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In Whose Ruins

Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire



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About The Book

In this “first-rate work of historical research and storytelling” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), four sites of American history are revealed as places where truth was written over by oppressive fiction—with profound repercussions for politics past and present.

Popular narratives of American history conceal as much as they reveal, presenting a national identity based on harvesting treasures that lay in wait for European colonization. In Whose Ruins tells another story: winding through the US landscape, from Native American earthworks in West Virginia to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, this history is a tour of sites that were mined for an empire’s power. Showing the hidden costs of ruthless economic growth—particularly to Indigenous people—this book illuminates the myth-making intimately tied to place. From the ground up, the project of settlement, expansion, and extraction became entwined with the spiritual values of those who hoped to gain from it. Every nation tells some stories and suppresses others, and In Whose Ruins illustrates the way American myths have overwritten Indigenous histories, binding us into an unsustainable future.

Historian Alicia Puglionesi? “makes a perfect guide through the strange myths, characters, and environments that best reflect the insidious exploitation inseparable from American dominion” (Chicago Review of Books). She illuminates the story of the Grave Creek Stone, “discovered” in an ancient Indigenous burial mound; oil wells drilled in the corner of western Pennsylvania once known as Petrolia; ancient petroglyphs that once adorned rock faces on the Susquehanna River, dynamited into pieces to make way for a hydroelectric dam; and the effects of the US nuclear program in the Southwest, which contaminated vast regions in the name of eternal wealth and security through atomic power, a promise that rang hollow for the surrounding Native, Hispanic, and white communities. It also inspired nationwide resistance, uniting diverse groups behind a different vision of the future—one not driven by greed and haunted by ruin.

This deeply researched work traces the roots of American fantasies and fears in a national tradition of selective forgetting. Connecting the power of myths with the extraction of power from the land itself reveals the truths that have been left out and is “a stimulating look at the erasure and endurance of Native American culture” (Publishers Weekly).


1. The Myth of the Mound Builders The myth of the Mound Builders
The citizens of Elizabethtown, Virginia, began tunneling into a sixty-foot-high earthen mound in the early spring of 1838. Located near the confluence of Grave Creek and the Ohio River, the mound was built by Indigenous Adena people more than two thousand years ago. Overseeing the excavation was a young man named Abelard Tomlinson, a scion of the town’s founding family, which had owned the mound for the past half-century. His grandfather, Joseph Tomlinson II, had carefully preserved it from destruction.

During Joseph’s time, settlers flooded the fertile Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, fought ruthless wars against the Shawnee, Muskogee, Cherokee, Miami, and other nations, and demolished thousands of Indigenous earthworks as a nuisance. Curiously, these settlers claimed the land as a “terra nullius,” an empty place without history, provided for them by God. How did they make sense of this seeming contradiction? Indigenous presence, in towns, farmlands, roads, and earthworks, led European Americans to build an elaborate set of myths that secured their ownership of the continent on the heels of overwhelming military force. Though they had many competing theories about the mounds’ non-Indian origins, interpreters found that the sense of mystery itself made the past available to the colonial imagination. Beyond simple possession, there was power in telling and retelling these stories.

The Grave Creek Mound, once the centerpiece of a sprawling earthworks complex, survived long enough to attract tourists who came to marvel at its incredible size. They praised its “great and simple magnificence”—one journalist called it “literally the Pyramid of the West.” That comparison speaks volumes, as early nineteenth-century Americans often complained that they had no ancient monuments. They pined after Egypt’s pyramids, the Greek Acropolis, Europe’s castles and cathedrals. The French philosopher Diderot praised “the poetics of ruins” for inspiring grand sentiments, casting the heroic individual into relief against the “ravages of time,” but ruins also created feelings of national identity and inheritance. Settlers looked at earthworks with a certain wishfulness, wondering what they were for and who built them. Perhaps there had been civilization in North America, but where was its Rosetta Stone? Why did it not speak from beneath the dust of ages? Abelard Tomlinson and his neighbors saw their chance to capitalize on this mystery.

A stylized Grave Creek Mound depicted in 1839. At the base of the mound stands the farmer with his plow, a pastoral vision of the hardy pioneer who has cleared the land and placed it under orderly cultivation.

For Abelard’s grandfather Joseph Tomlinson II, the “mammoth mound” was not much of a mystery at all. When he traveled to Grave Creek from Maryland in 1770, he inferred that the mound complex marked the ancestral graves of Native people, possibly the Shawnee, who occupied the area. They were its rightful owners under British law until 1768, when it was signed away in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix—by another group, the Iroquois Six Nations, without Shawnee consent. This made the situation tense when white “pioneers” flooded in. Human bones crunching under the farmer’s plow would seem to mock the promise of virgin soil—there was no denying that untold generations had lived and died on the land that guidebooks for settlers promoted as an “unpeopled wilderness.” These settlers, promised one guide, “would flow in a current unrivaled… into the interior of the country,” to lead an “easy, free, and plentiful” life in their solitary log cabins.

This bucolic picture belied that settlers such as Tomlinson were the advance guard of Indian extermination. In the newly independent United States, which declared the Ohio Valley up for grabs, they carried out a style of warfare far beyond the scope of a professional army. Rather than defeat enemy soldiers in battle, the procedure was to send civilian families to live on enemy territory and have them fight off the original population in the name of self-defense. This was by no means a pursuit for solitary cabin dwellers; settlers, moving westward in extended kinship groups, formed militias and ranger patrols that hunted for Indians. They burned Native towns and farms, establishing cycles of mutual retaliation that spared neither women, children, nor the aged.

At Grave Creek, Tomlinson and his neighbors built a private fort in 1774; as violence escalated, state militias and the Continental Army arrived to protect their embattled citizens, taking up the same scorched-earth methods as the frontier rangers. Military men took a scientific interest in Native earthworks, imagining them as ancient fortifications. Major General Richard Butler “went to see ‘the Grave,’?” that is, the Grave Creek Mound, in 1785, taking thorough measurements and notes, on his way to threaten the Shawnee with annihilation unless they signed a land-cession treaty.

Unified Shawnee, Muskogee, and Cherokee resistance spanned twenty years, until the 1795 Treaty of Greenville banished them west beyond Cincinnati. The settlers’ reward for decades of bloodshed was free land, though they were often outsmarted by wealthy investors who had already surveyed and filed claims on their homesteads; the Tomlinsons lost a chunk of land to none other than avid real estate speculator George Washington. In the early United States, “land became the most important exchange commodity for the accumulation of capital and building of the national treasury,” writes historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. “The centrality of land sales in building the economic base of the US wealth and power must be seen.”

Perhaps, in moments of reflection, Tomlinson weighed his flimsy land titles against the fact of the Native monuments and saw why those he antagonized would fight to the death rather than abandon their ancestors. He wrote about Cherokee travelers who detoured off their routes to visit the Grave Creek Mound. The Shawnee, Cherokee, Haudenosaunee, and other groups had history at that bend in the Ohio and may have held a living connection to the site. There was no innocent misunderstanding, but rather a cold calculation of what could be taken with enough force. With Indian removal seemingly complete, Tomlinson became committed, perhaps superstitiously, to the preservation of what he previously fought to erase. He refused to demolish the Grave Creek Mound for development. Despite local curiosity, no one was allowed to break its surface.

The past became past very quickly in those times, as if to compensate for the perceived lack of history by stretching living memory out to the horizon. A few decades after the Treaty of Greenville, new arrivals to the Ohio Valley listened to old-timers spin romantic yarns about the “Indian wars.” The elaborate earthworks around Grave Creek were leveled and covered with wheat. A magazine illustration shows the Grave Creek Mound towering over Tomlinson’s fields, a pleasing contrast between wild ancient ruins and modern civilization. A farmer with his plow rests from his labors at the mound’s base. In addition to Native people, others have been erased from this picture: Virginia’s settlers did not arrive alone to develop the land. As one historian notes, “The high incidence of slave ownership in western Virginia is remarkable.”

What the local chronicles call “homesteads” were in many cases small plantations. The heads of middling families, including Tomlinson, held between three and ten African-descended people in bondage, while the wealthiest held upward of fifty. The events of these people’s lives, and even their names, are poorly documented. In 1804, an enslaved man named Mike is said to have crossed the Ohio River to freedom. He belonged to Joseph Tomlinson, who rallied a gang of neighbors to hunt him down, as they had once hunted Indians. Caught in an ambush, Mike stabbed and killed Tomlinson’s son, Robert, before he was captured. The next night, while the group camped by a creek, two other travelers reportedly witnessed Joseph Tomlinson execute Mike in retribution; his body, they said, was left unburied. The brutality of the Indian wars, premised on the defense of white property, was neither gone nor forgotten, though it transpired in a twilight realm apart from official memory.

By the 1820s, in Joseph Tomlinson’s last years, waves of sightseers and settlers coursed down the Ohio River, which served as a nineteenth-century superhighway to the frontier. His grim investments had paid off: Elizabethtown, which he named for his wife, on the land he staked out five decades earlier, was valuable real estate. The Grave Creek Mound “became one of the standard curiosities of the valley… pointed out to travellers by the captains and crews of vessels.” “Every tourist mentioned it,” wrote one archaeologist of the sensation it caused. Locals began to see the mound as more than an obstruction to progress.

Curiosity proved contagious—a letter to the local paper urged citizens to “Awake! Awake!” and “rally our full force” to discover what treasures lay inside. Joseph Tomlinson died in 1825, among the last residents with any memory, however distorted, of the Indigenous world they had methodically destroyed. Scientific opinion held that Indians were “warlike, indolent, and impoverished” nomads, and arrivals unfamiliar with the recent past argued that there certainly weren’t enough of them to build such a massive structure. For many, Grave Creek presented a profound mystery, a blank canvas for the “sublime imaginations” of onlookers.

This is why, in 1838, Abelard Tomlinson, with the blessing of the uncle who had inherited the site, disobeyed his grandfather’s wishes and exposed the mound’s contents to an eager public. He would sink $2,500 into the excavation, roughly a year’s middle-class wages. This sizable fund came from local doctor James W. Clemens, who in turn borrowed it from neighbors. Abelard was coy about his and Clemens’s motives, citing “curiosity or some other cause,” but to investors they promised a share of the riches within. Elizabethtown was dreaming of buried treasure, an obsession that swept the country in the early nineteenth century with reports of ancient hoards unearthed in caves, swamps, and Indian mounds. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith got his start digging for money in the hills of western New York; only when that failed did he come upon the spiritual treasure of the Book of Mormon. This was the settler’s fantasy of discovering not just land to be worked, but exponential riches placed there by Providence.

Accounts of the Grave Creek excavation do not mention whether any of the laborers were enslaved; a few could have belonged to the elder Tomlinsons, just like the mound itself. Abelard’s generation was, by and large, not wealthy enough to hold slaves, who posed a financial risk because so many emancipated themselves by navigating across the river to the free state of Ohio, and often onward to Canada. On the river’s southern bank, Abelard and his crew spent three weeks digging a horizontal shaft into the mound; a hundred feet in, they broke through to a hollow cavern. In the musty, timber-framed chamber, they found shell beads, copper jewelry, and human remains. They reported that the first skeleton was perfectly intact, “not one tooth missing,” while another nearby had crumbled, bone fragments mingling with ivory ornaments.

Local doctor Thomas Townsend, who joined the dig as an amateur naturalist, identified the skeletons as “dignified chiefs and renowned kings,” given the immense labor required for such a burial. An ancient people “raised this structure, no doubt, for posthumous fame, and for a national monument.” There was much debate among naturalists and antiquarians about the racial history of North America—whether “our modern Indians” had been its only inhabitants. Many argued that, because Indians lived in small wandering bands, the Grave Creek Mound was far beyond their capacity to build. Townsend seems to have followed the commonsense thinking of earlier generations in arguing that Native people did build the mounds. Before European invasion, “the population of many of the Indian nations… was adequate to the performance of this apparently great work,” he asserted, noting that the Osage had constructed a burial mound along the Wabash River within the past fifty years. Townsend sent his report of the excavation to newspapers and magazines, but his would not be the authoritative opinion. His former medical partner, Dr. Clemens, the financial backer of the dig, was an equally learned physician with a reputation as a polymath. One of his scholarly interests was North America’s pre-Indian lost race.

Clemens, Tomlinson, and the treasure hunters of Elizabethtown faced a major disappointment: no jewels or gold were in the mound to compensate their effort. Any settler could turn over a field and find Indigenous beads and stone points, perhaps unwelcome evidence of the recently usurped population. The only way to “make the mound ‘pay,’?” as a cynical archaeologist put it, was to capitalize on its tourism value. Accordingly, Tomlinson turned it into a full-on tourist trap. For ten cents, visitors could walk through a paved tunnel to the mound’s center, gaze at the skeletons by candlelight in their vaulted chamber, and ascend a spiral staircase to a three-story pavilion on the precipice with refreshments and souvenirs. It was important not to identify the human remains as Indian; instead, they were the “ancient kings of Grave Creek,” entombed in mysterious and mighty splendor. National newspapers trumpeted the discovery. The Cincinnati Gazette, turning up its nose at this chintz, bewailed the fate of the “wild wood monument… trimmed, tunneled, and cut up into apartments for trinket exhibitions.”

An illustration from 1850 shows Tomlinson’s pavilion atop the Grave Creek Mound, surrounded by symbols of advancing civilization: the shepherd with his flock, the broad public road, and the snug private home. The museum inside the mound was shuttered in 1846, and the pavilion became a tavern and dance hall.

Clemens, who was personally on the hook for $2,500, likely had a strong hand in this scheme; his son believed that it was Clemens who prevailed on Tomlinson to open the mound to begin with. Aside from the financial stake, there was the scholarly and political one. The 1830s was the decade of Andrew Jackson’s brutal campaign of Indian removal. Jackson won the 1828 presidential election on a wave of populist fervor that he gratified by seizing the last remaining Native lands east of the Mississippi for white settlers. The federal government broke its treaties with the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Muskogee, sending them on deadly forced marches across hundreds of miles to “Indian Territory” in present-day Oklahoma.

Indian removal was not just a military operation. As official policy and as a general patriotic zeitgeist, it shaped how scholars and ordinary citizens thought and wrote about Native people. Just as early investigators were beginning to glimpse the complexity of Native languages and cultures, Jackson’s administration incentivized them to cover it up. With the power of research funds and the government printing office, officials boosted scholarship claiming that Indians were naturally doomed to extinction by the superior white race—the army was merely speeding up the inevitable. They also nurtured the widespread belief that North American earthworks were built by an ancient lost civilization. The more science could deduce about this vanished empire, the weaker the argument for Native land rights in the present day.

The theory of a lost race, generally referred to as the Mound Builders, had circulated since the early nineteenth century, even though many authorities, not the least of them Thomas Jefferson, clearly identified the Indigenous origin of earthworks based on archaeological evidence. However, this recognition was double-edged: those in the Indian-builders camp also dismissed mounds as primitive and uncivilized, inherently lacking value because of their makers’ race. It’s sometimes hard to believe that the two camps are describing the same physical objects, so different are the values and imagined pasts projected onto them. Euro-American opinions would fall into this binary for the next hundred years: mounds were either unremarkable piles of dirt made by Indians, or incredible monuments built by a lost race.

Today’s archaeologists see the Mound Builders’ immense popularity as a case study in how genocide and dispossession overwrite Indigenous history. Lost-race narratives furnished a usable past for proponents of Manifest Destiny, since if Indians overthrew the ancient Phoenician or Celtic kingdoms of the Ohio Valley, it was only fair play that Europeans, heirs to the mantle of civilization, would overthrow the Indians in turn. These narratives proved so compelling for white Americans that critical archaeologists faced a long battle to debunk them and establish a pre-Columbian history based on their scientific standards. That battle is by no means over today—historian Jason Colavito documents the many recent appearances of lost-race myths in mainstream outlets such as the History Channel, with the shows America Unearthed and Search for Lost Giants, and in white supremacist groups whose members perversely insist that they are “the real Native Americans.”

While archaeologists fought for the scientific authority to reconstruct the past on their terms, Native nations have always preserved the histories of their homelands in spoken and written tradition. Earthworks, including conical mounds such as Grave Creek, animal effigies, and vast geometric forms precisely aligned with the celestial map, are vital to many Native communities today—they are places of origin and of communication between upper and lower worlds. Indigenous studies scholar Chadwick Allen calls them “living earthworks vocabularies,” a way of writing “through the medium of the land itself.” While the word sacred is often used to describe these varied sites, they could have many purposes, from politics to commerce, astronomy to sports. Through external form and layered internal structure, they embody Native science, history, and artistic and spiritual relations with place.

Current archaeologists increasingly cooperate with Native communities to prioritize their knowledge, indeed, many Native people have become archaeologists, reclaiming the power to interpret their own sites. Native community leaders and academics have led the fight for access to earthworks within parks and on private land. In Newark, Ohio, the Moundbuilders Country Club—its name evoking the priority claim of the lost white race—built a golf course atop the Octagon Earthworks in 1910, and, as of 2021, only grants full access to nonmembers on four days each year. Dr. Christine Ballengee-Morris, an arts education professor and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, describes golfers yelling and throwing golf balls at her group. A coalition of local activists and archaeologists, including Ballengee-Morris, pressed the state historical society to end the country club’s lease, a process which is still playing out in court.

Before archaeology took this turn toward engaging, however unevenly, with Indigenous knowledge, its colonial function meant that experts saw Native North America through the lens of white supremacist racial hierarchies. Until the twentieth century, many professionals were just as invested in Mound Builder myths as amateurs were—indeed, there were fewer distinctions between professional and amateur. For instance, the self-taught surveyor Ephraim George Squier completed a renowned work of systematic archaeology in his 1845-47 survey, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, published by the Smithsonian Institution. While Squier rejected the idea of lost Phoenician or Assyrian tribes, he too felt the need to genetically distinguish the creators of ancient earthworks from modern Indians. He proposed that a separate race, “Toltecans” from Central America, came to the Mississippi Valley to build mounds. This “extinct race, whose name is lost to tradition itself,” was perhaps overthrown by the later savage Indian population. While Squier and his partner, Edwin Davis, were seen as setting a new bar for professional excavations, they also produced science that seemed to affirm the policy of Indian removal.

There was another reason that experts such as Squier could not, or would not, imagine a past where ancestors of North America’s present-day Indigenous people built the mounds. The professional study of human societies past and present—as it took form in archaeology, history, linguistics, ethnology, and physical anthropology—was founded on an explicit racial hierarchy widely embraced by nineteenth-century scientists. Often simply termed race science, this guiding principle ranked humanity from primitive to civilized based on traits such as phrenological skull shape, skin color, and historical-geographic origins, bundled together as an immutable natural category that revealed the proper place of enslaved Africans, dispossessed Indians, and European conquerors. Crucially, as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out, the Indigenous peoples of North America did not share this concept of race at the onset of colonization. For millennia they had lived as many distinct nations, with a wide range of languages, religions, politics, and cultures. The idea of a unitary “Indian” essence was imposed from outside, and the diverse peoples suddenly lumped together as the “red race” could not immediately organize their resistance along this axis.

Race science was a practical tool for governing subjugated populations. It held that physical traits correlated precisely with mental traits, and thus a person’s intelligence, virtue, and capability could easily be read at a glance, on a face or in a cranium. Dr. James Clemens sent one of the skulls stolen from the Grave Creek mound to Philadelphia phrenologist Samuel G. Morton for analysis. Morton, a founder of academic race science, collected thousands of skulls pillaged from grave sites, cemeteries, and executions around the world, using their shapes to classify the mental traits of the races to which they belonged. Even before Darwin’s theory of evolution made its debut, scientists inspired by animal breeding spoke of human races as “stocks,” each with fixed hereditary qualities. Both academics and the public embraced the promise of race science to validate the social order. Museums rushed to build their own archives of racial difference, driving a market in stolen human remains and grave goods.

Only a few dissenters agreed with Frederick Douglass that “pride and selfishness… never want for a theory to justify them.” “When men oppress their fellow-men,” Douglass observed of race science’s white promoters, “the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.” Just as archaeologists denied that Indians could build the mounds, they also denied that Black Africans built the pyramids of Egypt, a position that Douglass roundly demolished in this 1854 speech.

Another central concept for mound investigators was the law of diffusion, which, in its extreme form, held that a single advanced civilization was the source of all human inventions, transmitted to lesser (that is, nonwhite) cultures by trade, travel, or conquest. Antiquarians who saw a resemblance between the Egyptian pyramids and the mounds of North America did not hesitate to propose that light-skinned Egyptians, the inventors of civilization, had crossed the Atlantic and built an empire in Ohio. Squier protested against the errors of diffusionism, pointing instead to the “inevitable results of similar conditions” that lead disparate peoples to develop in similar ways. Still, as the study of humanity became professionalized in universities and government institutions—the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology was established in 1879 to map the “human terrain” of westward expansion—experts continued to fit their observations within the framework of racial hierarchy, even as they dismissed the fantastical voyages of Egyptians or Israelites.

Squier’s Smithsonian surveys showed that mound architecture was complex, labor-intensive, and carefully planned, disproving the view that mounds were primitive, maybe even geological accidents. To be plausible, an argument for the mounds as civilization had to include some hint of their racially superior origin. When Squier reached for the Toltecans of Central America, readers would quickly have recognized the “demi-civilized race” that had, since the early 1800s, become a popular Mound Builder candidate. Renowned naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton first nominated them in a 1787 book where he proposed that Danish Vikings had come to North America, built the mounds, then gone south to become the Toltec civilization of Mexico. Picking up the Toltec thread thus evoked, for many readers, the possibility that Europeans were the true first Americans. Squier was aware of this association and, without endorsing it, threw a bone of credibility to its supporters.

What Squier directly referred to was the recent work of Samuel G. Morton, the avid skull collector known as the father of race science, who carefully distinguished two tiers of the “aboriginal race of America”: the “Toltecan stock” with its “civilization and refinement,” and their “covetous destroyers… a vast multitude of savage tribes” who begot modern Indians. Morton abandoned the European-origin hypothesis and rested content with the distinction between a higher and a lower aboriginal race. This preserved the idea of an inherently superior “lost race” driven from the land by Indians “whose very barbarism is working their destruction from within and without.” North America before the European invasions was certainly a place of migrations, conflicts, and transcontinental exchanges, recorded in the histories of many Native nations, but that is not the story archaeologists wanted to tell. The framework of scientific racism structured the imaginations of everyone from armchair speculators to experts such as Squier, requiring them to invent a cataclysmic break rather than a continuous history of Indigenous habitation.

Archaeological thought had its mirror in popular literature, producing a genre we might call the mound romance. An account by journalist Timothy Flint, who toured the frontier in 1827, showcases some of the genre’s tropes. Flint began by describing his overwhelming sense of emptiness amid a landscape unbroken by traces of humankind: “No monuments, no ruins, none of the colossal remains of castles… nothing to connect the imagination and the heart with the past.” Flint then turned to the Indigenous earthworks all around him and declared that they would fill the void, providing the longed-for historical connection. However, that connection took the form of a mystery. “When on an uninhabited prairie we have passed at nightfall a group of Indian mounds… [we] asked the phantoms, who and what they were, and why they have left no memorials, but these mounds?” Though he used the standard term Indian mound, he did not consider it a potential clue to the mystery.

Instead, Flint received an answer in the form of a “mental echo,” which told him that a vanished race, not actually Indian, raised the “inexplicable monuments.” Many travelers describe their intuitions about the mounds as the hearing of echoes: “We would interrogate them as to the authors of these mighty works,” wrote William Keating in 1823, “but no voice replies to ours, save that of an echo.” The travelers don’t seem to consider that mistaking an echo of your own ideas for evidence is an odd historical method. It neatly encapsulates how Euro-American visitors sounded the contours of the past, and why they found much there that seemed oddly familiar. Their imaginations were structured by European notions of race and civilization that made the lost-race myth deeply appealing.

It became a commonplace for travel writers and poets to muse upon the silent history contained in the mounds. William Cullen Bryant, in his 1833 poem “The Prairies,” eulogized “a race that has long passed away… a disciplined and populous race”—of course, the Mound Builders. He imagined them yoking bison to plows to cultivate their “ample fields.” Agriculture was another mark of racial superiority, and scholars denied the history of extensive Native American farming prior to colonization. Rather, according to Bryant, it was peaceful white farmers who were overthrown by the “red man… warlike and fierce,” in epic battles upon the mounds. Bryant, a celebrated poet with a huge popular following, wanted his readers to imagine prehistoric North America as a stage where the drama of their own time had already played out once before. Indian conquest of the Mound Builders would be repaid by European conquest of Indians, and the transformation of the wild landscape (back) into an orderly garden.

The antiquarian William Pidgeon used visionary fantasy to produce his rendering of ancient “battle mounds.” The notion of earthworks as military structures was widespread in mound romances. “The visitor… can not fail to see, in his imagination, the scenes which have taken place,” Pidgeon affirmed.

Bryant gave few specifics about the lost race, but a slew of mound romances soon filled the gaps. These pulpy novels told of royal intrigues, heroic battles, and doomed love between princesses of the lost race and Indian invaders, bringing the distant past to life for eager readers. While highly entertaining, they also hammered home that Indian aggression against the peaceable Mound Builders justified contemporary Manifest Destiny. The books blurred the distinction between fiction and history; some included footnotes to real archaeological literature, some cited made-up Native informants such as De-Coo-Dah, last of the Elk Nation, while others rested their claims on even murkier authority. Cyrus Newcomb, who produced The Book of Algoonah in 1884, believed that ancient Assyrians built the mounds. He wanted to “assure the scientific world that [Algoonah] is formed from authentic materials,” but wouldn’t quite specify what those materials were.

Eventually, Newcomb revealed that the text had been “communicated by spirits,” with Newcomb as their medium. This helps to explain the rambling, disjointed style: mediums often wrote in a stream of consciousness, letting spirits guide their pen. Algoonah could be a satire of the lost-race myth except that its author, a Colorado “pioneer” who mined gold and silver in the San Juan Mountains, seemed to be a good-faith participant in the Spiritualist and antiquarian circles where such theories were embraced. Though it might seem odd for a grizzled silver miner to hold seances, many treasure hunters sought supernatural guidance to the underground realm, dabbling in the occult and mystical arts. Archaeologist Warren K. Moorehead complained, in 1892, of the many “visions, suggestions, etc.” sent to him by psychic mediums claiming to see the contents of Native earthworks. Algoonah’s reviewers acknowledged that “we may doubt the authenticity of the history,” while still recommending it to “men of science and antiquarians.” One reader found himself “wishing the story were true”; he “at the end adopts it as a truth—in principle—and dislikes to believe otherwise than that it is a truthful account.” This pathway from wish to belief was heavily trafficked.

Such fantastical literature would seem like a poor argument for an archaeological theory. Certainly, those who aspired to make a profession of archaeology hated books such as Algoonah and railed against armchair visionaries. But consider the common approach of Flint, Bryant, and Newcomb: they used imagination to fill in the gaps of what they believed was a lost history, and they did so because that lost history contained a galvanizing message for present-day Americans, such as Newcomb, who sought treasure in the newly conquered West. Newcomb’s book “SHOULD BE READ BY NATIONALISTS,” shouted a reviewer in all caps. “It will infuse them with the spirit that will lead to success.” William Cullen Bryant’s poem “The Prairies” ends with Bryant hearing a whisper from the future, “The sound of that advancing multitude / Which soon shall fill these deserts. From the ground / Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice / Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn / Of Sabbath worshippers.” The triumph of Christianity over heathen ways was another pillar of lost-race rhetoric and of Manifest Destiny. Bryant’s patriotic prophecy was not founded on material evidence; like Algoonah, it was a performance of spiritual channeling. He claimed to speak with the past and future voices of the land itself.

Abelard Tomlinson, failing to find treasure in the Grave Creek Mound, heeded the call to join the advancing westward multitude. By 1850, he and two of his brothers were digging for gold in El Dorado, California, a seamy Gold Rush boomtown. As with Newcomb, treasure in mounds and in mines seemed linked by a peculiar spiritual alchemy. All was not quiet at the mound that Tomlinson left behind, hollowed out, with the remains of its Indigenous dead on display. Though Grave Creek’s heyday as a tourist trap was short-lived, his haphazard excavation produced one artifact that would become a valuable piece of evidence for the lost race. It was hardly noticed at first; from Tomlinson and his partner, Clemens, the artifact passed into the hands of various antiquarians, who puzzled over its meaning. An aspiring expert on Indian affairs, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, waged an all-out battle to turn the disputed object into his own intellectual treasure.

About The Author

Photograph by Jonna McKone

Alicia Puglionesi is a writer and historian. She earned a PhD in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2015 and has taught at Johns Hopkins and MICA. Her first book, Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science, explores how the practices of seances, clairvoyance, and telepathy both questioned and reinscribed social boundaries. She lives in Baltimore.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (April 5, 2022)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982116750

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Raves and Reviews

"Explores some fascinating, haunted places...In Whose Ruins indicts us."
—The New York Review of Books

"It is rare for a work of political passion to be such a well-told story. The book is inquisitive and sympathetic, artful not dour, worried about political overreach but going for it nonetheless."

"[This] important new book ... could easily be categorized as Environmental History or Native Studies. But Puglionesi forges a book that is more than either field could accomplish alone."
New Books Network

"Puglionesi makes a perfect guide through the strange myths, characters, and environments that best reflect the insidious exploitation inseparable from American dominion ... [A] convincing and illuminating reading of American history and land."
Chicago Review of Books

"A novel reading of American history as an endless chain of ideologically sanctioned extractions from the land ... Page after page, Puglionesi finds some strange twist on history used to justify theft and genocide, and it makes for a fascinating tale. A first-rate work of historical research and storytelling.
Kirkus, STARRED review

"The ravages of Manifest Destiny constitute much of America's story. This narrative history from poet, professor, and scholar Puglionesi delves into how white settlers found resources on Native land and overtook it for capitalistic gain, focusing on four geographic areas ... Puglionesi's book ought to be widely studied."
Booklist, STARRED review

"[A] thought-provoking study of four geographical sites whose exploitation by white settlers helped create a mythology legitimizing their dominion over the country and its Indigenous inhabitants ... Puglionesi writes lucidly and packs the narrative full of intriguing minutiae … this is a stimulating look at the erasure and endurance of Native American culture."
Publishers Weekly

"Few books by historians, particularly historians of science and technology, are page turners, but In Whose Ruins is just that. This is an elegantly written narrative of the mythologies and horrors of settler-colonialism in the founding and expansion of the United States, exterminating or displacing the Indigenous nations of the continent. It is a history of the present."
—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

"In Whose Ruins is a haunting meditation on how white Americans have dug into the earth to uncover the past and secure their own power. Alicia Puglionesi takes readers across the nation to these sites of excavation, places seized from Native peoples and turned to ruin. Compelling and insightful, In Whose Ruins gives us a new way to understand how Americans created an empire out of destruction."
— Megan Kate Nelson, author of Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America

"In Whose Ruins could not be more timely. As our nation once again battles over the meanings and uses of history, Puglionesi shines a bright light on the role of myth in the construction of American empire. White Americans, she convincingly demonstrates, mapped specious stories onto Indigenous landscapes to bolster their claims to material and racial supremacy. In Whose Ruins is a triumph of excavation—not just of the histories that have been purposely buried, but of the power of narrative to shape our world."
Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, coauthors of Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in Cradle of the Confederacy

“Original, illuminating, and bristling with insight, In Whose Ruins is a thought-provoking exploration into the meaning of the American land. By focusing on some largely forgotten episodes of the quest for power in the nation’s past—and the swindlers, scientists, and visionaries who populated them—Alicia Puglionesi has delivered a timely, deftly written, and convention-challenging book.”
—Scott Ellsworth, author of The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice

"Puglionesi's In Whose Ruins is a masterful truth-telling of North American colonial history, shattering the contrived myths created to justify the oppression, abnegation and elimination of Indigenous people. This adept writer and historian reminds us how white settlers lied to each other and their children to justify their violence, and how those old stories still complicate our understanding of the United States' founding. Readers will learn how early immigrants turned Native American burial mounds into proof of an extinct white civilization, their medicinal salve into petroleum, their sacred places into hydroelectric power, and their mysterious rocks into nuclear weapons. In Whose Ruins resets the historical narrative, which is exactly what we need today for our society to move forward in peace and with justice."
—Chris Tomlinson, columnist and author of New York Times bestsellers Forget the Alamo and Tomlinson Hill

"Amid extreme weather, deadly pandemic, political discontent, and economic volatility, it is tempting to seek the origin, whether as comforting nostalgia or an always-already tale of damnation. As Puglionesi’s book shows, however, origins are stories told in the present that acquire force by transforming brutal domination into neat narratives. Beneath them is messy history, bursting with competing claims and interests. Especially in a settler colonial society like the United States, conquest of people, land, and collective memory itself has been enabled and justified by layers upon layers of origin stories, producing a sediment so thick it can be hard to think otherwise. But this gracefully written book is a testament to thinking otherwise, to uncovering both the horror and the beautiful struggle for a different world hiding beneath the myths."
Thea Riofrancos, author of A Planet to Win and Resource Radicals

"Through razor-sharp focus on select sites of its extraction, In Whose Ruins asks searing questions about this society’s two-century-long quest for power—material and political, revealing the deep psychological scars, haunting dreams and cruel designs, and deathly consequences it has generated along the way. Alicia Puglionesi’s brilliant study of energy’s outsized hold on the soul of the nation is both poetic in its affective rendering of a hidden human-ecological past with consequence and prophetic in its urgent call for us to confront that tough history as a first step toward the imagining of a sustainable future."
—Darren Dochuk, author of Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America

"In Whose Ruins is popular history at its engaging best. Centering formative events and key discourses many Americans would prefer to forget, Puglionesi examines the intertwined processes of Indigenous dispossession and environmental degradation at the foundations of US empire and contemporary racial capitalism. As important, she foregrounds vital perspectives typically marginalized or simply erased from dominant narratives. The myth of a “lost” race of prehistoric Mound Builders is met with knowledge of ongoing Indigenous engagements with ancient sites and the building of new Indigenous earthworks in the twenty-first century."
—Chadwick Allen, author of Earthworks Rising: Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts

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