Thomas Jefferson Papers

Henry M. Brackenridge to Thomas Jefferson, 25 July 1813

From Henry M. Brackenridge

Baton Rouge July 25th 1813


From a knowledge that research into the history of the primitive inhabitants of America, is one of your favorite amusements, I take the liberty of making this communication. my attention to the subject, was first awakened on reading when a boy, the observations contained in the “Notes on Virginia” and it has become, with me, a favorite theme of speculation. I often visited the mound,1 and other remains of Indian Antiquity in the neighbourhood of Pittsburgh, my native town, attracted by a pleasing interest of which I scarcely2 knew the cause, and afterwards read, and heard with delight, whatever related to these monuments of the first, or rather earlier, inhabitants of my native country. Since the year 1810. (without previously intending it) I have visited almost every thing of this kind, worthy of note on the Ohio and mississippi, and from examination and reflection, something like hypothesis, has taken the place of the vague wanderings of fancy. The following is a sketch of the result of those observations.

Throughout what is denominated by Volney, the valey of the mississippi, there exist the traces of a population far beyond what this extensive and fertile portion of the Continent, is supposed to have possessed: greater perhaps, than could be supported of the present white inhabitants, even with the careful agriculture practised in the most populous parts of Europe. The reason of this, is to be found in the peculiar manners of the inhabitants by whom it was formerly occupied; like those of mexico their agriculture had for its only object their own sustenance; no surpluss was demanded for commerce with foreign nations, and no part of the soil susceptible of culture, was devoted to pasturage; yet, extensive forests filled with wild animals would still remain. The aggregate population of the country might be less, but that of particular districts much greater. We must in this way, account for the astonishing population of the vale of mexico when first known to the Spaniards: perhaps equal to any district of the Same extent3 of china.4 (See Humbolt page 127 vol: 2) The astonishing5 population of Owhyhee, and Otaheita, must be accounted for in the same way. There are certainly many districts6 on the ohio and mississippi equally favourable to a numerous population: when I contemplate the beauty and fertility of those spots, I could scarcely beleive it possible, that they should never have supported a numerous population; such a fact would form an exception to what has usually occured, in every other part of the Globe;7

In The valley of the mississippi, there are discovered the traces of two distinct races of people, or periods of population, one much more ancient than the other. The traces of the last are much more8 numerous, but mark a population less advanced in civilization; in fact they belong to the same race as existed in the country when the French and English effected their settlements on this part of the Continent: but Since the intercourse of these people with the whites and the astonishing9 dimunition in numbers, many of their customs have fallen into disuse—it is not more than a hundred and twenty years, since the character of the population, which left the traces of the second period, underwent a change. The appearances of fortifications of which so much has been Said, and which have been attributed to a colony of Welch, are nothing more than the traces of pallisadoed towns or villages. The first travellers mention this custom of surrounding their towns with pallisades; the earth was thrown up a few feet and pickets placed on the top: I have Seen old volumes in which they are represented in the engravings10 The Arikara and Mandan villages are still fortified in this way. The traces of these are astonishingly11 numerous in the Western country: I should not exagerate if I were to say five thousand might be found. Some of them enclose more than an hundred acres. From some cause or other (and we know that there [are]12 enough which might suffice to effect it) the population had been astonishingly13 diminished immediately before we became acquainted with them; and yet Charlevoix mentions a town of the mascutin tribe (at present incorporated with the kickapoos) containing a thousand families. the barrows, or general resceptacles of the dead, such as examined by yourself, may be classed with the pallisadoed towns, though they are much more numerous; they are in fact, to be found in almost every cornfield in the Western country. The tumuli or mounds are often met with, where there is no appearance of pallisadoed villages or fortifications, or of barrows.

The first and more ancient period, is marked by those extraordinary tumuli or mounds. I have reason to beleive that their antiquity is verry great. The oldest Indians have no tradition as to their Authors, or the purposes for which they were originally intended; yet they were unconsciously formerly14 in the habit of using them for one of the purposes for which they were at first designed to wit as places of defence. The old chief Du Coin, told mr Rice Jones that the mounds in the American Bottom had been fortified by the Kaskaskias in their wars with the Iroquois.15 An old work by Lafitau a jesuit, which I met with at New Orleans, contains a curious plate in which one of these mounds fortified by pallisades on the top and large beams extending to the bottom, is assaulted by enemies. These tumuli as well as the fortifications, are to be found at the junction of all the considerable rivers, in the most eligible positions for towns, and in the most extensive bodies of fertile land. Their number exceeds perhaps three thousand; the smallest not less than twenty feet in height, and one hundred in diameter at the base. Their great number, and the astonishing size of some of them, may be regarded as furnishing with other circumstances evidence of their antiquity: I have been Sometimes induced to think that at the period when those mounds were constructed, there existed on the mississippi, a population as numerous as that which once animated the borders of the nile or of the Euphrates, or of mexico and Peru.

The most numerous, as well as the most considerable of these remains, are found precisely in the part of the country where the traces of numerous population might be looked for, to wit, from the mouth of the Ohio (on the East Side of the mississippi) to the Illinois river, and on the west Side from the St Francis to the missouri: I am perfectly Satisfied that cities Similar to those of Ancient Mexico, of several hundred thousand souls have existed in this part of the country. Nearly opposite St Louis there are the traces of two such cities, in the distance of five miles, on the bank of the cohokia, which crosses the American bottom at this place.16 There are not less than one hundred mounds, in two different groups; one of the mounds falls little short of the Egyptian pyramid Mycerius.17 when I examined it in 1811, I was astonished18 that this stupendious monument of Antiquity Should have been unnoticed by any traveller: I afterwards published an account in the newspapers at St Louis, detailing its dimensions describing its form, position &a, but this, which I thought might almost be considered a discovery, attracted no notice: and yet I stated it to be eight hundred paces in circumference (the exact Size of the pyramid of Asychis.) and one hundred feet in height. The mounds at Grave creek and Marietta are of the Second or third class. The mounds at St Louis, at new Madrid, and at the commencement of Black river, are all larger than those of Marietta. The following is an enumeration of the most considerable mounds on the mississippi and on the Ohio; the greater part I examined myself with such attention as the short time I had to spare would permit.

1. At Great19 creek, below Wheeling

2. At Pittsburgh

3. At Marietta

4. Cincinati

5. New Madrid—one of them 350 feet diameter at the base

6. Bois [Brule]20 bottom, 15 miles, below St Genevieve

7. At St Genevieve

8. mouth of the marameck

9. St Louis—one with two Stages another with three

10. mouth of the missouri

11. on the cohokia river—in two groups—

12. twenty miles below—two groups also, but the mound of a smaller size—on the back of a lake formerly the bed of the river.

13. near Washington (M.T.) 146 feet in height

14 At Baton Rouge and on the bayou [Manchac]21 one of the mounds near the lake is chiefly composed of shells. the inhabitants have taken away great quantities for the purpose of making lime—

15. The mound on Black river—of two stages,—with a group around it—

At each of these places there are groupes of mounds; and at each there probably once existed a city. On the other considerable rivers which are tributary to the Ohio and mississippi, in Kentucky Tennessee, State of Ohio, Indiana Territory &a they are equally numerous. But the principal city and center of population was between the ohio, mississippi, missouri, and Illinois, I have been informed that in the plains between the Arkansa and St Francis they are numerous and some verry large—They resemble the Teocalli,22 in these important features. 1—in their positions the cardinal points are observed with considerable accuracy. 2—The larger mounds have several stages, 3—in every group there are two mounds much larger than the others—4 The Smaller mounds are placed around Symetrically. A closer examination would show a resemblance in other particulars. It is doubted by Humboldt whether advantage had not been taken of some natural rise, in the formation of the pyramid23 of cholula; with respect to the mound of Cohokia there can be no doubt for it stands in the midst of Alluvium, and there is no natural hill nearer than two miles. (See the account of the Teocalli24 of New Spain by Humboldt pages 16.—41.—44.—123.—170. &a vol 225)

Such are the appearances of Antiquity in the western country, which I consider as furnishing proof of an ancient and numerous population. The resemblance to those of New Spain would render probable the existence of the Same arts and customs; perhaps an intercource. The distance from the large mound on red river to the nearest in New Spain, is not so great but that they might be considered as existing26 in the same country.—

From the description of the adoratorios, as they are called,27 it appears highly probable that the mounds on the mississippi were destined for the same purposes. Solis tells us, that every considerable place, had a number of them, upon which a kind of tower was erected, and which gave rise to the beleif of those who first visited the coast of new Spain that they had seen cities with numerous steeples, (Dr28 Robertson who is disposed to lessen every thing American, and to treat with contempt unworthy of a philosopher, all their arts and advancement in civilization, attributes this to the imaginations of the Spaniards, inflamed with the spirit of Quixottic adventure) from which circumstance they bestowed upon it the name of their native country. The four great cities to which the general name of Mexico was given, contained two thousand of these adoratorios or teocalli; at the first glance this vast population, equal perhaps to London or Paris, appeared to be crowned with inumerable towers and steeples. Architecture was perhaps too much in its infancy to enable them to build to any great height, a mound was therefore raised, and a building erected on the top. It was in this way the temple of Belus, at Babylon was erected, and the Egyptian pyramids of the Second class which are Solid and probably the most ancient. Besides being places of adoration, the Teocali also Served as fortresses; they were usually the last places, to which the inhabitants of the cities conquered by Cortes, resorted after having been driven from every other quarter.

They were enabled from the position, form, and the tower on the top, to defend themselves in these places29 to great advantage. Placed from the bottom to the top of the mount, by gradations above each other, they appear’d (as Solis in his animated Style expresses it) to constitute “a living hill”; and at first, judging only from the experience of their own wars, they fancied themselves impregnable.30

From the oldest book extant, the bible, we see exemplified in numerous instances, the natural predilection for resorting to high places; for the purpose of worship; this prevailed amongst all nations, and probably the first edifice dedicated to the Deity was an elevation of earth, the next step was the placing a temple on it, and finally churches & mosques were built with steeples. This has prevailed in all countries: it may be considered the dictate of Nature. The most ancient temples of the Greeks: were erected on artificial, or natural elevations of earth; at the present day, almost every part of Europe and Asia, exhibit these remains of tumuli, the rudest, though perhaps the most lasting of human works. (See appendix to Volney’s view of America, Clarks travels in Russia &a) The mausoleum, generally holds the next place to the temple; and what is remarkable, all nations in their wars have made the last stand in the edifices consecrated to their Gods, and near the tombs of their Ancestors. The Adoratorio of New Spain, like all works of the kind answered the three purposes, of the temple, the fortress and the mausoleum. Can we entertain a doubt but that this was also the case with those of the mississippi?

The antiquity of these mounds, is certainly verry great; this is not infered from the growth of trees, which prove an antiquity of a few centuries, but from this Simple reflection; a people capable of works requiring So much labour, must be numerous, and if numerous Somewhat advanced in the Arts; we might therefore look for works of Stone or brick the traces of which would remain at least eight or ten centuries. The great mound of Cohokia, is evidently constructed with as much regularity as any of the Teocalli of new Spain, and was doubtless cased31 with brick or stone, and crowned with buildings, but of these no traces remain. Near the mound at St Louis, there are a few decaying Stones, but which may have been casually brought there. The pyramid of Papantla, in the Northern part of the Intendency of Vera Cruz unknown to the first conquerers, and discovered a few years ago, was still partly cased32 with brick. we might be justified33 in considering the mounds of the mississippi more ancient than the Teocalli: a fact worthy of notice, although the stages are still plain in Some of them, the gradations or steps have disappeared, in the course of time the rains having washed them off. The peices of obsidian or flint, are found in great quantities near them, as is the case with the Teocalli: Some might be Startled if I should say that the mound of Cohokia is as ancient as those of Egypt. The Mexicans possessed but imperfect traditions of the construction of their Teocalli: their traditions, attribute them to the Toultecs or to the Olmecs—who probably migrated from the mississippi.—

who will pretend to speak with certainty as to the Antiquity of America—The races of men who have flourished and disappeared—of the thousand revolutions which like other parts of the Globe it has undergone? The philosophers of Europe with a narrowness and Selfishness of mind have endeavoured to depreciate every thing which relates to it. They have called it the New world, as though its formation was posterior to the rest of the habitable globe. A few34 facts suffice to repel this idea: the antiquity of her mountains, the remains of Volcanoes, the alluvial tracts, the wearing away of Cataracts &a, and the number of primitive languages, greater perhaps than in all the rest of the world besides. The use of letters, and the discovery of the mariners compass, the invention of gunpowder & of printing, have produced incalculable changes in the Old world. I question much whether before those periods, comparitively recent, there existed [or could exist]35 any nationes more civilized than the mexicans, or Peruvians. In morals, the Greeks and Romans in their most enlightened days were not Superior to the mexicans. We are told that these people Sacrifised human beings36 to their Gods! did not the Romans Sacrifise their unfortunate prisoners to their depraved and wicked pleasures, compelling them to kill each other. What was the sacrifice of Ephigenia, to obtain a favourable Wind? an act of less barbarity than the sacrifises by the mexicans of their prisoners on the altar of their Gods? The Peruvians were exempt from these crimes—perhaps the mildest and most innocent people that ever lived, and in the arts as much advanced as were the ancient Persians or Egyptians, not only in the arts but even in the Sciences. Was ever any work of the old world superior to the two roads from Quito to Cusco?

Pardon me, Sir, for troubling you with this long, and perhaps tiresome letter, dictated37 probably by the vanity of personally communicating my crude theories to one who holds so distinguished a place in that temple of Science which is of no country and of no age—38

with Sentiments of the highest respect I am, Sir Your most obedient Humble Servant

H: M: Brackenridge

I am mistaken as to the pyramid of Papantla being cased39 with bricks: The Teocalli of & that of Chilula, are partly composed of Brick, but that of papantla differs in this respect—

See the curious account of the Casas Grandees on the Rio Gila Intendency of Senora & the mitle in the Intendency of Oaxaca—(Humboldt)

Tr (PPAmP: Benjamin Smith Barton Papers, Series II, Indian materials); in an unidentifed hand, with one word added, probably by Barton. Recorded in SJL as received 15 Sept. 1813. Enclosed in TJ to Caspar Wistar, 19 Sept. 1813. Printed in APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, new ser., 1 (1818): 151–9, under the heading “On the Population and Tumuli of the Aborigines of North America. In a Letter from H. H. Brackenridge, Esq. to Thomas Jefferson.—Read Oct. 1, 1813,” and in Speeches on the Jew Bill, in the House of Delegates of Maryland by H. M. Brackenridge, Col. W. G. D. Worthington, and John S. Tyson, Esquire (1829), 192–205; both printed texts lack postscript.

Henry Marie Brackenridge (1786–1871), author, attorney, and judge, was a native of Pittsburgh and the son of the author Hugh Henry Brackenridge. He read law and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1806. Brackenridge began his legal career in western Pennsylvania before moving his practice in 1810 to what would soon become known as the Missouri Territory, where he studied natural history, geography, and Native American antiquities. Late in 1811 he traveled to New Orleans to verse himself in Spanish law. Following the War of 1812, Brackenridge moved to Baltimore, where he continued to practice law and advocated American recognition of the rebelling Spanish colonies in Central and South America. After service as secretary of an 1817 diplomatic mission to study political conditions in Latin America, he represented Baltimore County for two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates, 1818–20, where he supported the abolition of Jewish civil disabilities. A fortuitous meeting with Andrew Jackson in 1821 induced Brackenridge to join the Florida governor’s staff as a private secretary and interpreter. President James Monroe appointed him judge of the West Florida District in June 1822, and he continued in that capacity until May 1832, when Jackson replaced him. Brackenridge won a special election as a Whig to fill a vacant Pennsylvania seat in the United States House of Representatives, but he failed to secure his party’s renomination and served only for the 1840–41 session. His publications included Views of Louisiana; together with a journal of a voyage up the Missouri River, in 1811 (Pittsburgh, 1814); History of the Late War, between the United States and Great-Britain (Baltimore, 1816); South America: A Letter on the Present State of that Country to James Monroe (Washington, 1817); Voyage to South America, performed by order of the American government, in the years 1817 and 1818, 2 vols. (Baltimore, 1819); A Eulogy, on the Lives and Characters of John Adams & Thomas Jefferson (1826); Recollections of Persons and Places in the West (1834); and History of the Western Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania, commonly called the Whiskey Insurrection. 1794 (1859). Brackenridge died in Pittsburgh and was buried on his large estate near that city (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; William F. Keller, The Nation’s Advocate: Henry Marie Brackenridge and Young America [1956]; Papenfuse, Maryland Public Officials description begins Edward C. Papenfuse and others, eds., An Historical List of Public Officials of Maryland, 1990– , 1 vol. description ends , 1:389; Speeches on the Jew Bill, 59–100; Jackson, Papers description begins Sam B. Smith, Harold D. Moser, Daniel Feller, and others, eds., The Papers of Andrew Jackson, 1980– , 7 vols. description ends , 5:34, 6:214, 215n; Terr. Papers description begins Clarence E. Carter and John Porter Bloom, eds., The Territorial Papers of the United States, 1934–75, 28 vols. description ends , 22:451, 24:704; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States description ends , 3:298, 303, 314, 329 [29 Apr., 4 May, 23 Dec. 1822, 31 Jan. 1823]; Pittsburgh Daily Gazette, 19 Jan. 1871).

owhyhee: Hawaii. otaheita: Tahiti. The american bottom is a floodplain of the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois. russia, Tartary, and Turkey were included in the first part of Edward Daniel Clarke’sTravels in Various Countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa (Philadelphia, 1811).ephigenia (Iphigenia) was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra whom Artemis demanded as a sacrifice in return for a fair wind to send the Greeks to Troy (OCD description begins Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2003 description ends , 765–6).

1Tr: “mounds.” Transactions and Speeches: “mound.”

2Tr: “sarcely.” Transactions and Speeches: “scarcely.”

3Remainder of sentence omitted in Speeches.

4Transactions: “climate.”

5Speeches: “prodigious.”

6Tr: “distincts.” Transactions and Speeches: “districts.”

7Preceding paragraph and next three paragraphs numbered “I.” through “IV.” in Transactions and Speeches.

8Transactions and Speeches: “are the most.”

9Speeches: “their very great.”

10Transactions and Speeches use an asterisk to key a note to this point, which reads “These are to be seen in many old volumes in the present library of Congress, which contains the most valuable collection of Books on America to be found in any part of the world.”

11Speeches: “exceedingly.”

12Word, omitted from Tr, supplied from printed texts.

13Speeches: “greatly.”

14Transactions: “yet they were formerly.” Speeches: “yet they were formerly, I might almost say instinctively.”

15Word inserted in blank space, probably by Barton.

16Transactions and Speeches use an asterisk to key a note to this point, which reads “See the Chapter on the Antiquities of the Valley of the Mississippi, in the “Views of Louisiana,” by the author of this Memoir, p. 181. Pittsburg edition, 1814.”

17Tr: “mycerenus.” Transactions and Speeches: “Mycerius.”

18Speeches: “surprised.”

19Tr: “Grave.” Transactions and Speeches: “Great.”

20Blank left in Tr, with word supplied from Speeches. Transactions: “Bois Brulie.”

21Blank left in Tr, with word supplied from printed texts.

22Tr: “Holali.” Transactions and Speeches: “Teocalli.”

23Tr: “pyramids.” Transactions and Speeches: “pyramid.”

24Tr: “Teoculi.” Transactions and Speeches: “Teocalli.”

25To this note Transactions and Speeches add “New York edition, 1811.”

26Speeches: “living.”

27Unmatched closing parenthesis in Tr editorially altered to a comma.

28Transactions: “Mr.”

29Transactions and Speeches: “situations.”

30Transactions and Speeches: “unassailable.”

31Tr and Transactions: “chased.” Speeches: “cased.”

32Tr: “chased.” Transactions and Speeches: “cased.”

33Transactions and Speeches: “warranted.”

34Tr: “Only few.” Transactions and Speeches: “A few.”

35Preceding three words added from Transactions and Speeches.

36Tr: “being.” Transactions and Speeches: “beings.”

37Tr: “distated.” Transactions and Speeches: “dictated.”

38Transactions and Speeches: “which belongs to every age and every country.”

39Tr: “chased.”

Index Entries

  • antiquities; Indian burial mounds and fortifications search
  • Arikara Indians search
  • Brackenridge, Henry Marie; identified search
  • Brackenridge, Henry Marie; letters from search
  • Brackenridge, Henry Marie; on Indian antiquities search
  • Charlevoix, Pierre François Xavier de; mentioned search
  • Clarke, Edward Daniel; Travels in Various Countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa search
  • Cortés, Hernán; mentioned search
  • Ducoigne, Jean Baptiste (Kaskaskia Indian chief); mentioned search
  • Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne (Humboldt) search
  • History of America (W. Robertson) search
  • Humboldt, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Baron von; Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne search
  • Indians; Arikara search
  • Indians; burial mounds and fortifications of search
  • Indians; Iroquois search
  • Indians; Kaskaskia search
  • Indians; Kickapoo search
  • Indians; Mandan search
  • Indians; Mascouten search
  • Indians; Olmec search
  • Indians; origin of search
  • Indians; Toltec search
  • Iroquois Indians search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes on the State of Virginia search
  • Jones, John Rice search
  • Kaskaskia Indians search
  • Kickapoo Indians search
  • Lafitau, Joseph François; Mœurs des Sauvages Ameriquains search
  • Mandan Indians search
  • Mascouten Indians search
  • Mœurs des Sauvages Ameriquains (Lafitau) search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); and H. M. Brackenridge search
  • Olmec Indians search
  • Robertson, William (1721–93); History of America search
  • Solis, Antonio de search
  • South America; Indian antiquities of search
  • Tableau du Climat et du Sol des États-Unis d’Amérique (Volney) search
  • Toltec Indians search
  • Travels in Various Countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa (Clarke) search
  • Volney, Constantin François Chasseboeuf, comte de; Tableau du Climat et du Sol des États-Unis d’Amérique search