Ancient Stone Forts of
Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky
Architect Richard Thornton is a member of an alliance of Creek, Choctaw and
Seminole scholars, who over the past seven years have been intensely studying
the heritage of the Muskogean peoples. Much of their activities have involved
re-examination of the archives of the early Spanish, English and French
exploration of the Southeastern United States. We have asked Richard to provide
AccessGenealogy with some of his work. As we add to these articles we will
also be providing a question and answer section for the reader to ask questions
Early European settlers in the Ohio
Valley encountered abandoned fieldstone forts on hill
top promontories in the region. They were assumed to
have been built by an extinct European race since Native
Americans were thought to be intellectually incapable of
creating stone architecture. We will examine the
evidence concerning this enigmatic architecture from
North America’s past.
What these settlers found were sites that generally
survived as linear heaps of fieldstones along the crests
of natural terraces or flattened hilltops. There was
little, if any evidence of residential or communal
structures, other that a few earthen or fieldstone
mounds. There were gaps in the stone “walls” that
suggested gateways. The original appearance of these
ruins was left to the imagination of the frontiersmen.
Some imagined ancient castles. Others assumed that they
were livestock enclosures. Serious, professional studies
of these sites only began in the late 1800s after many
had been seriously damage by locals seeing building
stones or buried treasures.
Until the late 20th century, the construction of these
fieldstone enclosures were assigned to the “Hopewell
People” that lasted roughly 200 BC through 500 AD. Many
sites clearly also had ceremonial functions associated
with the azimuth of the sun. Now, archaeologists are not
so certain about these sites, and if the Hopewell
cultural traits even constituted one ethnic group. Some
evidence provided by artifacts unearthed at these sites
suggests that at least some of the “stone forts” were
ceremonial sites initiated by participants in the
Hopewell Cultural Complex. However, other evidence
suggests that the construction of stone walls occurred
during the time of the Fort Ancient Culture.
The State of Ohio restored some of the buildings at the Fort Ancient village
site near Cincinnati in order for visitors to understand their culture.
Ohio Historical Society
The Fort Ancient Culture is named after a fortified hill site
near Cincinnati, Ohio. It first appeared around about 100 years after the town
of Ocmulgee was founded in Georgia, and shared many cultural traits with the
Southerners. However, like the ancestors of the Chickasaws of Tennessee, the
Fort Ancient people lived in small towns or villages almost identical to known
Chickasaw village, and did not build large mounds. The word “Chickasaw” is
Creek. The Chickasaws originally called themselves the Chiska; named after the
brother of Chahta, who founded the Choctaw peoples.
However, although the Fort Ancient villages seem to be contemporaneous with the
stone fortifications scattered in their midst, known Fort Ancient villages did
not have stone architecture. Was there some other ethnic group in the region
that erected stone architecture and established itself as feudal lords over the
Fort Ancient People?
The impact of the Holocaust
Probably, the most important cause of the mystery that surrounds pre-European
architecture in North America is the Great Holocaust that swept away
approximately 90-95% of the indigenous population in the 16th and 17th
centuries. During the late 1500s most of large towns occupied by Muskogean
“mound-builders” in the Southeast were abandoned. By the year 1715, hundreds of
ethnic groups in the Eastern United States were completely extinct and the
remnant populations had coalesced into confederated communities that evolved
into our contemporary “Indian tribes.”
This holocaust actually struck in three waves. The first was composed of plagues
sweeping across the region. Pathogenic organisms were introduced by European
explorers along the coasts and wherever they explored inland. Coastal
communities were affected first. Native Americans apparently had little immunity
to European organisms. However, one of the worst plagues of all may have
originated in Mexico. A hemorrhagic fever that killed in a matter of hours,
wiped out approximately 85% of the native peoples of the Mexican highlands. We
don’t know for sure if it was the same culprit, but about that same time, most
of the towns in the Southern Highlands were abandoned, leaving skeletons
scattered across the landscape.
The second phase of the Native American Holocaust was slavery. After the
survivors regrouped, their standard of living probably improved. Much of their
more sophisticated traditions had been abandoned, but there was more meat for
everyone, an no longer the demand to build mounds for the elite. Just when the
Native peoples were recovering from the plagues, slave raids depopulated entire
The Spanish made periodic raids to the South Atlantic coast to obtain slaves and
scout for gold in the early 1500s. This practice was squelched by the Roman
Catholic Church and the King of Spain by the early 1600s. However, once English
colonies were established, it became common practice to enslave all members of
American Indian provinces that dared to oppose encroachment on their lands.
Native American slavery became institutionalized in 1660 by the Virginia House
of Burgesses. About that time Rickohocken Indians were armed and sent on
devastating slave raids into the lower Southeast in order to do “ethnic
cleansing” of agricultural societies in advance of the planned colonization of
the region. Governor William Berkeley was one of the eight Lord Proprietors of
the planned Colony of Carolina. By the late 1600s several southern Indian
alliances were encouraged to carry out massive slave raids. All adult males and
toddlers were killed in these raids. Therefore, the estimated 600,000 Native
American slaves captured, actually represents a population drop of about a
The third wave of the Holocaust was intertribal warfare encouraged by the
deerskin trade. The remnant populations had formed alliances such as the
Choctaw, Creeks and Cherokees. These alliances then fought over hunting
territories. They were wars of attrition and extinction that lasted until the
The effects of genocide
What does genocide have to do with architecture? One can not interpret the
ethnicity of the builders of the stone forts in the Ohio Valley and Cumberland
Plateau based on selection of one or more modern Native American tribes. All of
the modern tribes associated with the Ohio Valley and Southeastern United States
are hybrid ethnic groups that evolved from the remnants of earlier societies.
There were many ethnic groups in the Southeast that existed in 1500 AD, who are
now extinct. Early Spanish explorers noted many differences in physical
appearance and skin color among the peoples they first contacted in the 1500s.
Some were tall. Some were short. Skin color varied between brown, red, copper,
olive and European-pale. There was one province on the coast of South Carolina,
which contained people with brown-to-red hair, very light skin and gray-or-blue
eyes. They made cheese and their men wore long beards and had body hair. Another
Caucasian-like province was discovered in eastern Peru. It's people were almost
completely wiped out by the trauma of the conquest of Peru.
Is the assumption that only Europeans could build stone architecture, accurate?
The answer is no; there are substantial examples of the indigenous peoples of
the Americas building fieldstone forts, stone ashlar structures and lining
earthen mounds or pyramids with stone. The builders of Etalwa (Etowah Mounds) in
Georgia constructed a six feet tall stone retaining wall to support a three acre
plaza. Stone paving has been found at several American sites, such as at
Cahokia, Illinois. It is true that the Native Peoples of the northeastern and
Midwestern United States were not building stone structures when the English
colonists arrived, but their ancestors may have not been the sole occupants of
these regions prior to the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Who else built stone forts on hill tops in the Americas?
Fieldstone walls were found on many mountain tops in northwestern Georgia and
southeastern Tennessee when the first settlers arrived. Many have been destroyed
in order to obtain stone for road construction. The fieldstones seem to have
primarily buttresses for timber palisades in shallow soil.
Stone walls and evidence of gold smelting have been found at sites in eastern
Oklahoma. Despite the assumptions made on quasi-archaeological web sites that
these walls could only be built by “Phoenicians,” some of these walls may be
natural formations. The ancient peoples of Mexico and Peru certainly knew how to
smelt gold ore and build very fine stone walls.
Fieldstone forts are quite common in central Mexico. There are probably hundreds
of such forts in the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Jalisco, Michoacan, Morelos and
northern Vera Cruz. Fieldstone forts are endemic in the Andean Region of South
America. Almost all Moche and Inca public structures were constructed of stone
masonry – either stacked fieldstones or dressed stone ashlar.
It is quite possible that bands of Mesoamerican peoples with stone masonry
architectural traditions migrated into the Southwest, and later, the Midwest.
Stone architecture appears in those regions following cultural upheavals in the
Andes and Central America.
Is there evidence of Europeans being in America long before the Vikings and
Yes, the strongest evidence is associated with copper mining in the Great Lakes
Region during the Bronze Age in Europe (1600-200 BC,) and in the shapes of
copper artifacts in the Southeast. Enormous blocks of pure copper, weighing a
ton or more, have been discovered in ancient copper mines near Lakes Superior
and Michigan. They are far too large to have been transported by Native canoes.
Up until the collapse of advanced Southeastern cultures in the 1500s,
Southeastern native peoples traded copper ingots that were shaped roughly like
two mirror-imaged letter “C’s.” Among archaeologists specializing in the
European Bronze Age, these are known as “ox hide” ingots. In other words, you
can go to a museum in Tennessee or Georgia and see Native American copper ingots
that are identical in size and shape to copper ingots from the Bronze Age
displayed in Scandinavian museums.
It should be added that the aboriginal people of Scandinavia, Ireland and
Britannia were not Scandinavians (i.e. Germanic) – nor were they Celts. They
looked different than either of these ethnic groups. We really are not sure who
these people were. They lived in small villages and built hundreds of burial
mounds in southern Sweden and Denmark that were identical in shape, construction
and chronology to those of the Adena Culture of the Ohio Valley in the United
States (800 BC – 200 BC.) The “Gamla Folk” of Scandinavia were skilled seafarers
and heavily involved in the copper trade during the Bronze Age, but primarily
used stone tools and weapons themselves. The copper was worked by more skilled
artisans among the Celtic and proto-Germanic tribes to the south.
Without more substantial evidence, archaeologists can not know who built the
stone forts of the Ohio Valley. One can speculate that they were constructed by
an intrusive people, who needed protection from the locals, but as to whether
these intruders were from Mexico, Peru, the Southeastern United States, the
Southwestern United States or northern Europe; it is purely a matter of personal
opinion . . . at least for now.
The Truth is out there, somewhere.
This spectacularly beautiful site in Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau is
definitely oriented to the solar azimuth. It once contained walls and ditches
within the main compound. Old survey - State of Tennessee
The Fort Hill archaeological site contains some of the best preserved stonework.
Some of it is tooled ashlar. The stones are fitted close together.
Squier & Davis (1830s)
The Miami, Ohio stone fort is another well-preserved site. It contains a mound
on the far southwestern end.
Squier & Davis (1830s)
Very little is left of the stone walls of this site near Louisville, KY.
The top of the hill is 234 feet above the Ohio River.
Squier & Davis (1830s)
Near the village site is an enormous hilltop site, whose crest is
lined by collapsed stone walls.
Squier & Davis (1830s)
Notes About this Material
Source: Richard Thornton, an alliance of Muskogean scholars, professors and
professionals. Copyright Richard Thornton, Blairsville, GA, 2010. Used here with