What is an Indian Mound?

   What is an Indian Mound?  With the exception of the effigy mounds, 99% of burial mounds contain burials.  The mounds were constructed to connect the living with the dead.

   Within the area we have thus defined are located the works of the people we call the Mound Builders. What we wish to do is to learn all about these vanished people. A great many scholars have written about them, and large collections of the remains of their handiwork have been made. There is, however, a great diversity of opinion respecting the Mound Builders and their culture. So we see we have a difficult subject to treat of. In order to gain a clear understanding of it, we must describe the remains more closely. About all we can learn of these people is from a study of their monuments. We can not call to our aid history or tradition, or rock-carved inscription, but must resort to crumbling mounds, broken down embankments; study their location, and observe their forms. To the studies in the field we must add those in the cabinet, and examine the many objects found in and above the mounds and earth-works, as well as the skeletons of the builders of the works. Rightly used, we can draw from these sources much valuable information of the people whose council-fires blazed all along the beautiful valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in times far removed from us.
We will first speak of the simplest form of these works, the ordinary conical mound. This is the one form found all over the extensive area designated. They exist in great numbers on the banks of the upper Missouri, as well as the river bottoms of the South. This cut represents a very fine specimen of a mound, in this instance surrounded by a circular embankment. We must not forget that mounds are found all over the world. "They are scattered over India, they dot the steppes of Siberia and the vast region north of the Black Sea; they line the shores of the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean; they are found in old Scandinavia, and are singularly numerous in the British Islands."16
The principle in human nature which leads to the erection of mounds is living and active to-day. The shaft which surmounts Bunker Hill is but a modern way of memorizing an event which in earlier ages would have led to the erection of a mound, and the polished monument which marks the resting place of some distinguished man was raised for the same purpose as the mounds heaped over the chiefs and warriors of another age. The feeling which moves us to crown with steeples or spires our houses of worship is evidently akin to that which induced older races to erect a mound on which to place their temples, their idols, and altars of sacrifice.
If mounds were the only works remaining of these ancient people, we would not take so great an interest in them, and, as it is, we are not to suppose that all the mounds are the works of those people we call the Mound Builders. Recent investigation and historical evidence unite in showing that some comparatively recent Indian tribes formed and used mound structures. Early explorers have left abundant testimony to show that in many cases the Indians resorted to mound-burial. Thus, it seems that it was the custom of the Iroquois every eighth or tenth year, or whenever about to abandon a locality, to gather together the bones of their dead and rear over them a mound. To this custom, which was not confined to the Iroquois, are doubtless to be ascribed the barrows and bone mounds which have been found in such numbers in various parts of the country.17 Although it is well to bear these facts in mind, yet it is not doubted that the larger number, and especially the more massive ones, were erected by the same people who built the other mysterious works, and so it is necessary that they be carefully studied.
In the valley of the Ohio there have been found a class of mounds known as Altar Mounds. These, it should be stated, nearly always occur in or near inclosures. This cut gives us a good idea of mounds of this kind. Near the top is seen an instance of what is called "intrusive" burial. After the mound was completed it had been dug into and a body buried near the surface. This burial was evidently later in time, and had no connection with the purpose for which the mound was originally built. We also notice in this mound the different layers of which it was composed. These layers are of gravel, earth, and sand, the latter being only a few inches thick. Mounds made in this manner are called stratified mounds, and all altar mounds are probably of this kind. The lines of stratification have been described as curving so as to correspond with the shape of the mound, and such we are told is the general rule.18
The peculiar feature, however, is the altar at the bottom of the mound, directly above the natural surface of the ground. The small cut gives us a clear idea of the altar, the light lines running around it showing the plan. These altars are almost always composed of clay, though some of stone have been discovered. They are of various shapes and sizes. We notice the dish-shaped depression on the top of the altar. The clay of which they are composed seems to have been moulded into shape directly over the surface of the ground. Sometimes a layer of sand was put down as a foundation. They are nearly always thoroughly burned, the clay being baked hard, sometimes to the depth of fifteen or twenty inches. This must have required intense and long continued heat.
We are at once curious to know the object of this altar. Within the basin-shaped depression are generally found all manner of remains. Sometimes portions of bones, or fragments of wood, arranged in regular order; pieces of pottery vessels, and implements of copper and stone; spear-heads, arrow-heads, and fragments of quartz and crystals of garnet. Pipes are a common find, carved in miniature figures of animals, birds, and reptiles. Two altar-mounds but recently examined near Cincinnati had altars about four feet square that were loaded down with ornaments.
One especially contained quantities of ornaments of stone, copper, mica, shells, the canine-teeth of bears and other animals, and thousands of pearls. They were nearly all perforated, as if for suspension. Several of the copper ornaments were covered with native silver which had been hammered out into thin sheets and folded over the copper. One small copper pendant seems to have been covered with a thin sheet of hammered gold, as a small piece was still clinging to it. This is the first example of finding native gold in the mounds.19 On this altar were also found masses of meteoric iron, and ornaments of the same material. One piece of mica showed the profile of a face.20
In all cases the articles found on the altars show the action of fire. We seem justified, then, in supposing that after the altar was formed, fires were lit on them, and into this fire were thrown the various articles just enumerated. But what was all this for? This will probably never be very clear to us, beyond the fact that it was a religious rite. Portions of the human skeleton have been found on these altars, and it has been suggested that human victims were at times part of the sacrifice; but as it is known that this people practised cremation, it may be that the altars were sometimes used for that purpose, the remains being afterwards gathered and buried elsewhere.
After the offerings had been flung into the fire, while it was yet glowing on the altar, earth or sand was heaped over them for a few inches, then successive layers of earth and sand, or ashes, clay, or gravel. Sometimes the altars were used several different times, in which case a layer of clay several inches thick was laid over the old altar. In one case three layers had been burned in before the final addition of earth and sand were heaped over it. These strange monuments of a by-gone people hint to us of mysterious rites. We wish we had more positive knowledge of the ceremonies they commemorated; but at present we must rest satisfied with conjecture.
The next class of mounds are known as burial mounds, some of which are stratified, and resemble the so-called altar mounds. A mound explored in Butler County, Ohio, had in the center a layer of clay an inch thick, which had been burned until it was red. Underneath this was another layer of clay, beneath which was found charcoal, burnt cloth, and charred bones. Mr. Foster thinks that in this mound the body was placed on a rude altar, fires were lit, and that while yet burning, clay was thrown over it all, and that then fires were built all over the mound, sufficient to burn the clay for an inch in thickness.21 We have also a description of a group of mounds explored near the Mississippi River, in which there were evident signs of cremation. At least in several mounds fires had been built close above the bodies. But in cremation other victims may have been burned to accompany the departed chiefs or warriors. In one mound evidence of such a custom was observed.
In another mound the center was found to be a mass of burned clay interspersed with calcined human bones. No less than ten or fifteen bodies had been burned here. "They must have worshiped some fierce ideal deity, and the ceremony must have been considered of great importance to have required so many victims." This may have been, however, nothing more than simple cremation.22
Pidgeon has described mounds in Minnesota, in many respects like the altar mounds. In one case he mentions there was an altar or pavement of stone on the original surface of the ground, a few feet above which was a layer of clay, showing the action of fierce and long-continued fires. We furthermore are told that cremation, especially of chiefs, was more or less common among the Village Indians of North America, that similar usage was observed among many of the tribes of Mexico, and that the Mayas, of Yucatan, burnt the bodies of their lords, and built temples over their remains. So it may be that the altar mounds are but varieties of funeral mounds, the remains of the bodies burned here being buried elsewhere.23
The nations that celebrated their mysteries around these mounds have long since departed; the altar fires long since burned low. We are not sure that we understand their purport, but we are certain they were regarded as of great importance, and we can readily imagine that when the fires were lit on the altars, gathering crowds stood round, and participated in the religious observance, throwing into the fire their most valued ornaments, in this manner paying their last respects to the departed chiefs and great men of their tribe.
The true burial mounds are very numerous, an comprise by far the larger number of mounds. They are to be found all over the Mound Builders' territory, and are about the only class of remains found in the prairie regions of the West. From the upper waters of the Missouri and the great lakes on the north to the Gulf States on the south, and from west of the Mississippi to the Alleghenies of the East, in all this vast region they are the prevailing class of remains, and occur by hundreds, and even thousands, along the valleys. The mounds themselves are often not very conspicuous; as a rule they are simply heaps of dirt raised above the surface and rounded over, and from two or three to fifteen or twenty feet high, although many are of much larger size. They are seldom found on the lower, or recent river terrace, but are common on the upper terrace, and are often built upon the high bluffs bordering the streams, where a wide stretch of country is exposed to view. Black-bird, an Omaha chief, who died about the year 1800, desired to be buried on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri, so that he might see the boats passing up and down the river. Perhaps from a similar superstitious wish the Mound Builders sometimes chose the sites of their burial mounds where they could watch over their country; or it may be that the monuments over the dead were placed in such conspicuous positions that they might be readily seen by the people.
The next cut represents an ordinary burial mound, which was explored by tunneling in from one side. We notice there are no different layers or stratifications in this case. In some cases, at least, the building of such a mound occupied several years. We can see where the dirt was thrown down in small quantities, averaging about a peck, as if from a basket. In one case grass had started to grow on the unfinished surface of the mound, to be covered up by fresh dirt.24
In the majority of cases the mounds contain the remains of but one individual, with various relics of a rude and barbarous people. Where but one body was buried, the usual mode of procedure seems to have been to first clear a space on the surface of the ground; the body was then placed in the center of this prepared place, and often a rude framework of timber was placed around it, sometimes a stone chamber was built up. Over this the mound was erected to the desired height. This description would apply to nearly all of the many thousands of burial mounds in the country.
In the cut a layer of charcoal is noticed near the top. Nearly all mounds show evidence of the existence of fire during some period of their construction. In some cases these fires were fierce and long continued, as if the object had been to cremate the body. It may have been a part of their religious belief that it was necessary to keep fires blazing on the mound for a short length of time to keep off evil spirits, or to comfort the soul of the departed. Such at any rate was the custom among some Indian tribes. We are told that among the Iroquois, a "fire was built upon the grave at night to enable the spirit to prepare its food."25
In some cases, many individuals were buried in the same mound. These may be communal burials, such as we have already referred to. Mounds of this kind have been examined near Nashville, Tennessee. One mound alone was the burial place of over two hundred persons. Pidgeon describes some triangular burial mounds in Minnesota, differing in shape only from the ordinary circular mounds that belong to this division. In general, burial mounds are not very high, yet there are exceptions to this rule.
This cut represents one of the largest of these mounds. It is situated at the junction of Grave Creek and the Ohio River, twelve miles below Wheeling, in West Virginia. It measures seventy feet in height, and its base is nearly one thousand feet in circumference. An excavation made from the top downward, and from one side of the base to the center, disclosed the fact that the mound contained two sepulchral chambers, one at the base and one near the center of the mound. These chambers had been constructed of logs, and covered with stone. The lower chamber contained two skeletons, one of which is supposed to have been a female. The upper chamber contained but one skeleton. In addition to these, there were found a great number of shell beads, ornaments of mica, and bracelets of copper.26
A moment's thought will show us what a great work such a mound must have been for a people destitute of metallic tools and domestic animals. The earth for its construction was probably scraped up from the surface and brought thither in baskets. A people capable of erecting such a monument as this, with only such scanty means at their command, must have possessed those qualities which would sooner or later have brought them civilization.
Another very interesting mound of this class once stood in the city of St. Louis. The rapidly growing city demanded its removal in 1869. It was an oblong mound, one hundred and fifty feet long by thirty in height. In its removal it was shown that it contained a burial chamber seventy-five feet long, from eight to twelve feet wide, and from eight to ten feet high, in which about thirty burials had taken place. The surface of the ground had first been leveled, then the walls raised to the desired height, made firm and solid, and plastered with clay. Timbers formed the roof, over which the mound had been raised to the desired height.
In process of time the roof decayed and fell in, thus giving a sunken appearance to the top of the mound. This view is a cross section of the mound as it was revealed by the workmen. We notice where the roof has fallen in, and the outline of the interior chamber. This burial chamber was perhaps an exact model of the cabins in which the people lived. Can it be that this mound was the final resting place of some renowned chief, and that the other bodies were those of his attendants sent to accompany him to the other world? This is perhaps as reasonable a conjecture as any. Certain it is that this tumulus and that at Grave Creek were fit pyramids for the Pharaohs of the New World.
It is not to be supposed that the mounds were the sole cemeteries of the people who built them. Like the barrows of Europe, they were probably erected only over the bodies of the chiefs and priests, the wise men, and warriors of the tribe. The amount of work required for the erection of a mound was too great to provide one for every person. The greater number of the dead were deposited elsewhere than in mounds, but it is doubtful whether we can always distinguish the prehistoric burial places from those of the later Indians. An ancient cemetery, discovered near Madisonville, Ohio, proved to be a most interesting find, as it was thought to be a burial place of the Mound Builders,27 but it seems there is strong doubt on this point. One writer thinks this was a cemetery of the Erie tribe of Indians, and not very ancient in date.28
In Tennessee are to be found numerous burial places known as the stone-grave cemeteries. Stone graves of a similar character are found in Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri. These are as yet but few facts which can be used as indicating that all the stone graves are of one people. Many of these cemeteries are of great antiquity, while similar stone graves are of quite recent date. In some places the cemeteries cover very large areas.
We have now to describe a class of mounds that are always regarded with great interest, as a number of our scholars think they see in them the connecting link between the remains in this country and those of Mexico and the South. These are generally known as "temple mounds," from the common impression that they were sites of temples or public buildings. In general terms, mounds of this class are distinguished by their large size and regularity of form, and they always have a flat or level top. On one side there is generally a graded way leading up to the summit, in some instances several such methods of approach. Sometimes the sides of the mound are terraced off into separate stages.29
We have already noticed that different sections of country are distinguished by different classes of mound remains. In the present State of Ohio are found many altar mounds and inclosures. In the West are large numbers of burial mounds, but the so-called temple mounds are most numerous in the South. At one place in Wisconsin is found a low embankment inclosing four low mounds with leveled tops. But the resemblance between these and the regular temple mounds is certainly slight. Only a few instances of these flat-topped mounds are found in Ohio. Of these the still existing "elevated squares" at Marietta are good examples.
This cut represents the mound preserved in the park at Marietta. It is ten feet high, one hundred and eighty-eight feet long, by one hundred and thirty-two feet wide. The platform on the top has an area of about half an acre. Graded ways lead up on each of the four sides. These grades are twenty-five feet wide, and sixty feet long.30
As we approach the Gulf States, these platform mounds increase in number. The best representative of this class, the most stupendous example of mound builders' work in this country, is situated in Illinois, not far from St. Louis. The mound and its surroundings are so interesting that they deserve special mention. One of the most fertile sections of Illinois is that extending along the Mississippi from the Kaskaskia to the Cahokia river, about eighty miles in length, and five in breadth. Well watered, and not often overflowed by the Mississippi, it is such a fertile and valuable tract that it has received the name of the "Great American Bottom." It is well known that the Mound Builders chose the most fertile spots for their settlements, and it is therefore not surprising to find the evidence that this was a thickly settled portion of their territory. Mr. Breckenridge, writing in 1811, says: "The great number of mounds, and the astonishing quantity of human bones, everywhere dug up or found on the surface of the ground, with a thousand other appearances, announces that this valley was at one time filled with habitations and villages. The whole face of the bluff, or hill, which bounds it on the east, appears to have been a continuous burying ground