Saturday, May 30, 2015

My New Hero of the Mounds

Continued reading Silverberg's "The Mound Builders", and finally someone emerged that was not enamored with the old myths of mysterious, highly advanced vanishing mound builders. John Wesley Powell , born in 1834, a self taught scientist and enemy of slavery grew up in Ohio amid many of the mounds.  By age 17, Powell was teaching school.  He would study science and mathematics texts at night and then teach the subject the next morning.  He turned away from college when he discovered that science and math were not a part of their curriculum.  His spare time activities included field trips excavating some of the mounds he located as he rowed the length of the Mississippi.  He dropped in briefly on classes at numerous colleges, but was mostly self taught.  He enhanced his knowledge of geology, archaeology, and natural history.

The artifacts he discovered in the mounds raised his suspicions of earlier declarations of the origin of the mounds.  Glass beads and tooled copper objects he found supported a hypothesis that the mounds were not as old as others had stated.  These objects were only proof that the builders had obtained trade goods from invading Europeans, hence the chapter that Silverberg calls "Deflating the Myth". Even the Civil War, and losing an arm at Shiloh did not distract Powell from his research.  His discoveries and his accurate documentation shifted the study of the mounds from archaeology to ethnology; the study of living people.  He declared in one of his essays, there is no reason to continuing to search for a lost race of mound builders.  At last a man who fought against the racist spin of earlier mound explorers, and declared that if knowledge of the mounds was to be obtained, stop digging in the mounds and start a conversation with the descendents of the builders. This was critical. Their story must be told before their annihilation. Alas, the destruction of the indigenous culture prevailed as part of an American tragedy known as 'Manifest Destiny'

John Wesley Powell went on to head the Bureau of Ethnology and the Geologic Survey, and influenced Congress to fund the collection and preservation of artifacts at the Smithsonian.  The history books laud Andrew Jackson and Manifest Destiny, but fail to mention brilliant heroes like John Wesley Powell.  My own research has discovered a large blank page in our history books.  I am still searching for documentation of Choctaw life between De Soto in the 1500's and Andrew Jackson in the 1800's.  How many other blank pages are there?  Sad.