Moundbuilder Myth - History and Death of a Legend

Palisaded Mound Group at Aztalan, Wisconsin
Restored Mississippian palisaded mound group at Aztalan State Park in Wisconsin, fancifully named for the ancient home town of the Aztecs. MattGush / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Moundbuilder myth is a story believed, wholeheartedly, by Euroamericans in North America well into the last decades of the 19th and even into the 20th century. The central myth was that indigenous people who lived in what is today the United States were incapable of engineering of the thousands of prehistoric earthworks found by the newcomers and must have been built by some other race of people. That myth served as justification for the plan to exterminate Native Americans and take their property. It was debunked in the late 19th century.

Key Takeaways: Moundbuilder Myth

  • The Moundbuilder Myth was created in the mid-19th century to explain a disconnect within the thought processes of Euroamerican settlers. 
  • The settlers appreciated the thousands of mounds on their new properties, but could not bear to credit mound construction to the Native American people they were displacing. 
  • The myth credited the mounds to a fictional race of beings which had been driven out by the Native American residents. 
  • The Moundbuilder Myth was disproven in the late 1880s. 
  • Many thousands of earthen mounds were purposefully destroyed after the myth was dispelled.

Early Explorations and the Mound Builders

The earliest expeditions of Europeans into the Americas were by the Spanish who found living, vigorous and advanced civilizations—the Inca, the Aztecs, the Maya all had versions of state societies. The Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto even found the true "mound builders," when he visited the chiefdoms of the Mississippians running their sophisticated communities from Florida to the Mississippi River between 1539–1546.

De Soto in America, by Frederic Remington
Circa 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto (c.1500–1542) and his men journey across America on one of their expeditions in search of treasure. Original Artwork: Painting by Frederic Remington. MPI / Stringer / Getty Images

But the English who came to North America convinced themselves first that the people already inhabiting the land they were settling were literally descended from the Canaanites from Israel. As the European colonization moved westward, the newcomers continued to meet Native people some of whom were already devastated by diseases, and they began to find thousands of examples of massive earthworks—very tall mounds like Cahokia's Monks Mound in Illinois, as well as mound groups, and mounds in various geometric shapes, spiral mounds, and bird and other animal effigies.

Great Serpent Mound, Adams County, Ohio
The Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, built and used by the Adena people between 800 BCE and 400 CE. This protected historical earthworks is nearly a quarter of a mile long and represents a giant snake holding an egg in its jaws. Photo by MPI/Getty Images

A Myth is Born

The earthworks encountered by the Europeans were a source of great fascination to the new settlers—but only after they convinced themselves that the mounds had to have been built by a superior race, and that couldn't be the Native Americans.

Because the new Euroamerican settlers could not, or did not want to, believe that the mounds had been built by the Native American peoples they were displacing as fast as they could, some of them—including the scholarly community—began to formulate a theory of the "lost race of mound builders." The moundbuilders were said to be a race of superior beings, perhaps one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or ancestors of Mexicans, who were killed off by later people. Some amateur excavators of the mounds claimed that the skeletal remains in them were of very tall individuals, who certainly could not be Native Americans. Or so they thought.

Palisaded Mound Group at Aztalan, Wisconsin
Restored Mississippian palisaded mound group at Aztalan State Park in Wisconsin, fancifully named for the ancient home town of the Aztecs. MattGush / iStock / Getty Images Plus

It was never an official government policy that the engineering feats were made by someone other than the indigenous residents, but the theory did bolster arguments supporting the "manifest destiny" of European desires. Many of the earliest settlers of the midwest were at least initially proud of the earthworks on their properties and did much to preserve them.

Debunking the Myth

By the late 1870s, however, scholarly research led by Cyrus Thomas (1825–1910) of the Smithsonian Institution and Frederick Ward Putnam (1839–1915) of the Peabody Museum reported conclusive evidence that there was no physical difference between the people buried in the mounds and modern Native Americans. Subsequent DNA research has proven that time and again. Scholars then and today recognized that the ancestors of modern Native Americans were responsible for all of the prehistoric mound constructions in North America.

Unintended Consequences

Members of the public were harder to convince, and if you read county histories into the 1950s, you will still see stories about the Lost Race of Moundbuilders. Scholars did their best to convince people that the Native Americans were the architects of the mounds, by giving lecture tours and publishing newspaper stories. That effort backfired.

Unfortunately, once the myth of a Lost Race was dispelled, the settlers lost interest in the mounds, and many if not most of the thousands of mounds in the American midwest were destroyed as settlers simply plowed away the evidence that a civilized, intelligent and capable people had been driven from their rightful lands.

Selected Sources