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|Destruction of The Great Mound|
(Seventh in a Series)
In a day when Huey Long was electrifying Louisiana politics and building bridges and roads for an appreciative electorate, most looked ahead to an era of progress. The Great Depression had forced the country to its knees economically although people in rural areas such as this region of the country had long lived on hopes and dreams of better times.
Something barely short of a miracle was happening in the early 1930s. A new bridge was being constructed over the Black River at Jonesville, the first ever. This new structure was one of 111 bridges Huey built statewide, including the one that crosses the Ouachita at Harrisonburg.
Huey was assassinated in 1936. He left behind thousands of miles of hardsurfaced roads in Louisiana, compared to slightly more than 300 miles total when he took office. In 1931 alone, 10 percent of the men working on highways and bridges in the nation were at work in Louisiana. With Huey's dictates, corporate taxpayers, particularly oil tycoons like John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company, paid for this infrastructure.
But it was Huey's bridge program that set into motion the destruction of The Great Mound in Jonesville, raised by the Troyville Indians in 700 A.D., and used for centuries as a ceremonial center and as a look-out post.
GREAT MOUND VISITORS
The Great Mound had been leveled to some degree through time. In 1804, William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter, on their exploration of the Ouachita River following the Louisiana Purchase, stopped at present day Jonesville and met with Caddy Hebrard, who operated a ferry where the four rivers -- Black, Ouachita, Little and Tensas -- meet. They recorded that The Great Mound measured 80 feet in height. Both were impressed by this site long abandoned by the Indians for reasons still unknown. Dunbar called this place "remarkable."
Hunter and Dunbar provided the first detailed written description of the mounds, including The Great Mound. In the years to follow others visited this site, including Major Amos Stoddard of Natchez, who theorized in 1812 that the mounds were built "for the reception of the dead." In 1844 the historian Dr. J.W. Monette of the village of Washington north of Natchez wrote that The Great Mound and others occupied 400 acres. In 1896, Tulane Professor George E. Beyer at the urging of the Louisiana Historical Society walked the site and wrote about it. Others also reported on the mounds built by the Troyville Indians.
We know that by 1852, The Great Mound had been reduced in height to 60 feet. It was leveled even more during the Civil War to construct Confederate rifle pits. Jonesville was founded in 1871 and utilized some of the mounds as the town grew, and the mounds were temporary homes to flood refuges for generations.
In 1931, the final assault on the Great Mound was made by the contractor who was building Huey's bridge across the Black River. Dirt was needed to build the approach to the bridge on the Jonesville side of the river. Archaeologists hope to sift through this approach when the new bridge is opened to traffic and the old one destroyed.
Winslow Walker of the Smithsonian was excavating mound sites along the Red River at Natchitoches in 1931 when he heard about the mound leveling. Walker raced to Jonesville to excavate what was left. Dr. Joe Saunders, regional archaeologist at the University of Louisiana Monroe in the Department of Geosciences, says Walker was especially interested in the site because of "its exotic features, such as the cane dome, which was layered like a onion. There was a layer of split cane, covered with dirt. Then cane and more dirt. The builders were conscious of selecting different colors of dirt, too, such as blue clays and red clays."
WALKER REPORT FOR SMITHSONIAN
Walker published a 103-page booklet on his work, noting: "The subsequent growth of the town of Jonesville resulted in a correspondingly rapid demolition of the mounds, particularly of the Great Mound, which supplied dirt to fill up the hollows and ditches from which it had been taken originally. Even dynamite was resorted to in order to hasten the process...a good sized hill remained which served an extremely useful purpose as a refugee camp during the floods which came between 1912 and 1927, since it was the only spot in town above the reach of the water.
"But the owners still regarded it as a hindrance to the development of their property and determined to get rid of it at the most favorable opportunity. The decision of the Louisiana Highway Commission to build a bridge across Black River just south of the main part of town, to join the ends of the new proposed highway, provided the longed-for chance. A long, high approach had to be built at each end of the bridge and the mound offered the most convenient and satisfactory source from which to obtain the earth needed. A contract was made with the owners to permit the removal of 21,000 cubic yards of dirt, which resulted in reducing the mound nearly to street level."
Walker noted that "the demolition work began during the early part of the summer in 1931 and continued for about a month. Day and night shifts were employed, requiring steam shovels, horses and scrapers, along with large gangs of laborers. The hard and closely packed clay which the aboriginal builders had used in their construction was removed."
For weeks, the people of Jonesville choked in a cloud of dust. The late Elnor Swayze told this writer that mothers feared (wrongly) the dust caused tuberculosis. Many kept their children indoors for fear of catching the debilitating disease.
Walker offers an explanation on why the Native Americans here were called the Troyville Indians: "South of Trinity, across Little River is the present town of Jonesville. Its former name, Troyville, was derived from Troy Plantation, which formed part of a Spanish grant of 1,000 acres made to one John (Caddy) Hebrard in 1786, which included the site of a group of large mounds surrounded by an earthen embankment running from Little River around to Black River on the south."
THE NATCHEZ TREASURE
But Walker was not able to complete his work, thanks to a local myth and the people who believed it. Walker wrote that the owner of The Great Mound property and others were convinced that the archeologist was in town not for scientific purposes but to search for the "Natchez Treasure," which, "according to popular tradition, was buried in this or some other large Indian mound."
After the massacre of the French at Fort Rosalie in November 1729, the Natchez abandoned their villages and ceremonial centers and relocated to the Sicily Island hills. News of the savage deaths of 200 to 300 at the fort was big news in France and much of Europe was outraged. In retaliation, the French sent 200 Marines to join its military force of 150 in the lower Mississippi Valley. An additional army of 150 Indian mercenaries joined the expedition.
Doggedly, this military force of 500 searched for the Natchez. Though the number of Indian participants dwindled before reaching Sicily Island, it is highly likely that Natchez sentinels stood atop The Great Mound and watched as this military force ascended the Black and Tensas rivers in 1731. Though the Natchez were in a desperate situation, they remained defiant until the end.
"What they had was what they had plundered from the French," said Jim Barnett, Director, Division of Historic Properties, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Barnett's office is located at the Grand Village of the Natchez.
"When the rebellion broke out in November 1729," said Barnett, "the Natchez took what they wanted out of the few homes that were here. We know they got brandy, butchered the cattle belonging to French settlers, took clothing and other materials from homes and took the weapons from the fort. But the French outpost at Natchez was a fairly shoestring operation. There was not a lot there."
Certainly, no treasure. Just why a number of Jonesville residents were so convinced that the Natchez buried riches there is beyond explanation. But when Walker starting digging, some were certain this man and his workforce were there for gold, not Indian artifacts.
The end for Walker's work came after an important discovery. At the end of Mound Street a bridge once crossed the Little River, connecting Jonesville to Trinity. A few years prior to Walker's visit, a "high water" caused the south bank of Little River to cave in, exposing human skeletons. Three burial sites were found. The largest burial site contained nine skeletons. Walker was encouraged. Did these skeletons belong to the mound builders? It's seems possible, but it wasn't proven.
The "insatiable curiosity" of the "local populace" over the discovery whetted its appetite for the Natchez Treasure. Walker said they "returned to the scene under cover of nightfall, tore off the coverings placed to protect the skeletons, and committed such acts of vandalism that the owners of the ground felt obliged to put a stop to the nuisance by requiring all work to be stopped immediately and the bones to be covered over as before. Time was allowed only to take a few photographs of the burials."
Walked and crew packed up and left town. He never returned.
DESTROYED FOR $100
The man who sold the dirt from The Great Mound was paid the princely sum of $100 for 21,000 cubic yards. His wife reportedly complained the mound blocked the sun from their house, leaving the premises in the dark much of the day.
Sadly, no one much cared. There's not one recorded example of local protest. In one summer, this sacred symbol to a reflective and once prosperous Indian culture, was leveled. Destroyed in the dust that suffocated the town for days was the great labor of this mysterious tribe of Indians who may have built The Great Mound as a ceremonial center, but also surely used it to survey the country for miles in every direction and possibly to communicate with other tribes with signal fires and smoke. Signal fires burned in perpetuity at the summit.
As the sacred dirt was scooped up by the giant shovels, the behemoth mound vanished. How many tourism dollars would the site have generated can only be speculated, but it would have been significant.
In destroying the past, did Jonesville greatly limit its future?
A VISUAL ON MOUND'S HEIGHT
William Least Heat-Moon, author of the popular "Blue Highways: A Journey into America," and other books on the country, held his hands in the air three weeks ago when mulling over the destruction of the giant mound. "How did that happened?" he asked this writer.
Moon-Heat's "Blue Highways" recaps his experiences on a 13,000-mile journey over America's backroads. Now he's working on a book which will include in part he and his wife Jan's travels in the Ouachita River Valley. The book, to be published in the fall of 2008, will include three chapters about Jonesville, including his insights on the mounds, the impact to the area from their destruction and what can still be done. He could provide exceptional assistance to the (still-being-formed) Museum Committee in Jonesville as it works to promote the city's Native American past. (Incidentally, Jan is working on a biography of William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.)
To put the height of The Great Mound in perspective we offer an example. At our request, and using various measurements we were able to provide, Keith Capdepon of Bryant Hammett & Associates calculated that the summit of the Great Mound would have risen 20 feet higher than the deck of the new bridge over Black River.
FUTURE OF THE LAST SETTLEMENT
William Dunbar predicted that one day The Last Settlement on the Ouachita, as the U.S. grew, "will become the site of a commercial inland town, which will hold pace with the progress and prosperity of the country."
Almost a half century later, Trinity had reached its peak population of 200. Surrounded on three sides by the Little, Black and Ouachita, this peninsular community also had a bright future. It was known as Trinity because of the three rivers that bordered it.
Dr. Andrew Robert Kilpatrick, who owned a plantation on the Black, wrote in 1852 that there "are few places in the south possessed of more advantages than Trinity, for an outlay of capital in manufacturing establishments. The communication with New Orleans is always open the whole year round; the Little River affords a short and easy intercourse with the pine hills for at least four months of the year, where any amount of pine and other timber can be easily and cheaply obtained; while the Ouachita and Tensas bring down immense rafts of cypress and ash every winter and spring."
Dunbar was right, a town did spring up at this last settlement which for years was home to Caddy's ferry operation. But did this town -- Jonesville -- "hold pace with the progress and prosperity of the country" as Dunbar envisioned?
For whatever reasons, Kilpatrick's prediction about Trinity was never realized. Trinity apparently didn't make proper use of her "advantages." And changing transportation -- railroads and automobiles -- took away the advantages of the four rivers.
Just as life had changed between the time of the Troyville Indians and Dunbar's arrival centuries later, America has continued to change during the past 200 years. But not everything has changed. The four rivers still meet at the same place.
A FUTURE FOR TROYVILLE INDIANS?
Jonesville Mayor Hiram Evans wants to take advantage of the town's Native American history and attract tourists who are interested in learning about the first humans to occupy this place. He wants to build a museum in Jonesville which will help this area capitalize historically and economically on bringing the story of the Troyville Indians back to life.
Archeologists like Joe Saunders are slowly but surely resurrecting life into these Indians and the work he and his colleagues perform in the future will be invaluable in helping this and future generations understand the people who walked this land for so many centuries. Maybe one day we'll know why they vanished.
Gone is The Great Mound and a fascinating Indian civilization. But rising over the Black is a new bridge, 118 feet above sea level. This $15 million structure, which may be opened to traffic as early as the summer of 2008, will provide travelers a view similar, but slightly less spectacular, than the one the Troyville Indians enjoyed for centuries.
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