McKees Rocks Indian Mound1

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A Famous Burial Site That Isn’t Anymore

A myth you may have heard is that part of the Indian burial mound at McKees Rocks is still there.

It isn’t.

You may have heard giants were buried there, or far-ranging ancient Hebrews, or Greeks, or Egyptians.

Let’s not forget ancient aliens from Outer Space, or a female superhero Indian shaman. 

All myths.

What it was, and what people hoped it would be; where it went and why; are tales that tell us a lot about ourselves, and our neighbors.

Digging seems to be involved at every step.

First by Indians who carried soil to the top of a rock bluff overlooking the Ohio River, next by settlers and descendants looking for buried treasure and evidence of giants, and lastly by me whose Internet shovel unearthed their work –with far less effort.

However, when one digs into Indian grave stories, it will stir up trouble. I did that, too.

Let’s begin this series of posts with the so-called mystery of Indian mounds.

You may have driven around or clambered over them without noticing. Usually, people think they are natural parts of the landscape

Thousands lie in a swath throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, and up to the Great Lakes.

The one in McKees Rocks was the largest found in Pennsylvania. It was 16 feet high and 85 feet across.

Many smaller ones were noted by early Pittsburghers, but each was pillaged by amateur and professional collectors. Then, the march of progress leveled them.

Truly monumental mounds remain in West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois. 

They are big piles of soil and rock, some with people buried in them, some crafted into animal shapes, some as ceremonial or civic platforms.

So, what’s the mystery?

Well, only the question of who exactly built them.

Serpent Mound in Ohio has proved difficult to date because no artifacts have been found inside. However, three burial mounds nearby date to roughly the same time as the one that used to be in McKees Rocks, roughly about 500 BCE.

Who built them has been a racially tinged question from the start.

European settlers couldn’t imagine the earthworks were built by the savage Indians they knew and hated.

Earthworks, you see, require fairly large populations. Big populations require extensive farming.  Farmers are what the settlers were, or wanted to be. Indians were lazy, roving brutes. They couldn’t have done it.

Colonists knew where to find answers to such questions: The Bible.

So, the mounds were either built by one of the missing tribes of Israel, or the Nephilim, a race of giants formed when angels mated with beautiful human women. That was before the Great Flood.

A quick Google search shows both notions still have devoted adherents. 

The less religious among those who discounted Indians, attributed the constructions to far-ranging ancient Egyptians, or maybe ancient Greeks. Today, that group credits aliens from outerspace.

The Truth, to them,  was/is plain to see. Indians couldn’t have done it.

Jefferson’s Take

Thomas Jefferson, perhaps America’s first archaeologist, thought otherwise.

He carefully dug into a mound near his home in Virginia and found only Indian relics amid the bones.

Jefferson recalled hearing of a visit Indians made to the mound. None lived in that area any more. They detoured to the mound without asking directions, and appeared to mourn at the site.

George Washington was only 20 or so when Christopher Gist, one of the first British explorers in the Ohio River Valley, took him to see a mound atop a rock bluff later claimed by Alexander McKee.

Gist thought it might be a good place to build a wilderness fort. That would help them obtain and develop Indian land to sell to settlers.

Both he and Washington were employees and stakeholders in the Ohio Land Company, a group of rich or wanna-be-rich land speculators.

Washington disagreed on the site. He preferred a nearby river-level point of land where two rivers merged.

But, the French got there first and built Fort Duquesne. Eventually,  Washington’s fellow British soldiers and land developers chased the French away.  They built Fort Pitt on the Point, which turned out to be rather flood prone. Oh well.

Did I say two rivers instead of three?

Well, back then, they only counted two. A big long one, with a second flowing into it.

Anyway, Washington’s choice temporarily spared the mound.

European settlers wrote that the Delaware, Shawnee and Seneca around here didn’t seem to know much about the ancient people who made the mound. More likely, Indian spiritual beliefs kept them from sharing much.

In 1900, the Indian mound (see arrow) sits comfortably back from the quarry edge. Many think the mound included the entire bluff. It didn’t. It was just that little bump.
By 1910, the end is near. Two trees cling to the mound as quarrymen inch closer.

A Sacred Place

For a long while after Indians were “removed” from here, colonists saw lone Indians visiting mound sites, chanting, and moving on.

The McKees Rocks mound continued to sit atop its precipice. It became a favorite place for boys, would-be archaeologists and real archaeologists to play and collect artifacts over the next century.

In the late 1800s, The Smithsonian Institution sent archaeologists out into the growing United States to dig into as many Indian mounds as they could. The excavators hoped to unearth clews (as they spelled it then) to the origins and fate of the mound-building culture.

For much of the public, the results were disappointing.

That’s because archaeologists reported finding remains of . . . you guessed it . . . Indians.

They said nothing about Hebrews or giants, or stashes of treasure.

This was during the Great Awakening when religious revivals swept across the Christian world.

Many thought, and many still think, that the Smithsonian reports were a coverup by the godless to hide the truth of giants in North America, and/or the Truth of Scripture.

Newspapers relentlessly stayed on top of the story.  I screened their diggings.

The first dig “for science” at the McKees Rocks mound, they say, occurred in 1885.

 “An enthusiastic amateur archaeologist, ornithologist and herpetologist, having grown tired of studying birds, snakes, etc. . . .  threw himself with ardor into the dissection of the mound.”

Richard Bennett and his small crew worked under the auspices of the Smithsonian, but it was apparent to newsmen that Bennett recruited his diggers from the nearest saloon.

They tunneled in. 


First Official Exhumation

Bennett found a skeleton about three feet from the edge of the mound. Skull shape identified it as Indian.

That is according to the recollection of the Pittsburgh Press in 1896, when a  more substantial dig was just getting under way,  

The newspaper went on to say Bennett 11 years earlier had dug toward the center, where people expected (hoped) to find an altar.

Bennett didn’t. He found a cobble fireplace at ground level with the charred remains of someone atop it.

That seems significant today. Back then it didn’t smack of the higher civilization many were hoping to find.

So, in 1896, the newly created Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh took a crack at it.

The endeavor was supposed to add color to a Founders Day Celebration.

Things got colorful alright.

Just ask Professor Frank M. Gerrodette.  He was hired in June of that year to lead the new museum. In August, the Harvard-trained archaeologist went into the field to direct the dig. A month later, he quit.

Gerrodette fled back to Boston, choosing a less colorful way to spend the rest of his life: reading law. 

Why? What happened?

Well, people tend to get upset when you start digging up dead people.

It wasn’t disrespecting Indians that got them mad.

No, the story became widespread that it was all fake news. (They used the term hoax back then).

In reality, they thought, dead white settlers were being ruthlessly exhumed.

Pittsburghers of 1896, at least the wealthier ones, as they looked attending the first Carnegie International art exhibition at the new museum.

The following comes from George T. Fleming’s 1922 History of Pittsburgh and Environs:

“This story received much credence. Some of the names of such early settlers were given; some of later date were also named. In one instance the man was found alive; in another, the doubters were taken to an old grave yard in the vicinity and showed the grave of the man (which was) plainly marked, who was alleged to have been buried in the ancient mound.

“Therefore, to fully refute such silly and impossible allegations, it was determined by the Museum Committee on the Mound to hold a public meeting where visiting scientists could lecture on Historic Mounds and Historic Mound Builders, and instruct the people of Pittsburgh and others interested, concerning recent archaeological investigations, and what has been revealed by them.”

Those top scientists were in town anyway. They wanted to witness the dig.

Imagine vested suits and pocket watches, cigar smoke and spittoons. They convened amid a large crowd at the Carnegie Library auditorium on what is now the North Side. 

Females likely were absent.

Among the speakers was Dr. Frederick Ward Putnam. He was the Harvard mentor of poor besieged Gerrodette. Putnam was also the man who highly recommended Gerrodette for the museum job.


Putnam said he had devoted more than 30 years to the study of mound building. He assured skeptics that he personally opened hundreds of them.

Today, some might call that a confession of a serial grave robber. But, I digress.

The professor described the best-known mounds in the U.S., illustrating many by drawing sketches on a blackboard.

He held up Indian skulls he brought with him. He pointed to how they differ from the skulls of white people.

“The evidence I have produced proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that these bones are those of the “old people” of the Ohio Valley, and there is no evidence even of the slightest character, in any bone taken from the mound at McKee’s Rocks, that a white man was ever interred in it.”

Professor Gerrodette tried resorting to transparency — literally and figuratively — and new technology.

He used a “magic lantern” to project on a screen 3-D images of the skeletons as they were unearthed.

The press gave the scientists good reviews, but conspiracy theories would not die.

The museum director, having carried away the skeletal remains of 30-some Indians, abruptly covered the mound back up. He resigned.

It didn’t help that his diggers had already dropped their shovels. They wanted more money. Nor that his assistant, Thomas Harper of Bellevue, seemed to undermine him at every turn of soil.

Gerrodette then committed what is considered a most horrible  sin among archaeologists. He never wrote and published a formal scientific report on his dig.

Gerrodette left notes behind, though. Would you like to know what they tell us?

He left bones and burial artifacts at the museum. How were they used? Where are they now, and why?

What of the mound? Gerrodette dug up only half of it. Why is it all gone? 

We’ll get into that, and more, in next week’s post.


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