Regan Detwiler: The first settlers, part two

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 - 7:30am

In my last column, I mentioned learning about the Adena people, who lived on the land now called Ohio from more than 2,000 years ago to the first century A.D., when the Adena were overcome by and blended into other tribes. Though some of their physical traces have been marked and preserved, much evidence of the Adena people has disappeared over the centuries. This is true throughout central Ohio, including my hometown of Bexley.

The Adena’s physical legacy is manifest mostly in the form of burial mounds filled with tools and remains of individuals from their small farming communities. There are mounds all over central Ohio, but some are easier to identify than others because they vary in size and are seldom marked. Some Adena mounds are only a couple feet high and may look like a slight swell in the ground, while others are more than 20 feet high, perfect semicircles sitting atop what was once flat earth.

Obviously, these burial mounds were significant to Adena communities, but for myriad reasons (including federal regulations) most of the mounds in central Ohio have no historical markers identifying them as significant sites. Even worse, many have been destroyed in the process of farming and land development. This means burial mounds, containing artifacts and human remains, have been ploughed, built over or otherwise demolished in the process of construction.

The McAlla Mound, named for the farmer who found it while ploughing, is located on a strip of land in the city of Columbus that abuts Bexley. The site of ancient Adena settlements and the McAlla Mound correspond generally to Wolfe Park, a city park which is bordered by Alum Creek on one side and a collection of mansions on the other. Different maps show the mound in different places, and the area is hilly. With no marker and inconsistent maps, it's difficult to tell what could have once been a mound and what is just the natural topography. The Adena were there once, but even a thorough look around wouldn't tell you that.

Though there are some efforts to educate school-aged kids and the public about local indigenous people's histories, in general, it is difficult to find thorough and up-to-date information. Most of the contents of the mound are on display at the Bexley Historical Society (I say "most" because what's left out is the human skull allegedly found there, which is prohibited from being displayed). The Ohio History Connection also has an exhibit about the history of Native Americans in Ohio more generally. And a teacher from the Columbus School for Girls, a private school in Bexley, successfully helped her students lobby the Ohio legislature to make the Adena pipe the state artifact, which is commendable for increasing the Adena tribe's visibility.

Still, it seems odd to me that I know so little about the Adena people and that I've had to work so hard to find the information I now have. I've come to what little I've learned through hours spent in the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the Bexley Public Library and the Bexley Historical Society, and through contacting people at various organizations who might be able to tell me something more.

I wonder what in people's minds would change if there was some kind of historical marker in the general area where the McAlla Mound was found. Unfortunately, in the place where the mound is or was, I see only colonial revival style houses and a park named after one of the first prominent landowning families in the area.

The story of the Adena people's relationship with the Bexley area's first white settlers is different from the usual narrative of violence between living bodies of indigenous people and colonists of European descent because Adena communities ceased to exist by the time colonists arrived to the United States. Therefore, they didn't have to choose to trade, fight or make what peace they could with European settlers or their descendants. But the erasure of the Adenas' presence on this land is demonstrative of wealthy white America's attitude toward indigenous history more broadly and represents a violence more difficult to trace.

There are a few more spectacular mounds that are marked in central Ohio — as in, they are more obvious and difficult to ignore. The Shrum Mound is right here in Columbus and is clearly marked. In contrast to the McAlla Mound, the Shrum Mound is huge, in the shape of a near-perfect semicircle bulging 20 feet above the flat clearing on which it sits. However, the Shrum Mound is also on the side of a many-laned road on which one can drive well over 45 mph, making the mound easy to pass by unless you know what you're looking for.

In contrast to the busy road where Shrum Mound is located, the site of old Adena settlements and the McAlla Mound are right around Wolfe Park, where people could read a plaque or some other memorial very easily. Bordered by a bike path that goes along Alum Creek, the small body of water that once was a source of fish and other foodstuffs for the Adena, the park is a place where people go for leisure, to slow down for a while.

The current invisibility of the indigenous people's history on the land I call home impacts the way I situate myself in the legacy of colonialism. If the only place students are taught to practice appreciation of indigenous cultures is within the frame of a textbook painting of the Trail of Tears in the southeastern United States, it will be difficult for them to understand that history is palpable all around us. To put unignorable force behind this palpability, we need historical markers and increased education about local history. Until then, ancient indigenous history will only continue to be ignored and erased in the centuries to come.

Regan Detwiler can be reached at regandet@umich.edu