Moundville and Memphis

As every Alabamian knows, on gamedays in the fall, there are more people present within the city of Tuscaloosa than any other place else in the state–save Birmingham and (depending on the number of Druid City residents holding tickets at Bryant-Denny Stadium) perhaps Montgomery or Mobile. But, let’s put this boast into context. According to the University of Alabama Museums, 800 years ago there were more people living in a single community within what is now Hale County, Alabama, than anywhere else in all of North America.

That community, of course, is Moundville, site of a huge Native-American settlement centered on the Black Warrior River. Moundville was a political and religious center of the Mississippian civilization of mound-building American Indians, who flourished in the southeastern United States centuries before the Conquistadores appeared. The mound at Nanih Waiya near Philadelphia, Mississippi, dates from the same period, as do many similar sites throughout the Southeast.

The mound builders of antiquity once thoroughly captivated white Americans, but for all the wrong reasons. Mounds from even earlier periods are found throughout the present-day eastern United States, with most located in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions. The prevailing assumption among European settlers, especially during the first half of the 19th century, was that the mounds could not possibly have been constructed by the “primitive savages” then occupying the land. Since the “primitive” American Indian, by default, was deemed incapable of having achieved the advanced culture evidenced by the existence of the mounds, the explanation for them, quite naturally, must lie elsewhere.

Many alternative explanations sincerely were put forward to explain the mounds, most of which were posited upon the idea that a transplanted (usually European-based) advanced culture thrived in North America before being extinguished by the red savages. Vikings were given credit, along with Greeks and Africans-–anyone, it seems, but the Indians. The most enduring explanation was that the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel had escaped to America, and that it was they who had built the mounds. The Book of Mormon expounds upon this theme, although the New York hill on which Joseph Smith reportedly found the golden plates he translated is likely a glacial formation, and not an Indian mound.

The mystery of the mound builders was dispelled in the 1890s by entomologist, biologist and archaeologist Cyrus Thomas, whose 730-quarto-page, small-type exhaustive investigative report for the Smithsonian Institute’s Bureau of Ethnology definitively concluded that America’s mounds indeed were constructed by early Native-American tribes, and not by intrepid Vikings or wandering Israelites. Curiously, when the mystery finally was solved, white Americans largely lost interest. After all, if the Indians had really done it, how important could it all be, seriously?

Human nature is like that, I suppose. We enjoy our special prejudices. When I was a law-school student at Vanderbilt, my surname (Snowden) excited much curiosity among Tennesseans who inquired as to whether I was related to the Memphis Snowdens, an eminent family of West Tennessee, near-founders of the city, wealthy pillars of the community and, indeed, long-time owners of the Peabody, emblematic of the very heart of Memphis. Tennessee Williams, in fact, wrote his very first play on Snowden Street.

Alas, the interest waned considerably when I explained that my Snowdens hailed from Lauderdale County, Mississippi, and that any kinship to the scions of Memphis necessarily was quite distant.

People are funny that way, you know?

Written by: Greg S.