"American Antiquities at Grave Creek"

American Pioneer
Vol. II, no. V (May 1843), pp. 196-203

The following graphic account of the mammoth mound, at Grave creek, was obtained from A. B. Tomlinson, the proprietor. Great praise is due to him for his careful preservation of that tremendous structure of ancient American aboriginal industry. His museum will, with care, become one of the most interesting in the West. Many of our towns, Vandal-like, have destroyed their ancient curiosities. What a pity!

From A. B. Boreman, Esq., of Elizabethtown, we received a fac-simile of the engraving of the stone. We extract from his letter the following, but as Mr. Tomlinson's account is the most full, we give it entire.

"The fac-simile gives the true shape and size of the stone; its color is dark and of a grayish caste. It was found in the above mentioned mound by Mr. A. B. Tomlinson in 1838, while excavating it, a short distance from the centre, and near one of the skeletons found therein. The characters engraved on this stone have produced excitement in the different parts of the United States, unto which the fac-similes have been transmitted, and also in Europe. I have been informed, that the antiquarians of England, more particularly, have been exerting their minds and historical faculties, in order to decipher those characters, and discover something by which they can trace them to their origin. This is a problem which, if solved, would no doubt throw some light on the antiquities of America. There are a great many mounds in the vicinity and country surrounding Elizabethtown, some of which have been digged down, in which there has been found a great number of bones of human beings, among which were skulls, &ampc. Copper beads have also been found, and a number of stone tubes ten and one-half inches in length, having a calibre of three-fourths of an inch, some of which were full of something which might be called red-paint of a light shade, with other things of a similar character. But I will proceed to the description of the mammoth mound. It is beautifully situated on the same extensive plain, and within the suburbs of Elizabethtown, two hundred and fifty yards from the court house, and quarter of a mile from the Ohio river. Its altitude is sixty-nine feet, the circumference of its base is a little more than three hundred yards. Its shape is that of a frustum of a cone, being flat on the top, and the distance across is fifty feet."


Flats of Grave creek - Settlement - Elizabethtown - Mammoth mound - Its antiquity - Horizontal excavation - Lower vault - Its contents - Perpendicular excavation - Upper vault - Its contents - Trinkets - Skeletons - Their state of preservation - Their character - Beads, &ampc., how situated - Kinds of earth - Preservation of vaults - Arrangement of Curiosities - Observatory - Stone image and other relics.

J. S. Williams, Esq.
Sir - The flats of Grave creek are a large scope of bottom land in Marshall county, Virginia, and on the eastern shore of the Ohio river, which here runs due south. They extend from north to south about four miles, and contain about three thousand acres. Big and Little Grave creeks both empty into the Ohio at these flats, from which they derive their names. The creeks themselves doubtless derived their names from various tumulus or mounds, commonly called Indian graves, which are found on these flats, and especially between the two creeks. Little Grave creek enters the flats at the upper end and runs parallel with the Ohio about three miles, and then turns at right angles and enters the river one mile above the Big creek, which occupies the lower termination of the flats. These creeks are what are called mill- streams, and of course are not navigable. These flats are composed of first and second bottoms. The first bottom is above two hundred yards wide, and runs the whole length of the flats. The great flood of 1832 was about ten feet deep on the first, but lacked from ten to twenty feet of the height of the second bottom, on which all the ancient Indian works and mounds are situated; no signs of them being on the lower land. It may reasonably be inferred that the brow of the second bottom was the bank of the river, when these ancient works were erected. This I believe is not an uncommon circumstance where mounds and ancient works appear near the streams that have first and second bottoms.

The flats were early settled. My grandfather settled on them in 1772, two years before the murder of Logan's family. It was to these flats that young Cresap pursued the Indians as related by colonel Ebenezer Zane in his affidavit, published in the appendix to Jefferson's Notes on Virginia. There are many interesting incidents, connected with the settlement of these flats, which I may at another time communicate, from the lips of my father, but as those incidents are not my present subject, I will proceed.

Elizabethtown is about twelve miles below Wheeling, and is situated on the second bottom, near the mouth of Little Grave creek, and at the widest part of the flats; it is the seat of justice for Marshall county.

In the suburbs of Elizabethtown stands what is called the mammoth mound, which with its contents is made the subject of this narrative. This mound is surrounded by various other mounds and ancient works, and in respect to the surrounding localities, the situation, as respects defence, was well chosen, on the brow of the second bottom, and partially encompassed by steeps and ravines. The mammoth mound is sixty-nine feet high. Its circumference at the base is over three hundred yards. It is the frustum of a cone, and has a flat top of fifty feet in diameter. This flat on the top of the mound, until lately, was dish shaped. The depth of the depression in the centre was three feet, and its width forty feet. This depression was doubtless occasioned by the falling in of two vaults, which were originally constructed in the mound, but which afterwards fell in; the earth sinking over them, occasioned the depression on the top.

This mound was discovered by my grandfather soon after he settled the flats, and was covered with as large timbers as any in the surrounding forests, and as close together. The centre of the hollow on the top was occupied by a large beech. This mound was early and much visited. Dates were cut on this beech as early as 1734! It was literally covered with names and dates to the height of ten feet; none of a more remote period than the above, most of them were added after the country began to be settled - mostly from 1770 to 1790. On the very summit of the mound stood a white oak, which seemed to die of old age about fifteen years ago. It stood on the western edge of the dish. We cut it off, and with great care and nicety counted the growths, which evidently showed the tree to have been about five hundred years old when it died. It carried its thickness well for about fifty feet, where it branched into several large limbs. Top and all, it was about seventy feet high, which, added to the height of the mound, might well have been styled, the ancient monarch of the Flats, if not of the forest. A black oak stands now on the east side of the mound, which is as large as the white oak was, but it is situated on the side of the mound, about ten feet lower than the throne of the white oak, to which it may now be proclaimed the rightful heir.

Prompted by curiosity or some other cause, on the 19th of March, 1838, we commenced an excavation in this mound. I wrought at it myself from the commencement to the termination, and what I am about to tell you is from my own personal observation, which, if necessary, could be substantiated by others. We commenced on the north side, and excavated towards the centre. Our horizontal shaft was ten feet high and seven feet wide, and ran on the natural surface of the ground or floor of the mound.

At the distance of one hundred and eleven feet we came to a vault that had been excavated in the natural earth before the mound was commenced. This vault was dug out eight by twelve feet square and seven feet deep. Along each side and the two ends upright timbers were placed, which supported timbers that were thrown across the vault, and formed for a time its ceiling. These timbers were covered over with loose unhewn stone, of the same quality as is common in the neighborhood. These timbers rotted, and the stone tumbled into the vault; the earth of the mound following, quite filled it. the timbers were entirely deranged, but could be traced by the rotten wood, which was in such condition as to be rubbed to pieces between the fingers. This vault was as dry as any tight room; its sides very nearly corresponded with the cardinal points of the compass, and it was lengthwise from north to south.

In this vault were found two human skeletons, one of which had no ornaments or artificial work of any kind about it. The other was surrounded by six hundred and fifty ivory beads, and an ivory ornament about six inches long of this shape, [see figure 8.] It is one and five- eighths inches wide in the middle, and half an inch wide at the ends, with two holes through it of one- eighth of an inch diameter, and shaped as in the drawing. It is flat on one side and oval shaped on the other. The beads resemble button moles, and vary in diameter from three to five-eighths of an inch. In thickness they vary from that of common pasteboard to one-fourth of an inch; the size of the holes through them varying with the diameter of the beads from one-eighth of an inch in the largest. Some of the beads are in a good state of preservation, retaining even the original polish; others, not so favorably situated, are decayed - some crumbled to dust. Above I count only the whole ones left. The large ornament is in a good state of preservation, but is somewhat corroded. The first skeleton we found in the 4th of April, and the second on the 16th, but I shall speak more particularly of these further on.

After searching this vault, we commenced a shaft ten feet in diameter, at the centre of the mound on top, and in the bottom of the depression before spoken of. At the depth of thirty-four or thirty-five feet above the vault at the bottom, we discovered another vault, which occupied the middle space between the bottom and the top. The shaft we continued quite down through the mound to our first excavation.

The second or upper vault was discovered on the 9th of June. It had been constructed in every respect like that at the base of the mound, except that its length lay east and west, or across that at the base, but perpendicularly over it. It was equally filled with earth, rotten wood, stones, &ampc., by the falling in of the ceiling. The floor of this vault was also sunken by the falling in of the lower one, with the exception of a portion of one end.

In the upper vault was found one skeleton only, but many trinkets, as seventeen hundred ivory beads, five hundred sea shells of the involute species, that were worn as beads, and five copper bracelets that were about the wrist bones of the skeleton. There were also one hundred and fifty pieces of isinglass [mica,] and the stone, a fac simile drawing of which I send you herewith, [see figure 5.] The stone is flat on both sides, and is about three-eights of an inch thick. It has no engraving on it, except on one side, as sent you. There is no appearance of any hole or ear, as if it had been worn as a medal. The drawing is the exact size of it. It is sandstone of a very fine and close grit. The beads found in this vault were like those found in the lower one, as to size, materials, decay, &ampc. The shells were three-eighths of an inch long and one-fourth of an inch in diameter at the swell or largest part. The bracelets are of pure copper, coated with rust as thick as brown paper. They are an oblong circle. The inner diameter of one is two and one-fourth inches one way, and two and five-eighths the other. They vary in size and thickness: the largest is half an inch thick, and the smallest half that thickness. They were made of round bars bent so that the ends came together, which forms the circle. The five bracelets weigh seventeen ounces. The pieces of isinglass are but little thicker than writing paper, and are generally from one and a-half to two inches square; each piece had two or three holes through it about the size of a knitting needle, most likely for the purpose of sewing or in some way fastening them to the clothing.

The beads were found about the neck and breast bones of the skeletons. The sea shells were in like manner distributed over the neck and breast bones of the skeleton in the upper vault. The bracelets were around the wrist bones. The pieces of isinglass were stewed all over the body. What a gorgeous looking object this monarch must have been! Five bracelets shining on the wrists, seventeen beads, and five hundred sea shells, that we found whole about his breast and neck, besides one hundred and fifty brilliants of mica on all parts of his body! no doubt oft the object of the throng's admiring gaze. The stone with the characters on it was found about two feet from the skeleton; could it be read, doubtless would tell something of the history of this illustrious dead, interred high above his quite gorgeous companion in the lower story.

The skeleton first found in the lower vault, was found lying on the back, parallel with and close to the west side of the vault. The feet were about the middle of the vault; its body was extended at full length; the left arm was lying along the left side; the right arm as if raised over the head, the bones lying near the right ear and crossed over the crown of the head. The head of this skeleton was toward the south. There were no ornaments found with it. The earth had fallen and covered it over before the ceiling fell, and thus protected it was not much broken. We have it preserved from the inspection of visitors; it is five feet nine inches high; and has a full and perfect set of teeth in a good state of preservation; the head is of a fine intellectual mould; whether male or female cannot be ascertained, as the pelvis was broken. Opinions differ as to the sex; my own is, that it is that of a male.

The second skeleton found in this vault, and which had the trinkets about it, lay on the west side, with the head to the east, or in the same direction as that on the opposite side. The feet of this one were likewise near the centre of the west side. The earth had not crumbled down over it before the ceiling fell, consequently is was much broken, (as was also that in the upper vault.) There is nothing in the remains of any of these skeletons which differs materially from those of common people.

The skeleton in the upper vault lay with its feet against the south side of the vault, and the head towards the north east. It is highly probable that the corpses were all placed in a standing position, and subsequently fell. Those in the lower vault most likely stood on the east and west side, opposite to each other; and the one in the upper vault on the south side.

The mound is composed of the same kind of earth as that around it, being a fine loamy sand, but differs very much in color from that of the natural ground. After penetrating about eight feet with the first or horizontal excavation, blue spots began to appear in the earth of which the mound is composed. On close examination, these spots were found to contain ashes and bits of burnt bones. These spots increased as we approached the centre; at the distance of one hundred and twenty feet within, the spots were so numerous and condensed as to give the earth a clouded appearance, and excited the admiration of all who saw it. Every part of the mound presents the same appearance, except near the surface. I am convinced that the blue spots were occasioned by depositing the remains of bodies consumed by fire. I am also of the opinion that the upper vault was constructed long after the lower one, but for this opinion I do not know that there is any evidence.

We have overlaid the first excavation, from the side to the centre, with brick, and paved the bottom. We excavated the vault in the centre twenty-eight feet in diameter and nine feet high. It is well walled with brick and neatly plastered. The rotunda or shaft in the centre is also walled with brick. The foundation of the rotunda is in the centre of the lower vault, and around this we have made departments for the safe keeping of the relics nearly where they were found; this vault we light with twenty candles, for the accommodation of visitors, many of whom have seen it.

Upon the top of the mound, and directly over the rotunda, we have erected a three-story frame building, which we call an observatory. The lower story is thirty-two feet in diameter, the second story is twenty-six feet, and the upper story ten. This manner of constructing the building accommodates the visitor with a walk quite round on the top of each story, and a good stand for observation on the top. From either of these elevations the visitor has an unobstructed view of the surrounding country and river to a considerable distance. It is our intention to run a winding stairway from the bottom of the mound through the rotunda and observatory to the top. The height of this stairway will be over one hundred feet. The observatory was built in 1837.

In addition to the relics found in the mammoth mound, I have a great number and variety of relics found in the neighborhood; many of them were found with skeletons which were nearly decayed. I have some beads, found about two miles from this great mound, that are evidently a kind of porcelain, and very similar if not identical in substance with artificial teeth set by dentists. I have also an image of stone, found with other relics about eight miles distant; it is in human shape, sitting in a cramped position, the face and eyes projecting upwards; the nose is what is called Roman. On the crown of the head is a knot, in which the hair is concentrated and tied. The head and features particularly is a display of great workmanship and ingenuity: it is eleven inches in height, but if it were straight would be double that height. It is generally believed to have been an idol.

Your friend,
A B Tomlinson

Native Americans