Description of Indian mound from the 1770s

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Bartram 1793 Travels title

Ever wonder what an Indian mound was like in the late eighteenth century?

In the 1793 edition (published in Dublin) of William Bartram’s Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws…, Bartram (page 348) describes what he saw:

Riding through this large town [Whatoga], the road carried me winding about through their little plantations of Corn, Beans, &c. up to the council-house, which was avery large dome or rotunda, situated on top of an ancient artificial mount….

This mound was near the Little Tennessee River near the present-day Georgia-North Carolina line, near Franklin and Otto, North Carolina, and Dillard, Georgia. Bartram was there in about 1776, some time before Travels… was published.

Later, Bartram describes the building and the activities conducted within it in more detail (pages 365–367):

Bartram Plate 3 Ixia caelestina 1793

Bartram’s Plate 3, a bulb-flower labeled Ixia caelestina.

The council or town-house is a large rotunda, capable of accommodating several hundred people: it stands on the top of an ancient artificial mount of earth, of about twenty feet perpendicular, and the rotunda on the top of it being above thirty feet more, gives the whole fabric an elevation of about sixty feet from the common surface of the ground. But it may be proper to observe, that this mount on which the rotunda stands, is of a much ancienter date than the building, and perhaps was raised for another purpose. The Cherokees themselves are as ignorant as we are, by what people or for what purpose these artificial hills were raised; they have various stories concerning them, the best of which amounts to no more than mere conjecture, and leave us entirely in the dark; but they have a tradition common with the other nations of Indians, that they found them in much the same condition as they now appear, when their forefathers arrived from the West and possessed themselves of the country, after vanquishing the nations of red men who then inhabited it, who themselves found these mounts when they took possession of the country, the former possessors delivering the same story concerning them: perhaps they were designed and appropriated by the people who constructed them, to some religious purpose, as great altars and temples similar to the high places and sacred groves anciently amongst the Canaanites and other nations of Palestine and Judea.

The rotunda is constructed after the following manner: they first fix in the ground a circular range of posts or trunks of trees, about six feet high, at equal distances, which are notched at top, to receive into them, from one to another, a range of beams or wall plates; within this is another circular order of very large and strong pillars, above twelve feet high, notched in like manner at top, to receive another range of wall plates, and within this is yet another or third range of stronger and higher pillars, but fewer in number, and standing at a greater distance from each other; and lastly, in the centre stands a very strong pillar, which forms the pinnacle of the building, and to which the rafters centre at top; these rafters are strengthened and bound together by cross beams and laths, which sustain the roof or covering, which is a layer of bark neatly placed, and tight enough to exclude the rain, and sometimes they cast a thin superficies of earth over all. There is but one large door, which serves at the same time to admit light from without and the smoak [smoke] to escape when a fire is kindled; but as there is but a small fire kept, sufficient to give light at night, and that fed with dry small sound wood divested of its bark, there is but little smoak. All around the inside of the building, betwixt the second range of pillars and the wall, is a range of cabins or sophas [sofas], consisting of two or three steps, one above or behind the other, in theatrical order, where the assembly sit or lean down; these sophas are covered with mats or carpets, very curiously made of thin splints of Ash or Oak, woven or platted together; near the great pillar in the centre the fire is kindled for light, near which the musicians seat themselves, and round about this the performers exhibit their dances and other shows at public festivals, which happen almost every night throughout the year.

Does this description of the building give you a good idea of what it would look like archaeologically—after all the posts have rotted away?

Find a copy of Bartram’s Travels… and you can read more about the activities, dancing, and so on that Bartram saw in and around what he calls the rotunda, in the passage that follows the above quotation.

A digital copy of the 1793 edition of Bartram’s Travels… can be accessed online here at the Internet Archive. Documenting the American South has a transcription of Travels… online here. The latter has minor differences from the Internet Archive copy.