The Mound Builders of St. Joseph County

The Mound Builders


Sturgis Journal, October 3, 1959: “Lost somewhere in the misty, eternal silence of past centuries is an answer to the question: Who were the first inhabitants of the St. Joseph Valley? Where they came from, and when, is unknown. Where they departed to, and why, is a mystery. But a pre-historic race of people did populate this area – including St. Joseph County – and the Ohio Valley, and because of the one thing they did leave behind, they have earned the name of “Mound Builders.”

The era of these unknowns is thought to have been some centuries before the Indians. A Presbyterian minister writing Branch County’s history in 1903, Coldwater’s Rev. Henry P. Collins, said Wisconsin’s Potawatomi Indians, harassed by hostile tribes, moved south from 1670 until the end of the Nineteenth century.

The Potawatomi (or Pottawatomie, or Pottawatiomie) then inhabited Lower Michigan and much of Illinois, and as far south in Indiana as the Wabash River. Everts and Abbott’s 1879 “History of Branch County” suggests that these Indians, or their ancestors, occupied the St. Joseph Valley at the same time the “Mound Builders” were constructing large fortifications in the Ohio Valley. This historical source hints that the Indians copied the more civilized Mound Builders out of respect for “their powerful neighbors” and out of fear: “This is only a crude and hastily – constructed theory, yet it seems difficult otherwise to account for the very marked difference between the immense and elaborate structures found near the Ohio River and the comparatively insignificant ones which line the shores of the Great Lakes.

That writer also says the “generally trivial character” of the slighter mounds and forts in the lake-country, compared with those further south, raises the suspicion that the two types were not built by the same race. But the theory that Indians were copying from the Mound Builders isn’t expounded in other writings. In fact, Everts and Co.’s 1877 “History of St. Joseph County” alleges that “Who they were, whence they came, and whither they went, is as much a matter of speculation today, after all the researches of Lubbock, Baldwin, Foster, Schoolcraft and scores of other investigators, as it was when it was first determined that the monuments … were not the work of present Indian races.”

Evidence of the Mound Builders’ existence is found in the Colon and Leonidas areas, and in Lockport Township. Several historical works describe the mounds as garden plats or beds, and fortifications, consisting of low ridges, averaging four feet in width. As many as 25 mounds have been counted together, in a space of 100 feet across the ground. In Branch County, mounds discovered in Girard Township were described: the largest was 15 or 20 feet high, and six rods (99 feet) in diameter; another was eight or 10 feet high, and four rods in diameter.

Attesting to their immense age, the mounds in these counties had huge oak trees, some of them two feet in diameter, growing on top of the mounds. Two things indicate the builders of the mounds in Southern Michigan were more devoted to the ways of peace, rather than of war. First, their mounds lacked the impressiveness and military character of the earthworks and forts found further south; and second, primitive household utensils, rather than weapons, were found in these mounds.

A man named E. H. Crane, an archaeologist and professor of taxidermy and embalming, lived in Colon, and examined the mounds. Everts and Co’s 1877 book says, “Mr. Crane opened two mounds on the farm of Phineas Farrand (located on the West side of Farrand Road, just north of the Lakeside Cemetery), in which he found all the characteristics of the Mound Builders, but no bones, the soil of which they were composed being porous and not capable of preserving the latter.

“He found flints – small ones – and in one, a fireplace. In a mound he opened on J. K. Farrand’s farm he found some remnants of bones, a very beautifully wrought celt (old general term for prehistoric stone or bronze axe-like tools), and some flints, and in one opened on George Teller’s farm (west of Long Lake Bridge) he found flints and celts.

“Mr. Crane has found, in the mounds he has already opened in the county, nearly every form of implement known to the Mound Builders, some of them very unique and handsomely wrought, and others in the rough …”

“Mr. Crane also found, in a mound he excavated in Burr Oak, copper utensils and the usual flints. These relics are found all over the country, and are to be seen in every cabinet the people have taken the trouble to gather. Dr. Nelson I. Packard, of Sturgis, has some very fine flints, but Mr. Crane has the finest selection …”