The Mound Builder Myth

Discussions toward a better understanding of LDS doctrine, history, and culture. Discussion of Christianity, religion, and faith in general is welcome.
Post Reply
User avatar
Hagoth
Posts: 4576
Joined: Fri Oct 14, 2016 1:13 pm

The Mound Builder Myth

Post by Hagoth » Fri Jul 31, 2020 7:27 am

I just picked up a very interesting book called The Mound Builder Myth: Fake History and the Hunt for a "Lost White Race."

Chapter two has a 1789 quote from Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, clarifying his understanding of the origins the Hopewell and Mississippian mounds.
"...the Southern Indians in Mexico and Peru, are descended from the Carthaginians or other Mediterranean nations, who found their way to the continent at a very early period, and spread themselves over North as well as South America - that these nations had become more civilized, that the present northern Indians... the Siberian Tartars found their way to the North West parts of this country, and pushed their settlements till they met the southern and more ancient settlers... they were the Goths and Vandals of North America, and drove the more ancient settlers from their territory - that in the contest between these different tribes or races of men, were constituted the numerous fortifications discovered on the Ohio, the northern lomes [sic], and in all parts of the western country."
The author adds, "This Paragraph would form the seed that would one day bear fruit as the Book of Mormon".

By the time Webster wrote this, the country was already neck deep in Bible-relative claims about the people of the Americas being either the descendants of one of Noah's sons, one of the Lost Tribes, or colonizing party of post-exile Jews, and some people had gone to great lengths to find Jewish parallels in the language, customs, and ceremonies of various tribes (which continue to survive in the Heartland propaganda). By the time Joseph Smith got around to writing the BoM the blueprint had already been laid out for him. No one thought the idea was novel in the way, as modern Mormons suppose.

The mindset that was common by Joseph Smith's time might be familiar to us today as a type of conspiracy thinking - the real story told by the physical evidence isn't interesting enough so people sensationalize it to make it more satisfying. Thomas Jefferson and a few other critical thinkers had made careful studies of some of the mounds and concluded that they were undoubtedly the creations of the ancestors of Native Americans, but the white supremacist/colonialist apologists promoted the idea of a lost white race who had been usurped by brown-skinned savages, an idea that was popularized and politicized to the detriment of the native occupants of the land, and the financial benefit of the colonizers. It became a convenient excuse to remove unworthy pagans from their homes in retaliation for imagined wrongs done to God-fearing white and delightsome folks.
“The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” -Mark Twain

Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is within you." The Buddha: "Be your own light."

User avatar
George Miller
Posts: 43
Joined: Tue Nov 15, 2016 3:15 pm
Location: Michigan

Re: The Mound Builder Myth

Post by George Miller » Fri Jul 31, 2020 3:17 pm

Hey Hagoth- I picked up that book a couple of months ago. It was a fascinating read. I think the author presents adequate evidence to support his thesis that the narrative that mounds not being built by the natives was a colonial narrative to deligitimize the rights of the Native Americans.

When Joseph Smith presented the claim that the Native Americans were descendants of the Jews (or others), that this was the common belief of his day.

User avatar
Hagoth
Posts: 4576
Joined: Fri Oct 14, 2016 1:13 pm

Re: The Mound Builder Myth

Post by Hagoth » Fri Jul 31, 2020 3:36 pm

Hey, George Miller! Great to see you here!

Another thing I found fascinating was that Solomon Spaulding and Ethan Smith undoubtedly knew each other at Dartmouth and would have studied under John Smith, whose ideas very likely filtered down to young Joseph through Hyrum's preparatory school attendance there. John Smith was a proponent of the theory that the mounds were built by a lost tribe of Israel. Small world. Actually, all of that sounded familiar but this brought it back to the surface.

What the book makes abundantly clear is that many, many people had published theories about a superior white race who built the mounds and were then either wiped out by the dark-skinned Native Americans or themselves became degenerate and developed dark skins through sinful and slothful behavior.

Although those theories were originally advanced in more elite publications, by the 1820s they were widely published in rural newspapers including... wait for it... the Palmyra Gazette, and the topic had reached the level of a widespread craze that garnered even greater attention from treasure hunters with occult interests (nudge nudge, wink wink).
“The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” -Mark Twain

Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is within you." The Buddha: "Be your own light."

User avatar
George Miller
Posts: 43
Joined: Tue Nov 15, 2016 3:15 pm
Location: Michigan

Re: The Mound Builder Myth

Post by George Miller » Fri Jul 31, 2020 3:55 pm

I also found that interesting. Also fascinating was that the popularization of the subject among non academics came from New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. I have had a hunch for some time that the Smith family had an affinity for DeWitt Clinton based on multiple lines of evidence.

User avatar
Hagoth
Posts: 4576
Joined: Fri Oct 14, 2016 1:13 pm

Re: The Mound Builder Myth

Post by Hagoth » Sat Aug 01, 2020 7:34 am

George Miller wrote:
Fri Jul 31, 2020 3:55 pm
... the Smith family had an affinity for DeWitt Clinton based on multiple lines of evidence.
GM, can you expand on this a bit?

Some general backgound: Clinton was the Governor of New York at the time and was responsible for the Erie Canal project. He also came this close to winning the US presidency. He was one of the most important people in bringing the Mound Builder Myth to the attention of the masses. He gave lectures to large audiences that were then covered by newspaper reports that showed up in local newspapers, including the Palmyra papers. Clinton also perpetuated the idea that Native Americans denied any knowledge of or connection to the mounds. In fact, he outright accused the Seneca of lying about their ancestral connection and accused them of trying to steal someone else's thunder.
“The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” -Mark Twain

Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is within you." The Buddha: "Be your own light."

User avatar
George Miller
Posts: 43
Joined: Tue Nov 15, 2016 3:15 pm
Location: Michigan

Re: The Mound Builder Myth

Post by George Miller » Sat Aug 01, 2020 1:06 pm

Hagoth wrote:
Sat Aug 01, 2020 7:34 am
GM, can you expand on this a bit?

Some general backgound: Clinton was the Governor of New York at the time and was responsible for the Erie Canal project. He also came this close to winning the US presidency. He was one of the most important people in bringing the Mound Builder Myth to the attention of the masses. He gave lectures to large audiences that were then covered by newspaper reports that showed up in local newspapers, including the Palmyra papers. Clinton also perpetuated the idea that Native Americans denied any knowledge of or connection to the mounds. In fact, he outright accused the Seneca of lying about their ancestral connection and accused them of trying to steal someone else's thunder.
I would be happy to discuss some of the information I have on this. As you mentioned, according to Jason Colavito's book The Mound Builder Myth: Fake History and the and the Hunt for a "Lost White Race" published by Oklahoma University Press, during the late 1700's and early 1800's the discussion of the identity of the Mound Builders was largely a conversation happening solely among the academics of the United States. However, starting in the 1810-20's DeWitt Clinton's interest and discussion of the subject popularized the discussion. As Hagoth has correctly stated, DeWitt Clinton perpetuated the idea that Native Americans denied any knowledge of or connection to the mounds.There are likely multiple easy answers to why the Smith's may have been interested in the mounds- for example their digging in these very mounds. However, why would Joseph Smith have been willing to listen to DeWitt Clinton in particular? I would suggest that there are various reasons why the Smith's would have been drawn to DeWitt Clinton in particular.

First, as farmers, economic success came from the ability to transport excess crops for sale abroad (either in a big city like New York or overseas) at a price low enough as to still make a profit. Living in Palmyra/Manchester, the Smith's farm would have become profitable due to the construction of the Erie Canal, which of course was the feat of DeWitt Clinton. Thus they would have been partial to DeWitt Clinton. Second, the Smith's were interested in education. Hyrum Smith and Joseph Smith Sr. were interested in the creation of an educational system in Palmyra/Manchester. With this interest in education, DeWitt Clinton also would have been their man. DeWitt Clinton was actively pushing for state money in support of local education initiatives. Third, as Masons, both Hyrum (Hiram) Smith and Joseph Smith Sr. would have been drawn to DeWitt Clinton who served as the head of the Royal Arch Masons in New York. As a major leader in Masonry at the time, his ideas would have held more weight than ideas from others. Fifth, along the same lines, the Morgan Affair happened in the Smith's back yard; and Joseph Smith Sr. belonged to the very lodge (the lodge in Canandaigua) which orchestrated the abduction of William Morgan. My own research suggests that Joseph Smith Sr. likely disagreed with this action by the lodge, and therefore, DeWitt Clinton's actions in trying to clean up the mess caused by the abduction would have placed DeWitt Clinton on the side likely favored by Joseph Smith Sr. and Hyrum Smith.

Given the likely affinity for DeWitt Clinton, I also think it likely that his discussion of the mounds would have been particularly interesting to the Smiths.

Hagoth- As I read the book I began to wonder about how Joseph Smith's view would have diverged from those of his peers. Colavito's thesis is that the colonialist views had the political/economic agenda to divorce the Native Americans from the construction of the mounds because it would have taken a highly sophisticated culture to have built then mounds, and if the Indians were to extricated from their lands, that the European colonialists needed to divorce the Indians from an impressive past. Joseph Smith's view don't exactly fix this mold. The Book of Mormon seems to attribute the construction of the mounds to the Nephites, but it seems to me that it also suggests that Lamanites also built similar fortifications. In addition, the white Nephite (mound builders) are also from the same family as the Lamanites. Thus Joseph Smith's views diverge by softening the popular colonialist view, and suggesting that the Native Americans DID have a right to the land and a shared heritage with the advanced culture of the mound builders. The Book of Mormon's message drastically diverges from Jacksonian era notions of kicking the Native Americans off their land because the Native Americans were savages without a legitimate right to the land, but instead advocates for peacefully integration of the Native Americans who had a noble past and a right to the land with the modern day European/Christian cultures who had been brought to the land of promise. Joseph seeks a society in which the European Christians and the Native American Indians are integrated under a new society which worships the ancient Christian religion of the Native Americans.

I was wondering what your thoughts on this were Hagoth. In your opinion, are Joseph Smith's views on the Mound Builders more, similar, or less colonialist than his New England peers? How do his views accord/vary from his peers? Don't get me wrong, the Book of Mormon's view is NOT devoid of anti-Native America sentiments which are frankly racist by modern standards, but my opinion is that Joseph's view is much softer and more accepting than those of his peers.
Last edited by George Miller on Sat Aug 01, 2020 2:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
FiveFingerMnemonic
Posts: 1457
Joined: Mon Nov 07, 2016 2:50 pm
Contact:

Re: The Mound Builder Myth

Post by FiveFingerMnemonic » Sat Aug 01, 2020 2:33 pm

I just want to say this thread kicks ass. If Mr. Hamer piped in and added his insights it would be like an all star game.

User avatar
Mormorrisey
Posts: 891
Joined: Mon Oct 17, 2016 6:54 pm

Re: The Mound Builder Myth

Post by Mormorrisey » Sat Aug 01, 2020 6:20 pm

FiveFingerMnemonic wrote:
Sat Aug 01, 2020 2:33 pm
I just want to say this thread kicks ass. If Mr. Hamer piped in and added his insights it would be like an all star game.
Ditto. Lookit, I'm no all-star, but I'll add my two cents.

I agree largely with Dan Vogel's excellent chapter on this problem in his 1986 book, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon. And it's actually online from Signature Books, you can find it here:

http://signaturebookslibrary.org/indian ... mormon-04/

I know it's a little dated, but I think Vogel is correct that Joseph saw the mound builders in a rather colonized way, that they represented the "lost" industrious Native American, and then they "degenerated" into the "lazy Indian." Which undoubtedly was quite racist. But Vogel also argues that while harsh language towards indigenous peoples are found in the BOM, JS also believed in their ultimate salvation/elevation. However, I would argue it's still colonialism, because it was contingent on their acceptance of the "gospel." And how was that any different than other missionaries, or the purpose of such things as residential schools? So I'm on the Joseph Smith as colonizer bandwagon.
"And I don't need you...or, your homespun philosophies."
"And when you try to break my spirit, it won't work, because there's nothing left to break."

User avatar
Hagoth
Posts: 4576
Joined: Fri Oct 14, 2016 1:13 pm

Re: The Mound Builder Myth

Post by Hagoth » Mon Aug 03, 2020 7:20 am

George Miller wrote:
Sat Aug 01, 2020 1:06 pm
I was wondering what your thoughts on this were Hagoth. In your opinion, are Joseph Smith's views on the Mound Builders more, similar, or less colonialist than his New England peers? How do his views accord/vary from his peers? Don't get me wrong, the Book of Mormon's view is NOT devoid of anti-Native America sentiments which are frankly racist by modern standards, but my opinion is that Joseph's view is much softer and more accepting than those of his peers.
I think Joseph was kind of playing both sides of the situation. On the one hand, he owes the main storyline of the BoM to the moundbuilder myths that were going around. He also accepted that the Native Americans were in a fallen state due to the sins and slothfulness of their forefathers. But he also saw them as having potential to be redeemed, and eventually become his ally as his bigger plans began to coalesce.

The BoM states that its purpose is to convert the surviving remnants of the BoM peoples. The text says that one day they would rise up like a young lion who goes among the flocks of sheep (gentiles) and "both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver." Joseph's supposed Civil War prophesy predicts that the war will begin with the slaves rising up against their masters and then being joined by the "remnant" (i.e. the Lamanites) to start a global war that would create a power vacuum that could be filled by Joseph's nascent theocracy. Joseph also put a lot of focus on sending missionaries to the Indians, both to teach them about the message of their destiny in the BoM and to help them become "white and delightsome."

So, I think Joseph would agree with the idea that the Native Americans had once taken part in the building of the mounds but that they succumbed to savagery and had wiped out the truly worthy component of mound builder societies, but that they still had the potential for greatness, as long as Joseph himself got to be the general who directed that power for his/God's ends.
“The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” -Mark Twain

Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is within you." The Buddha: "Be your own light."

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests