I was born and raised in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio and spent a bunch of my time staying with my grandparents and other family in rural southeast Ohio. Unlucky you might say and I might agree with you. Still, there is a whole lot to be said about the place and very little of it jives with the stereotype of this most rust belt of states. It feels like home as much as any place can feel that way for me.
A friend and I took advantage of a break from school to hit the road and explore the hills and hollows of southeastern Ohio with the country college town of Athens as our jumping off point. Our main objective was to visit the mounds and earthworks left by the cultures of Ohio’s native past. My grandparents took me to Serpent Mound, down the road from their farm, among others as a kid and yet it was only a few years ago that I actually knew anything about these structures or the people who built them. Now I never miss a chance to visit the sites and monuments of the Ohio River valley. In my mind they rival any in the world in inspiration. My traveling partner shared a keen interest and we indulged ourselves by exploring dozens of sites of every description.
Along the way we also saw Civil War and other historic sites and explored the world of Ohio’s coal miners. My grandfather’s family mined in the old country and then in Ohio where they immigrated to. Seven generations of my family were coal miners. For my grandfather’s family, whose father was an organizer for District 6 of the United Mine Workers, the coming of the union was a defining moment. It meant freedom from hunger and it meant self-worth and respect. Ohio saw some of the most fierce class battles of the last 150 years and miners were at the center of it. All over southeast Ohio is subtle, “unofficial” evidence of that battle. We saw plenty of it.
And now my curiosities indulged I have nothing but more curiosities to show for it. Here is a little Geographica Ohia with photos of a trip through the riverines and hollows of that too much maligned place.
We’ll start here at one of my favorite spots. The mound above, called Seip, was the central feature of a large Hopewell work on the Paint Creek off route 41. Very little of the nearly two miles of embankments remain. Seip is special. From the vantage point of its summit the valley spreads around you with terraces on either side. At 30 feet high it belongs to the second tier of mounds in the Ohio in terms of height. It was extensively excavated and some pretty remarkable pieces of material culture unearthed. The Paint Creek valley has over 950 archaeological sites. The confluence of the Paint and Scioto rivers mark the epicenter of Ohio Hopewell culture.
We also saw the remains of the Baum works on the other side of the Paint as well as a few mounds, including one that sits on the local high school campus. A few miles west of Seip is Spruce Hill, a hilltop enclosure with a beautiful mesa-flat summit of 40 acres. The Arc of Appalachia and the Ross County Park just purchased the site with the promise to protect, investigate and preserve it.
The remarkable 1840’s atlas produced by Ephraim Davis and Edwin Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, was the first publication of the newly formed Smithsonian Institute, and remains an indispensable tool for the study of the earthworks especially since the findings of their surveys are often all that remains of most Ohio earthworks. It was are constant companion on the trip and led us to Spruce.
Our hike to this hidden gem was a highlight. From its top the whole valley is in view and the mounds of fire scarred rock on the western ridge is testimony to years of huge fires, possibly as a signaling point. At the top you get a real sense of the nature of these sites. The whole world around it is in view and yet the hilltop itself is its own contained space clearly differentiated from the outside world. There is recent speculation that some of these hilltop enclosures were complicated water collection and storage works, at least by the time of more heavily agricultural Fort Ancient culture some 600 years after the Hopewell.
Serpent Mound above Brush Creek off Route 73 in northeastern Adams County is the most recognized of all Ohio ancient monuments. How ancient it is is up to debate with most recent scholarship pointing to a much later Fort Ancient period than previously thought Hopewell or earlier cultures. The bends in the serpent’s body align with an 18 1/2 year moon cycle while the mouth devouring an ellipse (an egg? the sun?) opens to the setting sun of the summer solstice.
Not far from my grandparent’s farm this was a place I visited as a child any number of times. I don’t think a new dollar of investment or up-keep has been added since then. What is so telling about all of these sites is their near invisibility. Good luck finding well marked signs or displays of explanation. These are unique, precious places. For a settler society like the United States making the previous inhabitants vital, visible actors on history’s stage raises any number of uncomfortable questions. Better to ignore them than to ask the hard questions.
One of the best rides in Ohio lies just to the east of Serpent Mound. Strait Creek Road runs through Amish settlements on a narrow trackway. Find it if you can.
The first settlement by the newly formed United States across the frontier of the Northwest Territories was at Marietta in 1788. Never mind, of course, that the settlements were about as legal as the Zionists in Hebron and the veterans of the Revolutionary War that settled the place had little qualms about doing far worse to the native populations than was ever dreamed of by King George . No wonder that many groups, including the Shawnee, allied themselves to the Brits. For two generations Ohio would be the epicenter of native resistance.
The Shawnee, with great leaders like Blue Jacket and Tecumseh, would resist until the near annihilation of Ohio river valley tribes. Ohio has two long running and historically problematic outdoor dramas that tell their stories complete with flaming arrows and galloping horses which were great fun to see as a kid. The first of my ancestors to come to Ohio arrived before the Shawnee’s final rising around the War of 1812 and joined the Ohio militia to put it down. Above Marietta on the Muskinghum is the Big Bottom State Memorial where Delaware and Wyandot fighters descended on the invading settlers one night in 1791 killing many of them. I have yet to see an Ohio marker noting the massacre of natives by Europeans. There might be a few, but to place them everywhere those events occurred would clog the roadways and leave very little space for billboards.
I am a big fan of the historic marker and will stop for most even though many make me scratch my head at the language used and sites noted. A lot of so-and-so slept here or exploited here. Mainly the rich and the powerful, rarely my people. Ohio has a ton of them and no place is more historic than Marietta where the Muskinghum joins the Ohio River across form West Virginia.
A really lovely old river town with a couple of good museums, an amazing little cemetery and a unique group of earthworks. The conical mound above still has it circular embankment and interior ditch (some mounds have exterior ditches) that are the hallmark of Adena, the culture that preceded the Hopewell, building. This mound has survived as many of the mounds that have survived by a cemetery being built around it. The Adena mounds particularly were burial vessels so in a way there is some poetry in the modus operandi of the their continued use. The cemetery itself boasts more Revolutionary War officers than any other in the States and would be worth the visit even if not for the mound.
This conical mound was connected by a embanked way to a 27 acre square Hopewell work now destroyed. To the west of that square another one nearly twice the size has some cool features including a graded 1/2 mile embanked way from the river to an entrance of the square. Internally the structure contains two truncated pyramid mounds with graded ways to their tops. These are rare in Hopewell sites and are much more indicative of later Mississippian sites of the complex chiefdoms far to the west and south. On one of these platform mounds now stands a public library. The other was once a military camp and is now a beautiful town square.
We crossed the river here and went into West Virginia where, after passing quickly through the box-store hell of Parkersburg, followed the Enoch Fork of the Kawanha River from Palestine, the home of Iraq invasion cause celebre Jessica Lynch, to Garfield and past. A beautiful drive in an idyllic valley. Back across the Ohio, and the Mason-Dixon Line, we came across Buffington Island (below).
The event this site marks, The Battle of Buffington Island, was the largest battle of the Civil War fought on Ohio soil with the added trivial exclamation point that three future US Presidents were engaged here: James Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. After the stunning Confederate success at Chancellorsville in the Spring of 1863 the South went on the offensive. Lee’s Army of the Virginia invaded Pennsylvania culminating in his defeat at Gettysburg. A raiding column under John Hunt Morgan crossed into Ohio with 3500 men to disrupt the Northern rear and strike a political blow against the authority of the Federal government on its own turf.
After skirmishing throughout the southern part of the state Morgan’s raiders were caught by Union forces, 15,000 of which were mobilized to get Morgan, near Portland, Ohio. The battle was fought for miles along the river and Morgan’s column, already damaged in from the preceding weeks, was blocked from escape by Union gunboats on the Ohio. Half of Morgan’s men were captured and 52 killed as were 25 Union soldiers, including 65 year old Captain Dan McCook in a cavalry charge on the Southern flank. McCook was the patriarch of “The Fighting McCooks”; 13 of his sons fought in the war, 4 of them dying.
Morgan himself and a few hundred of his troopers escaped only to finally be captured near Columbus a week or so later. He would soon escape that captivity and rejoin the Southern armies in Tennessee where he would die the following year in a fight with Union pursuers near Greeneville. Morgan and other Confederate raiders would become the stuff of lore in rural southeast Ohio. Many of the caves and hollows around my great grandmother’s home were said to be hideouts of the bushwhackers. Every valley in the area probably has a “Morgan’s Cave”.
Ohio’s contribution to the Civil War goes well beyond this small battle. 320,000 served in the Union army, the third highest in the Union and with 60 percent of all men between the ages of 18 and 45 enlisted it had the highest participation of any Union state. 5,092 free blacks from Ohio enlisted. 35,475 of these men died, as with all Civil War deaths, most were from disease. My great-great grandfather of Wooster, Ohio volunteered for the 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and fought with Sherman at Chickasaw Bluffs and with Grant for the whole of the Vicksburg campaign. His uncle also joined the regiment and died of disease in Louisiana. His two brothers would lie about their age to join the 6th Ohio Cavalry, real shit-kickers, where they would fight under the man below in the murderous campaigns of 1864-5 and live to see, literally, Lee surrender his army at Appomattox.
Philip Sheridan began the Civil War as a lieutenant and ended up four years later commanding an army. Such is the history of that war. The old planter class that had dominated public life was being swept away and the sons of shopkeepers could and did rise quickly. This monument in the cool old town of Somerset, which has some of the oldest still inhabited dwellings I’ve seen in Ohio, stands in the central square. The Ohio generals Grant, Sherman and Sheridan rose to command because of their development of a strategy of total war. The character of the war had changed dramatically by 1863 and these generals who developed in the Western Theater away from the intrigues of Washington that plagued the Eastern armies would, militarily, embody that change.
What Sherman did in his march through Georgia, South and North Carolina Sheridan did in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, “The Burning”, crushing Jubal Early’s feared army along the way. I remember my grandfather saying that he couldn’t go south because his license plates would give away that he was from Sherman’s birth county. This was just an excuse as my grandfather didn’t like traveling any further from home than absolutely necessary, but the truth of it is that to this day the names of these men are cursed in one part of the country while in the other schools are named for them and impressive monuments like this one for Sheridan in Somerset are erected. Sheridan was no paragon of progress and would oversee genocidal war on the Plains Indians in the years following the war. But it was he and his comrades that drove a stake violently at the heart of the South’s ancien regime and for this, at least, history can only be grateful.
Part II: Miners, class war, ghost towns and more mounds