How do we show that we care about something built in the past? Sometimes we preserve it, making sure it remains as authentic to its original form as possible. Sometimes we replicate it, so the original intent is passed on in more than one form. Most importantly, we need to study it to truly understand what it means, why it was built, and why it is important. Through the study of the structures of the past, we face these questions of humanity. Through this study, we hopefully open ourselves to shared commonalities and to a greater understanding of who we are.
I think about this process as it relates to the Florence Indian Mound in Florence, Alabama. This is a structure that stands 43 feet in height and has a flat top that measures 145 by 95 feet. The four corners are roughly aligned with the cardinal directions. The mound sits in the bottomlands of the Tennessee River, below the city of Florence. It is the oldest built structure in the city. It is also the one we know least about.
The first white settlers of Florence encountered Chickasaw and Cherokee people who hunted throughout the Shoals area. These settlers asked the Chickasaw and Cherokee what they knew about the mound. According to legend, the Native people had no knowledge of the use of the mound. Whether this is true or is a handed-down legend is difficult to decipher.
The first drawing of the mound that we know of today was made in 1838 for an issue of the Western Messenger magazine. This article described the mound as having six sides and being enclosed by an earthen wall (figure 1). The wall was said to have been between 12 and 15 feet in height, and 40 feet across the top. It connected with the river, forming an arc around the mound.
The author of this early article, who is unknown, casually speculated on how the mound was used: “It was probably a place of worship, a high altar upon which sacrifices were offered to some deity whom the people ignorantly worshiped. On its summit, perhaps, the blood of the victim flowed, and the smoke of the incense ascended. May not the circular wall have been the place where these people assembled to witness the rites and ceremonies of their religion? This monument of ancient labor and skill I have contemplated with admiration, and busy fancy has pictured to the imagination the scenes which were there displayed in bygone ages—the superstitious rites which were performed, when the darkness of idolatry covered the nations of the earth.”
During the 1800’s, the mound and the surrounding site were used as a farm by a German immigrant named John Kachelman. Kachelman built a house on top of the mound, and farmed the fields around the site and the slope of the mound as well. The site became known as the “mound garden.” At this time, the mound was thought to have been built by the “mound builders,” an ancient race of people who were removed by the historic Native American tribes, instead of the ancestors of the Native American tribes. The belief was that the Indian Mound as a burying ground for these “mound builders.” While European cemeteries were not used as gardens or farms, the same cultural restrictions apparently did not apply to the alleged mound builders.
In 1894 the ethnologist Cyrus Thomas studied many of the nation’s existing mound structures and put forth the idea that they were indeed created by the ancestors of Native Americans. This led to further investigations of mound sites and a reinterpretation of the Florence Indian Mound. In 1915, Clarence B. Moore excavated the top of the mound and was disappointed that he did not find anything. This was the era of treasure hunters, white Americans who dug up the graves of Native Americans looking for artifacts. By 1924, the Smithsonian Institution reported that the Florence Mound was the foundation of a “sun-fire temple.” They also reported that the city wanted to use the dirt the for the construction of roads.
In 1945 the mound was set aside for future use by a landowner who wished to protect it. A museum, opened in 1968, interpreted the mound as belonging to the Mississippian period. It was believed that an important chief had a house on top of the mound.
In 1996, an archaeological investigation helped to date the mound to an earlier period—Middle Woodland. Another reinterpretation of the mound posited that it was used for large gatherings and ceremonies, based on the artifacts recovered from the slope of the mound. A new museum, opened in 2017, helps to interpret the past 14,000 years of human habitation in the Tennessee River Valley.
The mound has been somewhat preserved. It is not the original shape and does not have the original wall feature. But most of the mound is still intact. We descendants of white settlers have moved forward in our thinking about this place. We now think that it’s important to preserve, protect, and interpret this site. We now care about this site as a cultural artifact—not for dirt for our roads.
Learning and caring about the people who lived here before us is a form of preservation that produces empathy. It creates a bond of undeniable humanity between generations past and present. Most importantly, it forces us to ask: who are we and what are we doing here?
The historiography of the Florence Indian Mound demonstrates how we can do this. The first white settlers who saw this structure assumed it was made by “ignorant” adherents to some forgotten religion—with no introspection about their own religious activities. Later settlers grew crops and built structures on top of and around the mound, with no apparent regard for the people who built it or were presumed to be buried there. Others wanted to haul it away for dirt. Today, we equate the activities that were performed at the top of the mound with our own activities. We draw human parallels that allow us to see culture as a product of time and place, just as we ourselves are influenced by our surroundings. Most importantly, we can see ourselves in this process of discovering our essential humanity. This shift in our thinking is the byproduct of empathy, fueled by inquiry.
Brian Murphy works as a historian for the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and the City of Florence Museums. His research interests include African American history, the history of urban renewal and public housing, and Civil War memory.