Adams County History & Genealogy

Adams County, Ohio History

The Serpent Mound

Probably the most important earthwork in the West is The Serpent Mound. It is on Brush creek in Franklin township, about six miles north of Peebles Station on the C. & E. Railroad, twenty one miles from West Union, the county seat, thirty one miles from the Ohio River at Manchester, and five miles south of Sinking Springs, in Highland County. The work of Squier and Davis on the Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, who thus made this work known to the world by their survey in 1849. Their plan annexed is in general correct, but the oval is drawn too large in proportion to the head; and the edge of the cliff is some distance from the oval. The appendages on each side of the head do not exist. They have been shown by Prof. Putnam to be accidentally connected with the serpent. The mound was erected doubtless for worship, and appended to their description of it they make this statement:

The serpent, separate, or in combination with the circle, egg, or globe, has been a predominant symbol among many primitive nations. It prevailed in Egypt, Greece and Assyria, and entered widely into the superstitions of the Celts, the Hindoos and the Chinese. It even penetrated into America, and was conspicuous in the mythology of the ancient Mexicans, among whom its significance does not seem to have differed materially from that which it possessed in the Old World. The fact that the ancient Celts, and perhaps other nations of the old continent, erected sacred structures in the form of the serpent, is one of high interest. Of this description was the great temple of Abury, in England in many respects the most imposing ancient monument of the British Islands. It is impossible in this connection to trace the analogies which the Ohio structure exhibits to the serpent temples of England, or to point out the extent to which the symbol was applied in America -- an investigation fraught with the greatest interest both in respect to the light which it reflects upon the primitive superstitions of remotely separated people, and especially upon the origin of the American race.

Public attention has recently been attracted to this work through the exertions of Professor F. W. Putnam, of the Peabody Museum of Cambridge, Mass., who by the aid of some Boston ladies in the spring of 1887 secured by subscription about $6,000 for its purchase and protection, as it was fast going to destruction. The purchase includes about seventy acres of land with mound, the title vesting in the museum attached to Harvard University. This he has laid out in a beautiful park to be free to the public, and with the name "The Serpent Mound Park." It is in a wild and picturesque country and must eventually be a favorite place of public resort. The Professor, who is an accomplished archaeologist, regards this as one of the most remarkable structures of its kind in the world.

The head of the serpent rests on a rocky platform which presents a precipitous face to the west, towards the creek, of about 100 feet in height. The jaws of the serpent's mouth are widely extended in the act of trying to swallow an egg, represented by an oval enclosure about 121 feet long and 60 feet wide. This enclosure consists of a ridge of earth about five feet high, and from eighteen to twenty feet broad. The body of the serpent winds gracefully back toward higher land, making four large folds before reaching the tail. The tail tapers gracefully and is twisted up in three complete and close coils. The height of the body of the serpent is four to five feet, and its greatest width is thirty feet across the neck. The whole length of the mound from the end of the egg on the precipice to the last coil of the tail is upwards of 1,300 feet.

The Serpent Mound is not in a conspicuous place, but in a situation which seems rather to have been chosen for the privacies of sacred rites. The rising land towards the tail and back for a hundred rods afforded ample space for large gatherings. The view across the creek from the precipice near the head, and indeed from the whole area, is beautiful and impressive, but not very extensive.

To the south, however, peaks may be seen ten or fifteen miles away which overlook the Ohio River and Kentucky hills, while at a slightly less distance to the north, in Pike and Highland counties, are visible several of the highest points in the State. Among these is Fort Hill, eight miles north in Brush Creek township on the extreme eastern edge of Highland County.

Fort Hill is one of the best preserved and most interesting ancient enclosures in the State. It is estimated that in the limits of Ohio alone are 10,000 ancient mounds and from 1500 to 2000 enclosures. The importance of the study of the subject, the present method of procedure and the general progress are thus dwelt upon in a lecture delivered by Prof. Putnam, Oct. 25, 1887, before the Western Reserve Historical Society.

The proper study of history begins with the earliest monuments of man's occupancy of the earth. From study of ancient implements, burial places, village sites, roads, enclosures and monuments we are able to get as vivid and correct a conception -- all but the names -- of prehistoric times as of what is called the historic period.

The study of archaeology is now assuming new importance from the improved methods of procedure. Formerly it was considered sufficient to arrange archaeological ornaments and implements according to size and perfection of workmanship and call it a collection. But now extended and minute comparison is the principal thing. Formerly mounds were said to have been explored when trenches were dug through them in two directions and the contents thus encountered, removed and inspected. Now it is considered essential to the exploration of a mound that it be sliced off with the greatest care and every shovelfull of earth examined and every section photographed. The skeletons are now also examined with great care, being first gently uncovered and then moistened so as to harden them, when usually the bones can be moved without fracture. The record of the excavation of the earthworks where implements, ornaments and skeletons are found is more important than the possession of the objects themselves.

Although an immense field still remains to be explored, we have gone far enough to show in a general way, that southern Ohio was the meeting place of two diverse races of people. Colonel Whittlesey's sagacious generalizations concerning the advance of a more civilized race from the south as far as southern Ohio, and their final expulsion by more warIike tribes from the lake region, are fully confirmed by recent investigations. The Indians of Mexico and South America belong to what is called a "short-headed" race, i.e, the width of their skulls being more than three-fourths of their length, whereas the northern Indians are all "long headed."

Now out of about 1400 skulls found in the vicinity of Madisonville near Cincinnati, more than 1200 clearly belonged to a short-headed race, thus connecting them with southern tribes. Going further back it seems probable that the southern tribes reached America across the Pacific from southern Asia, while the northern tribes came via Alaska from northern Asia.

An Encyclopedia of the state: History both general and local, geography with descriptions of its counties, cities and villages, its agricultural, manufacturing, mining and business development, sketches of eminent and interesting characters, etc., with notes of a tour over it in 1886.
The Ohio Centennial Edition
- Henry Howe, LL.D. [© 1888]

Although the Serpent Mound is well known to archaeologists of both the old and the new world, yet until very recently there were many intelligent persons in the county wherein it is located who scarcely knew of its existence. When the writer first visited the Serpent Mound in 1883, he was astonished to learn from a gentleman of fair intelligence who had lived in the vicinity from childhood, that he had not seen the mound for over twenty years. This was the more surprising from the fact that scientific gentlemen from Europe had but a short time previous, spent several weeks in platting, photographing, and investigating this wonderful effigy; and that Prof. F. W, Putnam, in behalf of the Peabody Museum, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was then, in company with other prominent archaeologists, on the grounds studying the design and features of the mound But this only confirms what is too often true, that familiarity destroys respect and reverence for what is sacred or venerable.

The Great Serpent Mound is located on the east fork of Ohio Brush Creek, in Bratton Township, in the extreme northern portion of Adams County, within sight of the little hamlet of Loudon (Lovett P. 0.) and about seven miles from the town of Peebles on the line of the Cincinnati, Portsmouth and Virginia Railroad It lies along the crest of a narrow spur-like ridge rising in its highest part to an altitude of one hundred and fifty feet above the level of the waters of Brush Creek which washes its western base. On the east; this ridge is cut by a narrow ravine which deepens and widens as it nears the creek to the north of the serpent's head. The ridge projects from the high table lands on the east of Brush Creek, and slopes gently down to a narrow, projecting bluff, something more than eighty feet high, overlooking the fertile bottom lands of the creek, both up and down the valley, and giving a commanding view of a broad expanse of country for miles in front and to the northward. The spur-like ridge along the crest of which the Serpent lies, is crescent-shaped, its concave side bordering on the creek. Along this western side of the ridge, its entire length, as also to the front and right of the serpent's head, the walls are almost vertical. About midway from where the ridge joins the table lands at the south of the triple coil of the serpent's tail as shown in the engraving, and the bluff at the north of its head, there is a considerable depression extending across the ridge from east to west.

Beginning in a triple coil of the tail on the highest portion of this ridge, the Great Serpent lies extended in beautiful folds down along the crest; curving gracefully over the depression in the ridge, it winds in natural folds up and along the narrow ledge, with head and neck stretched out, serpent-like, on the high and precipitous bluff, overlooking the creek and country beyond. Ju~t to the north of the serpent's head, and partly within its extended jaws, is an oval or egg-shaped figure, eighty-six feet long and about thirty feet wide at its middle, surrounded by an embankment from two to three feet high and about twenty feet wide. A little to the north of the center of the egg-shaped figure is a pile of stones showing plainly marks of fire; and some have supposed here once to have been an altar about which a benighted people performed the mystic rites of their religion.

Prof. McLean, author of several popular works on archaeology, discovered that there are two other crescent-shaped elevations between the precipice and the north extremity of the egg-shaped figure. extending nearly parallel with the curves forming the north extremity of the oval, which he thinks are intended to represent the hind legs of a frog leaping from the precipice to the creek below. It is his theory that the frog, the oval, and the serpent are symbolical of the three forces in Nature: the creative, the productive, and the destructive; the frog representative of the first; the oval, an egg emitted by it as it leaps from the precipice to the creek below, the second; and the serpent in the act of swallowing the egg, the third.

The Great Serpent is the only effigy mound of its kind in North America. It differs in its structure, also, from the various effigies in Wisconsin, its base being formed of stones, and the body of the work of clay and surface soil. The entire length of the serpent, following its convolutions, is thirteen hundred and thirty-five feet. Its width at the largest portion of the body is twenty feet. At the tail the width is no more than four or five feet. Here the height is from three to four feet which increases towards the center of the body to a height of from five to six feet. The total length of the entire work from the north end of the oval to the end of the tail of the serpent following its convolutions, is fourteen hundred and fifteen feet, and the average height is about four feet. A recent writer says:

"Persistent explorations of the mound and its immediate vicinity have resulted in many important discoveries, which have opened the field to conclusions of widespread interest. The mound is a voiceless evidence of the fact that certain fonns of worship in all parts of the world were identical in prehistoric times, and from this some have come to the conclusion that the human race was everywhere alike in its earlier forms of development. Other scientists have reasoned, however, not that the race was one great family, undivided into tribes in that distant age, but that the different tribes touched elbows in some things. The form of the mound and the discoveries made under the soil of modern formation have led to the conclusion that the race known as the Mound Builders were addicted to the terrible worship of the serpent, of which little is positively known, and much is guessed. That human sacrifice formed a part of the rites of this worship seems certain from the evidence gained by a study of the mound.

"How many centuries ago it was built will never be known until the great day when all earth's secrets are opened. The explorations have shown, however, that there are three strata of soil. First comes the superimposed layer of black soil composed of vegetable mold, which has been deposited since the erection of the mound. Second is the yellow clay of which the mound was built, and which was apparently carried from three pits in the near vicinity. Third is the grayish clay of the foundation. Evidently the soil, whatever there may have been at that time, had been cleared away until this clay was reached. Upon it huge stones had been carried with infinite labor from the bed of Brush Creek, far below, to form a foundation. This preserved it against the wash of rains, and upon this foundation the mound was built, of yellow clay, mixed in some places with ashes. The egg-shaped mound within the jaws of the serpent, is an oval, of which the walls are four feet high and eighteen feet wide. The oval itself is 120 by 60 feet. In the pit, in the center of the egg, the ancient altar was placed.

"Some of its fire-blackened stones are still there. Within the memory of men still living it was quite an imposing structure. The myth that treasure was buried in this ancient cairn had firm hold on the pioneers, however, and years ago the altar was torn down, in a vain search for gold and precious stones. So far as possible it has been restored.

"The mound itself is built as all other serpent mounds are, no matter in what country. The head of the serpent, containing the altar, is on a high bluff overlooking Brush Creek. The first rays of the Sun God fell first upon this altar, and from it, far below, the priests of the ancient faith could see the three forks of the river. This trinity, whether it be three rivers or three mountains, is always to be seen from an altar of the serpent worshipers, and is always unmistakable. The altar is invariably placed in the one spot from which the trinity may be seen. It is always placed where the first rays of the rising sun may fall upon it. From the neighboring lands the awe-struck worshipers of old might see the priests perform their fearsome rites and watch the victim of the stone knives gasp out his last breath as the first tongue of flame licked at his still quivering flesh. Just what these rites were will never be known, in all probability. But that fire and knife played a part in them can hardly be doubted from the mute witnesses found by modem searchers.

"That the spot was revered as a shrine is certain from the character of the remains found near it. Hardly a square yard of the surrounding territory is there that did not at one time hold a grave. The interments were evidently made with ceremonies of some nature. Ashes are frequently found in the graves though this is not often an indication of cremation. The human bones found are not calcined by fire. The ashes are rather to be considered as the scrapings from the hearth desolated by the death of its protector. In them are found stone and bone weapons and ornaments and occasionally plates of native copper, rudely hammered out, or crystals of lead ore fashioned into ru

"From the position of these copper ornaments, they were evidently head and breast plate, probably burnished. They are in very rare instances of sufficient size to be considered as an early attempt at body armor. Flint knives of considerable elegance and of presumable utility are to be found in abundance, together with weapons in the process of making, and the stone shapers and grinders by which the weapons were made. In one or two instances these stone knives have been found in such position as to inevitably lead to the conclusion that they were lodged in the body at the time of interment. Whether they were placed there before or after death is mere conjecture. In the ashes of the graves mnains of rude pottery are also to be found.

"From a careful inspection of the Serpent Mound, and an exploration of the graves and mound itself, scientists have formed several interesting conclusions. First, that the mound, corresponding as it does exactly in type with similar serpent mounds found in Asia, Africa and Europe, Central America, Peru and Mexico, points to the dissemination of serpent worship at one time over the then habitable world. Whether these mounds are of approximately the same date, or belong to different epochs, is yet debatable. That they belong to the same form of worship is indisputable. Human sacrifice is pointed at by the fire-blackened altars. The worship of the snake still exists among the Zunis and Moquis of our own country, though the more bloodthirsty portion of the rites is now omitted. All evidence points to such sacrifice at no distant date among them, however.

"Structural peculiarities of the skulls point to a similarity of the Mound Builders with the Hindoos of the present day and with the ancient Peruvian races. The occasional presence of decapitated bodies in the serpent mound graves, or a bodyless skull, indicates that head hunting, even as it is now practiced among the Dyaks of Borneo, existed in those earlier days. Traces of paints occasionally are found on the disinterred skeletons together with lumps of the ochre used for such personal adornment, even as the American Indian does now where he has not come in contact with the influence of civilization. Lastly, the skulls found are those of men equal in brain capacity and muscular and bony structure to races in existence at present."

In 1886 the trustees of the Peabody Fund of Harvard University, through the efforts of Prof. F. W. Putnam, purchased the Serpent Mound and several acres of the lands surrounding it from Hon. John T. Wilson. Under the directions of Prof. Putnam, the Serpent was restored to its original outlines, and the grounds surrounding were tastefully converted into a beautiful park-now known as The Serpent Mound Park.

Recently the park has come into the possession of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society. It will be greatly improved and made a place of resort for pleasure seekers as well as for the graver students of the monuments of a lost race.

from its earliest settlement to the present time including character sketches of the prominent persons identified with the first century of the county's growth and containing numerous engravings and illustrations
Nelson W. Evans and Emmons B. Stivers [1900, West Union OH]