Stories Americans Made Up Running Into Oil, Mounds, Uranium and Rivers

It was in the 19th century that European immigrants paved modern America. Rolling west, they founded towns (like the one we portray in our PBS film Moundsville), erected factories, printed newspapers, invented professional football, and laid the groundwork for U.S. mainstream culture.

At the same time, white settlers conflicted with Native peoples who lived complicated human lives, fruitfully or angrily, in poverty or wealth, in coveted places. In some cases, like the Indian Removal Act of 1830, U.S. leaders kicked out or killed Native tribes. In others, individual white settlers fought local battles to claim land. (Having been awarded plots by their authorities, they could claim self-defense if attacked.)

It made sense that, in an age when scientific archeology was young and untested, these authorities conceived myths that justified territorial acquisition.

They needed to believe in something. On their marches and wagon trails, they were hitting thousands of burial mounds, bubbling oil wells, and rivers raging with untapped power. Later, further west, they mined uranium that powered the atomic age.

It’s those stories about the history of American land that is the subject of Alicia Puglionesi’s scintillating new book, In Whose Ruins.

Puglionesi writes that she’d like to “tell a story about something new that rises out of the ruins of myth of America, but we also need to know what ground we’re standing on, what’s beneath the ground and under the water.” Or, as she put it to me in a phone call: “We can’t be thinking that the Liberty Bell is the oldest thing ever.”

The book is divided into four parts, on Native burial mounds, oil, electricity-generating rivers, and uranium, and is preoccupied in part with the mostly 19th century obsession over a “lost white race.” The theory, which was invented when, for example in the case of running into a burial mound, you couldn’t reasonably claim that there was nothing there, was that a “civilized” people, probably white, anterior to Native peoples had built a grand civilization, on the same scale as ancient Egypt. These people were often nicknamed “Mound Builders.”

Because the contemporary Native peoples had wiped out that civilization, the theory went, it was right and just for white Americans to in turn destroy them and reclaim their heritage.

To be sure, not everybody believed this, but it was foundational thinking in many serious, important places. How else to justify taking over a continent in a blink of history?

“Indigenous presence, in towns, farmlands, roads, and earthworks, led European Americans to build an elaborate set of myths that secured their ownership of the continent on the heels of overwhelming military force,” writes Puglionesi.

Antiquarians who saw a resemblance between the Egyptian pyramids and the mounds of North America did not hesitate to propose that light-skinned Egyptians, the inventors of civilization, had crossed the Atlantic and built an empire in Ohio… Lost-race narratives furnished a usable past for proponents of Manifest Destiny, since if Indians overthrew the ancient Phoenician or Celtic kingdoms of the Ohio Valley, it was only fair play that Europeans, heirs to the mantle of civilization, would overthrow the Indians in turn.

Joseph Tomlinson II, who settled Grave Creek mound in present-day Moundsville, WV in 1770, was not a fabulist. He figured, logically, that the mound was an ancestral Native grave site. After fighting off Natives, Tomlinson, whose story we tell in the film, became committed to preserving the mound.

The Grave Creek Mound became a 19th century tourist attraction. The only way to “make the mound ‘pay’” as a cynical archaeologist put it, was the capitalize on its tourism value.

Tomlinson’s descendants turned it into a tourist trap. “For ten cents, visitors could walk through a paved tunnel to the mound’s center, gaze at the skeletons by candlelight in their vaulted chamber, and ascend a spiral staircase to a three-story pavilion on the precipice with refreshments and souvenirs.”

The first translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics in the 1820s triggered a furor over ancient stone carvings. In 1838, the Grave Creek stone was produced. Most likely, it was a fake made by Dr. James W. Clemens, a relative of Mark Twain. An amateur ethnologist named Henry Rowe Schoolcraft then legitimized it by reporting it to the Royal Geographic Society in London.

In the early 20th century, after the death of prison warden George McFadden, who owned the mound, the structure faced demolition. It was saved in part thanks to a campaign by the Daughters of the American Revolution, because they wanted to keep a monument “built by a pre-historic race, presumably the Mound Builders.”

The mound has endured, even as residents relationship with it has changed. They no longer put a tree on top of the mound during Christmas. (The title picture of this piece, probably taken in the 1970s, is of the Grave Creek mound with a tree on top.)

The short life of Moundsville, Puglionesi concludes, “with its courthouse, churches, and war memorials, is a passing shadow on the living earthwork.”

Not just Moundsville. So are our modern society and its industrial imperatives, like drilling for oil, which began in Western Pennsylvania. There had been in fact Native American artisanal oil collection.

In what is now western Pennsylvania and New York, Indigenous people built thousands of timber-lined pits or troughs, up to ten feet deep, to harvest petroleum that seeped up from the earth. Whether used for medicine, light, or another purpose, it was likely part of a far-ranging trade, collected by groups who traveled from the Mississippi Valley to summer villages by Lake Erie.

And “oil springs… formed a part of the religious ceremony of the Seneca Indians, who formerly lived on these wild hills,” wrote a historian in 1873. Or, as a pseudo-historian put it: “Savage Indians drove out their industrious predecessors, and the use of oil degenerated to… primitive rituals… By this reasoning, white people had fulfilled their Christian duty in reclaiming Seneca oil for civilization.”

Here, too, was an opportunity to point to a lost civilization. “A 1940 ad for Pennsylvania crude lured customers with the mystery of the oil pits: ‘Who dug them? Scientists disagree. But most evidence points to the Mound Builders who preceded Indians in North America.”

Puglionesi is an expert on 19th century spiritual movements, and relates how Americans believed there was a spiritual cause for the energy of oil, which is what they would also believe for hydroelectric power and uranium. Here was an empty place full of buried treasure. Ironically, it’s what some mining companies say about mining asteroids and the moon, says Puglionesi. (Yes, there are no humans living on asteroids or the moon.)

But what to make of all this history? In an interview, Puglionesi admits there’s no easy answer beyond simply speaking the truth. Like Native Americans, the current inhabitants of the Rust Belt who’ve lost their jobs “are part of the same extractive system that disposes of people and places when they are no longer profitable, even if their cases are different because of the powerful benefits of whiteness.”

But as Puglionesi concludes, the point of history is enliven our understanding of the passage of time in the places we live. She concludes: “The point is to see that not as ruin, but as life itself.”

John W. Miller

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