Moundbuilder Myth - History and Death of a Legend

Serpent Mound, Ohio
Serpent Mound, Ohio. berriehol

The Moundbuilder myth is a story believed, wholeheartedly, by Euroamerican settlers in North America well into the last decades of the 19th and even into the 20th century.

While the American continent was being settled by Europeans, the new settlers began to notice thousands of earthworks, clearly man-made, all over the North American continent. Round mounds, linear mounds, even mound effigies had been built and were revealed when the new farmers began clearing the timber from wooded areas. The mounds were fascinating to the new settlers, at least for a while: particularly when they did their own excavations into the mounds and in some cases found human burials. A lot of early settlers were at least initially proud of the earthworks on their properties and did much to preserve them.

A Myth is Born

Because the new Euro-American 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 believe in a "lost race of moundbuilders". The moundbuilders were said to be a race of superior beings, perhaps one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who were killed off by later people. Some excavators claimed that they had found skeletal remains of very tall individuals, who certainly could not be Native Americans. Or so they thought.

By the late 1870s, scholarly research (led by Cyrus Thomas and Henry Schoolcraft) had discovered and reported there was no physical difference between the people buried in the mounds and modern Native Americans. Genetic 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 construction in North America.

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, by giving lecture tours and publishing newspaper stories: but this effort backfired. In many cases, once the myth of a Lost Race was dispelled, the settlers lost interest in the mounds, and many of the mounds were destroyed as settlers simply plowed away the evidence.


Blakeslee, D.J. 1987 John Rowzee Peyton and the Myth of the Mound Builders. American Antiquity 52(4):784-792.

Mallam. R.C. 1976 The Mound Builders: An American myth. Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 23:145-175.

McGuire, R.H. 1992 Archeology and the first Americans. American Anthropologist 94(4):816-836.

Nickerson, W.B. 1911 The Mound-Builders: a plea for the conservation of the antiquities of the central and southern states. Records of the Past 10:336-339.

Peet, S.D. 1895 Comparison of the Effigy Builders with the modern Indians. American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal 17:19-43.

Putnam, C. 1885. Elephant Pipes and Inscribed Tablets of the Academy of Sciences. Davenport, Iowa.

Stoltman, J.B. 1986 The Appearance of the Mississippian Cultural Tradition in the Upper Mississippi Valley. In Prehistoric Mound Builders of the Mississippi Valley. James B. Stoltman, ed. Pp. 26-34. Davenport, Iowa: Putnam Museum.