclaim with solemn voice the story of their nameless tribe or race, the contemporaneous animals, and physical appearance of the earth during those prehistoric ages."
We have already learned that the world is full of mysteries, and though, by the exertion of scholars, we begin to have a clearer idea of some topics, yet our information is after all but vague and shadowy. The amount of positive knowledge in regard to the mysterious tribes of the older Stone Age, or the barbarians of the Neolithic period, or the struggling civilization of the early Metallic Ages, is lamentably deficient. On our Western Continent we have the mysterious remains in the gold-bearing gravels of the Pacific coast, the significance of which is yet in dispute. We have the Paleolithic Age of Europe, represented by the remains found in the gravels of the Delaware at Trenton, New Jersey. When deposited there, and by what people used, is, perhaps, still enshrouded in doubt.
Leaving now the past, expressed by geological terms, or by periods of thousands of years, we draw near to our own tribes, near, at least, comparatively speaking, and behold, here, also, we discern evidence that an ancient culture, as marked as that which built its cities along the fertile water-courses of the Old World, had its seat on the banks of our great rivers; that here flourished in full vigor for an unknown length of time a people whose origin and fate are yet in doubt, though, thanks to the combined efforts of many able men, we begin to have clearer ideas of their social organization. We know them only by reason of their remains, and as these principally are mounds, we call them the "Mound Builders."
    The name is not a distinguishing one in every sense, since mankind, the world over, have been mound and pyramid builders. The pyramids of Egypt and the mound-dotted surface of Europe and Asia bear testimony to this saying, yet nowhere else in the world are they more plainly divided into classes, or marked with design than here. In some places fortified hills and eminences suggest the citadel of a tribe or people. Again, embankments of earth, mostly circular or square, separate and in combination, generally inclosing one or more mounds, excite our curiosity, but fail to satisfy it. Are these fading embankments the boundaries of sacred inclosures, or the fortification of a camp, or the foundations on which to build communal houses? Here graded ways, there parallel embankments raise questions, but suggest no positive answer. We are equally in doubt as to the purposes for which many of the mounds were built. Some seem to have been used as places of sepulcher, some for religious rites, and others as foundation site of buildings. Some may have been used as signal mounds, from which warning columns of smoke, or flaming fires, gave notice of an enemy's approach.
Before coming to details let us, at a glance, examine the picture as a whole. This country of ours, with its wide plains, its flowing rivers and great lakes, is said by scholars to have been the home of a people well advanced in the arts of barbarian life. What connection, if any, existed between them and the Indians, is yet unsettled. We are certain that many years before the Spanish discovery of America they made their settlements here, developed their religious ideas, and erected their singular monuments. That they were not unacquainted with war, is shown by their numerous fortified inclosures. They possessed the elements of agriculture, and we doubt not were happy and contented in their homes. We are certain they held possession of the fairer portions of this country for many years.
We must now seek to gather more particular knowledge of them, and of the remains of their industry. We must not forget that these are the antiquities of our own country; that the broken arch├Žological fragments we pick up will, when put together, give us a knowledge of tribes that lived here when civilization was struggling into being in the East. It should be to us far more interesting than the history of the land of the Pharaohs, or of storied Greece. Yet, strange to say, the facts we have just mentioned are unknown to the mass of our people. Accustomed to regard this as the New World, they have turned their attention to Europe and the East when they would learn of prehistoric times. In a general way, we have regarded the Indians as a late arrival from Asia, and cared but little for their early history. It is only recently that we have become convinced of an extended, past in the history of this country, and it is only of late that able writers have brought to our attention the wonders of an ancient culture, and shown us the footprints of a vanished people.