Posted September 22, 2011
EARLY DOCUMENTS TELL US ABOUT THE EARTHWORKS AND WHAT OHIOS NATIVE AMERICANS THOUGHT ABOUT THEM
By some estimates, as much as 90% of the American Indian mounds and enclosures that once graced Ohios valleys have been destroyed. One important source of information about these lost sites lies in the archives of libraries around the state. The Massillon Public Library, for example, has the Thomas Rotch papers in its collections. Rotch lived in Ohio during the early 19th century when most of the earthworks were still here and, by reading his papers, we can see these sites through his eyes and so learn more about what we have lost. Rotch was a businessman, explorer and an operator of the Underground Railroad. He was a Quaker and so sympathetic to the plights of African slaves as well as the American Indians.
In a letter to his brother, Benjamin Rotch, written between March 14th and 17th, 1811, Thomas describes what clearly appears to be the Shriver Circle, located a short distance to the southwest of Mound City along the Scioto River in Ross County. Here are a couple of excerpts from this letter in which he provides valuable information both about the earthen enclosure itself as well as indirect testimony as to what the American Indian people that lived in the area thought about the earthwork:
“The entrenchment walls are now about ten feet high from the bottom of the ditch, with nine gateways the level of which is preserved into the fort, while on each side regularly commences the ditches & walls, and in various directions notwithstanding I had read of these evidences of defense, yet I made so much allowance for imagination that doubts existed, which are now entirely removed. I went to the House of the present proprietor of this wonder who informed me that ten years ago the Indians were frequently there, but that he could not obtain the least information from them, not even of their having thought of its being the work of Man …” (Rotch papers, A-30-5).
Rotch was wrong about the enclosures being intended as defensive fortifications, but this was the most common interpretation of the earthworks at that time and it does not detract from the historical value of the document. Here is a link to my previous Blog on the Moundbuilder Myth, which touches upon the reasons the early pioneers thought the earthworks were forts: http://ohio-archaeology.blogspot.com/2011/06/moundbuilder-myth.html
For more information about the Rotch collection, see the following link: http://www.library.ohio.gov/marketing/Newsletters/TheNews/2010/August/RotchCollectionMassillonLibrary