Manitoba History: The Manitoba Mound Builders: The Making of an Archaeological Myth, 1857-1900
by Gwen Rempel
The first recorded excavation of a Native American mound in Manitoba was undertaken in 1857 by Henry Youle Hind. Hind had left his teaching position at the University of Toronto to serve as a geologist in the Canadian government’s expedition to appraise the territory in the northwest.  In the process of exploring potential transportation routes and determining the suitability of land for cultivation, Hind examined a conical mound on the bank of the Souris River. His brief account of the excavation he undertook marks the beginning of what eventually became a nineteenth century fascination with the identity of the mysterious creators of Manitoba’s ancient mounds:
The mound Hind described in his journal is part of a group of approximately seventy such mounds in the Melita region, and one of over one hundred mounds scattered throughout what is now southern Manitoba.  The majority of these mounds have been assigned by modern scholars to two Late Woodland Period archaeological complexes. These complexes, the Blackduck and the Devil’s Lake-Sourisford, flourished in Manitoba between 900 and 1,400 A.D. Many of Manitoba’s mounds contain burials, some appear to be animal effigies, still others have no known purpose. Archaeologists point to the remains of small ceremonial fires on the mounds’ burial surfaces, and to the inclusion of foreign materials such as copper and conch shell to support the theory that these ancient earthworks had a ritual meaning for the Aboriginal cultures that constructed them. They speculate that the cooperative labour which mound building entailed provided important ceremonial opportunities to cement relationships between different Native groups in the region. 
Modern scholars agree that Manitoba’s mounds are the product of ancient North American Aboriginal societies. This opinion was not held by their nineteenth century counterparts. The European Canadian ‘discoverers’ of Manitoba’s mounds interpreted their findings by turning to an existing body of American theory about comparable structures in the United States. American mound scholarship had been stimulated by a series of ancient earthworks located in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. These structures were remarkable for both their great size and their amazing degree of geometric symmetry. While modern archaeologists attribute these earthworks to the ancient Adena, Hopewell and Mississippian Aboriginal cultures, their imposing and complex nature led earlier European Americans to reject any connection between the mounds’ creators and the ‘savage Indians’ they had encountered during their westward expansion across the continent. Instead, Americans manufactured a mythical Mound Builder race to resolve the mystery. 
The foundation of the Mound Builder myth rested on the adoption of existing historical, classical and biblical sources to explain evidence associated with America’s pre-contact past.  While a few eighteenth and nineteenth century American scholars used precursors of modern ethnographical and archaeological methods to argue that the mounds had been built by Native Americans, the majority of early mound enthusiasts preferred to engage in armchair speculation.  Their application of European classical scholarship to America’s earthworks produced a variety of bizarre theories. The Mound Builders were presented by various mound enthusiasts as either giants, or white men, or Israelites, or Danes, or Toltecs, or at least in one instance, giant white Jewish Toltec Vikings. 
Although the American Mound Builder myth had made its first appearance in the late eighteenth century, it was not fully endorsed by the American scientific community until 1848.  In that year, the recently created Smithsonian Institute published E. G. Squire’s and E. H. Davis’ Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. This publication connected the Mound Builder race with ‘advanced’ pre-conquest civilizations in Peru and Mexico.  By 1892, the Smithsonian Institute had revised its initial opinion. A subsequent systematic examination of ancient American mounds resulted in the 1890-1891 Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology. This report finally established the builders of the Ohio and Mississippi mounds as the ancestors of America’s contemporary Native peoples. 
The inconclusive nature of the mound excavation undertaken by Henry Youle Hind in 1857 left the door open for further speculation about the creators of Canada’s ancient mounds. It was not, however, until a decade later that the idea of a distinct Mound Builder race was advanced to explain the artificial mounds found in what was then Rupert’s Land. Donald Gunn was responsible for initiating this first step towards a Manitoba Mound Builder myth.
As an early citizen of the Red River Settlement, Gunn was both a political and intellectual leader within his community. He had been instrumental in agitating against the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly and had been appointed to teach in the Settlement’s parish school.  Gunn also regularly contributed meteorological observations and specimens of prairie flora and fauna to the Smithsonian Institute.  It was probably through this connection that Gunn had become acquainted with American Mound Builder theories. He may even have had a copy of Squire’s and Davis’ Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley in his extensive collection of natural history books.  Certainly, he was aware of the Smithsonian’s interest in ancient earthworks. Consequently, when a burial mound was accidentally discovered near the Red River Settlement in 1867, he excavated it and sent its contents along with a brief report to the Institute. 
Although Gunn referred to the creators of the burial mounds as a red skinned people,  he did not believe that the mounds’ builders were related to the area’s current Native populations:
Gunn’s separation of the region’s pre-contact peoples into two categories reflected a growing Victorian distinction between ‘static’ Aboriginal societies and ‘progressive’ European civilization. Eighteenth century cultural evolutionists had classified humanity using an ascending scale of cultural development that began with ‘savagery,’ progressed through ‘barbarism’ and reached its peak in western ‘civilization.’  Eighteenth century thinkers believed that all peoples would eventually progress to the level of ‘civilized’ societies. Their nineteenth century counterparts no longer necessarily assumed that everyone was capable of evolving this far.  While it is unclear whether Gunn consciously adhered to either of these forms of evolutionism, it is clear that he believed that the Mound Builder race was located higher on this ascending scale of civilization than the area’s Aboriginal peoples.
Despite Gunn’s interest, further study of the Manitoba Mound Builders was delayed until the Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society was created in 1879. By this time Winnipeg had grown from a fur trading outpost into the capital of a new Canadian province. The modest city was now capable of supporting a small, elite cultural and intellectual community. The Historical and Scientific Society became the focus of this community.  Members of the Society were encouraged to prepare and present papers on Manitoba’s political and natural history. The Society also supported the archaeological interests of its members. At least four ancient mounds were excavated under its direction, its museum housed the artifacts that were uncovered, and its meetings and transactions provided a forum in which findings could be presented.  The result was a proliferation of literature relating to Manitoba mounds during the 1880s.
John Christian Schultz was the most prominent member of this group of enthusiasts. His interest in ancient mounds had been stimulated by discussions with Donald Gunn.  However, he is best remembered for his political, rather than archaeological work. In the period prior to Manitoba’s entry into confederation, Schultz used his position as editor of The Nor’Wester to promote Canadian interests in Red River. During the Red River uprising, he escaped to Upper Canada, where he was instrumental in generating a military response against the Métis.  After the creation of the province of Manitoba, Schultz remained politically active. He eventually ended his career as Manitoba’s Lieutenant Governor. 
Like Gunn, Schultz assumed that a scale of civilization existed. North American Aboriginal peoples were near the bottom of this scale; Europeans of British descent were at the top. Schultz’s study of Manitoba’s mounds sought to determine the Mound Builders’ position in relation to these two extremes. His involvement in the excavation of two burial mounds located near St. Andrew’s rapids on the Red river provided the material needed for his study.  Its conclusions were published in a local newspaper before being included in the 1881 edition of Canadian Naturalist and Quarterly Journal of Science.
Schultz felt that the existence of pottery fragments and the absence of weapons in the excavated mounds supported the hypothesis that the Mound Builders had been a peaceful race of agriculturists who culturally resembled European Canadians more than they did local Native peoples.  He went one step further by postulating a physiological difference between Mound Builders and Native Americans. To prove his assertion he described a skull found in one of the Red River mounds:
Schultz concluded that the Mound Builder cranium was “superior to that of the average Indian of today.”  Underlying this conclusion was the assumption that the distance dividing ‘savage Indians’ from ‘civilized’ Mound Builders and Europeans was biological, as well as cultural.
Schultz’s fellow Historical and Scientific Society member, Agieus McCharles, also focused on the supposed physical differences separating Mound Builders and local Natives. His perception of an engraved female figure found in one of the mounds resembled Schultz’s impression of the Mound Builder skull:
Although little information is available about McCharles’ non-archaeological interests, his role as chairman of the Historical and Scientific Society’s Archaeology Committee suggests that he came from the same British-Ontarian background as other Society members.  His interpretation of the Manitoba mounds’ origins certainly corresponds to those of his fellow enthusiasts. However, his 1887 survey of the Society’s mound excavations contained one interesting innovation. McCharles felt that none of the mounds in Manitoba were particularly remarkable in their construction or design. To explain this deficiency he suggested that Manitoba’s mounds represented outlying colonies of populous settlements in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys.  The Manitoba Mound Builders were presented by him as a struggling colony trying to survive on a distant frontier. The situation he imagined these mythical people to have experienced paralleled that of nineteenth century English Canadian settlers in the same region.
McCharles’ theories may seem absurd to a modern audience, however, they pale in comparison to George Bryce’s fantastic assertions. The Reverend George Bryce was a prominent nineteenth century Manitoba citizen. He was both the pastor of Winnipeg’s Knox Presbyterian Church and the head of Manitoba College.  He was also a tireless promoter of English settlement in western Canada. The book he published in 1882, Manitoba: Its Infancy, Growth, and Present Condition, was a self proclaimed advertisement for the new province.  A chapter devoted to Manitoba’s pre-contact history merely served as an additional weapon in Bryce’s arsenal of Manitoba boosterism. 
Bryce based this chapter, as well as a number of articles about the same subject published in British, American and Canadian journals, on the evidence he uncovered when excavating a number of mounds in the Red, Rainy and Souris river regions.  Like his fellow Historical and Scientific Society mound scholars, Bryce believed that the existence of pottery in these mounds proved that their creators had been agriculturalists.  Unlike his fellow scholars, he also asserted that the presence of copper tools and ornaments proved the builders’ knowledge of metallurgy,  while the very lack of grave goods confirmed that they possessed “a higher faith than that of the savage of today, who thinks he is but transferred to another hunting ground in the sky.” 
Bryce’s optimistic evaluation of the Mound Builder civilization lead him to conclude in Manitoba: Its Infancy, Growth, and Present Condition that the Mound Builders had been Europeans:
Bryce had adopted a popular American Mound Builder theory that identified the Mound Builders as a band of Welshmen. These Welshmen had been exiled from their homeland in the twelfth century and had supposedly sailed from there to North America where they had settled and prospered.  Bryce expanded upon this theory by suggesting that a race of ‘half-savages’ had been produced by the gradual interbreeding of Welsh settlers with Native peoples. The Mandans of North Dakota were presented as the resulting racial product. Their pale complexions and sedentary lifestyle constituted the proof of their Caucasian ancestors. 
Two years later, Bryce revised his initial hypothesis. His new theory replaced the Welsh exiles with a band of pale skinned Toltecs. Although these new Mound Builders were viewed by Bryce as physiologically and culturally inferior to Europeans, he still saw them as superior to local native populations.  According to Bryce, these Toltecs had migrated from their home in Mexico, northward across the continent. They reached the Red river area during the eleventh century. Sometime during the fifteenth century their civilization had been destroyed by Manitoba’s present Native peoples.  Consequently, Bryce felt that it was the duty of European settlers to reestablish civilization in North America by deposing the Natives that wrongfully occupied it:
Bryce’s second version of the Mound Builder myth was popular in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Manitoba. Bryce’s Mound Builder work was published by the Historical and Scientific Society and his interpretation was incorporated into that period’s version of the province’s history.  In contrast, the less fanciful approach adopted by Charles N. Bell did not interest Manitobans. His archaeological work found an audience only outside of the province.
Bell was an anomaly in Manitoba’s nineteenth century mound scholarship tradition. He had come to the Northwest as a member of the 1870 Wolseley Expedition. After he was discharged, Bell remained in Winnipeg, where he became a prominent business man.  Although he had had little formal education, Bell was interested in natural history. His archaeological thinking was strongly influenced by his cousin, Robert Bell. An employee of the Canadian Geological Survey, Robert Bell introduced Charles Bell to accurate archaeological excavation techniques and to the Smithsonian Institute’s Bureau of Ethnology.  The former resulted in an unusual attention to stratigraphy, the latter in a healthy scientific suspicion of his colleagues’ unfounded speculations.
Bell appears to have been influenced by the Smithsonian’s growing skepticism of a distinct Mound Builder race. By 1887, his excavation of a number of mounds throughout southern Manitoba had led Bell to reject the theories of his fellow Historical and Scientific Society members. Instead, he concluded that the mounds had been constructed by “an uncivilized people who lived on the banks of the Red River and its tributaries before the advent of the present Indian tribes.  While the observed customs of local Native peoples had caused Bell to reject them as the builders of the mounds, he was convinced that these structures had been built by another group of Aboriginal people. 
It is important to note that Bell reached this conclusion without contradicting nineteenth century judgements about the Aboriginal peoples of the area. He had not adjusted his views of local Natives and their ancestors, but had rather revised his opinion about the level of civilization the Mound Builder race had obtained. First, Bell questioned the assumption that the creators of the mounds had been agriculturalists. The lack of stone spades and furrowed patches in association with the mounds did not support such a momentous conclusion. Second, he contradicted the wild statements made by Bryce regarding the Mound Builders’ metallurgical skills. His experiments had shown that the copper artifacts found in the mounds were “simply hammered pieces of the native ore.”  Finally, Bell declared that there was nothing in the form or finish of the stone tools and pottery fragments obtained from the mounds that was “beyond the skill of the Indians, when they were first encountered by the whites.” 
Today the nineteenth century enthusiasts who studied Manitoba’s ancient mounds are considered to be merely a footnote in the history of the development of Canadian archaeology. Modern archaeologists, embarrassed by the racist hodgepodge of Victorian cultural and biological evolutionism that underlies Mound Builder theories, have disassociated themselves from the group’s work. But, while the impact of these early scholars on the development of the modern profession of archaeology may be negligible, their work should not be ignored.
The creation of a Manitoba version of the Mound Builder myth illuminates the attitudes underpinning the society that produced it. The period during which this myth flourished in Manitoba was also the period in which Winnipeg was transformed from a Métis settlement to a British-Ontarian community.  The makers of this myth belonged to this latter group. Consequently, their Mound Builder theories fitted this community’s vision for the region’s present and future development.
Members of the Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society were already engaged in writing the new province’s history. Their work emphasised the role of Europeans in the region’s past and presented the 1812 arrival of the Selkirk Settlers in Red River as a particularly significant event. This tradition in Manitoban historiography was initiated by Donald Gunn and Charles R. Tuttle in their book, History of Manitoba: From the Earliest Settlement to the Admission of the Province into the Dominion. George Bryce and other Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society members quickly expanded on Gunn’s and Tuttle’s work by portraying the Settlers as heroes and the colony they founded as an idyllic paradise. Even Charles N. Bell wrote a brief essay titled The Selkirk Settlement and the Settlers. 
The tale of the Selkirk Settlers’ initial hardships and their eventual success soon approached the level of myth. The resulting legend served two purposes. First, since the Red River Settlement pre-dated eastern Canada’s interest in the region, the legend reduced the validity of the East’s right to control Manitoba’s future.  Second, the ‘founding father’ status which the legend assigned to the Selkirk Settlers allowed the recently arrived British-Ontarian immigrants to establish a cultural claim to an area which they were increasingly coming to dominate politically and economically. 
Not surprisingly, many of the same Historical and Scientific Society members involved in constructing the legend of the Selkirk Settlers were also responsible for creating a Manitoba version of the Mound Builder myth. The Mound Builder myth, like its Selkirk Settler counterpart, supported growing demands for greater western autonomy. It provided the British-Ontarian community in Manitoba with a noble and civilized antiquity upon which its own settlements could be founded. For, if Manitoba had sup-ported a great civilization in the past, it could support a great civilization in the future. The interest this exalted antiquity generated in Ontario was of course an added bonus. 
More importantly, the Manitoba Mound Builder myth provided a ‘scientific’ justification for the British-Ontarian community’s perception, and ultimately their treatment, of Manitoba’s Native peoples. Nineteenth century Manitoba historians had excluded Natives from the province’s short official history by creating a ‘founding father’ legend out of the experiences of the Selkirk Settlers. The Mound Builder myth excluded contemporary Natives from Manitoba’s pre-contact history as well. The period of Native dominance over the Canadian West was reduced by these two myths to a static, historically insignificant interval between a Mound Builder civilization and a European civilization. By excluding Natives from a significant role in Manitoba’s past, the Mound Builder myth also justified their exclusion from a significant role in its creators’ vision of Manitoba’s future.
The author gratefully acknowledges assistance received from Dr. Barry Ferguson, History Department, St. John’s College, University of Manitoba.
1. Henry Youle Hind, Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and of the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858 (Edmonton: M. G. Hurtig Ltd., 1971), p. vi. The narrative was originally published in 1860 by Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts of London.
4. Liz Bryan, The Buffalo People: Prehistoric Archaeology on the Canadian Plains (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1991), pp. 167-171; and Syms, Aboriginal Mounds in Southern Manitoba, pp. 31, 81-82.
1g5. Donald Gunn, “Indian Remains Near Red River Settlement, Hudson’s Bay Territory,” Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institute for the Year 1867 (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institute, 1867), p. 399. An abridged version of this letter is contained in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institute for the Year 1867; a complete copy is found in John Christian Schultz’s unpublished manuscript, “Some Very Old Inhabitants,” located in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Manitoba Historical Society Papers, MG10/F2.
16. Schultz, “Some Very Old Inhabitants,” p. 9.
20. Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), p. 211.
22. Schultz, “Some Very Old Inhabitants,” p. 2.
23. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies, pp. 124-125.
24. Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba: A Dictionary of Manitoba Biography from the Earliest Times to 1920 (Winnipeg: The Manitoba Library Association, 1971), s.v., “Schultz, Sir John Christian.”
25. John Christian Schultz, “The Mound Builders of the West,” Canadian Naturalist and Quarterly Journal of Science, new series, 9 (1881), p. 60; and Schultz, “Some Very Old Inhabitants,” p. 10.
26. Schultz, “The Mound Builders of the West,” p. 60; and Schultz, “Some Very Old Inhabitants,” p. 10.
27. Schultz, “The Mound Builders of the West,” p. 61.
30. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies, p. 211.
32. Catherine Macdonald, “James Robertson and Presbyterian Church Extension in Manitoba and the North West, 1866-1902,” in Prairie Spirit: Perspectives on the Heritage of the United Church of Canada in the West, Dennis L. Butcher, Catherine Macdonald, Margaret E. McPherson, Raymond R. Smit and A. McKibbin Wats, eds. (Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1985), p. 87.
33. George Bryce, Manitoba: Its Infancy, Growth, and Present Condition (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1882), p. v.
36. George Bryce, Among the Mound Builders’ Remains, The Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Transaction, no. 66 (Winnipeg: The Historic and Scientific Society of Manitoba, 1904), p. 26. This document is a compilation of three of Bryce’s previously published papers: (1) “Opening of a Mound at St. Andrews River” (1879); (2) “The Mound Builders, A Lost Race Described” (1885); and (3) “The Souris Country: Its Monuments, Mounds, Forts and Rivers” (1887).
38. Bryce, Manitoba, p. 192.
39. Bryce, Manitoba, p. 184.
41. Bryce, Manitoba, p. 196.
45. Robert B. Hill, Manitoba: History of its Early Settlement, Development and Resources (Toronto: William Briggs, 1890), pp. 14-15; and F. H. Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, Vol. I (Winnipeg: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1913), pp. 23-25.
48. Charles N. Bell, “Some Prehistoric Remains of Manitoba” (1887?), unpublished paper in Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Charles N. Bell Papers, Box 4, File 14, p. 26.
50. Charles N. Bell, “The Mound Builders of Canada,” Proceedings of the Canadian Institute, 3rd Series, 4 (February 1886), p. 137.
51. Bell, “Some Prehistoric Remains of Manitoba,” p. 25.
52. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies, p. 195.
53. For example Charles N. Bell, The Selkirk Settlement and the Settlers: A Concise History of the Red River Country from its Discovery (1887); George Bryce, Manitoba: Its Infancy Growth and Present Condition (1882); Donald Gunn and Charles R. Tuttle, History of Manitoba: from the Earliest Settlement to the Admission of the Province into the Dominion (1898); and R. G. MacBeth, The Making of the Canadian West: Being the Reminiscences of an Eye-Witness Account (1898).
55. Lyle Dick, “The Seven Oaks Incident and the Construction of a Historical Tradition, 1816 to 1970,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, new series, 2 (1991), pp. 112-113.
Page revised: 27 January 2019