The Least Successful Historic Attempt to View the Newark Earthworks

The Least Successful Historic Attempt to View the Newark Earthworks

In 1823, Major Stephen Long led an expedition up the Minnesota River, which at that time was known as the St. Peter’s River. It was primarily a scientific expedition aimed at exploring this region. William Keating was the “Geologist and Historiographer to the Expedition” and his account, published in 1825, contains an amusing anecdote of their journey through central Ohio on their way to, what was to become, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Here are few brief excerpts from Keating’s account: “we continued our journey [from Zanesville] toward Columbus, which we reached on the 19th. The route between these two places offered us but little interest The country about the Muskingum appears to have been at a former period the seat of a very extensive aboriginal population. Every where do we observe, in this valley, remains of works which attest, at the same time, the number, the genius, and the perseverance of those departed nations. Their works have survived the lapse of ages; but the spirit which prompted them has disappeared.” (pp. 39-40) “Newark is a pleasant little town, situated at the fork of Licking and Raccoon creeks, about twenty-five miles from Zanesville. Within a short distance of it are some very fine remains of Indian works, which we missed seeing, having been misinformed as to their real position” (p. 44)

The Newark Earthworks, for those few readers of this blog that may not already know this, were the largest set of geometric earthworks ever built. More than four-and-a-half square miles of the land just west of Newark were covered with gigantic earthen enclosures of varying shapes and sizes. Given that, back in the 1820s, the Newark Earthworks would have been virtually intact, it’s hard to imagine how Long, Keating, and party could have missed them. 

While in Newark, the party met John Cleves Symmes, Jr., the major proponent of the hollow earth theory. According to Keating, “The partial insanity of this man is of a singular nature: it has caused him to pervert, to the support of an evidently absurd theory, all the fact, which, by close study, he has been enabled to collect from a vast number of authorities” (p. 44). Perhaps the party relied on Symmes for directions to the earthworks. Incidentally, although Symmes never wrote a book about his wacky theory, a fellow by the name of James McBride did. McBride happens to be one of the foremost early archaeologists of western Ohio. He contributed many maps of the earthworks of Butler and Hamilton counties to Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis’s Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1848. The Newark Earthworks were featured prominently in this report. Squier and Davis wrote that “these works are so complicated, that it is impossible to give anything like a comprehensible description of them.” Just maybe, if Long’s merry band of scientists had actually gotten to see the Newark Earthworks, they would have found something of more than a “little interest” between Zanesville and Columbus.

The Newark Earthworks are, by the way, on their way to becoming a World Heritage Site. As you may have learned from the 28 January blog entry, it has been listed, along with Serpent Mound, Fort Ancient, and the earthworks at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, on the United States Tentative List. This means that sometime, over the next seven to eight years, it will be submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization for its consideration. If it concurs with the assessment of the United States Department of the Interior, then the Newark Earthworks will become harder for visitors to miss.

For more information about the World Heritage List, see: For more information about the Newark Earthworks, including how to find the three major surviving elements on publicly-accessible land, check out the Ohio Historical Society’s webpages:

Posted February 14, 2008
Topics: Archaeology

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