How a Burial Site Disappeared, or the Mound Beneath Our Feet
When we last visited the McKees Rocks Indian Mound, it was 1896 and outraged locals chased the archaeologist directing its excavation back to Harvard.
Now, let’s explore what the people of McKees Rocks did with it after he left.
Keep in mind that white people living around the 2,500-year-old burial site at the turn of the last century — at least the most vocal ones — weren’t bothered at all about disturbing Indian remains.
They just didn’t believe they were all that old. Mostly, they didn’t trust know-it-all scientists.
Stories circulated that white victims of cholera and “floaters” (people who drowned in the Ohio River) were buried there.
Those concerns faded. Perhaps, stories told by generations of McKees Rocks residents digging up arrowheads and pottery in an around the mound had an effect.
A majority of the community then began to think only Indians lie in the mound. And, they didn’t matter.
The burial ground of the McKee family, founders of the town, was close by. Maybe too close. The departed McKees departed to Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville in 1897, before any more shovels were carried to the top of the bluff.
It was a wise choice. After a series of floods, the rock under the mound became far more important than dead Indians.
A 1901 story in the Pittsburgh Press tells how the people of McKees Rocks were excited because quarry workers were about to tear apart what was left of the mound.
Most of the historic details in the Page One story are wrong, but it illustrates what people were reading, and it may capture the community mood.
— Alexander McKee, not John, was the frontiersman for whom the town is almost named. His is a long story, but in a nutshell he sided with Indians in various wars of his lifetime, remained loyal to his country (England), and the Crown awarded him land in Canada, where he fled from Patriots. His brother, James, took over Alexander’s property on which McKees Rocks was founded. So, James could be the town’s namesake. The John McKee mentioned in the news clipping subdivided his land to create McKeesport, 16 miles away. He’s not related to Alexander. Got all that?
— There were indeed boxes made of flat stones in the mound. In those, seated skeletons were found. No treasure.
Also, despite the writer’s expectation that the mound would soon disappear, photos indicate it lasted a while longer.
To Be or Not to Be
Many promoting McKees Rocks today still say part of the mound remains.
In 2008, members of the Seneca tribe and two historic preservation officers went to the top of the bluff to see if that’s true.
One of the archaeologists was Mark McConaughy, then of the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office. The other was Jay Toth, archaeologist of the Seneca Nation, based in New York State.
Seneca leaders became aware of the mound as Pennsylvania researched placement of an historical marker there in 2002.
The people buried in the mound assuredly were not Seneca.
But, Toth says tribal tradition holds Seneca responsible for maintaining sacred sites of people they have conquered.
Indian oral histories, and written ones by Jesuit missionaries, say the Iroquois Confederation of tribes, which includes Seneca, wiped out area tribes in the 1600s.
Brutal wars were fought over who would control trading furs to Europeans for manufactured goods. They are called the Beaver Wars.
So, the Seneca representatives climbed to the top of the quarry.
Afterwards, a report written by McConaughy says both he and Toth agreed nothing remains of the mound.
It’s understandable why people would think something does.
Many think the quarry itself is the mound. And then, . . . well, mounds are continually disappearing and reappearing up there.
Is it a mystical phenomenon?
No. It’s just piles of ground stone that gets used up and replenished.
“Unfortunately, whenever the stone was quarried out of the bluff, it also destroyed what remained of McKees Rocks Mound. The edge of the bluff is now used to store materials that are fed into the cement production facility at the base of the bluff,” McConaughy wrote.
A walk up there Friday with Tracey Pedersen of the McKees Rocks Historical Society shows it is still that way.
Even if some rise in the ground could be identified as a remnant of the original mound, it would have no more significance than soil left by graverobbers in a cemetery.
Most of the mound contents are scattered to places unknown, or at least uncatalogued.
Thousands of pottery pieces and arrowheads are sitting in attics and garages in McKees Rocks.
Pedersen says a story is told of a child bringing a skull to show-and-tell. A nun shows the boy the door and tells him what to do with the skull.
It could have been Indian, but it could well have come from an unmarked old cemetery believed to have surrounded the McKee family plot, Pederson notes.
However, the exact whereabouts of skeletal and cremated remains of 33 people, and hundred of items buried with them, are well known. They are at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
That’s what the museum-backed archaeologist dug up in 1896.
Those who are old enough may remember Indian skeletons and artifacts in display cases at the Carnegie. Youngsters always made sure to gawk at them.
The skeletons disappeared from public view after Americans became more respectful of Indian remains.
A related federal law passed in 1990 requires museums that use money from the National Science Foundation, or other federal sources, to return bones and artifacts to the appropriate tribe.
How much are we talking about?
As of 2016, the remains of 32,000 people were given to their respective tribes.
Those 19th Century archaeologists were busy, weren’t they?
Nearly 670,000 objects buried with the dead also were returned. So were 3,500 objects deemed sacred. Another 120,000 items unrelated to burials made they way back to tribes.
Some of that has gone into newly established, Indian-operated museums. Tribes can control the narrative there — with the help of federal grants.
Everything dug up at McKees Rocks has yet to leave the Carnegie.
That haul remains in storage at the museum’s research center on Baum Boulevard.
One reason is that the cache has not been connected to a particular modern-day tribe. More importantly, no tribe has formally asked for them.
I asked Toth if the Seneca Nation had sought custody.
He said it hadn’t.
“Because no one told me about them,” Toth replied, sounding incredulous.
You mean he came down here from Salamanca, NY, walked the mound, and didn’t learn of the Carnegie excavation?
Toth tried to recall what was going on 10 years ago at his office, or with the state, or with the Carnegie, that could have caused that communication lapse.
In the end, it may not matter.
“Now that I know, . . . I’ll file a request,” Toth said.
Such things can involve a lot of paperwork, legal wrangling and expense.
The biggest problem may well be that the remains and their associated artifacts are not Seneca.
They are so old that no one knows to what federally recognized tribe, if any, they belong.
Who can say if the defeated tribes and clans — or which of them– were descendants of the mound builders?
DNA analysis might help, but pulling that off gets really complicated, and it may resolve little.
Indians who closely follow traditional ways believe spirits exist and they persist in everything. It’s wise to respect them. And, leave them undisturbed.
We’ll be getting into just what the Carnegie has in storage, what’s been learned, and what may eventually happen to it all.
But, first, we’ll look at alternative mound science. Next week, be ready to roll your eyes, or be awed by revelations uncovering the truth — your choice.
Want to read more? Check this concise summary of the mounds and the cultures that built them.