Land and Struggle at the Newark Earthworks

In Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600-1800 Robert Williams surveys the “deeply ingrained negative image of the Indian in the national consciousness,” where American Indians are presented as obstacles to manifest destiny (14). This manifest destiny, to be sure, is nothing more than what Williams calls the Great American Mythology of Frontier Conquest. Through presenting examples of speeches and letters from Puritan leaders (Cotton Mather), presidents (John Quincy Adams and George Washington), philosophers and political theorists (John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Emmerich Vattel) and more figures in the Old Word, Williams displays how this national mythology has transcended into land policies and the court system, often used as a basis against American Indians in Supreme Court cases even in the 20th century (see Tee-Hit-Ton v. United States and Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe). Here’s historian Jackson Turner celebrating what he believed to be a victory in “America’s creation epic” in 1890:

[V]ast forests blocked the way; mountainous ramparts interposed; desolate grass-clad prairies, barren oceans of rolling plains, arid deserts, and a fierce race of savages all had to be met and defeated. (Williams, 19)

This national mythology has been constructed from countless narratives, both documented and many more undocumented, wherein American Indians are labeled as savage and undeserved of their own lands, nothing more than an obstacle in the excavation of the New World in pursuit of this Great American Mythology of Frontier Conquest. The systematic oppression of American Indians can be found in countless historical records, yet common histories of the United States fail to recognize the violent acts inflicted on American Indians and racist thought that runs deep in American consciousness.

Williams offers a countermythology to the Great American Mythology of Frontier Conquest, one that views the initial period of colonial encounters in North America in a different perspective. Indian tribes were vital to the survival of colonists, and colonists quickly realized that cooperative relationships, instead of conflicts, were far more important to that survival (Williams 20). There were global colonial systems at play. According to Williams, “Indian tribes, sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly, found themselves quickly absorbed into the larger, emerging system of global colonialism and trade that was bring relentlessly driven by Europe’s extended imperial rivalries around the globe” (21). This so-called New World society simply was not sustainable when based on the feudal order of the Old World, and American Indians accommodated to colonists’ needs. Instead of a view of American Indians as obstacles during the Encounter era, Miller’s countermythology creates an opportunity for many new stories about the realities of that era:

As opposed to simply being barriers to European expansion, Indians assume essential roles as potential allies and facilitators, acting for their own reasons in concert with European colonial powers. As opposed to history simply passing them by in their “savage” social state, Indians are found coping and responding to the Europeans with sophistication, resourcefulness, and long-term vision on the complex cultural landscape of the Encounter era frontier. (Williams 23)

As I looked over the websites presenting the rich, complex, sophisticated, and rhetorical earthworks created in Ohio and the Mississippi River valley, I wondered a great number of things. How is it that these magnificent structures have been razed, destroyed, and forgotten? How can it be that the largest circular earthwork in North America within a day’s drive from my home, yet I have not heard, read, or even so much as seen a photograph of the site in my lifetime? How can it be that an American Indian woman, who peacefully visited the Newark Earthworks to pay homage to her ancestors, can be arrested? Further, how is it that a significant portion of the Newark Earthworks is now private property of the “Moundbuilders” Country Club, which freely constructed recreational buildings and pools atop ground that surely holds clues to understanding the complexity of the Hopewell, and even vehemently prevents trespassers (save for two days of the year when the land is oh so generously opened up for public viewing). I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but this excavation of land and an entire people is deeply embedded in American consciousness, stemming from the Great American Mythology of Frontier Conquest.

This is an overhead image of Serpent Mound

Serpent mound is the largest surviving prehistoric effigy mound in the world, but just two hours northeast of Serpent Mound lies the Newark earthworks, which may well be the most sophisticated and complex earthwork in North America. The Octagon portion of the Newark earthwork, which is currently situated inside the Moundbuilders Golf Course, is a lunar observatory that allows one to view and observe the northernmost point of an 18.6 year lunar cycle.

This is a 19th century map created by Whittlesy, Squier, and Davis, marked 1837-1847.

This is a 19th century map created by Whittlesy, Squier, and Davis, marked 1837-1847.Click here for a high-resolution image of the map.

According to an entry on, “In 1911, Moundbuilders Country Club opened (it had leased the Octagon from Newark’s Board of Trade a year earlier).” Nearly a century later in 1997, the Ohio Historical Society (who maintains ownership of the Octagon portion of the earthworks) signed a lease agreement with the Moundbuilders Country Club until 2078. For a timeline of the Newark earthworks since their “discovery” in 1800, visit this thematic timeline.

These great earthworks must be shared, celebrated, and studied. To that end, I hope to find an answer to a different question: how can the incredible aspects of these earthworks be shared with the public, in a way that values the rich and complex culture who constructed them? The online resources through which I learned about these earthworks is a reflection of these areas as sites of constant struggle for American Indians. For instance, while the Ancient Ohio Trail website presents an accurate representation of these sites and their cultural significance, the Moundbuilders Country Club website clearly depicts their lack of appreciation for the mounds, even providing two historical documents about the course (“Our Beginning” “Our Golf Course”) that highlight a history of judgments, stereotypes, and mystique surrounding the land that is marked as “theirs.” For instance, this scorecard (c. 1930) depicts stereotypical images of American Indians who appear to be leaping and swinging clubs (though it’s hard to tell what’s happening exactly) beside a list of course rules:

Moundbuilders Country Club score card (c. 1930)depicting stereotypical images of American Indians

Second, another image in this historical document – entitled “Location of Holes on the Moundbuilders’ Course” – depicts a map of the golf course (again, I can only assume this is c. 1930):

A map (c. 1930) depicting the use of the Octagon mounds, part of the Newark earthworks complex in Newark, Ohio.

This map, which represents two large circular mound that rest at the core of the course, is provided with the following caption:

Showing just how the mounds are utilized. It is an excellent thing that through the agency of a golf club these interesting monuments of the past have been preserved. Most of the other mounds have been obliterated.

It is interesting to me that, through assuming ownership of the earthworks and creating an entire golf course on top of them, this process would be labeled as preserving. Even if this flawed view is accepted, the golf course is clearly giving agency to the mounds themselves instead of revering the people who created them. The second historical document presents a final nod to the impact on the earthworks’ archeological and cultural integrity:

This much is certain: there is a lot we don’t know and probably never will about the people who built the mounds. This, too, is certainly true: we have a golf course on an unusual site, older than written history . . the only one in the world. Won’t archeologists 2000 years from now be puzzled as they study the mounds and find all those lost golf balls?

Surely this was meant to be humorous, because if it was said in seriousness in 1930, these lands could have enjoyed nearly 85 years of public access, homage, reverence, and careful study. I acknowledge that my selection of these quotes and images is essentially a process of removing them from their historical contexts, but I view each and every one as a speech act, instances when American Indians are framed as an obstacle to the maintenance of power and control over this land. As the American mythos runs deep, there’s still a struggle over access to these sacred sites—and likely will be until 2078. It is my hope that the rich heritage and importance of the Newark earthworks will be exposed and will enlighten many in future generations, and in order for that to happen, the realities of land access at this sacred site must be exposed.