Mississippi Indian mounds offer glimpse of state’s history

By Jerry Mitchell
Natchez, Mississippi (AP) August 2010

Want to peek into Mississippi’s distant past? Visit Indian mounds located across state.

“The mounds are a real visible reminder that there were people here before us,” said Jim Barnett, director of historic properties division of the state Department of Archives and History.

A trip across the state can bring visitors face to face with a dozen Indian mounds that have been preserved by state officials or National Park Service officials. There’s no admission charge to visit any of the mounds or related museums across the state.

“They’re remnants of an earlier American Indian culture before Europeans came,” Barnett said.

He operates the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, a National Historic Landmark that is open here each day to visitors, except holidays. “Grand Village is the only site that was still being used as a ceremonial site when Europeans arrived,” he said.

In 1682, the French explorer LaSalle met with the tribal chief of the Natchez Indians, but the Natchez soon found themselves caught in the conflict between France and England, Barnett said.

After the French began to seize some of the Indian lands, the Natchez in 1729 attacked Fort Rosalie, killing most of the French soldiers there. In response, the French slaughtered most of the Natchez, selling a few hundred into slavery while others fled to live with the Cherokee and Creek tribes.

“There still are Natchez descendants,” Barnett said.

A dozen miles northeast, just off the Natchez Trace Parkway, is the Emerald Mound, believed to have been built some time before 1600 A.D. It is the second largest temple mound in the U.S., with the first largest being Monks Mound in Cahokia, Ill.

When visitors arrive at the Emerald Mound, they’ll notice what looks like a huge levee in the middle of the woods.

Excavations have shown this was once a tall hill that the ancestors of the Natchez Indians, the Mississippians, flattened into an area almost as large as two football fields.

The largest mound at one end is 30 feet high, prompting the National Park Service to add a ladder for visitors to climb.

Barnett recommends visualizing structures on top of each of the mounds.

Unlike mounds built thousands of years earlier strictly for burial purposes, these mounds probably had structures on top of them, including sacred buildings or homes of high-ranking officials, he said.

In the modern day, Emerald Mound still serves a useful purpose, he said. “It’s a good place to watch a lunar eclipse.”

Emerald Mound is one of a number of Indian mounds that can be found along the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Pharr Mounds is a group of eight burial mounds, believed to have been built before 200 A.D., that can be seen from the parkway 23 miles north of Tupelo.

Just off U.S. 49 at Pocahantas is the Pocahantas Mound, which was believed to have been built before 1300 A.D. A former village surrounded the site that is now part of the roadside park.

North of Philadelphia is Nanih Waiya Mound. For Choctaws, legend holds that the tribe was born there, making it sacred ground.

Six miles north of Greenville on Mississippi 1 is another National Historic Site, the Winterville Mounds Park and Museum, which features 11 mounds.

“It’s the biggest mound group in Mississippi,” said branch director Mark Howell. “The tallest is 55 feet, and the average height is larger than any group.”

Recent excavations by the University of Southern Mississippi show Indians brought in six feet of dirt to level the area before building the mounds sometime in the 13th century, he said.

The building of the mound appears to have been influenced by the tribe that lived in Cahokia, across the river from modern-day St. Louis, he said.

Apparently the Indians came down the river and influenced a building boom, he said.

The Winterville museum features pottery, stone tools and ornaments from that era.

From Nov. 3-6, the museum is hosting Native American Days that will include dancing, stickball, and activities for children, Howell said.

The dozen mounds that people can visit publicly are just a fraction of the 1,200 or so mounds across Mississippi, said David Abbott, staff archaeologist for the Department of Archives and History.

Mississippi officials have been working to create an Indian mounds trail for some years, but they’ve lacked the funding to do so, he said.

The sad part is a number of the mounds that once existed are no more, he said. For instance, the Blaine Mound in Byram was recently destroyed to build a neighborhood.

John Connaway, an archaeologist with Archives and History, said an 1890 Smithsonian map of the Carson Mounds in Coahoma County showed 89 mounds. Only six are left today.

“If it had been preserved, it might be the second largest mound group in North America,” he said.

In the past, there may have been twice as many Indian mounds as there are today, said Jessica Crawford of Marks, Southeastern regional director for the Archaeological Conservancy, which has bought 13 pieces of property in Mississippi to preserve mounds. “Mississippi may have a higher concentration of mounds than any other state.”