Erie County’s Mound Builders: Myth and Fact

According to local supposition: antedating Erie County’s native Indians, the Eries, by several hundred years, was another race of men that inhabited the county, of whom no history is extant. This race, for want of a better name, is known as the Mound Builders.

This anthropological myth remains stubbornly popular today with some people, but since the 19th century, the prevailing scholarly consensus has been that the mounds were constructed by modern native Americans. The American continent has various historic, and pre-historic ages, as well as do the other lands upon the earth. We have the Paleolithic, or stone age, the very earliest period of human development, well established for North America. It therefore follows, and is also well substantiated by the evidences that the Neolithic, or later stone age, had a place in human development upon this continent; that modern man has evolved without this development.

A combination of myths and facts has surrounded the number of strange mounds and embankments that were found in the county by the early settlers in the townships of Harborcreek, LeBoeuf, Girard, Fairview, Conneaut, Springfield, Wayne and Venango. Many of those mounds, for a time, survived the leveling of civilization. A circle of raised earth once existed at the Four Mile Creek, southeast of the big curve of what was then the tracks of the Erie & Pittsburgh Railroad. Another was found in Wayne Township between Corry and Elgin that was several feet in height, enclosed within a three acre area, surrounded by a trench. The formation and make-up of those landmarks left little room for doubt that they were the work of human hands. Before radiocarbon dating, an idea of their antiquity was formed by the age of timber found growing upon them — a tree 500 years old was cut on a Conneaut embankment.

Most of the circles in the county were similar in their general features except those found in Harborcreek Township, which were situated, on each side of Four Mile Creek, slightly southeast of the big curve overlooking the deep gulf of that stream. The one on the west side of the creek was in a good state of preservation, while others were found obliterated. Another, were two Conneaut circles, and those in Girard and Springfield, four in number, that extended, near together, in a direct line from the western part of the townships to the southwestern part of the latter. One of the circles partially occupied the site of the cemetery at East Springfield. In Fairview Township, there was both a circle and a mound, the first at the mouth of Fort Run and the second at Manchester. The latter, at the close of the 19th century, was about six feet high and fifteen feet in diameter. Somebody had the curiosity to open it, in the hope of finding treasure, but was rewarded with nothing more than a small quantity of decomposed bones. The circles in LeBoeuf and Venango were a similar exception.

An ancient graveyard was discovered in 1820, on the land now known as the location of Dr. Carter’s Pharmacy (21 North Park Row) and Dickinson Tavern in Erie, which created quite a sensation at the time. Dr. Albert Thayer dug up some of the bones, all of immense size, as told at the time. Of the human bones — one of which said to be a height of 9 feet — found in large quantities, within Erie, were unearthed in the construction of the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad line from the Lake Shore road to the dock at Erie, which passed through, or near, the Warfel farm (the area of Warfel Avenue). Also, bones were found south of the corner of 26th and Holland streets, which may have been part of a cemetery, also discovered in 1820, which created a sensation at that time. In excavating for the Erie & Pittsburgh Railroad line to the harbor, a mass of human bones was found at the crossing of the Green Garden Boulevard. The bodies were in a sitting posture, but thrown together haphazardly, indicating they were killed in battle and hurriedly interred. From the way in which the bones were thrown together, it was surmised that a terrible battle must have taken place in the vicinity. The skulls were flattened, and the foreheads were seldom more than an inch in width. On account of the superstitious notions that prevailed among the workmen, none of the skeletons were preserved, the entire collection as far as it was exposed, was thrown into the embankment further down the road — At a later date, when the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad line, near the Warfel farm, was being widened, another deposit of bones was dug up and summarily disposed of as before.

Among the other skeletons found at various sites was one of a giant, side by side with a smaller one, possibly that of his wife. The arm and leg bones of this purported native American Goliath were about one-half longer than those of the tallest man among the laborers; the skull was immensely large, the lower jawbone easily slipped over the face and whiskers of a full-faced man, and the teeth were in a perfect state of preservation. Another skeleton was dug up in Conneaut Township some years earlier, which was claimed to be quite remarkable in its dimensions. As in the other instance, a comparison was made with the largest man in the neighborhood, and the jawbone readily covered his face, while the lower bone of the leg was nearly a foot longer than the one with which it was measured, indicating that the man must have been eight to ten feet in height. The bones of a flat head were turned up in the same township some two years earlier with a skull of unusual size. Relics of a former time have been gathered in that section by the pailful, among other curiosities that were found was a brass watch that was as big as a common saucer, which lends suspicion to the discovery.

In 1825 Francis Carnahan, in Harborcreek township, near the shore of the lake, plowed up and recovered what became the celebrated Chorean Beads, known only as existing in ancient Egypt. Similar beads have been found in the tombs along the Nile. They were employed in worship and worn as amulets and were cherished possessions of that ancient people. The beads, found by Carnahan, were soon in the possession of archaeologist L. G. Olmstead, of Fort Edward, New York. Olmstead, without hesitation, authenticated the beads as being Egyptian. The beads though were never authenticated by anyone else other than Olmstead; therefore, this proposed evidence of pre-historic development impelled the supposition that the Indians as we have known them, or of them, were not the original possessors of the south shore of Lake Erie, which is contrary to the current archaeological perspective.

An equally puzzling revelation occurred in the digging of a ditch on the Strong’s family place, in Girard Township, near the Springfield line. During the work, a basswood stump was removed, and the men employed at the task were surprised to find beneath it a black ash pole nearly fourteen feet long, sharpened and burned at one end, and smoothed and rounded at the other. The pole lay in a horizontal position, four feet below the surface of the ground, where it could not have possibly been placed, in recent times, with out some mark remaining of its method of burial. Nothing of the sort was visible, the earth being clay, firmly compacted, and undisturbed.

The skeletons of extinct species of animals have frequently been found in the county, but perhaps the most extraordinary discovery of that nature was made near Girard Borough in the early part of May 1880. A man in the employ of Mr. W. H. Palmer, while plowing, turned up some bones of a mammoth, which, upon investigation by local academia, were thought to indicate an animal fifteen feet long and from twelve to thirteen feet high. One of the teeth weighed three and a half pounds, having a grinding surface of three and a half by four inches, and pieces of the tusks led to the opinion that they must have been eight or ten feet long.

Some of the earliest archaeological studies in Erie County occurred during the Depression Era, which has given us a tremendous insight into the past, but the lack of a proper archaeological investigation at the time, of the mounds and embankments, has lead to more folklore, than facts.

In 1881, the Congress of the United States gave $5000 to the Smithsonian Institution to conduct archaeological excavations relating to the prehistoric Mound Builders and prehistoric mounds. Mr. Wills de Haas of Wheeling, West Virginia, was placed in charge of the project. Mr. de Haas who had studied Grave Creek Mound at Moundsville, West Virginia, resigned after a year. He was replaced by Cyrus Thomas and the project continued until 1890.

The goal of the mound explorations was to settle the question of who were the Mound Builders. Were they an ancient vanished race as many scholars believed, or were they the ancestors of the American Indians. By the completion of the project in 1890, over 2000 mounds and earthworks had been studied in the eastern United States.

In 1894, Cyrus Thomas published his book report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology and proved that the Mound Builders were not a vanished race, but the ancestors of the American Indian. This was the birth of modern American Archaeology.