The splendor of the mounds was visible to the first white people who described them. But they thought that the American Indian known to early white settlers could not have built any of the great earthworks that dotted the midcontinent. So the question then became: Who built the mounds?
Early archaeologists working to answer the question of who built the mounds attributed them to the Toltecs, Vikings, Welshmen, Hindus, and many others. It seemed that any group—other than the American Indian—could serve as the likely architects of the great earthworks. The impact of this narrative led to some of early America’s most rigorous archaeology, as the quest to determine where these mounds came from became salacious conversation pieces for America’s middle and upper classes. The Ohio earthworks, such as Newark Earthworks, a National Historic Landmark located just outside Newark, OH, for example, were thought by John Fitch (builder of America’s first steam-powered boat in 1785) to be military-style fortifications. This contributed to the notion that, prior to the Native American, highly skilled warriors of unknown origin had populated the North American continent.
This was particularly salient in the Midwest and Southeast, where earthen mounds from the Archaic, Hopewell, and Mississippian time periods crisscross the midcontinent. These landscapes and the mounds built upon them quickly became places of fantasy, where speculation as to their origins rose from the grassy prairies and vast floodplains, just like the mounds themselves. According to Gordon Sayre (The Mound Builders and the Imagination of American Antiquity in Jefferson, Bartram, and Chateaubriand), the tales of the origins of the mounds were often based in a “fascination with antiquity and architecture,” as “ruins of a distant past,” or as “natural” manifestations of the landscape.
When William Bartram and others recorded local Native American narratives of the mounds, they seemingly corroborated these mythical origins of the mounds. According to Bartram’s early journals (Travels, originally published in 1791) the Creek and the Cherokee who lived around mounds attributed their construction to “the ancients, many ages prior to their arrival and possessing of this country.” Bartram’s account of Creek and Cherokee histories led to the view that these Native Americans were colonizers, just like Euro-Americans. This served as one more way to justify the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands: If Native Americans were early colonizers, too, the logic went, then white Americans had just as much right to the land as indigenous peoples.