McKees Rocks Indian Mound6

Indian Skeletons Taken From Mound in 1896 Are Getting Packed to Leave Museum, and Head Back Home

It’s about to happen. Maybe next year. Maybe the year after.

Jay Toth, tribal archaeologist for the Seneca Nation, will sort through bones at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History next week to begin the process of returning them to McKees Rocks.

“I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it,” rejoiced Tracey Pedersen as she related the news to community leaders at a special meeting of the McKees Rock Historical Society last week.

Nor could many others there. They have seen many mound hopes go unfulfilled over the years.

Pedersen, whose community roles include tax collector, planning commission member and historical society leader, assured them she really isn’t dreaming. She looked at notes she took during her conversation with the Indian official to confirm that.

She said Toth called her because Now Then, Pittsburgh started a conversation among Seneca, museum and borough officials.


He called, she said, to express his eagerness to work with McKees Rocks, and allow the “Ancient Ones to continue their journey.”

More importantly, it appears it all will be much easier than first anticipated.

It had been thought a replacement mound would have to be created atop the rugged, undeveloped ridge where the original earthwork sat overlooking the Ohio River.

It was there for more than 2,000 years. Then, the museum and local artifact hunters went through it. A quarry operation finished it off.

To everyone’s surprise, Toth told Pedersen he doesn’t want the repatriated remains put back up there.

He wants them at Rangers Field, a borough recreational complex down below.

“I asked him twice to repeat that,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that was what he said. It sounded too good to be true.”

Rangers Field is green square at upper left. Original mound was at the lower end of the strip of trees between Rangers Field and the oil tanks. Ohio River curves around the sites.

The Seneca preference is good because the field is easily accessible, it is already fenced in, and it is watched over by residents and borough workers at the nearby maintenance shop.

It has a reception building, restrooms, a picnic pavilion and parking.

It is, in fact, ready for a mound.

“All I need from the borough is a backhoe,” Toth told Pedersen.

Well, maybe a little more.

The Seneca also want an education program developed for children, one that assures future McKees Rocks residents appreciate and respect the people buried there.

And, Toth wants children to participate in construction of a replacement mound. That will ensure they have a personal stake in it.

The original mound was the largest in Pennsylvania. It was 85 feet in diameter and nearly 16 feet high.

It was built by people called the Adena.

That wasn’t what they called themselves, nor is it what any other tribe called them. It’s the name of a little town in Ohio where their distinctive cultural artifacts were first identified by archaeologists.

Size of McKees Rock Indian Mound is apparent in this photo of archaeologists digging a trench across its width in 1896.

The ancient people got their modern name in 1901.

The town likely got its name from someone named Adena, which is Hebrew for “tender.”

Anyway, the Adena people are credited with building thousands of earthworks in a swath throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, and up to the Great Lakes.

Truly monumental ones that draw many tourists remain in West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois.

The McKees Rocks Mound was a tourist draw even in the 1700s when young George Washington went up to take a look.

A replacement mound atop the stone bluff would have been expensive to create, difficult to access and hard to secure.

Still, borough leaders were willing to do it.

“We’re on board!” responded Paul Krisby, borough council president, when first told of Seneca interest in repatriating the remains and reburying them near the old mound.

That’s because the Indian mound has long been at the core of McKees Rocks identity, a source of community pride — even as residents — most now dead — looted and gradually obliterated it.

Borough leaders see the project as an opportunity to get the town on the right side of history.

Pedersen said Toth wants plenty of public activity around the new mound. That will help keep the cultures of those buried in it alive and respected.

A bicycle trail already is slated to skirt the site, and young people could continue to use some of the site for baseball, soccer and football.

Pedersen imagines Rangers Field will be renamed something like “McKees Rocks Indian Mound Park.”

If there were to be a naming contest, Now Then, Pittsburgh would enter “Mound of the Ancient Ones.”

But, people of the borough have a lot to talk about and plan over the next year or two, Pedersen said.

She is to go before borough council March 12 to brief officials, and get them to take the first step.

Toth wants a legal covenant attached to the borough land under the mound to ensure it can not be sold and used for something else. The borough solicitor will have to be directed to draw that up for council to vote on.

Mound historical marker at Rangers Field. The top of the hill on right is where original earthwork was. A full-size replica would cover four times the area you’re looking at, and be twice as high as the marker.

Exact mound placement, size, and its encroachment on play areas have yet to be figured out.

The Seneca are not requiring a mound as big as the original.

But, a full-sized replica will draw tourists and make it worth their whiles to head to McKees Rocks. And, the state historical marker at Ranger’s Field begins “Largest. . .”

“I don’t want a mini mound,” Pedersen said.

Already, people and businesses are calling in with donations for the park.

Everyone can get involved, Pedersen said. She intends to go beyond borough boundaries to enlist participation.

She’ll be contacting the county and Heinz History Center, among others.

In mid month, Pedersen and other borough officials are to meet with a representative of the Seneca Nation in McKees Rocks, touring the old and new sites, sharing dinner and beginning what they hope will be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

But, back to Toth and the Ancient Ones at the museum.

Toth said the first order of business will be to separate the ancient Adena remains from the more recent Monongahela people buried in the mound.

He has enlisted the help of a forensic anthropologist. It is necessary to separate the Adena from the Monongahela for legal reasons, and to give them proper respect, Toth explained.

Once separated and released under requirements of federal law, the remains will be returned to McKees Rocks to continue what Toth refers to as their journey.

Asked if that journey includes the process of turning to dust, a process interrupted in 1896, Toth simply replied, “Yes.”

Background on the mound is available from previous Now Then, Pittsburgh posts. You can start here, and click on the link at the end of each post for the subsequent post.

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