Effigy Mounds
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Chapter Two:

Early Interest in the Mounds

Materials published before 1800 include only scattered and vague references to the effigy—shaped mounds in northeastern Iowa, although Reverend T.M. Harris of Massachusetts and a Bishop Madison of Virginia had examined mounds in other areas in an effort to determine their origin early in the nineteenth century. The two clerics reached diametrically opposite conclusions about the Mound Builders: Reverend Harris claimed the Mound Builders were a super race that had long since disappeared; Bishop Madison argued that the mounds were built by the ancestors of American Indians. Harris' view won the most support from his contemporaries, both learned and popular, and fixed the course of belief for the next eighty-five or more years. For the time, it seemed no one wanted to believe that the exotic earthen mounds had been created by predecessors of the "savages" who inhabited North America. [57]

Richard C. Taylor's research into effigy mounds in central Wisconsin in 1838 produced the first accurate descriptions and illustrations of animal—shaped mounds. Like Madison, Taylor believed the mounds were constructed by forefathers of the American Indians. [58] In 1840, John Locke surveyed many of the same mounds, carefully recording their measurements. Stephen Taylor surveyed mounds in southwestern Wisconsin two years later; he was to first to note a connection between the mounds and the natural environment. [59] Between 1845 and 1848, E.G. Squier and E.H. Davis used the Taylor, Locke, and Taylor reports to map more than two hundred Hopewellian mounds throughout the Midwest, including some as far west as northeastern Iowa. [60] William Pidgeon's 1858 Traditions of De—coo—dah and Antiquarian Researches also discussed the Iowa effigy mounds, but his fanciful report is not reliable. [61] Between 1858 and 1860, the staff of the Bureau of American Ethnology examined prehistoric tumuli from Ohio to Missouri, but failed to mention any effigies. The bureau's report on its 1876—77 surveys and excavations described several mounds in Wisconsin, including some effigy-shaped "symbolic earthworks." [62] W.J. McGee's 1878 article in the American Journal of Science included the first known map of an Iowa effigy mound. [63]

The Lewis-Hill Surveys

A greater understanding of the effigy mounds in Iowa began in 1881 when Alfred J. Hill and Theodore H. Lewis began an ambitious survey of mound groups in the Mississippi River valley. Alfred Hill, born in London in 1823, had served in the Union Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers during the Civil War, and moved to Minnesota after the war. His early acquaintance with British antiquities stimulated his interest in archeology, and Hill became interested in the numerous mounds near the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. During the 1870s, he witnessed the destruction of some of the mound groups in the area. Concerned that the mounds might disappear without documentation, Hill personally mapped several of the remaining groups in the countryside around St. Paul.

Theodore Lewis, born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1856, moved at an early age to the vicinity of Chillicothe, Ohio, where he was influenced by work on the Ohio mound groups recently accomplished by Squier and Davis. By coincidence or fate, in 1880 the 24-year-old Lewis moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he met Alfred Hill. It was a fortunate meeting that merged Hill's financial means and professional ability with Lewis' enthusiasm and energy. The result was a partnership that lasted until Hill's death in 1895. [64]

Lewis conducted the field work in northeastern Iowa and sent his detailed notes back to St. Paul. There, Hill oversaw draftsmen and surveyors who translated the notes into measured drawings. [65] Lewis and Hill produced excellent maps of mound groups throughout the Mississippi valley, including some of the Fire Point group and the Marching Bear group within the boundaries of Effigy Mounds National Monument, and the first maps of the Sny Magill mound group. Because many of the mounds extant in the 1880s have since been obliterated or destroyed, the Lewis—Hill survey maps are an invaluable record of a resource that is disappearing, or in some cases has already disappeared. For instance, there was a mound group to the west of the national monument's visitor center and another on the site of the visitor center that were destroyed by agricultural activities before the monument was proclaimed. [66] Without the Lewis—Hill survey, knowledge of this group would be lost forever.

Local Interest in the Mounds

For some years following the Civil War, tunneling into aboriginal tumuli in search of displayable artifacts was a national fashion. Fortunately, the fad was only lightly felt in northeastern Iowa. In an unusual turn of events, the pot hunting which did occur in the locale served the cause of preservation by stimulating Waukon, Iowa, resident Ellison Orr's interest in the artifacts and their provenance. While running for Superintendent of Schools in 1878, Orr visited the homes of most area residents, and discovered that almost every farmhouse had a collection of Indian relics. Some were gathered from grave mounds, village sites, or rock shelters, but most were uncovered while cultivating farm fields. Orr's early fascination with the relics and their places of origin led to a lifelong study of Iowa prehistory, archeology and archeological techniques. In the late nineteenth century, Orr "located and surveyed all the known village sites, burial places and mound groups in Allamakee County and down along the Mississippi River in Clayton County." [67] His interest remained unflagging for more than seventy years, and for nearly forty of those years he was the recognized authority on the archeology of northeastern Iowa.

Ellison Orr
Figure 6: Ellison Orr, 1920. Negative #10, Effigy Mounds National Monument.

During roughly the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first score of years of the twentieth century, a few Iowans from the University of Iowa and the State Historical Society shared Orr's interest in the mounds, but they attracted little or no popular or legislative support. The first professional studies of Iowa's effigy mounds were not accomplished by Iowans. As mentioned above, Alfred Hill and Theodore Lewis were the first to survey the Iowa mounds. In 1890-91, Cyrus Thomas prepared the report for the Bureau of American Ethnology's research team, which studied some of the groups in Iowa and reported on them in the bureau's XII Annual Report. [68]

The Bureau of Ethnology's work vindicated Bishop Madison's theory on the origin of the Mound Builders but, predictably, failed to convince many of the supporters of Reverend Harris' super race hypothesis. Even today there are those who remain convinced that aliens or intruders with supernatural powers, usually described as from Atlantis or from other worlds, built the effigy and/or Hopewellian mounds. Nevertheless, the bureau's work was a watershed in the understanding of effigy mounds. For the following eight decades, researchers have compared the traits of artifacts associated with the Effigy Mound Builders with other cultures in Midwestern history. [69] Since 1973, researchers have focused on social and environmental factors which resulted in the construction of the effigy mounds, thus attempting to place them in their cultural context. [70]

Figure 7: Detail of Ellison Orr's 1915 survey map of the "Pleasant Ridge" (now known as the Marching Bear) mound group. From Orr manuscripts, volume III, at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

A decade or so after the Bureau of Ethnology's surveys, Duren J.H. Ward, a Research Associate of the State Historical Society of Iowa, published in the society's Iowa Journal of History and Politics a few articles on prehistoric man in Iowa, apparently without arousing too much interest. Somewhat later, Dr. Charles Reuben Keyes, Professor of German at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, conceived the idea of an Iowa archeological survey. In July 1920, the Iowa Journal of History carried Keyes' first article on prehistoric man in Iowa. Over the next two years, Keyes collected all available reports on Iowa archeology. In 1922, Dr. Keyes met with the superintendent and the Board of Curators of the State Historical Society to present a plea for preservation of the rapidly disappearing mounds. Following the meeting, the state employee Keyes as Iowa's first State Archeologist to "make a preliminary archeological survey of Iowa and the adjacent territory." The part-time position paid a salary of $500 per year. In addition to his stipend, the State Historical Society subsidized his stationery, envelopes, and postage, as well as his travel expenses. Keyes accomplished the preliminary survey during the summer break from his teaching duties at Cornell College.

During the Great Depression, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) funded a much more thorough Iowa archeological survey. Keyes selected Ellison Orr as field supervisor for the Iowa surveys. [71] The two made an excellent team. Orr conducted most of the survey work, and Keyes coordinated information submitted by the general public. Using field data furnished by Ellison Orr, Keyes developed a general understanding of the prehistory of Iowa. [72]

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Last Updated: 08-Oct-2003