Thomas Jefferson, Father of American Archaeology?

By Donna C. West


"I am persuaded that the only method of investigation the filiation of the Indian nations is by that of their languages."

-- Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Hawkins, August 4, 1787


Father of the Declaration of Independence, Father of the Bill of Rights, Father of American Architecture, Father of the University of Virginia, and perhaps, even the Father of American Archaeology. Thomas Jefferson was an extraordinary individual, with eclectic interests that spanned numerous fields of study, from architecture to linguistics, and everything in between. Throughout his life, Jefferson wrote copiously, making sketches and notes on anything that caught his interest. Thomas Jefferson was a man who simply loved knowledge. He was a man whose very nature marked him as a scientist, but he chose to pursue a career in law out of necessity: science did not pay, law did.

With all his traveling, a correspondence comprising over 15,000 letters, forty years of building and remodeling Monticello, a long career in politics, and his family to fill up his days, one wonders where Jefferson found the time to excavate the first archaeological site in America. Archaeology provided Jefferson with the opportunity to combine his insatiable curiosity with his linguistic skills and his knowledge of the mounds located in Virginia; Jefferson stated that "there being one of these in my neighborhood, I wished to satisfy myself whether any, and which of these opinions were just. For this purpose I determined to open and examine it thoroughly."[1]

Jefferson, who was proficient in six languages, continued his linguistic studies with the Native American languages. He grew up at the edge of the Virginia wilderness and as a boy he encountered the native Virginian Indians on numerous occasions. From these multiple encounters over the years, Jefferson studied and made note of the similarities and differences between over forty tribal languages in Virginia. Regrettably, most of Jefferson's notes on this linguistic study were lost when the wagons transporting his possessions from the White House to Monticello were ransacked in 1809; Jefferson was able to salvage only some of his work. William Peden, editor of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, states that because of "…this interest and in his [Jefferson's] recognition of the importance of linguistic evidence as the key to Indian pre-history, Jefferson was a pioneer both as anthropologist and philologist."[2] During Jefferson's era there were no professional archaeologists; archaeology was not even a professional field of study. Most men who pursued archaeology were wealthy dilettantes driven by enlightened curiosity. After all, only the wealthy could afford to take the time to explore ancient ruins, particularly the mysterious mounds found in the eastern United States. This remained the case until after World War I- archaeologists were wealthy men who could support themselves while they explored the world's past. Although many of the mounds were dismantled, plundered, or destroyed by the expanding European population, those surviving are awe inspiring in size, shape, symmetry, and mathematical perfection.

Robert Silverberg states in his book, The Mound Builders, that "…there were so many of these earthen heaps- ten thousand in the valley of the Ohio River alone-that they seemed surely the work of an energetic and ambitious race."[3] Monks Mound at Cahokia, Illinois, is the largest mound found in the western hemisphere; it is over 100 feet high and covers form fourteen to sixteen acres, and contains approximately 22 million cubic feet of dirt. By the late eighteenth century, many of the mounds were rapidly disappearing as the land was cleared and put under the plow. In 1779 Thomas Jefferson excavated a mound in Virginia that had already been reduced by approximately four and one-half feet due to plowing. Jefferson commented that "…of labour on the large scale, I think there is no remain as respectable as would be a common ditch for the draining of lands: unless indeed it be the Barrows, of which many are found all over this country."[4]

In Jefferson's era, avocational archaeologists in what is known as the Speculative Period, approximately 1492-1840, explored mounds in part due to a fascination with the origins of the native populations. The early archaeologist advocated many concepts to explain the indigenous population. Some believed the native population had devolved from highly civilized tribes in Mexico, while others tried to connect the natives as less than human, an attitude that would certainly be applied increasingly to slavery. Most men just speculated as to who and what the mounds represented. Gordon Willey and Jeremy Sabloff in A History of American Archaeology, comment that these "…chroniclers and early forerunners of the discipline of archaeology indulged in speculations as to American Indian origins which were no less imaginative than those of the explorers and writers of belles-lettres."[5]

Many noted Americans speculated rather extremely, like Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York who proposed that the Scandinavian Vikings built the mounds in western New York. There was also Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, who proposed that the mounds were built by southward migrating Mexicans; however, he believed that agriculture had migrated in just the opposite direction, from Mexico to northern America. General William Henry Harrison supported the lost race theory. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, did not become involved in a philosophical or rhetorical debate, choosing instead to go and find out for himself. Thomas Jefferson "…realized that archaeology must be attacked by proposing problems in a rigorous manner. In his hands antiquarian interests began to become archaeological ones."[6]

The methodology used by Thomas Jefferson during excavation of the mound has changed little over time. Jefferson took detailed notes on the size of the mound, the growth of the trees that remained on top of the mound, the different layers revealed by stratigraphy, the remains and artifacts uncovered, and the conclusions he drew. Jefferson made note of the depth at which the first human skeletal remains were found. He noted that there were nearly a thousand skeletons in the mound. Some of these remains he kept on display in his home at Monticello; the rest of the collection was donated to the American Philosophical Society to aid in future research. After the excavation was completed, Jefferson studied the artifacts and came to the conclusion that the skeletal remains were no different from the natives that currently occupied the region. He also concluded that these skeletal remains were Asiatic in origin. During this time period, no one was ready to accept Jefferson's theory; therefore, one realizes why his Notes on the State of Virginia, sold better in France than it did in the United States.

Caleb Atwater published an article in the first volume of the American Antiquarian Society in 1820 entitled, "Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States." He was a postmaster in Circleville, Ohio, where he also lived. Atwater spent his spare time exploring the mounds in his area and making detailed drawings and descriptions of the mounds. According to Willey and Sabloff:

Atwater proposed that the mounds had been built by Hindus who migrated from India and who later moved to Mexico . . . .He also speculated that the Indians with their simpler culture had arrived in the Americas before the more advanced moundbuilders and afterwards moved into areas vacated by the latter.[7]

Ephraim Squier, an Ohio newspaperman, and Edward H. Davis, a physician from Chillicothe, Ohio, traveled all over the Ohio River Valley in the 1840s surveying and mapping the mysterious mounds, detailing the sizes and shapes of the different mounds. Partly funded by the American Ethnological Society and working with the Smithsonian Institute, they spent an considerable amount of time at Mound City, just south of Chillicothe. Squier and Davis published their conclusions in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley in 1848. Before publication, this volume was edited by Joseph Henry, a renowned scientist and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute. "The volume was the first publication of the newly founded Smithsonian Institute and appeared in its Contributions to Knowledge series."[8] Willey and Sabloff state that:

Squier and David adhered to the great race of Moundbuilders theory and felt that the American Indians or their ancestors were not capable of erecting the mounds. The subsequent migrations of the Moundbuilders to Mexico was considered a likely possibility.[9]

S. G. Morton, a physical anthropologist, issued a major blow to the lost race theory when his book Crania Americana was published in 1939. In his book, Morton detailed an experiment in which he compared eight skulls from mounds with some from recently deceased natives. He measured the cranial capacity on the skulls by filling each specimen with carefully measured mustard seeds. His results showed that the skulls held the same amount of mustard seeds and represented one race; however, he concluded the race could be broken into two families&emdash;Toltecan and Barbarous.

In 1879, the United States Congress decided to discover the answer to the mysterious mounds. They commissioned Cyrus Thomas, from the Bureau of Ethnology, to excavate mounds and answer the question of their origins. Initially Thomas thought the mounds belonged to a lost Moundbuilder race, but the evidence he uncovered did not support his theory. The graves he uncovered in the mounds were made of stone boxes, slabs of rock formed in the shape of a box, a link to the Iroquois of his time who were known for their stone grave boxes. The prehistoric cultures were linked to the historic Indian cultures in America. There were several historic tribes, which used stone boxes in their graves. However, he concluded in his report in 1894 that not all Moundbuilders were of the same race. Thomas Jefferson had answered this question accurately one hundred years earlier; however, Americans just were not ready to accept the fact that the natives were civilized enough to have organized the labor to build such colossal mounds.

PBS has a video on the mounds in America called Myths and the Moundbuilders, which details the various mounds and the archaeological excavations of these mounds. There is a also a video titled The Secret Mounds of Prehistoric America which is part of the Ancient Mysteries Series hosted by Leonard Nimoy which explains the cultures behind these mysterious wonders of the western hemisphere. Both give different aspects of the mounds found all over the eastern half of the United States.

Although later scientists after Thomas Jefferson developed the discipline of archaeology, Jefferson was still the first to excavate scientifically and methodically for the sole purpose of answering an archaeological question. From his conclusions Jefferson made the following summation:

…the resemblance between the Indians of America and the Eastern inhabitants of Asia, would induce us to conjecture, that the former are the descendants of the latter, or the latter of the former; excepting indeed the Eskimaus, who, from the same circumstance of resemblance, and from identity of language must be derived from the Groenlanders, and these probably from some of the northern parts of the old continent. [10]

Hence, Thomas Jefferson was the first in his time period to state that the mounds were Indian in origin and that the Indians were linked linguistically and biologically to Asians. To some, Jefferson may not have been the Father of American Archaeology, but he was, in many senses, the first American Archaeologist. Perhaps, this in and of itself entitles Thomas Jefferson to be called the Father of American Archaeology.


[1]Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited with an introduction by William Peden. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 1972. 98.

[2]Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited with an introduction by William Peden. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 1972. 282.

[3]Silvberg, Robert. The Mound Builders. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. 2

[4]Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited with an introduction by William Peden. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 1972. 97.

[5]Willey, Gordon R., and Jeremy Sabloff. A History of American Archaeology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Company; 1973. 22.

[6]Willey, Gordon R., and Jeremy Sabloff. A History of American Archaeology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Company; 1973. 36.

[7]Willey, Gordon R., and Jeremy Sabloff. A History of American Archaeology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Company; 1973. 39.

[8]Willey, Gordon R., and Jeremy Sabloff. A History of American Archaeology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Company; 1973. 44

[9]Willey, Gordon R., and Jeremy Sabloff. A History of American Archaeology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman & Company; 1973. 44

[10]Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited with an introduction by William Peden. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 1972. 101.