Among the Mound Builders’ Remains

by George Bryce, LL.D.

MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 66
Read 9 February 1904

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba published several papers by the Author in description of visits among the remains of the Mound Builders of the Canadian West. The demand for these pamphlets has been such that they are now out of print. With the authority of the Society these, with another related paper of the Author, are now reprinted. No doubt, having been written at intervals of several years, they may repeat a number of statements, but the Society desires them to appear again as they were first printed. They embrace:

  1. Opening of a Mound at St. Andrew's, Red River, October 1879. Printed in the author’s Manitoba, London, 1879.
  2. Excavation of Great Mound Rainy River, (Aug. 22, 1884). Printed as The Mound Builders. Transaction No. 18, Winnipeg, 1885.
  3. The Souris Country: Its Monuments, Mounds, Forts and Rivers. Visited 7 Sept. 1886, and a mound opened. Transaction No. 24, Winnipeg, 1887.

Opening of a Mound at St. Andrew's Red River (October, 1879)

In the City of Winnipeg, near Fort Garry, there was formerly to be seen a circular mound. Another exists on the second river-terrace, on the banks of Red River, some twelve miles to the north of the foregoing. About two miles above the town of Selkirk, on the cast bank of the river, a third mound has been observed, while two miles from Winnipeg on the banks of the Assiniboine, another could at one time be seen. The mound which we shall describe is situated on the west hank of the Red River, about seventeen miles north of Winnipeg.

Most of these mentioned have the following features:

  1. On a prominent point along the river system of the country.
  2. Circular.
  3. Range from 50 to 150 feet in diameter.
  4. Generally some six to ten feet in depth at the deepest part.

Much speculation is naturally rife as to the origin, date of construction, and object of these mounds. The mounds found in America farther south, such as those on the Ohio River, and built in the form of a serpent, a bird or a fox, and hundreds of yards in length, have plainly been for defence in time of war. The general current of opinion in regard to the circular mound is, that sepulture was its purpose. The hope of finding something as to the social condition, habits and life of the aborigines of the country, draws many of an inquiring disposition to take an interest in searching these mounds. The archaeologist, too, finds a subject of study in the mound, in as much as it speaks to him of a race having the building faculty-a faculty which seems to be seldom found among the Indians of the continent in the present day. The tumulus may thus speak of a race now extinct; if this be so, perhaps of a people unconnected with the present Indian population of the continent; perhaps of a people of greater civilization than the present race, who had found their way from that seed-bed of the nations of Europe-its north-west coast.

In October, 1879 the officers and members of the Historical Society of Manitoba entered upon the work of examining the mound, to which reference has been made. It is worthy of note that a certain amount of superstition fills the minds of the Indians and half-bloods in the neighborhood of these mounds, as to any disturbance of them, a proof that they regard them as burial-mounds. In the case of one of the mounds mentioned, a native intending to erect a small farm-building upon it, having excavated a cellar, came upon human bones in doing so, when lie religiously re-interred them, and erected his building elsewhere. Before opening the present mound, the native owners of the property were consulted, and consented somewhat unwillingly, one in giving his consent saying lie did not think it right to open it all.

Members of the Society gathered from some of the old native women living in the vicinity.

The Legend of the Mound

"Many years ago," said one of the old women born about the beginning of the century," her people told her their tribe was living at Netley Creek (a creek running into Lake Winnipeg) and the mound was inhabited by people calling themselves 'Mandrills.' They were cave-dwellers, and belonged to a race then very few in number. They had been visited by one of her tribe, and were found to be dying with smallpox: the Indian was alarmed, dreading the scourge of the red man, and avoiding the place went over to the east side of the river, on his limit for several days, and skirted along the small streams running into Red River from the east. On his return he passed the mound dwelling, when he found that it had fallen in and there was no trace of a Mandrill left. The Indians had never known any of this race in the country since."

This is plainly an unsophisticated story, and as we shall see afterwards is a strange misinterpretation of a few simple facts. The Society having procured the assistance of a strong force of excavators, went carefully to work to make a thorough examination The mound, at one time, a short distance from the bank of the river, has now, by the falling in of the soft alluvial soil of which the bank is composed only about half tile superficial extent it once had. The part now left is nearly semicircular, and its radius about forty feet. During the present generation, it is stated that bones have been seen projecting from its river-ward face, and have been found in the debris at the bottom of the bank. The earth of which the mound is composed is that of the black surface mould found surrounding it. The situation of the mound is where a low, flattish ridge runs into the river from the plain, and from the gently rising crest of this ridge, the earth for the mound was probably taken. The mound is plainly of artificial origin, though no trace of excavation is to be seen.

Another fact is worthy of notice, viz., that several excavations had been already made in the mound, some of these by observers for the Smithsonian Institution, some from mere curiosity, and one by two voting medical students, seeking bones for the purposes of study. The workmen, under the direction of officers of the Society, began at the brink and dug away the earth as deep as the original soil, throwing what they removed down the bank. They thus cleared all before them, and the earth was carefully observed as it was removed.

Before proceeding very far it was plain that unless care were taken to see the part of the mound from which the remains came there might be such a confusion as would render all results valueless. Indeed, not only does the observer need a good eve, but a reasoning faculty as well to bring up the various disturbing elements that may enter in. For instance, the possibility arose that supposing the mound to have been one of early sepulture, later interments might have taken place in it. When the body of a sailor is found thrown up on the sea shore after a storm, the coastmen will bury it beside a stone or near a spot marked by some striking object; so the Indian finding a burial-mound of earlier times, may be disposed to bury his dead upon it. With this thought in the mind of the writer, a close watch was kept to distinguish the original from later and superficial interments.

As expected, a large number of bones was found near the surface of the mound, about a foot beneath it. It may be well to describe these first. The remains did not consist of skeletons in regular order, but seemingly of skulls laid around in a circular form; of a dozen or two of thigh hones placed together, then of other bones of the same part, a new lot of skulls, and so on. From actual count there were enough of skulls to represent upwards of thirty distinct skeletons. The bones seemed to be those of warriors; for in the case of one skull lying face downward, drawn out with care by the writer, there was in the cast of the face, which remained distinctly marked in the soil, the deep red color evidently retained from the red ochre which had been used to daub the face of the brave going on the war-path. Another skull had on the back of it a deep dinge, with the bone cracked and driven inward, such as would have resulted from a heavy blow from the weighty stone hammer-like weapon, which, swung by the thick leathern handle, is known to have been used in Indian warfare. Further, this did not seem the original place of burial of the bones, for not only were they arranged, as we have said, in series of the same kind of bones from different individuals, but in one or two instances the eye-sockets in the skulls were filled with a whitish clay entirely different from the soil of the mound. The presumption would seem to be that the remains were those of braves for they seemed to be of full-grown persons, brought from distance, perhaps gathered from a battlefield, and the dismembered bones interred in groups. The "femur" bones were in some cases curved, indicating that the Indians thus buried when alive had been plain Indians, and accustomed to ride on horses.

With these hones were buried certain articles showing the state of advancement of the Indians. There were lumps of red ochre, plainly for purposes of painting; there were likewise bits of charcoal mingled with the hones, but no trace of burning was observable on the hones examined. Pieces of broken pottery were also found with the usual markings. These seem to have belonged to pots or vessels used in cookery. The stage of art was rude; the soft clay had evidently been marked with little skill or care, and the work done by hand. Probably, the most interesting objects found anion g these bones were two tubes, the one about six inches long the other two, and of about half an inch in diameter. These tapered slightly, and are made of a soft, dark grey, or blackish stone. Their object is not very evident. At one end of each there are raised rings, and on one, between the rings, the tube is evidently much worn by teeth, the tooth-marks being quite perceptible. They could not have been used as smoking pipes, being straight. Schoolcraft, an authority on Indian customs, asserts instruments of this hind to have been used by the Sagamores for looking at the stars, but the presence of tooth-marks renders it unlikely that these were used for that purpose. Other Indian authorities state that tubes of various kinds were used by the "medicine-men" in removing disease. The conjurer placed the tube on the diseased member, and seizing the end of the tube adapted for the mouth in his teeth, proceeded to stick away the disease. The size and appearance of these tubes would agree very well with such a use.

Leaving this part of the mound with its superficial interments, some of the workmen had, a few feet further to the north, struck upon a number of flat stones, lying in an imbricated manner in three layers, the uppermost being a foot or more below the surface of the mound. These heavy stones were each two feet square and four or five inches in depth. They were of the Silurian limestone found at the foot of the river bank, where, since, quarries have been opened. The workmen were directed to clear off the earth, and leave the stones undisturbed. This done, a surface some thirty square feet in extent was exposed. Sonic of the observers, with the legend in mind, suggested that the stones were very much in the position they would have been had the stone chimney of a dwelling been toppled over and covered in the falling ruins of a cave. This, however, was, on closer observation, seen to be pure nonsense, as so many of the guesses are of hasty disciples of science.

The stones were next removed, and under the centre of them, two feet below them, and some four feet and a half from the surface of the mound an excavator struck directly on the top of a skull. The earth was carefully removed from about it and this proved to be a skeleton in an erect sitting posture, the arm-bones on each side of the skull, and the bones of the legs drawn up, and the knees nearly on a level with the face. The skeleton had plainly never been disturbed, a matter secured by the thirty flat stones lying like a solid cover above the tomb. No traces of swathing around were found, the bones being imbedded in the soil of the mound. The erect, well-postured skeleton, so carefully protected by the flat stone covering, dispelled any suggestion of the skeleton having been entombed by accident. The skill] was taken out with great care, but was in a very different state of preservation from those found in the upper interments. It was of a brownish colour, loose in texture, breaking at the touch, and was long and narrow in shape. The skeleton was perfect so far as the larger bones are concerned. The only relics or objects of interest were found on the right side of the skeleton, and on the floor of the burying-place. These consisted of a simple ornament of shell, apparently that of a common union, somewhat squared and pierced by two circular holes placed symmetrically; and some fifteen small round shells three-quarters of an inch in diameter, seemingly of a species of natica. The ornament was plainly a necklace. The bones seemed to be those of a female, and the presence of the ornament with the absence of all weapons confirmed this view.

There had sat in loneliness, for how many centuries who can say, and of what race or nation who can tell, the tenant of the mound, undisturbed by the ravenous beast unable to penetrate the stony covering, untouched by the ruthless hands of the more curiosity-hunter, till the votaries of science, with reverent spirit and seeking for knowledge, had come to discover the secrets of the tomb.

Nearer to the brink than the skeleton just described so securely protected by the layers of stone, another skeleton had been found on the low level of the base of the mound. It was lying near the line of excavation made by those persons referred in who, from mere curiosity had cut into the mound. Stones of the same kind as those covering the upright skeleton were found with this. The remains were seemingly in a sitting posture, but a portion of one leg was wanting, and this near the excavation mentioned. The skull had been twisted out of its original position by the weight of stone lying against it. A second small skeleton, apparently that of a child, was found close beside this, but the confusion produced either by previous diggers or by the pressure of the stones made it impossible to come to any reliable conclusion, except that the flat stones were chiefly above and around the skeletons. These seemed of similar age to the erect skeleton.

No implements, pottery, paint, nor charcoal were found accompanying these remains. The only thing found was what had possibly been a shell for ornament similar to that described, but it was much broken. It will be remembered that half the mound was gone, so that there may have been other, what we may call, base interments in the lost parts of the mound.

Having given a description of the objects found, it now remains to give a theory which may satisfactorily include the facts. In doing so, whatever is said is in a spirit of hesitation. The whole subject of the mound builders is involved in mystery though a good deal of attention has been paid to it by a number of observers in the United States.

First, then, who were the people who made the earlier interments represented by the two full-grown skeletons and that of the child The erect skeleton was buried facing the east. This has been taken by archaeologists in discussing Scandinavian and Celtic remains, to indicate a difference between Christian and pagan times. As, however, the eastern view was that towards the river, it would not be wise to make much of this. The other skeletons were in so confused a state that nothing could he inferred from their posture. The absence of all utensils of cookery or means of livelihood, such as are found in the graves of pagan Indians even to the present day, would indicate to some a higher faith than that of the savage who thinks he is but transferred to another hunting-ground when death overtakes him.

The presence of the heavy shells of natica in the necklace would point out travellers from the sea. The construction of the mound is very similar to that of those found in the north of Europe, and the fewness of the bodies buried would seem to indicate either a people in course of transit, or a people dying out, if it be not granted that distinguished individuals were thus buried. In any case, a vast amount of labour must have been spent in these early times even in throwing up one mound. Would it be too much to hazard the suggestion that the remains may have been those of wandering bands of sea-faring adventurers, of whom we are beginning to learn more, as having some six or eight centuries ago visited the shores, and even penetrated the interior of the North American continent? Perhaps the route of Lord Selkirk's colonists by Hudson's Lay had been centuries before opened up by the sea-king voyageurs.

Leaving in the meantime this question, it may be well to look at that of the later remains found in the superficial interments. It would naturally be in connection with these that the legend given would be told. What are the main points of the story? That the Mandrills live in the mound as a cave dwelling. Now the cave-dwellers of the Missouri met by Catlin were called the Mandans. They are a tribe now nearly extinct. The Red River country was visited by Missouri Indians, and the Missouri country by Northern Indians, by means of the prairie trail, still known as the Missouri trail. Carver, in speaking of Fort La Reine, on the Assiniboine, says, "To this place the Mahahs who inhabit a country 250 miles south-west, come also to trade with them ; and bring great quantities of Indian corn to exchange for knives, tomahawks, and other articles." We have seen that the early explorers reached the same Missouri country by ascending a branch of the Assiniboine.

The name Mandrill, as also Mahah, is plainly a corruption of the word Mandan. Strange to say, the bulk of the Mandans, who were a dwindling, peaceful race, unable to cope with the wild Sioux, but by far the most advanced of the North American Indians in the arts of building and agriculture, actually perished on the 'Missouri, within the last half century, by the smallpox. What more probable than that some outlying colony of Mandans bringing their customs from the Missouri had made earth-houses for themselves in the Red River country, and had used the mound as a place of burial? As to the part of the legend referring to the small-pox, it would be most natural to have it attached by association of ideas to the mound, although the deaths by this pestilence may have occurred long after the use of the mound as a burial-place by the Mandans.

As to the mound being inhabited by cave-dwellers, the facts brought out by the excavation entirely disprove such a hypothesis. Sepulture was plainly its purpose. That the connecting of small-pox with the mound is a recent notion, is shown by the presence in the surface of the mound of painted faces, broken skulls, indicating a violent death and not one by the pestilence, while the well-known fear of the Indians for this terrible disease forbids the thought of their laying the bones in the systematic order in which they were found. Another question arising is, why may not these superficial interments be those of Sioux, Ojibewavs, or Crees, buried in the mound?? The answer is, that these nations have their own distinctive modes of burial, all differing from that of the mound. They either bury their dead by exposing them on raised platforms, or on the branches of trees, or in the case of the Ojibeways, by burial in separate graves dug in the earth, and covered over with sticks some two feet in length, placed together in the form of a roof.

The Mandans would seem to have regarded these mounds as the tombs of their ancestors. Nothing could be more fitting than that their heroes slain in battle should receive an honourable burial in these "sacred spots" of their race. If the Mandans be taken as having a peculiar connection with these mounds, it may be well to notice some interesting facts regarding them mentioned by Catlin and others. The Mandans were not only far advanced as to living in fixed abodes, in having fortified villages, in cultivating the soil, in the manufacture of pottery-an art said by Catlin to have been confined to them among the North American Indians during this century-and in the practice of religious rites of a more elaborate kind than the other Indian tribes, but many of the tribe had light whitish hair and blue and grey eyes. A few Mandans are still said to survive on the upper Missouri, and they bear the name "White Beards." To one acquainted with the Indian nations, it is well-known that a full-blooded Indian, unless a monster, can have only black hair and a dark eye.

The Mandans have been traced, by their mounds for fortification, for burial, for sacrifice, and for observation, along the Ohio; and far up the Missouri. The point at which the nation dwelt on the Missouri, in 1838, when they were so almost completely destroyed by small-pox, was reached by the Missouri trail from the Red River country. Their possession of arts mentioned, and more especially the recurrence among them of numerous cases of light complexion, would seem to indicate the mixture of an element of Caucasian ancestry in the tribe. Up to this century they were unknown to the present white population of the continent. A considerable number of writers have, in consequence, considered them the descendants of early European adventurers, absorbed in an Indian alliance.

It is remarkable that many writers on the early history of the American continent have referred to the early expedition of Prince Madoc, of North Wales, with ten ships to the new world, in the twelfth century. Powell, a writer, dating back to 1620, gives an account of this. Hakluyt and others have continued the story, although Woodward, in his "History of Wales," regards it as purely mythical. Whoever may be right, it is well to know what has been said. The Magdawys, or followers of Madoc have been identified as to name with the Madans; the canoes peculiar to the 1VIandans among the Indian nations, which were made of the skins of buffaloes stretched over frames of willows and round in shape like a tub, are said to be exactly the Welsh coracle. Many Mandans words are given resembling the Welsh, among the most remarkable being that for the Deity, in Mandan, Maho Peneta; in Welsh, Mawr penaethir.

We are sceptical as to this Welsh-Mandan alliance. We see, then, that a theory, somewhat as follows, meets fairly well the facts of the case. That the original mound builders were the people of another continent, carrying with them the custom of mound building, perhaps from some northern European country: that they extended along the Red River valley and that of the Missouri, as well as up the Ohio: that they used their mounds for burial after the manner of the European nations: that the superficial burials in the mounds are those of a race extending to our own time, who may be descendants of the earlier mound-building race absorbed by an Indian nation, but retaining mental and physical traces of a foreign ancestry: that this race is the tribe of Mandans, who have become almost extinct during the present century from small-pox.

This theory, it will be observed, gives a fair explanation of the oft-repeated claim of a considerable European emigration to America centuries before Columbus; it accounts for the possession of higher features of civilization by savage nations in the very interior of America; it agrees with the various facts revealed by the opened burial-mound, and explains the main points of the legend given by the Saulteaux half-breeds of the Red river. We leave it with out readers. We do not pin our faith to it. To any one who questions it, it is fair to say, advance a theory better explaining the facts, and we shall gladly withdraw the one offered.

NOTE - In the second paper, written two years later, and after investigation of several other mounds the writer, it will be seen, inclines to the invasion of the from the south as supplying the race of Mound Builders i.e., the Asiatic rather than the European origin.

Page revised: 22 May 2010