Greetings From: Harpers Ferry, IA

A southerly view of the Mississippi River from Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, Iowa.

by Michael Boyink / mike@douglascountyherald.com

China has the Great Wall.

Greece has the Parthenon.

England has Stonehenge.

Ancient structures from previous civilizations.

Clues to those who came before. How they thought. How they lived. Where they traveled.

I’m not sure what history you learned in school. My recollection of Michigan public school Early American History as taught in the 1970’s is that the first settlers to America mainly found two things: Indians and wilderness. 

The Indians were tent-dwellers, living off the land and moving with the seasons.

The wilderness remained because the Indians didn’t clear fields, cut down trees, and make permanent homes.

But it wasn’t just wilderness. North America does have ancient structures. They aren’t brick edifices. They aren’t ornate temples. They aren’t monolithic rock formations.

They’re mounds. 

Piles of dirt, really.

Found in Minnesota to Louisiana. Oklahoma to South Carolina. Mounds are mostly found close to rivers and other bodies of water. Shapes vary from round to conical to animals including bears, birds, and reptiles. Sizes range up to 100 feet tall, 1000 feet long and 800 feet wide.

From the ground, this mound didn’t look much different than a suburban backyard.

The story of the mounds is arguably more fascinating than the mounds themselves.

I’m simplifying, but basically it goes like this:

White settlers find some mounds. “Hey, Indians – what are those?”

“Not sure, really. They’ve been there a while and no one remembers.”

“Well, you guys certainly couldn’t have built them, so it must have been a race of people who are gone now. Like Vikings. Or Romans. Or Hindus. Or maybe it was survivors of Atlantis. Or a race of giants. No, it was aliens. Definitely aliens. They could land space ships on them.”

Mound-builder theories abounded for several decades, until the then-new Smithsonian Institute got involved. 

Its researchers determined that there was no so-called single lost race of mound builders. Rather, the mounds were created by the ancestors of the current Native Americans, and there were multiple cultures and tribes involved.

But for all the efforts of the Smithsonian and other researchers since, we really don’t know much about the mounds, who built them, and why they built them. 

Accounts of the mounds – even from the National Park Service website for the Effigy Mounds National Monument – include more weasel words and hedging phrases than a politician’s press conference:

…may date from as far back… 

…there also remains the possibility…

…may have contributed…

…likely popularized…

…scholars believe… 

…it is reasonable to project…

…most likely… 

…some believe…

…may also indicate…

…evidence suggests…

…shapes were most likely …

…some mounds may have had…

…some have speculated…

…the data is inconclusive…

…perhaps size and shape…

…hence the assumption…

The uncertainty leaves fertile ground for conspiracy theories. There are still those who believe a race of giant homosapiens were responsible for the mounds, and that discoveries of their 7’ skeletons have been covered up by the Smithsonian Institute. 

As for us?

We usually enjoyed visiting National Parks and Monuments. We came across Effigy Mounds National Monument while following the Mississippi River south. 

I won’t lie. We found the mounds themselves rather unremarkable, and the interpretive center a little too…interpretive. 

But.

The fall color was in full rage. The weather was crisp and glorious.

The views of the Mississippi River were some of the best we’d seen.

The Boyink girls look across the Mississippi River to Wisconsin while visiting the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, Iowa.

And we learned, again, that science can’t always provide all the answers.

And that was worth a stop.

Effigy Mounds National Monument is approximately an hour and a half north of Dubuque, Iowa. Learn more about Effigy Mounds National Park nps.gov/efmo.