Tag Archives: Ohio

The Serpent Mound–Ohio’s Mysterious Effigy

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

The ancients achieved amazing feats of engineering with the most basic tools and techniques, leaving structures that their descendants would puzzle over for centuries to come. Many such structures come readily to mind—Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids of Giza, and the Nazca Lines are just three of the most famous.

However, the building of such structures is not often associated with the Native Americans of North America, with the exception of the massive pyramids built by the Aztecs and Mayans in Central America. Contrary to popular belief, the indigenous tribes of what is now the United States did engage in massive projects that could rival even those of the Old World. One of these massive structures is located in Adams County, Ohio. Dubbed the Serpent Mound, the huge effigy remains an enigma to this day.

The Serpent Mound is one of hundreds of mounds built by Native American tribes in Ohio. Most mounds are conical structures used to bury and memorialize the dead, while some of the more massive mounds are effigy mounds, meant to be representations in earth of various animals. The Serpent Mound is among the largest and best preserved of these effigy mounds. Measuring 1330 feet in length and 3 feet in height, the mound is a depiction of an undulating snake with a curled tail, possibly with its jaws open to swallow an egg. There is some dispute as to what the effigy is meant to depict, with some claiming it is not a serpent at all but rather a stylized depiction of a comet streaking through the sky. This is indeed an interesting interpretation, since there is a meteor crater nearby, but no one knows for sure.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

“No one knows for sure,” is a phrase that seems to hover over the Serpent Mound, an effigy shrouded in mystery. Even its age is in dispute. When archaeologist Frederic Putnam studied the mound in the late 19th century, he found nothing in the mound itself that revealed who made it or why. However, conical mounds situated nearby contained artifacts belonging to the Adena culture, who lived in the area from 800 BCE to 100CE. So, Putnam concluded that the site was the work of the Adena. However, evidence uncovered in 1991 disputed this age when radiocarbon dating performed on charcoal found within the mound found it to be only 900 years old. This evidence suggested that the presence of the Adena mounds nearby was happenstance, and the earthwork really was the work of the so-called Fort Ancient culture, who lived in the area from 1000CE to 1500CE. But this finding was itself overturned when a study performed in 2014 found new radio carbon dates suggesting the effigy was constructed around 300 CE, putting it firmly within the time period of the Adena culture.

So which age is right? It is difficult to tell, and more work is needed to pin point the age of the Serpent Mound as closely as possible. However, the difference in the two dates could stem from maintenance performed by later tribes who continued to utilize the site after the Adena passed into history. So, it is possible that the Fort Ancient peoples rebuilt sections of the mound, leaving behind charcoal remnants that were found by the 1991 study.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

If this is the case, it might explain the age of the effigy but it leaves many other questions. Why did the Adena build the mound in the first place, and what is it meant to represent? Clearly the mound served a ceremonial purpose rather than that of a burial place. Curves in the structure show different alignments with the sun, such as with the summer and winter solstices. Could the mound be a sort of gigantic calendar, meant to help Adena and later priests track the motions of the sky? And if it was ceremonial, what sorts of ceremonies were conducted there? These questions might never be answered, as the builders left no written language explaining their thinking. All that remains is the earthwork they left behind, a silent enigma among the green hills of southern Ohio.


Author’s Note: The photographs included in this post were taken by me when I visited the Serpent Mound in 2010. I wanted to include a bit about my own feelings and thoughts from visiting the site. Some report visiting this particular mound as a spiritual experience–in fact, I accidentally interrupted a very nice woman who was meditating on the site, who said it gave off good “energy.” I had no such feelings myself, but I did find myself in awe when I was standing up on the observation tower, visualizing the Adena using little more rudimentary tools to transport the dirt and build the mound. Keep in mind, they didn’t have the wheel nor beasts of burden. Everything they built was with sheer manpower. This must have been an extremely important site to warrant such an output of blood and sweat. The Serpent Mound had the feel of the sacred, and it is a unique experience I am glad to have had.






Roots of a Rivalry: The Toledo War

The Mitchell Map, used to determine the Ordinance of 1787.

The Mitchell Map, used to determine the Ordinance of 1787.

While the word “united” is right in the name, the relationships between the states making up the United States have not always been happy ones. While the most serious rift between states in US history was the Civil War, several minor skirmishes have occurred that were not near as grand in scale but nevertheless influenced how individual states developed. One such skirmish occurred between Ohio and Michigan (then a territory) in 1835, and it laid the foundation for a legendary college sports rivalry that thrives still today.


A question of boundaries

The conflict that sparked what would become known as the Toledo War began before either Michigan or Ohio were born. Both states would eventually be formed from the Northwest Territory, which was established by the Ordinance of 1787.  The vast tract of land was to be divided into no fewer than three and no more than five states. If the land was split into five states, a dividing line would run east to west from the southern tip of Lake Michigan. However, maps of the day placed Lake Michigan much further north than it actually was.

This simple mapping error became a bone of contention between Ohio, which became a state in 1803, and the Michigan territory. It put a large strip of land on the border between the two states in a sort of limbo, with both sides claiming it as their own.

Congress passed a resolution in 1812 to have the land surveyed and end the dispute. The British, however, had other plans. The War of 1812 put the survey on the backburner until 1817. Edward Tiffin, who was a former governor of Ohio, was surveyor general of the United States at the time. He ordered William Harris to survey the border line according to Ohio’s constitution. Naturally, the Harris line put the disputed land in Ohio’s territory. The governor of Michigan Territory ordered his own surveyor, John Fulton, to make a line according to the Ordinance of 1787.

The resulting discrepancy put a strip of land that was eight miles wide to the east, five miles wide in the west, containing 468 square miles of land. This was known as the Toledo Strip, and it contained valuable farmland and waterways, not to mention the port city of Toledo at the mouth of the Maumee River. Both sides knew how valuable the land would be to their economies, and neither side would back down.


Outbreak of “war”

Ohio Governor Robert Lucas

Ohio Governor Robert Lucas

Michigan was moving toward statehood in 1833, stoking fears in Ohio that their northern neighbor would grab the disputed land. Congress was called to weight in on the matter in 1833, but while the Senate sided with Ohio, the House of Representatives refused to endorse this view.

Meanwhile, Governor Stevens Mason, governor of Michigan Territory, wanted to form a commission to solve the dispute, but Ohio’s governor, Robert Lucas, refused. Ohio moved along as if Michigan’s claim to the land didn’t exist. In 1835, Ohio’s legislature passed a bill establishing Lucas Country out of the Toledo Strip. Ohio’s Common Pleas Court held session in the area.

Incensed by this arrogant behavior, Governor Mason called Michigan Territory’s militia, ready to take the land by force if need be. Ohio responded in kind. Apparently not expecting such a response, and afraid the situation would lead to bloodshed, Governor Mason asked President Andrew Jackson to intervene. Jackson sent two representatives to form a commission to settle the issue. Both sides still had their fingers on the trigger. Governor Mason ordered Ohio’s commissioners arrested.

At a loss, the federal representatives proposed that both states administer the area jointly until Congress could solve the issue. Ohio agreed, but readied its militia to take the land if Michigan didn’t. The two militias faced each other on opposite banks of the Maumee river. All out war, it seemed, was imminent.


A peaceful resolution

Andrew Jackson, who settled the dispute between Michigan and Ohio.

Andrew Jackson, who settled the dispute between Michigan and Ohio.

A frustration President Jackson took action before the two sides could fire a shot. He sacked Governor Mason and replaced him with John Horner, who was willing to work with Governor Lucas to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The agreement they eventually reached wasn’t very popular in Michigan, so much so that angry citizens began to burn Horner in effigy. Ohio would get the disputed land, while Michigan would get statehood and 9,000 square miles of the Upper Peninsula. The citizens of Michigan were angered because the Upper Peninsula was seen as useless land, full of forests and Indians and not much else. Later, deposits of valuable minerals would be found in the area, turning it into a cash cow for the state.

Despite the upset citizenry in Michigan, Jackson ratified the governors’ agreement on June 15, 1836. The war between Michigan and Ohio was largely a bloodless affair. Only one man was wounded. he was a Michigan sheriff, who was stabbed during a barroom brawl by a man with the unfortunate name Two Stickney, an Ohioan.

This border dispute birthed a rivalry that remains between Michigan and Ohio. These days there is a lot less risk of bloodshed. Over the years the bad blood as moved from the battlefield to the football field. The rivalry between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines is legendary in college football, a legacy of an odd incident between two states.


“The Toledo War.” MSU.edu. Michigan State University. August 1, 2014. http://web2.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/toledo_war.html

“Toledo War.” OhioHistoryCentral.org. Ohio History Central. August 1, 2014. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Toledo_War?rec=562