On May 25, 1850, Ralph Waldo Emerson—essayist, poet, lecturer, and Transcendentalist–turned forty-seven years of age. He was in the midst of a lecture tour in the Midwest, and had just finished a series of engagements in Cincinnati. On this day Emerson joined a group of young men on a trip to the ancient earthworks now known as Fort Ancient in Warren County, Ohio. Fort Ancient is an enclosed ceremonial fort created by Ohio’s Hopewell Indians at some point between 100 B.C. and 400 A.D. It’s walls, which can be as much as twenty-three feet high, enclose an area of nearly 100 acres. There are mounds within the fortification. Fort Ancient is located on a plateau above the Little Miami River. The site is now officially known as Fort Ancient State Memorial.
Emerson was visiting the earthworks at a time when American archaeology was in its infancy. There had long been a notion among Euro-Americans that a mysterious race of “Mound Builders” unrelated to the American Indians created the mysterious earthworks of the United States. White explorers and settlers had a hard time crediting the idea that the American Indians they knew were possibly related to the cultures that built these structures. One theory was that a “lost tribe of Israel” from Biblical times had built them. Just two years before Emerson’s visit, the Smithsonian Institution had just published its first book–Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley by Ephraim George Squier of New York and Edwin Hamilton Davis of Ohio. This book is an important early contribution to our understanding of the historical earthworks of the United States.
Emerson was deeply impressed with both the ancient monuments and the area’s tulip poplars. “In this sylvan Persepolis, I spent my birthday with a very intelligent party of young men,” wrote Emerson. He also noted that the site reminded him of a trip to Stonehenge.
I find it intriguing to picture the Sage of Concord wandering the Ohio countryside. But this was just one stop on Emerson’s lecture and sightseeing tour of the Midwest in 1850. Later this week I will have a more in-depth post on the entire journey.