I came across In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire (Scribner, 2022), by Alicia Puglionesi, at my local library. What caught my eye was the first chapter, “The myth of the Mound Builders.” So you know I had to check it out and read it, just to see how much Mormons and Joseph Smith featured in the discussion of the Mound Builders. There were (and still are) mounds, large earthworks, scattered across the United States east of the Mississippi. The mounds were, obviously, constructed by a prior human group or groups.

Who Were They?

Current scientific explanations attribute construction of the mounds to pre-Columbian Native Americans, ancestors of current Native Americans and ancestors of the Native Americans encountered by early European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Euro-Americans slowly moving across the continent and encountering mounds first-hand simply could not grant that ancestors of the Native Americans they were familiar with could possibly have constructed such impressive structures, so they hypothesized (on little or no evidence) that a now-vanished race had built them. This vanished race was variously theorized to be Vikings, wandering exiles from Atlantis, or (of course) the Ten Tribes. In the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, mainstream Mormons identify the vanished race as the Nephites and their conquerors who remained in the land as the Lamanites, later denominated “Indians” and now referred to as Native Americans. Long story short: Everyone except a few kooks have given up the “Mound Builders as a vanished race” theory — except the Mormons. Us.

First, a few sources, then I’ll talk about the chapter referred to above. There is a Wikipedia entry, of course, telling us “A number of pre-Columbian cultures are collectively termed ‘Mound Builders’. The term does not refer to a specific people or archaeological culture, but refers to the characteristic mound earthworks erected for an extended period of more than 5,000 years.” And also: “From about 800 CE, the mound building cultures were dominated by the Mississippian culture, a large archaeological horizon, whose youngest descendants, the Plaquemine culture and the Fort Ancient culture, were still active at the time of European contact in the 16th century.” In other words, the mound-building practice was widespread through time, spanning millennia, and through space, covering broad areas of the Mississippi and its tributaries (much of what is now the central and eastern United States).

There is Dan Vogel’s book Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon (Signature Books, 1986), in particular Chapter 4, “Indians and Mound Builders.” The entire book is available online at the Signature Books Library. Here’s the first sentence of the Introduction: “The Book of Mormon presents a number of challenges for serious readers.” I wonder what percentage of readers of the Book of Mormon are serious readers? What is an appropriate term for those who read the Book of Mormon but are not serious readers?

Here is a short quotation from Chapter 4 of Vogel’s book, laying out the mental challenge 19th-century Americans faced in explaining the mounds:

Early nineteenth-century Americans thus had available to them two seemingly contradictory traditions about the Indians and their ancestors. On the one hand, Indians were savages—at best lazy and slothful, at worst murderers and devil worshipers—entirely incapable of civilization. On the other, they were degenerate Jews who had every possibility of being restored to their former civilized condition. Those who cast the Indians as inherently “savage,” however, had to explain the existence of the earthen works in North America as well as the great stone buildings and temples of Mexico and Peru.

Many could only reconcile such contradictions by proposing that there simply must have once been a civilized, productive group in America in addition to the Indians.

Notice what moved these early Americans to adopt the vanished race explanation. It wasn’t archeological evidence. It was their own opinions and prejudices, their psychology if you will. The proper way to think about the various Mound Builder theories is not to dig through archeological reports and ancient history, trying to decide whether it was from Atlantis or Israel that they came from, or, alternatively, to collect the various theories and argue that each and all of them are flawed and lack evidential support. No, the right way to approach Mound Builder theories is to ask: Why did some people accept the theory? What in their psychological make up or sociological location moved them to adopt that theory? What purpose did it serve? What interests did it advance? Whose interests did it advance? And thus we come to the first chapter of In Whose Ruins.

We Want Your Land

The chapter focuses on the history of the Grave Creek Mound, a designated National Historical Landmark in what is now Moundsville, West Virginia. In 1838, as recounted by the author, local citizens “began tunneling into [the] sixty-foot-high earthen mound,” which had been “built by Indigenous Adena people more than two thousand years ago.” The current owner of the mound, one Abelard Tomlinson, owed his ownership to his grandfather, Joseph Tomlinson II. When Joseph first came into the region in 1770, “he inferred that the mound complex marked the ancestral graves of Native people, possibly the Shawnee, who occupied the area. They were its rightful owners until 1768, when it was signed away in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix ….” Good for the elder Tomlinson recognizing these mounds were graves with grave goods, not buried treasure.

But notice the contradiction the settlers faced. On the one hand, the mounds were evidence that “untold generations had lived and died on the land.” The settlers were, collectively if not individually, dispossessing Native Americans of their land. But that’s not how these Americans wanted to describe their enterprise. Like settler guidebooks of the time, they wanted to view the land as “unpeopled wilderness.” They were (they told themselves) taming unpeopled wilderness, while they were (in fact) acting as “the advance guard of Indian extermination.” As settlers streamed into the Ohio Valley once the now-independent United States opened it up for settlement, they had to fight their way in. “They burned Native towns and farms, establishing cycles of mutual retaliation that spared neither women, children, nor the aged.” Settlement (settling the “unpeopled wilderness”) sounds so gentle and peaceful. In fact, it could be an ugly business. In 1795, the “Treaty of Greenville banished them [Indians] west of Cincinnati. The settlers’ reward for decades of bloodshed was free land.

Years later, in 1838, with conflict with the local Indians just a memory, Joseph’s grandson Abelard Tomlinson began digging into the Grave Creek Mound. Here’s the paragraph that includes the only mention of Mormons in the entire chapter.

He would sink $2,500 into the excavation, roughly a year’s middle-class wages. This sizeable fund came from local doctor James W. Clemons, who in turn borrowed it from his neighbors. Abelard was coy about his and Clemons’s motives, citing “curiosity or some other cause,” but to investors they promised a share of the riches within. Elizabethtown was dreaming of buried treasure, an obsession that swept the country in the early nineteenth century with reports of ancient hoards unearthed in caves, swamps, and Indian mounds. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith got his start digging for money in the hills of western New York; only when that failed did he come upon the spiritual treasure of the Book of Mormon. This was the settler’s fantasy of discovering not just land to be worked, but exponential riches placed there by Providence.

No gold or jewels were found. The mound itself became the 19th-century equivalent of a tourist trap.

But let’s get back to the myth of the Mound Builders.

Indian removal was not just a military operation. As official policy and as a general patriotic zeitgeist, it shaped how scholars and ordinary citizens thought and wrote about Native people. … [O]fficials boosted scholarship claiming that Indians were naturally doomed to extinction by the superior white race — the army was merely speeding up the inevitable. They also nurtured the widespread belief that North American earthworks were built by an ancient lost civilization. The more science could deduce about this vanished empire, the weaker the argument for Native land right in the present day.

You can see where this is going. A white settler is much happier taking Indian land that he thinks Indians, in an earlier day, had (wrongfully?) taken from some ancient civilized white race, the Mound Builders, than he is acknowledging that he, the white settler, is (wrongfully?) taking the land by dispossessing Native Americans. It’s really about psychology and self-justification, not about archeology and history.

Today’s archaeologists see the Mound Builders’ immense popularity as a case study in how genocide and dispossession overwrite Indigenous history. Lost-race narratives furnished a useable past for proponents of Manifest Destiny, since if Indians overthrew the ancient Phoenician or Celtic kingdoms of the Ohio Valley, it was only fair play that Europeans, heirs to the mantle of civilization, would overthrow the Indians in turn. These narratives proved so compelling for white Americans that critical archaeologists faced a long battle to debunk them and establish a pre-Columbian history based on their scientific standards. That battle is by no means over today ….

The author talks about the pseudo-historical crap on display at the History Channel as evidence of the battle not being over even in our day. It’s nice she didn’t throw Mormons and Nephites into the discussion … but she could have. Remember that when Brigham Young led (some of) the Saints west to what became Utah, those Mormon settler recapitulated, on a smaller scale, the earlier settler experience of dispossessing the Indians of the Ohio Valley. Mormon settlers faced the same psychological difficulties that the earlier settlers did. I have no doubt more than a few Mormon settlers, when part of a group out hunting down local Indians for this or that real or imagined depredation (say taking a cow or two, or maybe horses), assuaged their conscience by saying, “Well, these darned Lamanites had it coming for dispatching those heroic, faithful Nephites way back when.”

But that’s another story, well told in Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American landscape (Harvard Univ. Press, 2009). For now, I’ll wind up this post with, first, an invitation to read some of the sources noted in this post: the Wikipedia post, Vogel’s book, Farmer’s book, and even the chapter in In Whose Ruins if you can find a copy. As to our discussion, consider the following prompts:

  • What’s the difference between Mound Builders and Nephites?
  • Have you ever visited and toured any Native American mound sites back east? I haven’t, but I’d be interested to hear from those who have and what the local guide or visitor’s center said about them and those who built them.
  • Have you ever had an honest conversation with a Native American (Mormon or not) about Nephites and Lamanites? Or about the questionable ethics of digging up Native American artifacts for fun and profit (whether arrowheads, skulls, or plates)? Or about the Book of Mormon painting Christopher Columbus as a hero? It takes a long time (if ever) for a Mormon to figure out that what they think of as Mormonism, what they grew up with and what surrounds them at church on Sunday, is really White Mormonism.