Mason County Memories: The last of the Mound Builders


By 1200 A.D., the remaining Hopewell and various newcomers to the region had begun to merge into a new culture, known as the Fort Ancients for the site where they were rediscovered. The easiest way to describe this new culture is that they were a combination, a blend of the various groups in the region. However, like the Hopewell and Adena before them, the Fort Ancients were not a single tribe. They were multiple, if not hundreds of, tribes that shared common characteristics. Our particular Fort Ancients, slightly distinct from those in central Ohio, are known as the Feurt Focus. Two of their more well-known sites in the area are the Hobson and Roseberry Sites, in Meigs and Mason Counties.

They adopted the practice of growing corn from the Parkline Phase peoples, introducing what is known as “Three Sisters” agriculture to the Ohio Valley. This involved growing beans, corn, and squash at the same time in order to increase the harvest. The corn provided a pole for the beans to climb, the squash prevented weeds from growing, and between the three, they provided nearly every essential nutrient needed for a healthy diet. Because they no longer needed to follow animal herds for food, this allowed the Fort Ancients to settle down and build larger villages, which is exactly what they did.

They expanded upon the small villages built by the Hopewell and Childers Phase peoples, eventually reaching an average size of 300-500 people. Most were located on the flats above major rivers, hence the reason that they occupied our area, were surrounded by defensive walls or palisades, and were arranged in a rough circle or oval. The reason for this last piece is that the Fort Ancients also borrowed from the Hopewell tradition of alignment with the solstices, so that each village was essentially a calendar.

Lastly, they also continued the Hopewell practice of mound building for a short time, both for burials and religious purposes. However, as new trade routes developed, these old practices were abandoned. Our Fort Ancients in the Ohio Valley were closely tied to the Eastern Sioux tribes of Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, and it was from those cultures that they adopted the practice of burying their dead in traditional graves beneath their homes.

For over 400 years, the Fort Ancients prospered and expanded their territory throughout Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. However, they had the unfortunate luck of being caught up in one of the bloodiest wars in North American history.

It all started in 1628, when the Iroquois of upstate New York began to consolidate their hold on the fur trade with the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York City). In this era, consolidating power meant eliminating your competition. They began with the neighboring tribes in the Hudson and Champlain Valleys, and with the help of firearms bought from the French and Dutch, they decimated their opponents. They then turned west to their old enemies, the Huron Confederacy. Long story short, those that weren’t killed either fled west or were absorbed into the Iroquois. They repeated this victory against the Erie and Algonquin Confederacies (which included the Delaware, Miami, and Shawnee who were then living in the upper Ohio Valley), effectively gaining control of everything east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio. The last region to fall was southern West Virginia and Kentucky, likely due to the harsh terrain.

It was here that the last of the Fort Ancients were living, up until around 1690. They had already been almost wiped out by European disease, carried into the region by trade, so when the Iroquois finally invaded the Kanawha and Big Sandy Valleys, the Fort Ancients fell quickly. Robert de La Salle and other early explorers reported that the Mosopelea (driven south to Mississippi), Oniasantkeronons (destroyed or absorbed), Tutelo (driven east to Virginia), and Xualae (destroyed or absorbed) were among those last Fort Ancients.

Following the Beaver Wars, as this conflict is known, our region was pretty much empty. The Iroquois had killed or driven off every tribe living here, and it stayed that way for almost two generations, until the 1740s. We’ll pick up there for the last article in this series on our area’s Native American history.

Information from the WV Encyclopedia and Ohio History Central.

The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 18 with a location to be announced soon.

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Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com