Before Camp Sherman

A CGI showing a winding river in the middle of thick forest and cleared green land
An aerial CGI rendition showing what Mound City Group (lower left) and Hopeton Earthworks (upper right) may have looked like during Hopewell times.


A Prehistoric Legacy

Long, long before Camp Sherman was established as one of thirty-two Army cantonments in 1917, the lands that would become Camp Sherman were home to a thriving prehistoric culture of American Indians who utilized the lands for survival, earthwork construction and interrment for their dead.

Two thousand years ago, American Indians of the Hopewell culture lived in scattered hamlets throughout the south-central Ohio valley. They would often come together to celebrate feasts, funerals and rites of passage. It's unclear how or exactly why they came together, but when they did, they would construct monumental earthworks that would span hundres of acres of land. These earthworks were constructed outward since there was no means to construct upwards at the time. In doing so, they created perfect geometric shapes of circles, squares and octagons throughout the current Ross county area. These complexes would encompass hundreds of acres of land with their massive earthen walls.

While earthworks were constructed throughout the area, one spot located on the northern edge of present-day Chillicothe wound up being the most significant of the culture, even though it was likely one of the smallest earthworks ever created by the Hopewell. Mound City Group sits adjacent to the Scioto river about two miles north of Chillicothe. It was likely a prime and coveted tract of land that attracted the prehistoric American Indians to it, and its location is likely what made it so covted to land agents in 1917 as they would incorporate it into Camp Sherman.

"Whatever is done to arrest from destruction the works of a former age and peculiar people must be done quickly as hundreds are yearly ploughed into the earth by our money loving tillers of the soil." Dr. Edwin Davis

A green piece of copper shaped into a bird
An effigy bird cutout made from copper sourced from the Lake Superior region.

NPS Photo / Tom Engberg

Small but Significant

Two thousand years ago, the Hopewell would utilize an area of about 15 acres and create a complex that contained twenty four mounds of varying shapes and sizes and a low-earthen wall that would later encompass all of the mounds. The site was in use by the Hopewell from roughly A.D. 100 to A.D. 400. They did not build all of the mounds at once, but they were constructed individually and gradually. Long before the mound was built, a small, wooden-framed building was fabricated. Once complete, the building would host ceremonial funerals where culturally-significant people were interred. The bones of these chosen few were cremated in a small, shallow clay-lined pit. Afterwards, the ashes were swept up and then placed on the floor within the building and then adorned with burial items made of exotic natural materials that often came from far distances. Multiple ceremonies and burials would take place within each building before the structure was either taken down or burned down. After it was removed or burned, mound building would commence. In all, about one hundred cremated remains were interred before mounds were built over them.

Not all of the mound areas contained human burials though. A few of the mound spots contained objects that were "ritually killed" and then interred. One mound covered the remains of several hundred pipestone effigy pipes that were all broken inside of a bag before being interred. Objects left with burials consisted of flint from the Knife River in North Dakota, galena from the southern shores of the Mississippi river, mica from the Blue Ridge mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, copper from the Lake Superior region and obsidian from the Yellowstone area of Wyoming. Evidence shows that many of these materials were brought to the site and area, they were likely not traded for.

A Slow Demise

After the Hopewell concluded their use of the site, it existed in a relatively untouched state for nearly eighteen centuries. With the influx of settlers into the region in the 19th century, land that was once barren of human life, started teeming with activity to "tame" the land. New settlers cleared acres upon acres of land and then utilized the fertile soils for large-scale farming. When farmers encountered mysterious earthworks and mounds, they were often plowed under to make room for a booming agriculture business. Hundreds, maybe thousands of earthworks and mounds met their demise by the farmer's blade. In the mid-19th century, two amateur Archeologists saw the rapidly-declining state of these American Indian wonders and set out to document what was left in order to preserve it for history. Dr. Edwin Davis and Epraim Squier began an epic partnership in the 1840's that would document hundreds of Hopewellian earthwork sites in detail, including Mound City Group. Together, these men would conduct surveys and limited excavations throughout the region and at Mound City Group in an effort to learn about the mysterious people of the Hopewell Culture. Their survey maps were proven to be so useful and well-done that they are still in use by Archeologist today.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, local militia utilized the land for drilling and training and referred to it as Camp Logan. After the Civil War, the lands of Mound City and those surrounding it would revert back to farming until the early part of the 20th century. As farmers set their plow blades back into the soils in and around Mound City Group, mounds once again began to shrink in size. By the time the Army purchased the lands in and around Mound City in 1917, many of the mounds of Mound City Group were only shadows of what they once were. In June of 1917, Mound City Group would be relegated to memory as mostly all of the remaining visible mounds would be concealed by massive, two-story wooden buildings for the next five years.

Learn more about the Hopewell culture when you visit and explore the pages of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Ohio.

Last updated: November 6, 2017