I attended elementary and secondary school in New York State, and attended a New York State University where I minored in history. One might therefore expect me to know a thing or two about New York State history, but there are shocking gaps in my education. One of them concerns an ancient people known as the mound builders.
Where Did the Mound Builders Come From?
The mound builders lived here long before the European settlers, and even before the Iroquois. At various times, researchers thought that these ancient people shared no heritage with the Native Americans. While they are not the immediate precursors to the Iroquois who have inhabited New York State, they probably indigenous natives of North America. Wherever they came from, the mound builders came to the southern shores of Lake Erie where they established villages along the creeks and rivers of western New York.
The mound builder's occupation of the Mississippi River Valley and much of the state of Ohio is well known, and there are many famous structures like the Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio or Moundsville, West Virginia that are popular tourist destinations. Here in New York, their structures are virtually unknown to the public. Though unknown and under appreciated, their life in western New York however was no- less important than in the better known areas to our west.
Where Did the Mound Builders Settle?
Traces of their burial mounds, fortifications and settlements can be found along the shores of Lake Erie, and the Allegany and Genesee Rivers. They are some along the Conewango Creek on the border of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties, and along Chautauqua Lake. Interestingly, there are few such sites east of the Genesee River.
The mound builders were a village dwelling people who built the mounds to bury their dead. They were farmers who grew corn, tobacco and vegetables and they made woven fabrics. Their artifacts include pipes, grooved axes, celts, adzes, gouges, gorgets, copper implements and ornaments, pottery, arrowheads, beads, mica ornaments, bone and antler implements. There is also evidence of arrowheads across the fields of western New York suggesting they were warriors.
Mounds can be difficult to locate because they are not large and blend in with their surroundings. Most are less than or 10 feet high with a diameter of about 64 feet, and many have been reduced in size to to farming and erosion. Even more have been destroyed over the years by treasure hunters.
Mounds in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties
The Poland Center mound pictured above was described in 1860 by T. Apoleon Cheney. He described the mound as containing eight skeletons buried in a sitting position and relics that resembled Mexican and Peruvian antiquities. The mound still stands, although explorers have cut it in half and removed the contents. Occasionally, shards of pottery can still be found.
The mound builders also built earthen fortifications. These were not all related to war; some were built as gathering places. There is one such fortification on 28 Creek Road in Ellington, New York, and another at Limestone, New York.
Dr. Cheney, who studied the mound builders through the 1800's, believed that the present village of Randolph was once the site of a large mound builder settlement. He found ancient military fortifications, burial mounds, hearths, caches and relics and reported that thousands of relics were found in the area. He described the following finds, which were reported in the Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, New York edited by William Adams, and published in 1893:
A burial mound in the center of the village of Randolph was explored in the early 1860?s, three human skeletons that were disinterred immediately crumbled to dust after being exposed to air. A large 12? square block of Mica weighing several pounds was also found. Mica was considered asacred relic, and nearly always found buried with their dead. Mica was undoubtedly valuable as the nearest source for blocks of this size was the mountains of North Carolina.
In 1878 Mr. Scudder, who lived 40 rods (200 yards) from the Randolph rail road depot, was plowing his field when he found a cache of 217 arrowheads buried under a large pine stump along with axes, blocks of Mica and other items. The tree, which was 8' in diameter, had fallen from old age long before white man?s axes arrived in the valley.
In the Cattaraugus county community of Dayton, Dr. Cheney discovered a circular burial mound with a circumference of 120? and a height of 10 feet that contained several skeletons. He also identified a chain of fortifications running for 20 miles on either side of valley, inter-dispersed with mounds for the dead.
In Conewango and Leon Dr. Cheney discovered a mound with eight skeletons in the sitting position arranged in a circle around a granite pestle. Twenty-four large flint arrows circled the pestle. By the late 1800's the mound had been destroyed by cultivation although Dr. Cheney noted that the fields in either direction had many war relics and were probably site of a battle.
At Little Conewango, two miles from junction with the main stream of the Conewango Creek main the stream is village of Randolph. Is a level plateau which is part of the great valley of the Conewango,
A trench and embankment 280' in diameter is located at Elm Creek in the community of East Randolph. This area was densely populated by mound builders and the age of the timber suggests is of old construction. Numerous caches and hearths containing charred corn have been found along with hundreds of relics.
One mile from the village of Randolph, near the residence of J.E. Weeden (for whom Weeden Road is now named), was a fortification surrounding three acres. It was eight feet deep, and appeared to have been undisturbed for 1000 years.
Around 1850, Dr. Cheney discovered a redoubt (a type of fortification) 60 rods in length across the present village of Randolph. Around the same time, on the North side of Jamestown, Street, Dr. T.A.C Everet was ditching his land and removing stumps when he found blocks of Mica and quantities of relics buried 1 to 10 feet deep. About six rods from a water spring, he found many hearths.
A Race of Giants?
Because they lived well before the written word, much of the Mound Builders's world is shrouded in mystery. One continuing question is whether they were a race of giants. One would think that a simple examination of skeletal remains would quickly resolve this question, but speculation and rumor abound. In 1859 Dr. Cheney wrote a paper alleging the discovery of a 7 foot 5 inch skeleton in a mound in Cassadaga, Chautauqua County, New York. It does not appear however that he was actually present for the find and other researchers contend that the Mound Builders were not much larger than their Iroquois successors.
Another mystery is their possible relationship with the Mastodon. This ancestor to our modern elephants became extinct between 10,000 and 12,0000 years ago and may have coexisted with the Mound Builders. One researcher claims a copper relic was found along the Allegany River at Red House with the form of a Mastodon in harness engraved on it. Modern researchers however discount this theory and have concluded that the Mound Builders had little, if anything, to do with the Mastodon.