Ancient Ohio

by Philip Greenspun; created 1993-1996

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If you ask a Clevelander about ancient history, he'll probably direct you to the bridge over the Cuyahoga at SR 21, where the river caught fire in 1974. Or maybe the factory where mayor Ralph Perk set his hair on fire while showing blue collar voters that he too knew how to use a blow torch.

History of settlement in the region goes back a little farther, say, by 8,000 years. Start in Epps in northeast Louisiana. The Poverty Point State Commemorative Area is a 400-acre portion of a city built around 1500 B.C. You'll have to begin developing your eye to appreciate Indian architecture. European monuments tend to be interior and theatrical; one moves into them and escapes from Nature. Indian monuments are exterior; one moves up, down, through and among them. The Indians built great mounds of earth, one basket at time. It is a miracle that any have survived in Louisiana because of the state highway department's fondness for using Indian burial mounds and monuments as fill, right up through the 1950s. Stand atop the bird-shaped mound, originally 640' by 710', to see the structure of a city that contained 5,000 people at its peak, the religious and commercial center for villages within a 100-mile radius of Poverty Point. Raw materials were imported from hundreds of miles upstream; exports from Poverty Point have been found as far away as Florida.

Head southeast to Natchez, Mississippi where the last followers of Moundbuilder culture were killed or sold into slavery by the French in 1731, about 3500 years after construction started at Poverty Point. Check out the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians at 400 Jefferson Davis Blvd. [Note: for a glimpse at Euramerican culture, Natchez antebellum homes are open from the first Saturday in March through the first Sunday in April and the first Sunday through the third Friday in October.]

Head northeast up the Natchez Trace Parkway, which follows an old Indian path through Elvis's childhood home in Tupelo and crosses the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway at Bay Springs (see "Big Government"). Take a detour over to Shiloh, where the great Civil War battle was fought around 60 earthen platforms and seven pyramids built in the 11th century. Continue through the reconstructed Parthenon in Nashville to the Corvette Factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Stop in Louisville, Kentucky at the Second St. bridge over the Ohio River. This is where Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River in 1960 after being refused service in a restaurant. Continue east on I-64 to Ashland, Kentucky, the boyhood home of Charles Manson (2105 Hilton).

Head north on US 52 then US 23 and park yourself in Chillicothe, Ohio for awhile. This is the center of the Hopewell-Adena Moundbuilder culture, which flourished from 500 B.C. to A.D. 400. The most famous site is the Serpent Mound, a short scenic drive to the southwest near Locust Grove. In 1846, it measured 5 feet high, 30 feet wide, and 1,300' long. It has eroded a bit since then but is still impressive when viewed from above, an effigy of a serpent holding an egg (maybe the Sun) in its mouth. Three miles north of Chillicothe is Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, a good place to learn about the rest of the nearby sites.

If you are more interested in modern history, check out the Chillicothe Correctional Institute, Johnny Paycheck's home for 7-9.5 years after the country music star's assault conviction. Or drive 70 miles northwest to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where Mike Tyson received an honorary PhD in humane letters back in 1989.

Leave Chillicothe to the northeast up SR 159, US 23, and SR 13 to Newark, Ohio. The AAA Guide says "Newark was founded in 1802" but the Indians built Observatory Mound and the Octagon Mound there a couple of millenia earlier. These were part of an interlocking geometric pattern of mounds extending over 5000 square miles of Ohio, sometimes configured for observing astronomical events that occurred only once every 18.61 years. The individual structures were precisely dimensioned so that an octagon in one city would be just barely enclosed in an 1050' circle in another. These dimensional regularities extended as far away as Florida.

Drive west on I-70 through Indiana. If you've been having, er domestic trouble, you might wish to stop at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington ((812) 855-7686). Continue to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park in Collinsville, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis. Cahokia was the center of Moundbuilder civilization from A.D. 900 to 1250 and had over 20,000 permanent residents in its six square miles.

At Cahokia's center is Monk's Mound, the world's largest earthwork and the third largest structure in the Western Hemisphere in 1492. The "Mississippians" who lived here were entirely agricultural and ruled by direct descendents of the Sun. Sixteenth century Spanish maps show the entire region from eastern Texas to South Carolina studded with Moundbuilder population centers, though none were quite as grand as Cahokia.

From the de Soto expedition: "On Wednesday, the ninetheeth day of June [1541], the Governor entered Pacaha, and took quarters in the town where the [chief] was accustomed to reside. It was enclosed and very large. In the towers and palisades were many loopholes. There was much dried maize, and the new was in great quantity throughout the fields. At the distance of half a league to a league off were large towns, all of them surrounded by stockades. ... The towns [the Spaniards] had burned in Naguatex, of which they had repented, they found already rebuilt, and the houses full of maize. That country is populous and abundant." Of course, the de Soto expedition was helping to spread 3000 years of Eurasian germs to the Indians that would kill 90 percent of those that lived in concentrated settlements such as Cahokia.

Reading American history, the land west of the Appalachians sounds like virgin wilderness save for a few hunter-gatherers. "I know of no such thing as an Indian monument... Of labor on the large scale, I think there is no remain as respectable as would be a common ditch for the draining of lands..." wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1782. Modern textbooks aren't much better, yet Moundbuilder civilization was well known to early Americans, with interest peaking around 1820. Intent on displacing Indians, Euramericans later in the 19th century developed amnesia when it came to any evidence of a non-nomadic society. A resurgence of Christianity in 1830 led to the denigration of the pagan Indians and helped speed the destruction of their monuments between 1830 and 1900.

When the mounds themselves could not be ignored, it became popular to deny that Indians who were being dispossessed had built them. Jefferson theorized about a "pink people" who'd come over from Wales in the Middle Ages. The Lost Tribe of Israel theory was also popular, notably in Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon.

When you're done contemplating Cahokia, visit the Gateway Arch, an Eero Saarinen design completed in 1965 to commemorate western expansion. You'll see the familiar Plains Indians with their teepees and buffalo but nothing about the earlier western expansion that cost the Indians their great cities.

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Text and pictures copyright 1993-1996 Philip Greenspun