The Erection of Mounds

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It has been perceived by a part of the preceding observations, that the Indian theology recognizes deities of Good and Evil, to one or both of whom they offer sacrifices. These sacrifices, when they are made to propitiate the deity, or avert a calamity, as sickness in the family, which is one of the most common and general modes of affliction in which an Indian s heart is melted into sympathy, these sacrifices, I remark, in such cases often consist of some cherished object in the animate or inanimate creation, hung up at the lodge door, on a high peeled pole, and exposed thus to dangle in the air. Scarlet cloth, which is a favorite color; ribbons, which are bought at a high price; the wings of a bird, or, when the appeal is strong, a small dog, which has first been devoted to the sacrificial knife, are thus offered.

Other, and more general objects of request, calamities to be avoided, or luck to be secured, are expressed by some cherished thing, such as a piece of tobacco, which is deemed a sacred plant, thrown into the water or fire, or left upon a rock. Still another mode of making an acceptable offering, is by the incense of tobacco, burned in the pipe, the fumes of which, as they rise and mingle with the air, where gods and spirits are thought to dwell, is considered one of the most acceptable of sacrifices. When such offerings are made, the weed has been lighted from fire newly obtained from the flint, and not from common fire; and the offering is always made with some genuflections.

These simple acts of adoration are, perhaps, generally made under the supervision of the medas, priests, or other religious functionaries, or by chiefs or leaders, who unite the civil and what we may call the sacerdotal powers. There is certainly, in each of our United States tribes, a class of men called, in some of the languages, Medas, Jossakeeds, Wabenos, and Muskiki w’ininees, or doctors, who affect to have more knowledge of occult and mysterious things than the rest, and are found to put them selves forward as prophets or seers. It is generally on their omens, deductions, or predictions that the decisions and actions, public and private, of the entire nation rest. Thus the political power, in an Indian tribe, is in fact founded on the religious element; and as the latter is false, we should not wonder that the former proves fallacious, and so often leads their councils astray.

These simple modes of adoration and worship are conformable with the means of all our United States tribes, wherever they may chance to be, in the forest or on the plains. The tribes themselves are not fixed, in their locations, to one spot all the year round; and neither the possessors of the chieftainship, nor the simple priesthood, have power or means, if they were inclined to use them, to induce or compel labor on fixed places of worship. The deepest recesses of the forest those features in the earth s surface which are suited to excite the liveliest feelings of awe, as pinnacles and cataracts, are indeed their chosen places of offering and worship. These natural features are, indeed, most emphatically, “temples not made with hands.” They will often, indeed, set up a water-worn boulder on the shores of a lake or river, or in the waste of the boundless prairies, and perhaps tip it, if they have paints at hand, with some resemblances to a person. But as they have, with some few exceptions, no visible idols, carved out of wood or stone, and no tangible objects whatever, out of the arcanum of the medicine sack, or Gush-keep-e-tau-gun, which embody the idea of idolatry, their adorations and offerings of every kind, to which allusion has now been made, have been deemed remarkable in a savage race, and led to many misgivings, in every age of our history, whether they are not the remote descendants of a race of mankind who had once been acquainted with the true God. This is not the place to examine that question. We are speaking of facts, as they exist, and the state of mysterious observances of an erratic people, inhabitants of woods and wilds, who still flank our western settlements.

Such does not; however, appear to have been the character, condition, and, at least, the civil type of a part of the people who have, in some former and unknown age of the continent, erected the mounds of the Mississippi Valley. That people, whatever was the type of their barbarity, or departure from it, had become in a great measure fixed in their residences. They raised the zea maize; we have every reason to believe, in larger quantities than any of the existing forest tribes. They appear also, if we are not mistaken, to have cultivated a species of bean and vine, as the antique garden-beds, existing in extensive areas in Indiana and southern Michigan, appear to denote. This enabled them to congregate in large towns and villages, such as were evidently seated in the Scioto Valley and at the mouth of the Muskingum; and they could employ themselves on more fixed and formal plans of worship. Their knowledge of architecture in wood and stone was quite rude. They were acquainted with no metal but copper. They formed chisels and axes and ornaments of that metal. They carved seashells. They had not reached to the degree of knowledge of the Toltecs and Aztecs, which led a whole village to live in one large stone edifice (vide reports of Fremont, Emory, Abert, and Cook), that frequently had a hundred rooms, which, by building the first story solid, and raising the second on a platform, to be reached by hand-ladders, nocturnally withdrawn, converted literally their houses into castles. But they constructed, in the United States, mounds of earth, now covered with grass, designed for public occasions, especially of defense and worship, which have resisted the action of the elements for ages, and, if not mutilated by the spade and plough, will stand as long as the pyramids of Cholulu and Gizeh.

Archives Of Aboriginal Knowledge Plate 4
Gateways of Ancient Mounds – Plate 4

They appear to have cultivated public fields, situated in the plains or valleys, near some fortified hill, where the whole mass of the population could nightly, or as danger threatened, resort. The very great area of ground, covered by defenses in many places, is a strong reason for supposing that the military work itself was a town or village, where the women and children were under permanent protection. In the wide area of these fortified towns, they could erect their dwellings, which were probably of wood, and therefore perishable, and have left no trace. The military force of such a “fenced city” or town was more effective, as many of the females could be employed in carrying arrows, and other light work. There were no bombs, as nowadays, to fall over an enclosure; the great struggle was always at the gates; which were maintained in a desperate hand to hand struggle with darts and clubs, as we have indicated in Plate 4, on the plan of the antique fortifications.

The larger mounds, which were the places of offerings and sacrifices, and of the singing of hymns, were without the works. These, it is most probable, were only approached by the priests, before or after the conflict; and were the sites of public supplications, and public te deums. It was no desecration of the object to which the large tumuli were dedicated, to employ them as sepulchres for their celebrated men; but rather served to invest them with the character of increased sacredness and respect.

2 & 3. The minor mounds, such as we have denominated haycock mounds, appear to have been seated inside or outside of a defended town or fort, of a military character, and were a sort of redoubt. When seated at places distant from such works, they were generally mere barrows.

4. But there is a third species of the class of minor mounds, which were evidently of an altaric character. This appears to have been first shown by Dr. Davis, in his elaborate examination of the antiquities of the Scioto Valley. That offerings were made by fire by the mound builders, as well as by the existing race of Indians, is clearly shown. An altar of earth, not very imposing in its height or circumference, was made by them from loose earth, in which two simple principles were observed; namely, that of the altar and pyramid. It was circular, that all could approach and stand around it; and second, that it should have concavity enough at top, to prevent the fire from tumbling off. Here the people could freely make their offerings to the officiating jossakeeds, which appear to have consisted most commonly of the pipe in which incense had been offered, and which was probably, from its ordinary and extra ordinary uses, one of the most cherished objects in the household. It is probable, from the number of these altars in the Scioto Valley, that it had a dense population in it; and there was, not improbably, a choice in the priest or officiating powwow, the result of personal popularity, as we see in public men at the present day.

By long use, the bed of the loam or earth composing the altar would become hard, and partake, in some measure, of the character of brick. What circumstances deter mined its disuse, we cannot say. It is certain, that in the end the fire was covered up, with all its more or less burned and cracked contents, and the earth heaped up, so as to bury it most effectually, and constitute a mound. This peculiar formation, as Dr. Davis informed me, was first exposed by the action of the river, which undermined one or more of these structures, exposing the baked red line of earth, of a convex form, which had made the former bed of the altar, and upon which vast numbers of sculptured pipes were found. These pipes have been figured in the first volume of the Smithsonian Transactions, and constitute a body of the best sculptures, although not the only ones of a similar character, for their artistic skill, which have yet come to light. It is found that the purposes of exchange, perhaps, have carried them north to the lakes, and east to some parts of the country formerly occupied by the Eries, the Iroquois, and the Mississagies.

The accompanying Plate No. 5, Figs. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) exhibits, in a series, the base and circumference of the principal mounds existing in the West and South, and a diagram of their relative elevation.

Archives Of Aboriginal Knowledge Plate 5
Archives Of Aboriginal Knowledge Plate 5

It remains only to speak of one class of mounds, which differ wholly in their object and mode of construction, as well, probably, as their era of erection, from all the preceding species. Allusion is made to what have been called the imitative and Wisconsin mounds. Mr. David Dale Owen has figured several of them with great exactitude, in his report of the survey of the public lands, made to the General Land Office in 1839, but they had before attracted attention, and an account of some portion of them with drawings, was published in Silliman’s Journal of Science.

These mounds, or monuments of earth, consist of the figures of animals, raised on the surface of the open country, and covered with grass. None of them exceed ten feet in height, although many of them include considerable areas. Their connection with the existing Totemic system of the Indians who are yet on the field of action, is too strong to escape attention. By the system of names imposed upon the men com posing the Algonquin, Iroquois, Cherokee, and other nations, a fox, a bear, a turtle, &c., is fixed on as a badge or stem from which the descendants may trace their parentage. To do this, the figure of the animal is employed as an heraldic sign or surname. This sign, which by no means gives the individual name of the person, is called in the Algonquin, town-mark, or Totem.[1]

A tribe could leave no more permanent trace of an esteemed sachem or honored individual, than by the erection of one of these monuments. They are clearly sepulchral, and have no other object, but to preserve the names of distinguished actors in their history. The Fox, the BEAR, the WOLF, and EAGLE, are clearly recognizable in the devices published.

Tradition would drop such a custom in two or three centuries, if the same tribe had not continued to live in the same area. But, in reality, the tribes who occupied Wisconsin, say in the year 1800, had not occupied it from the earliest known ages. The Winnebagoes still occupied the shores of Green Bay, on the arrival of the French. Immediately south of them were seated a nation which is now unknown, under the name of MASCOTINS, or Prairie Indians. The Sacs and Foxes were still in Lower Michigan. The probability of their more recent origin, than the mounds proper, rests on this; but it is admitted that there are no traditions respecting them.



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  1. The true pronunciation is dd-daim.

MLA Source Citation:

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860. Web. 21 April 2014. - Last updated on Apr 1st, 2013

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