The Long-Lost Prehistoric Mounds of Downtown Cincinnati

There’s nothing left but Mound Street’s name.

The whole flat plain of Cincinnati’s “basin” was once overspread with prehistoric earthworks, including walls and mounds.

Daniel Drake's 1815 map of Cincinnati with "Remains of Antient works" highlighted in red.
Daniel Drake’s 1815 map of Cincinnati with “Remains of Antient works” highlighted in red

Digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County; cropped and highlighted by Greg Hand

Location of the earthworks recorded by Daniel Drake transposed onto a contemporary Cincinnati map
Location of the earthworks recorded by Daniel Drake transposed onto a contemporary Cincinnati map

Full color map created by Greg Hand from base map captured from CAGIS

The earliest settlers of Cincinnati saw them, even though the area was heavily wooded. William Henry Harrison, who arrived as a young officer at Fort Washington, participated in a survey of these mounds, accompanying General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Years later, in an 1837 address to the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, he recalled:

“When I first saw the upper plain on which that city stands, it was literally covered with low lines of embankments. I had the honor to attend General Wayne two years afterwards in an excursion to examine them. We were employed a greater part of a day, in August, 1793, in doing so. The number and variety of figures in which these lines were drawn, was almost endless, and, as I have said, almost covered the plain.”

As early as 1794, Colonel Winthrop Sargent, Secretary and Governor pro tem of the Northwest Territory, sent a report on Cincinnati’s burial mounds to the American Philosophical Society. His letter, published in the Society’s Transactions, described an “ancient Tumulus, or Grave, in the Western Country.”

Mounds such as those found at Cincinnati inspired patriotic fervor for the new United States. As Robert Silverberg noted in the June 1969 American Heritage magazine:

“To the early European settlers of North America, this land had one serious shortcoming: it lacked visible signs of a past. Egypt had her pyramids, England her Stonehenge, Greece her Acropolis; but those who came to this green New World failed to find those traces of awesome antiquity on which romantic myths could be founded.”

As Silverberg noted, men in search of a myth will usually find one, and the mounds of the Ohio River Valley provided a firm foundation for myths about a long-gone ancient race, able to stand alongside the Druids, Trojans and Ostrogoths.

When Robert Clarke wrote his 1876 book on the prehistoric remains at Cincinnati, he emphasized that these mounds must have pre-dated the American Indian tribes uprooted from this land by the European settlers. Clarke took pains to point out the immense size of trees growing atop the mounds, proof of their antiquity. The largest of the Cincinnati earthworks may have been a stockade enclosing a small village. As Clarke describes it:

“The central work, a large, broad ellipse, was located about three hundred and fifty feet from this bank, and extended from the west side of Race street nearly to Walnut, and from a little above Fifth street to a little below Fourth street. It was about eight hundred feet from east to west, and six hundred and sixty feet from north to south. It consisted of an embankment three feet high, with a base of thirty feet, and was composed of loam, evidently taken from the neighborhood. There was no ditch on either side, and, within the wall, the ground had its natural uneven or waving surface, with nothing to indicate manual labor expended in leveling or grading.”

A similar “stockade,” narrow and elongated, crossed what later became Washington Park. In addition to these stockades, a half-dozen conical mounds were proven to be burial monuments, containing beads, tools, shells and minerals in addition to human remains.

Daniel Drake, in his 1815 Natural and Statistical View, or Picture of Cincinnati, drew the locations of some of the major earthworks on a map included with his book. In the text, Drake describes these “Antient works,” as he described them, including the mound that gave Mound Street its name. Located at the intersection of Fifth and Mound Streets,

“Its present height is twenty-seven feet. About eight feet were cut off by General Wayne, in 1794, to prepare it for the reception of a sentinel. It is a regular ellipsis, whose diameters are to each other nearly as two to one.”

Drake reported that an excavation of this mound revealed only a “few scattering decayed human bones” along with some pottery, shells, and animal bones. When the mound was totally demolished in 1841, workers found the famous Cincinnati Tablet.

Clarke and others drew comparisons between the Cincinnati Tablet and Egyptian cartouches, just as they compared the mounds themselves to Egyptian pyramids. It was part of an effort to prove that North America had been visited by almost any “civilized” race imaginable, whether Israelites, Vikings, Persians, Romans, Hindus, or Phoenicians, rather than attributing the mounds and artifacts to any culture related to American Indians. Silverberg captured the deluded prejudices of the Victorian mind:

“In this way was born a legend that dominated the American imagination throughout the nineteenth century. It was the myth of the Mound Builders, a lost race of diligent and gifted artisans who had passed across the scene in shadowed prehistory, ultimately to be exterminated by the treacherous, ignorant red-skinned savages who even now were causing so much trouble for the Christian settlers of the New World.”

We now know that the mounds and other earthworks were, indeed, the creation of the ancestors of the American Indians. Most of the Cincinnati earthworks were from the Adena culture, which flourished in the Ohio River Valley from 1000 BC to 200 BC, so they were at least 2,000 years old when William Henry Harrison first saw them.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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