The Untold History – Lincoln’s Mystery Mound Tour – By Geoffrey Sea
Giants are buried in the Ohio mounds. Seven or eight-foot skeletons poke from ancient log-lined graves like Abe Lincoln in a short Victorian bed. That is how the nineteenth-century scuttlebutt had it, the result of Buckeye hucksterism, misidentified mastodon bones, secret-society mysticism, and amateur inability to infer height from spread skeletal remains. “Throw a couple’a horse femurs in with a worn Indian cranium,” says one of my farmer-neighbors, “and you’d have yourself a boney-fide money-making giant!” It’s an old game in these swing-state hills, like extracting ludicrous promises from presidential candidates.
Estimates of the number of prehistoric burial mounds found on Ohio territory at time of Anglo settlement range in the tens of thousands, the great number now gone to the shovel, the plow, the bulldozer, and the lyin’ politician. Heavily concentrated along the tributaries of the Ohio River in the south, we now know that their pattern of scatter demarcates an Algonquian civilization that spread through the eastern woodlands of North America for more than a thousand years, before and after the ancient rule of Rome. The archaeological “core” of that civilization is the lower Scioto Valley, a stack of five counties running downriver from Pickaway (from the Shawnee Piqua sept) to Ross, Pike, Scioto, and Greenup (the last in Kentucky). Portsmouth, Ohio, the city at the confluence of the Scioto and the Ohio rivers, once boasted the most extensive network of pre-modern earthworks on the planet.
Anglo fascination with the mounds of Ohio dates from the days when George Washington, still a loyal British citizen and an employee of the Ohio Company, planted survey markers roughly along the 39th Parallel. That venture sent him through the epicenter of mound-builder country, and Washington’s markers are still occasionally stumbled upon by backwoods hunters of Indian artifacts between the valleys of the Muskingum and the Miami. Washington acquired a tremendous amount of claimed property in Ohio, all of it eventually forfeited, and he planned to retire to the Masonic community of Marietta, built atop the largest assemblage of platform mounds on the Ohio River.
Other future-presidents took up the obsession. Jefferson actually excavated a mound near Monticello for scientific purposes around 1780, and William Henry Harrison, who was stationed at Fort Washington on the site of present-day Cincinnati as an ensign, became the first to attempt dating of the mounds by means of counting tree rings. Harrison, who became the first Ohioan President in no small part because of his Washingtonian credentials, also lectured on the subject of the mound-builders, and he authored the principal theory that the large earthen walls alongside the burial mounds, often in the shapes of circles and squares, had been built for purposes of defense. It was an idiotic postulate because accompanying moats are almost always inside rather than outside the embankments.
By the 1840s and 50s, Ralph Waldo Emerson was ranking “the Ohio Circles” along with Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, and his Masonic associate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was encrypting references to Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound in his “Song of Hiawatha.” The landscape painter and architect Thomas Cole, who spent a formative year admiring the mounds in Ross County, Ohio, defined them as the foundation for a distinctive “American sublime” (note that “West” here refers to the Ohio Valley):
“He who stands on Mont Albano and looks down on ancient Rome, has his mind peopled with the gigantic associations of the storied past; but he who stands on the mounds of the West, the most venerable remains of American antiquity, may experience the emotion of the sublime, but it is the sublimity of a shoreless ocean un-islanded by the recorded deeds of man.”
Unhampered by historical texts and doctrinal authority, in other words, liberated Americans can make of our ancient monuments anything we darn-well please.
As the demographic center of the country shifted towards the Ohio Valley, the American political class caught mound fever, on realization that the discovered ruins of an “inland empire” provided a formula for excellent demagoguery. That was especially opportune since the identity of the mound-builders could be linked non-coincidentally to the ethnic identities of new swing voters, namely Scots-Irish Appalachians (see the Celtic Theory), Germanic farmers (see the Viking Theory), and proto-Evangelicals (see the Lost Tribes of Israel Theory).
Caleb Atwater, the postmaster of Circleville, Ohio, which had been platted on the foundation of an ancient earthwork circle, published a compendium of Old World authorship hypotheses in 1820. Often lauded as a pioneering work on the mounds, the plagiarist study should be read as a political tract pandering to the various immigrant classes for votes—Atwater had grand ambitions for elected office. Given the demographics of enfranchised Ohio settlers, Atwater favored Anglo-Saxon Atlantic crossing theories, dismissing possible mound authorship by “Hindoos,” Jews, or Kickapoos—that is, by Asiatics, Middle Easterners, or American Indians. Ironically, though, it was Atwater’s summary of the “Hindoo” thesis that found favor in Europe, evolving into both the Indo-Aryan rigamarole of nazi racial science and the modern Bering Strait hypothesis of American settlement.
The earliest generation of mound scholars simply had assumed that even the sophisticated geometric enclosures of the Scioto Valley had been the work of American Indian ancestors. Jefferson had noted that the Monacan Indians of Virginia were still burying their dead in mounds. But Atwater, though a Jeffersonian Democrat, wouldn’t stomach it. Native Americans long-resident in mound country like the Shawnee and the Miami (who have now been genetically linked to the bones found in Ohio mounds) were said to be far too “savage” (a word incorrectly attributed by folk etymology to the Sawano spelling of Shawnee) to be candidates for descent from the “civilization” of the ancient Ohio Valley.
Ohio’s first and only state motto made reference to this potential archaeo-political windfall in a way that wasn’t quite cryptic enough: Imperium in Imperio, “Empire within Empire.” The motto was officially ditched (pardon the pun) but never was replaced, by politicians lodged at that oh-so-appropriately named state capital, destined forever to be the launch-pad of U.S. Presidential campaigns—Columbus.
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Prototypically Scots-Irish, hailing from the Kentucky hills and an Indiana river community called Pigeon Creek, Abraham Lincoln could hardly avoid contracting mound fever. He was the first successful candidate for the Presidency from mound country since Harrison, and the four-time unsuccessful one had been Lincoln’s mentor, Henry Clay, himself an enthusiast of Ohio Valley archaeology. Lincoln was married to the daughter of Clay’s friend and confidant, Robert Smith Todd, a Lexington banker who was also an associate of John D. Clifford and Constantine Rafinesque, two professors at Lexington’s Transylvania University, Todd’s alma mater, who were the leading mound scholars in the nation. Rafinesque was the notorious eccentric naturalist and linguist who compiled the first scientific catalog of mounds in Kentucky and Ohio.
Lincoln was born on the same day in 1809 as Charles Darwin, an inconvenient truth for creationist Republicans, and a curiosity that confounds astrologers unaware of Lincoln’s obsession with natural history. Numerous biographies recount that he saw natural history (which included archaeology in the 19th century) a potential career alternative to law and politics, and a pastime he often turned to as an antidote to depression. Scraps of writing from throughout Lincoln’s lifetime reveal his fascination with animal life and Indian lore. In the draft of a natural history essay that Lincoln penned while serving in Congress, he made explicit if enigmatic reference to the mounds:
“The eyes of that extinct species of giant, whose bones fill the mounds of America, have gazed on Niagara as our eyes do now.”
At first when I read this I thought that he was talking about mastodon bones, since he mentions mastodons just a couple sentences later. A similar confusion has attended the writings of Jefferson, who took to the shorthand of describing the mastodon bones he examined as those of “giants,” meaning giant elephants. But mastodon bones do not fill the architectural “mounds of America,” and it would have been weird to describe the giant elephants as gazing with aesthetic appreciation upon Niagara Falls as we do. Lincoln’s mention of mastodons follows as a repetition, making clear that both giant mound-builders and mastodons had looked upon Niagara Falls:
“The Mammoth and Mastadon—now so long dead, that fragments of their monstrous bones, alone testify, that they ever lived, have gazed on Niagara.”
So Lincoln was showing off his naturalist acumen in distinguishing between mammoths and mastodons, and in breaking the story of giant humans, whose bones fill the mounds, and who constituted a separate and extinct species, in Darwinian terms. That would not be such an unusual reference since there were dozens if not hundreds of reports of “giant skeletons” found in the mounds, the result of aforementioned hucksterism, speculation, and ignorance.
However, that wave of “giant” hucksterism is rather precisely dated. It occurred between 1865 and 1920, with a spate of “giant” discoveries in the first decade of the 1900s. Indeed, it’s the time stamp on those reports that marks mound-giantism as an artificial phenomenon, of cultural creation. Going by newspaper reports, which are really the only so-called evidence available, nobody seems to have started discovering mound-builder giants until after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, which may say more about his larger-than-life image than about any ancient bones found in the ground.
In other words, Lincoln himself was the “giant” who made the giant-reporting business lucrative, and the fad did not spread in earnest until after the notorious Cardiff Giant hoax of central New York state in 1869. That episode made Honest Abe’s posthumous role in the duplicitous giant trade rather obvious: George Hull duped workers into fashioning a ten-foot-tall “petrified” man out of gypsum by telling them he was commissioned to make a statue of Lincoln. Both Hull and the infamous P.T. Barnum then collected small fortunes from audiences of the “unearthed petrified giant,” and from a fake copy of the fake, engraving in stone self-abasement as the great American pastime.
Nobody finds giant human bones nowadays, since DNA analysis has been available. Yet in the fertile soil of Ohio and on the Internet, shards of the crackpottery of mound-giants still surface like buried refuse after a rainstorm. Invariably, the same mangled biblical authority is cited that inspired Hull, an atheist, to exploit the gullibility of the godly in New York. “The Nephilim,” were the antediluvian giants mentioned in the Book of Genesis, it is said, and therefore they must have been the supernatural helpers of ancient architects around the world. Problem is that nephilim means “giants” only in Greek and English mistranslation. In Hebrew, the word is of dubious etymology but has no literal reference to height.
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If farmers and grave-robbers had been finding giant skeletons prior to Lincoln’s essay, we’d certainly know about it, because just a few months earlier, a massive tome was published collecting virtually all known data about the mound-builders of America. Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Davis, from their base in the lower Scioto Valley, had spent two years traveling, surveying, and interviewing property-owners where mounds were located. (Included among their informants was the rural sage Isaac Newton Barnes of Sargents Station, Ohio, then the head of household at the residence I now own.) The Smithsonian published Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, by Squier and Davis, in the winter of 1848, and free copies were distributed to members of Congress, so we know that Lincoln got one.
Truth be told, Ancient Monuments does contain just two usages of the word giant. The first is a mention of “giant temples” in Georgia. The second describes a real anthropoid “giant” measuring 279 feet from head to pelvis, not including the legs. It’s a man-shaped effigy mound in Wisconsin. Not a single giant skeleton, or even an especially tall one, reported anywhere in the country by Squier and Davis—giant hucksterism had not yet come in style.
How then did Lincoln know about “giants” sufficiently to reference discoveries all over America and categorize them as a separate species in a draft essay he wrote later in 1848?
There is only one possible answer to that question. Lincoln’s consortation with naturalists and armchair mystical interpreters of the mounds must have informed him of speculations about a separate race of mound-builder giants before field reports appeared. Such hypotheses were certainly incubating among the Freemasons and fellow-travelers of northern Kentucky and southern Ohio, circles dominated by Lincoln’s father-in-law, Robert Smith Todd, and Henry Clay, who was then retired to his Lexington estate. (Clay had been appointed to his first term as U.S. Senator while serving as Grand Master and Grand Orator of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky. As founder of the Whig Party, Clay and his Ohio Valley Freemasons were the force behind the 1840 campaign and brief administration of William Henry Harrison, the first Whig President. The second and last elected Whig President was the Freemason Taylor, elected in 1848 with Lincoln’s tacit support. All of the pioneer cities of southern Ohio—Marietta, Cincinnati, Portsmouth, Chillicothe, and Worthington—had been founded as Masonic towns.) The “separate race” stupidity was a hand-me-down from Caleb Atwater and the Masonic circles of Circleville.
Lincoln was never formally inducted into an approved Masonic Lodge (he withdrew an application during his campaign for the Presidency), but now we can conclude that Lincoln did belong to that club for “sacred geometry,” which venerated the circle-square earthworks of the valley. In an essay that he never published, he let slip the secrets of a secret society.
Eighteen Forty-Eight, the year of worldwide revolutionary upheaval, was drawing to a close. After the visit to Niagara Falls that inspired his literary experiment, and following Thanksgiving holiday in Springfield on his return trip to Washington, Lincoln did a very odd thing.
Instead of taking the train from Illinois through Columbus and Pittsburgh straight to DC, he went without Mary by stagecoach to St. Louis, and then boarded a steamship for the journey around Cairo and up the Ohio to Pittsburgh—a cold, unpleasant, and unnecessary diversion in November and December that made him three days late for the start of his final session in Congress.
Carl Sandburg and the other biographers of that period in Lincoln’s life mention the trip, but none hazard a guess as to motive, and apparently no documents survive to confirm where, judging by travel-time, he must have disembarked and dallied along the way. It may be the only significant gap in Lincoln’s life story that remains undissected by Lincoln scholars.
That is where the local legend of Lincoln’s visit to the Barnes Home in Sargents Station comes in. The mystery has indeed been solved. I’ll pick up the twists and turns of that story in installment 2.
 “Jefferson’s Excavation of an Indian Burial Mound,” at http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-excavation-indian-burial-mound. For complete treatment of the attitudes and policies of early Presidents toward the mounds, see Roger G. Kennedy, Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization, Putnam, 1994.
 Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” The American Magazine, Number 1 (Jan. 1836): 1-12 at http://www.fandm.edu/david-schuyler/ams280/essay-on-american-scenery
 Caleb Atwater, “Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States,” Transactions of the American Antiquarian Society, Volume 1, 1820.
 Shawnee and Miami are members of the core Central Algonquian linguistic group, which also includes Kickapoo and Ojibwa dialects. In 2003, a genetic analysis of bones excavated from a Ross County, Ohio, mound site concluded that the most closely related modern tribes are those of this linguistic group. See Lisa Ann Mills, Mitochondrial DNA analysis of the Ohio Hopewell of the Hopewell Mound Group, Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 2003, abstract at http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi/mills%20lisa%20ann.pdf?osu1054605467
 For thorough treatment of the 19th-century mound-builder myth see Robert Silverberg, Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth, University of Ohio Press, 1968.
 Abraham Lincoln, “Fragment: Niagara Falls,” September 25-30, 1848, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 2, at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/lincoln2/1:6?rgn=div1;view=fulltext
 In a speech to Congress, ushering in 1848, contemporary with publication of the Communist Manifesto, Lincoln had said: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right, a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world.”