I am happy to announce that the University of Oklahoma Press had extended an offer to publish my book about the Mound Builders. The book is currently scheduled for a Spring 2020 release, pending final contract approval. The 163,000-word volume will be priced affordably (most likely under $30) and will be available online and at fine retailers nationwide.
However, the editorial and marketing teams are still looking for the right title for my book. So, today I am going to paste the description of the book from the proposal below and ask for your help in selecting a title for the book. The editors suggested Stolen History as a possibility. If you have another, please comment below or send me a message at JasonColavito@outlook.com. Please note: The description is not the official book description, but simply a summary / teaser that I put together for the book proposal.
And don’t forget to contribute to my annual fundraiser going on this week!
About the Book
What would you say if you found out that a few dozen people, operating at the highest levels of American society, all with deep and strange connections to one another, were responsible for faking the entire ancient history of the American continent to promote a religious, white-supremacist agenda in service of patriotic ideals? Would you call it fake news? For nineteenth century Americans it was a powerful truth that shaped Manifest Destiny.
It is a story that reads like a real-life version of the Da Vinci Code playing out at the highest levels of government, religion, and science—but with very real consequences.
The myth started out as two related questions: Where did the Native Americans come from? And, who built the tens of thousands of ancient earthen mounds blanketing America—some of which were nearly as large as the pyramids of Egypt?
At first, the answers seemed obvious. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson became the first person to conduct a scientific archaeological investigation. He used methods he developed himself to explore a Native American burial mound near his estate of Monticello in Virginia and reported his findings in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). In an age when antiquarian excavation was little more than digging for treasure, his excavation anticipated by a full century the development of scientific archaeology. He found that the mounds were the work of Native Americans, who, in turn, were the descendants of people who migrated to America from Asia across the Bering Strait. Jefferson’s findings were added to the Encyclopedia Britannica as undisputed fact.
This should have settled the question. Instead, Jefferson’s report sparked claims and counterclaims from Jefferson’s friends and colleagues, including Noah Webster and Benjamin Franklin, politicians like DeWitt Clinton, Revolutionary War veterans, and religious leaders cast doubt on Jefferson’s findings, building up a myth of a lost white Mound Builder race, probably the Lost Tribes of Israel, based on little more than racism, Bible quotations, and wishful thinking. Most strange of all is the fact that the entire myth was created by only a handful of men numbered among early America’s political and intellectual elite, all of whom knew one another and corresponded with each other, and all of whom ought to have known better. In the end, it was the prestige of these early American leaders that enshrined fiction as fact.
This fanciful story became the governing myth of the new United States, providing a satisfying rejoinder to the thousands of years of history and tradition Americans had left behind in Europe. The Old World might have Greeks and Romans and Celts, but America had a Lost Race and the Lost Tribes. As America struggled to emerge from Britain’s shadow, creating a unique and independent history serviced an important and essential need. As a result, science lost out to myth, and Jefferson’s careful archaeology was eventually replaced with the groundless Lost Race theory even in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The consequences were devastating. Lost Race believers included two U.S. presidents: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson—who called the mounds the “monuments and fortresses of an unknown people” in the State of the Union Address. Jackson invoked the theory before Congress to justify the mass deportation of Native Americans from the eastern U.S.—the Trail of Tears—and the subsequent effort to eliminate Native Americans as distinct peoples. For the next 50 years, the American government engaged in endemic warfare and cultural genocide against Native peoples in order to seize Native lands and destroy their culture, all in the name of “restoring” the land to the “white” people who once lived there—the Lost Race. The result was the death of untold Native Americans and the devastation of hundreds of Native cultures in service of political expediency and an intellectual fraud.
Many of the actors in this drama were liars and frauds. The plagiarist St. John Crevecoeur faked testimony from Benjamin Franklin about a lost race that became a standard element of Franklin biographies for a century. The self-aggrandizing Caleb Atwater promoted the Lost Race theory after a life of business failure, using other people’s research without citation. Even distinguished scientists were not immune. C. S. Rafinesque faked ancient texts written by the Mound Builders to restore a reputation destroyed by Atwater after Rafinesque pointed out Atwater’s academic fraud. Archaeologist William Pidgeon falsified reports to invent a mystical white Mound Builder “code” embedded in the mounds. Farmhands and scholars alike faked buried tablets and parchments to supply “proof” of the Mound Builder race. Lie piled on lie. And because so many wanted to believe it, the lie became the truth.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Mound Builder myth reached its apotheosis in the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Its founder, Joseph Smith, told the world that he had found golden tablets belonging to the Lost Tribes inside a giant mound near Palmyra, New York and had translated them to reveal a new testament of Christ, who had visited the Lost Tribes in primitive America. A Mound Builder theory that had begun as an intellectual fraud was canonized as America’s first indigenous faith. As the Mormons moved west, they tried to convert the Natives in order to help bring about the prophesied End of Days, when the Jews would turn to Christ. When that didn’t work, they went to war.
And yet the foundation of the Mormon Church began the slow process of undoing the myth of the Mound Builders. Questions over the authenticity of the Book of Mormon—for no one other than Mormons believed it was really an ancient text revealed by an angel—led to investigations into the origins of the Book, and the Mound Builders it depicted. Did Smith copy his book from a novel by Solomon Spalding, or adapt it from a bestselling religious tract by Ethan Smith? Was there really any proof of Lost Tribes buried in the mounds? Evidence began to slowly accumulate demonstrating that the imaginary Mound Builder culture was little more than a tissue of lies concocted in the years around 1800. Countless scholars had made their careers defending the Mound Builder myth and proposing a glorious American prehistory peopled by Hebrews, Phoenicians, Welsh, Greeks, and other non-Native peoples. Textbooks were rewritten to enshrine racist lies as “scientific” truths. It took time and effort to undo the lie—another sixty years—and even this effort was only partially successful.
The Mound Builder myth’s legacy governed America’s policies toward Native Americans during Manifest Destiny as well as Mormon relations with the Native peoples they displaced in Utah. The result was always the same: violence, ending in physical, spiritual, and cultural devastation for Native peoples. Native populations fell by 60% between 1800 and 1899 as a direct result of policies and practices inspired by imperialism, racism, and the Mound Builder myth.
This book is a narrative of this forgotten chapter in American history, from Jefferson’s pioneering work down to the 1894 report of the Bureau of American Ethnology in which Cyrus Thomas summarized his two decades of mound work to prove conclusively that America’s ancient monuments were the work of Native Americans. But by then, the damage had been done. The 113 years between Jefferson and Thomas demonstrate the consequences of lies accepted as convenient truths, with ramifications that echo today in arguments over white nationalism, multiculturalism, “alternative facts,” the role of science in public life, and who controls knowledge.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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