By William Dean Howells
Copyright, 1897, by American Book Company.
I. THE ICE FOLK AND THE EARTH FOLK.
The first Ohio stories are part of the common story of the wonderful Ice Age, when a frozen deluge pushed down from the north, and covered a vast part of the earth's surface with slowly moving glaciers. The traces that this age left in Ohio are much the same as it left elsewhere, and the signs that there were people here ten thousand years ago, when the glaciers began to melt and the land became fit to live in again, are such as have been found in the glacier drift in many other countries. Even before the ice came creeping southwestwardly from the region of Niagara, and passed over two thirds of our state, from Lake Erie to the Ohio River there were people here of a race older than the hills, as the hills now are; for the glaciers ground away the hills as they once were, and made new ones, with new valleys between them, and new channels for the streams to run where there had never been water courses before. These earliest Ohioans must have been the same as the Ohioans of the Ice Age, and when they had fled southward before the glaciers, they must have followed the retreat of the melting ice back into Ohio again. No one knows how long they dwelt here along its edges in a climate like that of Greenland, where the glaciers are now to be seen as they once were in the region of Cincinnati. But it is believed that these Ice Folk, as we may call them, were of the race which still roams the Arctic snows. They seem to have lived as the Eskimos of our day live: they were hunters and fishers, and in the gravelly banks of the new rivers, which the glaciers upheaved, the Ice Folk dropped the axes of chipped stone which are now found there. They left nothing else behind them; but similar tools or weapons are found in the glacier-built river banks of Europe, and so it is thought that the race of the earliest Ohio men lived pretty much all over the world in the Ice Age.
[Illustration: Stone Axes 017L]
One of the learned writers[*] who is surest of them and has told us most about them, holds that they were for their time and place as worthy ancestors as any people could have; and we could well believe this because the Ohio man has, in all ages, been one of the foremost men.
* Professor G. F. Wright.
Our Ice Folk were sturdy, valiant, and cunning enough to cope with the fierce brute life and the terrible climate of their day, but all they have left to prove it is the same kind of stone axes that have been found in the drift of the glaciers, along the water courses in Northern France and Southern England.
Our Ice Folk must have dressed like their far-descended children, the Eskimos, in furs and skins, and like them they must have lived upon fish and the flesh of wild beasts. The least terrible of these beasts would have been the white bear; the mammoth and mastodon were among the animals the Ice Folk hunted for game, and slew without bows or arrows, for there was no wood to make these of. The only weapon the Ice Folk had was the stone ax which they may have struck into their huge prey when they came upon it sleeping or followed in the chase till it dropped with fatigue. Such an ax was dug up out of the glacial terrace, as the bank of this drift is called, in the valley of the Tuscarawas, in 1889, perhaps ten thousand years after it was left there. It was wrought from a piece of black flint, four inches long and two inches wide; at the larger end it was nearly as thick as it was wide, and it was chipped to a sharp edge all round. Within the present year another of the Ice Folk's axes has been found near New London, twenty-two feet under ground, in the same kind of glacial drift as the first. But it seems to have been made of a different kind of stone, and to have been so deeply rotted by the long ages it had been buried that when its outer substance was scratched away, hardly anything of the hard green rock was left.
After the glaciers were gone, the Ohio climate was still very cold, and vast lakes stretched over the state, freezing in the long winters, and thawing in the short summers. One of these spread upward from the neighborhood of Akron to the east and west of where Cleveland stands; but by far the largest flooded nearly all that part of Ohio which the glaciers failed to cover, from beyond where Pittsburg is to where Cincinnati is. At the last point a mighty ice dam formed every winter till as the climate grew warmer and the ice thawed more and more, the waters burst the dam, and poured their tide down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, while those of the northern lake rushed through the Cuyahoga to Lake Erie, and both lakes disappeared forever. For the next four or five thousand years the early Ohio men kept very quiet; but we need not suppose for that reason that there were none. Our Ice Folk, who dropped their stone axes in the river banks, may have passed away with the Ice Age, or they may have remained in Ohio, and begun slowly to take on some faint likeness of civilization. There is nothing to prove that they went, and there is nothing to prove that they staid; but Ohio must always have been a pleasant place to live in after the great thaw, and it seems reasonable to think that the Ice Folk lingered, in part at least, and changed with the changing climate, and became at last the people who left the signs of their presence in almost every part of the state.
Those were the Mound Builders, whose works are said to be two or three thousand years old, though we cannot be very sure of that. There are some who think that the mounds are only a few hundred years old, and that their builders were the race of red men whom the white men found here. One may think very much as one likes, and I like to think that the Mound Builders were a very ancient people, who vanished many ages before the Indians came here. They could not have been savages, for the region where they dwelt could not have fed savages enough to heap up the multitude of their mounds. Each wild man needs fifty thousand acres to live upon, as the wild man lives by hunting and fishing; in the whole Ohio country, the earliest white adventurers found only two or three thousand Indians at the most; and the people who built those forts and temples and tombs, and shaped from the earth the mighty images of their strange bird-gods and reptile-gods, could have lived only by tilling the soil. Their mounds are found everywhere in the west between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi River, but they are found mostly in Ohio, where their farms and gardens once bordered the Muskingum, the Scioto, the two Miamis, and our other large streams, which they probably used as highways to the rivers of the southwest.
Their forts were earthworks, but they were skillfully planned, with a knowledge which no savage race has shown. They were real strongholds, and they are so large that some of them inclose hundreds of acres within walls of earth which still rise ten and twelve feet from the ground. They are on a far grander scale than the supposed temples or religious works; and there are more of them than of all the other ruins, except the small detached mounds, which are almost numberless.
These, from the charred bones found among the ashes in them, are known to be tombs, and they were probably the sepulchers of the common people, whose bodies were burned. The large mounds are heaped above walled chambers, and in these were platforms, supposed to have been altars, and whole skeletons, supposed to be the skeletons of priests buried there. The priests are supposed to have been the chiefs of the people, and to have ruled them through their superstitions; but there is nothing to prove this, for their laws were never put in written words or any other sign of speech. In some of the mounds little figures of burnt clay have been found, which may be idols, and pieces of ancient pottery, which may be fragments of sacred vessels, and small plates of copper, with marks or scratches on them, which may be letters. Some antiquarians have tried to read these letters, if they are letters, and to make sense out of them, but no seeker after true Ohio stories can trust their interpretations.
The Mound Builders used very little stone and showed no knowledge of masonry. But they built so massively out of the earth, that their works have lasted to this day in many places, just as they left them, except for the heavy growth of trees, which the first settlers found covering them, and which were sometimes seven or eight hundred years old. At Marietta, these works when the white people came were quite perfect and inclosed fifty acres on the bank of the Muskingum, overlooking the Ohio. They were in great variety of design. The largest mound was included in the grounds of the present cemetery, and so has been saved, but the plow of the New England emigrant soon passed over the foundations of the Mound Builders' temples. At Circleville the shape of their fortifications gave its name to the town, which has long since hid them from sight. One of them was almost perfectly round, and the other nearly square. The round fort was about seventy feet in diameter, and was formed of two walls twenty feet high, with a deep ditch between; the other fort was fifty-five rods square, and it had no ditch; seven gateways opened into it at the side and corners, and it was joined to the round fort by an eighth. It is forever to be regretted that these precious ancient works should have been destroyed to make place for the present town; but within a few years one of the most marvelous of the Mound Builders' works, the great Serpent Mound near Loudon, in Adams County, has been preserved to after time by the friends of science, and put in the keeping of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
[Illustration: Serpent Mound 019L]
The state of Ohio has passed a law protecting the land around it as a park, and there is now reason to hope that the mound will last as long as the rocky bluff on which the serpent lies coiled. This huge idol is more than twelve hundred feet long, and is the most wonderful symbol in the world of the serpent worship, which was everywhere the earliest religion of our race.
The largest military ruin is the famous Fort Ancient in Warren County, where, on a terrace above the Little Miami River, five miles of wall, which can still be easily traced, shut in a hundred acres. In Highland County, about seventeen miles southeast of Hillsborough, another great fortress embraces thirty-five acres oh the crest of a hill overlooking Brush Creek. Itswalls are some twenty-five feet wide at the base, and rise from six to ten feet above the ground. Within their circuit are two ponds which could supply water in time of siege, and in the valley, which the hill commands, are the ruins of the Mound Builders' village, whose people could take refuge in the fort on the hilltop and hold it against any approaching force.
For the rest, the works of the Mound Builders, except such as were too large to be destroyed by the farmer, have disappeared almost as wholly as the Mound Builders themselves. Their mole-like race threw up their ridges and banks and larger and lesser heaps, and then ceased from the face of the earth, as utterly as if they had burrowed into its heart. They may have fled before the ancestors of the savages whom our ancestors found here; they may have passed down peacefully into Mexico and built the cities which the Spaniards destroyed there. Or, they may have come up out of Mexico, and lost the higher arts of their civilization in our northern woods, warring with the wild tribes who were here before them. In either case, it is imaginable that the Mound Builders were of the same race as the ancient Mexicans and Peruvians, and it is probable that they were akin to the Zufiis of our own day. The snake dances of the Zufiis are a relic of the old serpent worship; and the fear and hate which the Zufiis bear the red savages of the plains may be another heritage from the kindred race which once peopled our Ohio valleys.
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Source: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Stories Of Ohio, by William Dean Howells