Ohio history is the tapestry of the interwoven stories of all the people who ever called Ohio home. Ohio’s Indigenous history is of particular importance because it not only encompasses the earliest chapters of that history, it also has been a thread running through all subsequent chapters. American Indian people were the first Ohioans and although the United States government waged war upon and then forcibly removed their descendants from these homelands in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the displaced people always remembered from whence they came; and many are now seeking to reconnect with that stolen heritage.
Ohio history began in the closing stages of the Ice Age, sometime between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago, when the ancestors of American Indians crossed into North America from northeastern Asia. In some ways, it represented an epic culmination of the spread of humans from their original African homeland into the last great habitable, but unoccupied, land mass on Earth. The French archaeologist Francois Bordes once said that there will be no comparable human achievement until and unless we discover and colonize another planet orbiting some distant star.
Newark Earthworks aerial photograph, circa 1920-1930. From the Collection of the Ohio History Connection, AV 17; Box 4, Folder 2, Envelope 6. https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p267401coll32/id/28338
Over many thousands of years, the people who eventually settled into the Ohio Valley developed a unique civilization. Between AD 1 and 400, Ohio’s Indigenous people created monumental earthen architecture that incorporated in its design and construction a deep knowledge of geometry and astronomy. The finest extant examples of this architecture are the Great Circle and Octagon Earthworks at Newark, the Fort Ancient Earthworks near Lebanon, and five of the earthworks that make up Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe. These are the sites that together comprise the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, which the Ohio History Connection and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park hope will soon be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
In addition to building incredible earthworks, these Indigenous societies participated in a far flung network of social interaction that brought unusual raw materials, such as shells from the Gulf of Mexico, copper from the Lake Superior region, and volcanic glass from Yellowstone Park, into southern Ohio. Since little or nothing from Ohio appears to have been exchanged for these materials, it’s likely that these great earthworks were pilgrimage centers to which people brought offerings of precious items from their homelands.
The remarkable achievements of this Indigenous culture are unique in human history. Monumental architecture and continent-wide interaction networks usually required authoritarian leaders who ruled over kingdoms that were fueled mainly by intensive agriculture. The builders of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks had none of this. They had no kings or queens, they lived in small, dispersed communities, and, although they had domesticated many local plants on which they relied for a significant portion of their diet, they did not depend upon the intensive maize agriculture that supported the ancient civilizations of Mexico, the American Southwest, and the Mississippian city states of the Southeast.
In subsequent centuries, the ways of life of the Indigenous people changed and the Hopewell earthworks became less important to their ceremonial lives. Originally built on open grasslands, which allowed the builders to precisely align the earthen walls to the varied risings and settings of the Sun and Moon, forests gradually engulfed the sacred spaces.
his seeming abandonment of the great earthworks led early European colonists to believe that the American Indians they encountered in this region had nothing to do with the building of such wonders. Instead, they speculated that a mysterious lost race of “Moundbuilders” had built the earthworks. And, like ancient Rome, the civilized Moundbuilders had been overrun by savage hordes. This provided a comforting justification for removing the Indigenous people from their homelands. The European colonists were not after all displacing “indigenous” peoples; they were reclaiming the land from barbarian invaders on behalf of a lost civilization.
Newark Mound Group walls photograph, circa 1920-1930. From the Collection of the Ohio History Connection, AV 17; Box 4, Folder 2, Envelope 5. https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p267401coll32/id/28313
Archaeologists in the late 19th century finally showed conclusively that the ancestors of American Indians were indeed the builders of the marvelous earthworks, but by then the colonists had achieved their goal. In 1843, the Wyandot, the last of the Indigenous inhabitants of Ohio, were forcibly removed to a reservation in Kansas.
Astonishingly, the Moundbuilder Myth lives on in the 21st century. Dozens of books, television programs, and websites continue to promote the false narrative that someone other than American Indians built the great earthworks. For some it was the Lost Tribes of Israel; for others it was an imaginary race of giants; and for still others it was the equally imaginary ancient aliens who built or provided the knowledge and capabilities the mere humans needed to build the mounds.
Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, do some people still insist that the American Indians weren’t capable of building the monumental earthworks of the Ohio Valley? On some level, it must go back to what made the original Moundbuilder Myth resonate so powerfully with 18th and 19th century European colonists – some people still see American Indians as savages.
In the 19th century, there was a fierce debate between those who believed that the disparate peoples of the world were all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve and therefore equally entitled to basic human rights; and those who believed that some peoples, notably Sub-Saharan Africans and American Indians, were separate and inferior creations. If that were true, then these supposedly lesser creatures had no human rights; and their enslavement, displacement, and murder could be rationalized.
It is important for us acknowledge the dark threads of racism that are woven inextricably into the tapestry of our history. For it is only by acknowledging it and facing it that can we hope to weave a brighter and more equitable future for everyone.
One of the criteria used in judging whether a site is worthy for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List is whether it can be shown to represent a “masterpiece of human creative genius.” When the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are inscribed on the World Heritage List, it will be a resounding symbolic refutation of the lie that America’s Indigenous people were somehow less than fully human. Because Newark’s Great Circle and Octagon Earthworks, the Fort Ancient Earthworks, and the earthworks of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park truly are masterpieces of human creative genius. And they were built by the ancestors of American Indians.
For further reading
Lepper, Bradley T. 2004. "The Newark Earthworks: monumental geometry and astronomy at a Hopewellian pilgrimage center." In Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian art of the ancient Midwest and South, edited by Richard V. Townsend and Robert V. Sharp, pp. 72-81. The Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, New Haven.
Lepper, Bradley T. 2005. Ohio Archaeology: an illustrated chronicle of Ohio's ancient American Indian cultures. Orange Frazer Press, Wilmington, Ohio.
Lepper, Bradley T. and Jeff B. Gill. 2000. The Newark Holy Stones. Timeline 17(3):16-25.
World Heritage Ohio
Virtual First Ohioans
Get bundled up and head out to one of these Ohio History Connection sites this winter to get out of the house and get a new perspective on our state’s incredible natural history.