In hindsight: Any critical take on public monuments today must confront the reality that public lands are themselves colonized lands. A look at some of the oldest monuments in the United States — indigenous earthworks in the Ohio River Valley — shows why it is necessary to ask how the sites of public memorials came to be public in the first place.
The history of monument building has come to the forefront of debates about what to do with Confederate memorials. Making decisions about their fate, historians have argued, depends on understanding how those monuments came to be. White Americans erected the greatest number of statues celebrating the “Lost Cause” during the two biggest movements for African-American civil rights in the twentieth century. They placed Confederate memorials in town parks, municipal plazas, and city boulevards to position their view of the past as unequivocal and dominant. As historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage puts it, these private groups colonized public space in the modern United States.
Yet any critical take on public monuments today must confront the reality that public lands are themselves colonized lands. A look at some of the oldest monuments in the United States — indigenous earthworks in the Ohio River Valley — shows why it is necessary to ask how the sites of public memorials came to be public in the first place.
In 1788, members of the Ohio Company of Associates arrived on the western shores of the Ohio River to build the first U. S. city in the Northwest Territory. Led by Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putnam, these New England men determined to build the city of Marietta around a complex of geometric earthworks. Today, we recognize that Algonquian peoples built these structures as sites of ritual between 100 BCE and 500 CE. In 1788, however, Putnam and his associates labeled them American antiquities.
When Putnam plotted city squares around the largest earthworks to preserve them as “monument[s] of antiquity,” he shaped history to gain control of land. Residents of the early United States were fascinated with ancient Rome and sought to fashion their new nation as a modern, American version of a classical republic. Marietta founders used preservation to draw their new town — in a new territory of a new nation — into this conversation. They gave the earthworks Latin names and touted them as evidence of laudable predecessors who had mysteriously disappeared or migrated to South America. As monumental centerpieces of town squares, Putnam and his men implied that a place on the western fringes of the United States might once again grow into an urban center of American empire.
Putnam’s urban planning denied contemporary indigenous residents’ historic connections to Ohio lands. In the same breath, land company leaders preserved indigenous earthworks and displaced indigenous people. At the very same meetings where they designated those earthworks as ancient monuments, they plotted military action against Shawnee, Miami, and Wyandot confederations that resisted U. S. claims to Ohio lands. Landscape design in the midst of war was not fanciful escapism; it was a strategy of settler colonialism.
By framing indigenous earthworks as American antiquities and urban monuments, men like Rufus Putnam painted a picture of U. S. westward expansion in which migrants peacefully inhabited an abandoned landscape and contributed to the ongoing, progressive development of the American continent. This vision omitted the violence, destruction, and contested land claims that characterized the Ohio country in the territorial era. Indigenous residents of the Ohio country had no place among the public for whom Marietta’s founders claimed to be preserving American history.
At the very same meetings where they designated those earthworks as ancient monuments, they plotted military action against Shawnee, Miami, and Wyandot confederations that resisted U. S. claims to Ohio lands.
Today, many of these earthworks still stand in Marietta. They retain the Latin names given to them by Putnam and his associates and sit amidst public green spaces owned by the town. A grassy tract, once lined by mounded walls, leads northeast from the Muskingum River to a platform mound in an open park. A public library sits atop a similar earthwork nearby. Mound Cemetery, founded soon after the town, surrounds a conical mound. A few historic markers nod to the indigenous architects of the earthworks. But as a whole, the cityscape frames these earthworks through the eyes of generations of colonizers, who shaped them to meet the needs of a public good that excluded indigenous Americans.
The broader memorial landscape of Marietta reinforces this view. As Steven Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute has pointed out, a number of twentieth-century memorials celebrate Marietta as the birthplace of American imperialism. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated one of the most notable: a sculpture by famed artist Gutzon Borglum, which lauds the “Start Westward of the United States” with the likenesses of Marietta’s founders. A 1988 restoration and rededication of this monument affirmed its celebration of American imperialism with no acknowledgement of the violent displacement of indigenous peoples or of the sculptor’s well-known white supremacist proclivities.
A historical marker in Mound Cemetery also denies today’s indigenous Americans a place in local history. The sign perpetuates the myth that the earthworks were built and abandoned by mysterious prehistoric people who bore no relationship to indigenous residents of the Ohio county in the era of colonization. In doing so, it also ignores native knowledge and longstanding archaeological evidence of connections between Woodland-era moundbuilders and native peoples in the present.
A historical marker perpetuates the myth that the earthworks were built and abandoned by mysterious prehistoric people who bore no relationship to indigenous residents of the Ohio
Marietta’s memorial history reminds us that conversations about reclaiming colonized public space in the United States are problematic propositions for anyone who is not indigenous.* Debates over all public memorials should grow to include a more serious engagement with issues of colonized lands that indigenous activists have addressed in relation to monument making — not only at modern memorials to Christopher Columbus but also at sacred sites, like Bears Ears in Utah, designated as national monuments by the federal government. The history of the Marietta earthworks might help us bridge these conversations about monument making with histories of colonization. By framing earthworks as “monuments to antiquity” in town squares, Marietta’s founders and subsequent residents preserved evidence of the lives of prehistoric peoples. But they did so at the expense of the lives and histories of their descendants. Conversations about the fate of public monuments today should avoid the same exclusions and erasures.
Whitney Martinko’s column for the Lepage Center this fall focuses on how early histories of historic preservation in the U.S. can inform debates over historic monuments today. She is an assistant professor of History at Villanova University.