Ancient Mounds in Cleveland
If you have ever wondered why there’s a Mound Elementary School and a Mound Avenue in the Slavic Village neighborhood, it’s because Cleveland was once home to a series of mounds and the Native American cultures that built them. When most people think of the mound builders, Cleveland probably is not the first place that comes to mind. However, geologist Charles Whittlesey discovered a series of mounds in and around the city. One of the peoples who occupied the ancient future site of Cleveland is named the Whittlesey culture after the man who discovered and documented their artifacts.
Charles Whittlesey was born in 1808 in Southington, Connecticut, and moved to Tallmadge, Ohio, in 1813. He was also a West Point graduate in 1831. After returning to Ohio, Whittlesey also contributed to many publications on several different topics. Whittlesey served as the editor for the Cleveland Herald in 1836 and 1837 and continued thereafter to publish material on the early history of Cleveland, the Cuyahoga Valley, and other parts of Ohio. Those topics are just a few he wrote about in his more than 200 books and articles published during his career. Whittlesey accomplished many firsts in the history of Native American and Ohio geology. He conducted the first geological survey in Ohio during the late 1830s before becoming the official assistant geologist for Ohio in 1837. He also conducted geological surveys for over 20 years in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Mississippi where he focused on Native American earthworks. During his Ohio survey, Whittlesey discovered numerous earthworks and found large iron and coal deposits that would help develop the state.
Charles Whittlesey is not only known for his discovery of new Native American earthworks; he is also known for his Civil War service. During the war, he helped plan and construct fortifications for the U.S. Army in Ohio and Kentucky. He was selected for the task because of his extensive knowledge of geological features and ancient fortifications. In addition to building fortifications, he also was appointed to serve as an escort for President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who would go on to be the sixteenth President of the United States in 1861.
Whittlesey was a large asset to the war effort as he built fortifications, served the future president, and fought in the war. He fought in both the Battle of Fort Donelson and the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. In addition to fighting in the war, he was also the assistant quartermaster general for Ohio troops while he engineered fortifications for Cincinnati, Ohio. Whittlesey eventually resigned from the army after the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. After he retired, he became a historian and moved back to Ohio in 1867. That same year, he was instrumental in founding the Western Reserve Historical Society, in which he served as president until 1885. But Whittlesey’s most notable legacy arguably his contributions to understanding the Native American culture which was named after him.
For over 14,000 years, prehistoric groups lived in Ohio, congregating around large bodies of water and other waterways. Many Native American cultures and practices have been a part of Ohio’s history. In Ohio, between 800 BCE and 1200 CE, the Woodland culture period flourished and was defined by several features: groups settling down into larger communities, large-scale agriculture, and mound building. Mounds were often used for burial practices but could also be used for gathering places or ceremonial rituals. However, none of the mounds discovered in Cleveland appeared to be designed for burial practices.
Archaeologists refer to the Late Woodland culture in northeast Ohio as the Whittlesey culture or Whittlesey tradition to acknowledge Charles Whittlesey, who documented many historical sites and mounds. The Whittlesey culture lived along the banks of rivers and brooks from Lake Erie to the Black River in Conneaut between about 1200 and 1640. Whittlesey discovered various mounds in what is now the Cleveland area. Thanks to his extensive documentation in books such as Ancient Earth Forts of the Cuyahoga Valley, Descriptions of Ancient Works in Ohio, Early History of Cleveland Ohio, and Ancient Mining on the Shores of Lake Superior, we have considerable insights into the Whittlesey culture's customs, art, and mounds.
Native American mounds that Whittlesey describes in the Cleveland area include Fort 1 Newburg, an earthwork he discovered in Cleveland near Harvard Grove Cemetery, and Sawtell Avenue mound, located off Woodland Avenue, where the Northern Ohio Food Terminal Facility is today. Sawtell Avenue was later named East 51st Street, but the name lives on in a nearby alley called Sawtell Court. The Sawtell Avenue mound measured 5 feet high, 40 feet long, and 25 feet wide. Whittlesey conducted a small-scale dig on this mound in 1870 along with partner Judge C.C. Baldwin where they both discovered copper artwork, clay tube pipes, and ornamental beads. The Slavic village area was once home to another Cleveland mound which was located along Mound Avenue near East 54th Street. The mound inspired the name of both the street and Mound Public School, the precursor of today’s Mound Elementary School. The mound site was developed as a brick yard in the 1890s before being redeveloped as the school.
Unfortunately, not many of these mounds were preserved in the Cleveland area except for places such as the Lyman Site, located in the Lake Metroparks system, where Whittlesey documented and surveyed the area documenting earthworks of around 8 feet high. However, few saw these Native American discoveries as significant during the 19th century, which is why no efforts were made to preserve, protect, or interpret the mounds or their culture until much later. Any local interest in the Whittlesey culture and its mounds was overshadowed by the growing city and development of real estate. By the time Whittlesey was documenting earthworks in the 1830s, most of the Cleveland mounds were gone. An exception was the one on Sawtell Avenue, for it stood on land then owned by A. Freese, who told Whittlesey the mound was "one of the ornaments on his grounds," and he "did not wish to have it demolished." Even the much larger and more elaborate mounds located in Chillicothe, Ohio, were not studied until the early 1920s, when Mound City Group National Monument was established in 1923. From there, ancient Ohio mounds began to gain popularity, as the Chillicothe mounds attracted more federal investment in preservation and interpretation when the National Park Service redesignated the site as the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park in 1992.
Charles Whittlesey’s legacy lives on in many ways today in the Cleveland area and across Ohio areas. He provided one of the first geological surveys of the state in which he documented many ancient mounds, served in the Civil War, and helped create the Western Reserve Historical Society. Even though most of the Cleveland area mounds were flattened for urban development, they still live on in Ohio’s history, including in place names like Mound Avenue. Next time you find yourself in Cleveland, stop and look, you might see remembrance of the once great ancient mounds.