Who Were the Mound Builders?

(This is taken from John D. Baldwin's Ancient America, originally published in 1871.)

This ancient people, whose remains indicate unity and civilization, must have been organized as a nation, with a central administration which all recognized. They must have had a national name, but nobody can tell certainly what it was. No record or tradition has preserved it, unless discovery of it can be made in a national designation found, without clear explanation, in the old books and traditions of Central America, and applied to some country situated at a distance from that part of the continent in the northeast. These old books and traditions mention “Huehue-Tlapalan” as a distant northeastern country, from which the Nahuas or Toltecs came to Mexico; and Brasseur de Bourbourg, who has translated one of the old books and given much attention to others, supposes the Toltecs and the Mound-Builders to be the same people, or did suppose this previous to the appearance of his “Atlantic theory.” But this point will be more fully considered when we come to the Central American antiquities.

Some antiquaries suggest that the Mound-Builders were the people called “Allighewi” in old traditions of the Iroquois, but we have nothing to make this very probable. The Iroquois were somewhat superior to the other great family of barbarous Indians in organization for the business of fighting. There are some reasons for believing they came to the lake regions and the Ohio Valley much earlier than the Algonquin branch of the wild Indian race. It is permissible, at least, to conjecture, if one feels inclined to do so, that it was the Iroquois migration from the northwest, or that of the great family to which the Iroquois family belonged, which expelled the Mound-Builders from their border settlements, cut them off from the copper mines, and finally pushed them down the Mississippi; but nothing more than conjecture is possible in this case, and the supposition gives the Iroquois migration a greater antiquity than may be allowable. Moreover, the traditional lore of the wild Indians had nothing to say of the Mound-Builders, who appear to have been as unknown and mysterious to these Indians as they are to us.


Some inquirers, not always without hesitation, suggest that the Indians inhabiting the United States two hundred years ago were degenerate descendants of the Mound-Builders. The history of the world shows that civilized communities may lose their enlightenment, and sink to a condition of barbarism; but the degraded descendants of a civilized people usually retain traditional recollections of their ancestors, or some traces of the lost civilization, perceptible in their customs and their legendary lore. The barbarism of the wild Indians of North America had nothing of this kind. It was original barbarism. There was nothing to indicate that either the Indians inhabiting our part of the continent, or their ancestors near or remote, had ever been civilized, even to the extent of becoming capable of settled life and organized industry. And, besides, the constant tradition of these Indians, supported by concurring circumstantial evidence, appears to warrant the belief that they came to this part of the continent originally from the west or northwest, at a period too late to connect them in this way with the Mound-Builders.

Two hundred years ago the Valley of the Mississippi, and the regions east of it, were occupied by two great families of Indians, the Iroquois and the Algonquins, each divided into separate tribes. Between these two families there was a radical difference of language. The Indians of New England were Algonquins. The Iroquois dwelt chiefly in New York, and around Lake Erie, from Niagara to Detroit, although separate communities of the group to which they immediately belonged were found in other places, such as the Dakotas and Winnebagoes at the West, and the isolated Tuscaroras of the Carolinas. Mr. Lewis H. Morgan, who has discussed “Indian Migrations” in several interesting papers printed in the North American Review, thinks the Iroquois were separated very early from the same original stem which produced the great Dakota family. The Algonquins were spread most widely over the country when it was first visited by Europeans.

Among all these Indians there was a tradition that their ancestors came from a distant region in the Northwest, and this tradition is accepted as true by those who have studied them most carefully. Mr. Morgan supposes they came across the continent, and estimates that not less than a thousand years must have passed between the departure of the various groups of the Algonquin family from a common centre in the northwest and the condition in which they were found two hundred years ago. When Europeans began to explore North America, this family had become divided into several branches, and each of these branches had a modified form of the common language, which, in turn, had developed several dialects. A long period was required to effect so great a change; but, whatever estimate of the time may be accepted, it seems to be a fact that the Algonquins came to the Mississippi Valley long after the Mound-Builders left it, and also later than the Iroquois or Dakota family. That the Iroquois preceded the Algonquins at the East appears to be indicated by the relative position of the two families in this part of the country. Mr. Parkman, in his work on “The Jesuits in North America,” describes it as follows: “Like a great island in the midst of the Algonquins lay the country of tribes speaking the generic tongue of the Iroquois.”

There is no trace or probability of any direct relationship whatever between the Mound-Builders and the barbarous Indians found in the country. The wild Indians of this continent had never known such a condition as that of the Mound-Builders. They had nothing in common with it. In Africa, Asia, and elsewhere among the more uncultivated families of the human race, there is not as much really original barbarism as some anthropologists are inclined to assume; but there can be no serious doubt that the wild Indians of North America were original barbarians, born of a stock which had never, at any time, been either civilized or closely associated with the influences of civilization.

Some of the pottery and wrought ornaments of the Mound-Builders is equal in finish and beauty to the finest manufactured by the ancient Peruvians. They constructed artificial ponds like the aguadas in Central America. They used sun-dried brick, especially at the South, where walls of this material have been discovered supporting some of the mounds and embankments. They manufactured cloth. But their intelligence, skill, and civilized ways are shown not only by their constructions and manufactures, but also by their mining works. Who can imagine the Iroquois or the Algonquins working the copper mines with such intelligence and skill, and such a combination of systematic and persistent industry! They had no tradition of such a condition of life, no trace of it. It is absurd to suppose a relationship, or a connection of any kind, between the original barbarism of these Indians and the civilization of the Mound-Builders. The two peoples were entirely distinct and separate from each other. If they really belonged to the same race, which is extremely doubtful, we must go back through unnumbered ages to find their common origin and the date of their separation.





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