Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
ANCIENT MOUND BUILDERS IN VAN BUREN COUNTY
Within a short distance of Keosauqua, nearly fifty mounds have been discovered, made by a race of actual men in ancient times. Not much is known about these inhabitants except that the “Mound Builders” were not a mythical group of people. The relics they left behind reveal their habitat in a distinctive pattern. From a short distance above Pittsburg to a point several miles below Keosauqua, a continuous chain of these works can be seen.
The fossils and fragment pieces are a real testimony to their lives and culture, particularly to the disposal of their dead. Remains indicate that they made stone implements and pottery, and had learned to cook animals for food.
The crew that dug for fossils around Ely’s Ford made some remarkable discoveries.
Near Chequest Creek on July 31, 1878 fragments of pottery were discovered a few feet below the ground surface near a large bed of ashes and charcoal. Earlier that month, the mounds near Ely’s Ford were excavated in five different locations by Judge Robert Sloan, Mr. J. J. Kinnersly, D. C. Beaman, Robert N. Dahlberg, Charles L. Dahlberg, and Ben Johnson, Esq.
At site #1, fresh water muscle shells were unearthed in abundance with arrow-heads, pieces of pottery, the remains of animals used for food, part of a human jaw with teeth, and some fairly well preserved foot and leg bones of a human skeleton. These human remains were discovered about 2 feet below the surface, some 20 feet above the river bed.
Site #2 was 100 feet above the river bed. About 2 feet below the surface, a human skull minus the lower jaw was found, although the upper jaw was badly decomposed. Along with the head, leg bones were also uncovered. The Keosauqua skull closely resembles the Neanderthal man of Europe that scientists claim is 200,000 years old!
At Site #3 about 120 feet above the river bed on the same bluff, human thigh bones were discovered. Nothing of consequence was found at Site #4, but site #5 east of Ely’s Creek contained human thigh bones and two skeletons at about 100 feet above the river bed.
I am surprised that Keosauqua is not constantly teeming with scientists and archaeologists! Modern Indians do not have gaping sockets and other characteristics of the skulls taken from the dig sites. According to the Bicentennial History of Van Buren County, it has been suggested that this race of people were of rather low intellect, quite similar possibly to the ancient tribe that built the pyramids of Egypt.
Who these people were and when they built the mounds has been a subject of great debate, speculation, and many proposals ranging from consideration that they are descendants of the sons of Noah, the survivors of Atlantis, or the descendants of one of the ten Hebrew tribes exiled in Assyria. According to Homer’s epics, several ancient Greeks such as Hector and Achilles were buried in mounds, suggesting (to some) a link between Greece and America. Others believe that these legacy monuments were made by stray people from the Maya or Toltec nation who had ventured up the Mississippi River.
What scholars, poets, and thinkers failed to accept is the simple idea that the mounds were built by the ancestors of the very Indians that white settlers had been displacing. Earlier, Thomas Jefferson had considered this approach, and made an archaeological dig into some mounds near his home at Monticello, Virginia. He discovered a burial place that was of interest to local Indians who had been observed worshipping at the location less than 30 years prior! Jefferson concluded that their ancestors had built the monument and left it in their care, but the scientific community was slow to accept his brilliant insight.
In the 1880s, Professor Cyrus Thomas of the Bureau of Ethnology made a thorough survey of more than 2,000 Indian burial sites and concluded that the extent of the mound builders’ culture covered nearly 1/3 of the continental United States. He was very thorough in his study and collection of data, and came to believe that the Indians found on the plains had descended from the early race of people who built the mounds. His study sparked a revolution in thinking in regards to the North American Indians.
The earliest of these mound-building cultures is called “Adena,” after an Ohio site by that name. Around 1550 B.C. these people were raising corn, squash, and beans and by 1000 B.C. some villages began to bury their dead in low earthen mounds, a custom that spread throughout the middle west during the next few centuries.
Sometimes the Sac and Fox Indians continued this custom. For example, near the Davis/Van Buren County line, old Chief Black Hawk died of a high fever in October, 1838 and was laid to rest in a sitting position within the confines of a small earthen dome or mound surrounded by his most prized possessions. Tribal members had lived among the ancient burial spots and revered them.
Most likely, skeletal remains found around Keosauqua are not Neanderthal and do not date back two hundred thousand years, but the fossils found in these parts are a tribute to history, as they clearly suggest that the area has been the focus of human existence for at least three thousand years!
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick