A Spalding Saga Episode

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Mormons & Mound-Builders  |  1816 Port Folio  |  An Indian Interpretation of the Book of Mormon
1814 Weekly Recorder  |  1878 History of Ashtabula Co.   |   1884 History of Erie Co., PA

Part 1: Aaron Wright, Solomon Spalding, and
The GIANTS of Conneaut

WHEN the first European settlers came to North America they were not shy about digging up the graves of their Indian predecessors on the continent. As they generally found no great wealth in these burials, the motivation for their digging was probably mostly curiosity and a need to level their farmland. As the new Americans spread westward, into the states of New York and Pennsylvania, the peculiarity of the grave contents and the size of the tumuli thrown up over them increased. In the years following the conclusion of the Revolutionary war, the westward moving pioneers became less and less sure that the strange items they were finding preserved in the caves and artificial mounds of the west actually came from the Indians. Certainly, they rationalized, such huge and carefully designed earthworks could not have been built by the scanty Indian population they were familiar with in the lands between the Great Lakes and the southern tributaries of the Ohio river.

In 1798 the first permanent settlers from the east arrived in the Western Reserve of Ohio. They began to clear the forests along the southern shore of Lake Erie, and in the process found numerous ancient earthen structures and almost everywhere the finely made spear points and other artifacts of a long forgotten and once populous native society, a people obviously quite different from the Massasauga Indians then living in that country. A generation before the first immigrant explorers of western Pennsylvania and southern Ohio had made similar discoveries -- the extensive earthworks of Circleville and Marietta Ohio were already well publicized by the time that settler Aaron Wright and his companions began to stake out their new homes along Conneaut Creek, in what would become Ashtabula Co., Ohio.

The Discoveries of Aaron Wright in 1800

Perhaps it was because he was a single young man with plenty of energy, or perhaps it was because his choice for a homestead included a large "mound-builder" burial ground -- whatever the reasons may have been, Aaron Wright has gone down in the history books as the discoverer of the "Conneaut Giants," the unusually large-boned ancient inhabitants of Ashtabula Co., Ohio. In an 1844 account, writer Harvey Nettleton reported that this "ancient burying grounds" of "about four acres" was situated in what soon became the village of New Salem (later renamed Conneaut), "extending northward from the bank of the creek... to Main street, in an oblong square" tract that "appeared to have been accurately surveyed into lots, running from the north to the south." Nettleton also said that the ancient "graves were distinguished by slight depressions in the surface of the earth disposed in straight rows, with the intervening spaces, or alleys, cover[ing] the whole area... estimated to contain from two to three thousand graves. These depressions, on a thorough examination made by Esq. Aaron Wright, as early as 1800, were found invariably to contain human bones, blackened with time, which on exposure to the air soon crumbled to dust."

The prehistoric cemetery on Aaron's Wright's land was remarkable enough, just in its size and the configuration of the graves -- but it was what was in those graves and in the adjacent burial mounds that captured Nettleton's attention:

The mounds that were situated in the eastern part of what is now the village of Conneaut and the extensive burying ground near the Presbyterian Church, appear to have had no connection with the burying places of the Indians. They doubtless refer to a more remote period and are the relics of an extinct race, of whom the Indians had no knowledge. These mounds were of comparatively small size, and of the same general character of those that are widely scattered over the country. What is most remarkable concerning them is that among the quantity of human bones they contain, there are found specimens belonging to men of large stature, and who must have been nearly allied to a race of giants. Skulls were taken from these mounds, the cavities of which were of sufficient capacity to admit the head of an ordinary man, and jaw-bones that might be fitted on over the face with equal facility. The bones of the arms and lower limbs were of the same proportions, exhibiting ocular proof of the degeneracy of the human race since the period in which these men occupied the soil which we now inhabit.

Circleville, Ohio antiquarian Caleb Atwater was the known first person to comment upon the earthworks at Conneaut (then New Salem) in a published text. In his 1820 report, Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio... Atwater describes the "work at Salem... on a hill near Coneaught river... having two parallel circular walls, and a ditch between them." Atwater says practically nothing about the burial mounds in the vicinity of this pre-Columbian fort "on a hill," but he does provide the following information on page 125 of his report: "My informant says, within this work are sometimes found skeletons of a people of small stature, which, if true, sufficiently identifies it to have belonged to that race of men who erected our tumuli." Thus, it was Caleb Atwater's opinion that the builders of the ancient mounds were a "people of small stature," and that reports of larger skeletons uncovered among their ruins were the exception, not the rule. To the above summary of Atwater's investigations it might also be added that many of the earthworks he described he never saw himself, relying upon information supplied by untrained observers living in the vicinity of these ancient remains.

What Nehemiah King Found in 1829

Nettleton's account was widely circulated when it was summarized in 1847 by historian Henry Howe in his Historical Collections of Ohio. Howe speaks of "Thomas Montgomery and Aron Wright" coming to Ohio "in the spring of 1798," and of the subsequent discovery of the "extensive burying ground" and of "the human bones found in the mounds" nearby. Howe repeats the report, that among these uncovered bones, "were some belonging to men of gigantic structure." He also tells how, in 1829, a tree was cut down next to the ancient "Fort Hill in Conneaut" and that the local land owner, "The Hon. Nehemiah King, with a magnifying glass, counted 350 annualer rings" beyond some cut marks near the tree's center. Howe concludes: "Deducting 350 firom 1829, leaves 1479, which must have been the year when these cuts were made. This was 13 years before the discovery of America, by Columbus. It perhaps was done by the race of the mounds, with an axe of copper, as that people had the art of hardening that metal so as to cut like steel."

The same year that Henry Howe's history of Ohio appeared another interesting book was published by the Smithsonian Institution, entitled, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. On page 38 of that seminal report by E. G. Squier and E. H. Davis appears the first known published description of "Fort Hill," that strange pre-Columbian landmark situated on the property of Aaron Wright's neighbor, Nehemiah King.

1847 sketch of Fort Hill -- see also the 1896 view

Number 2. Ancient Work near Conneaut, Ashtabula county, Ohio. -- "This work is at present very slight, but distinctly traceable. The sketch is a mere coup d'aeil, without measurements. The elevation on the bluff upon which it stands is about seventy feet; and the banks of the aluminous state are, upon the north, very precipitous... Upon the south side... the wall which skirts the brow of the hill is accompanied by an outer ditch, while upon the north there is a simple embankment. The ascent (marked C-C in the cut), is gradual and easy. Within the enclosure the earth is very black and rich; outside of the wall it is a stiff clay. The adjacent bottems are very fertile, and the creek is everywhere fordable. There can be no doubt that this was a fortified position." Near the village of Conneaut are a number of mounds, and other traces of an ancient population, among which is an aboriginal cemetary regularly laid out, and of great extent.

The antiquarian who contributed the survey of "ancient works in Northern Ohio" to Squier and Davis was Charles Whittlesey (1808-1886) of Cleveland, Ohio, who had been sketching the ancient earthworks of his region since the mid 1830s. The archaeology and paleoanthropology pioneered by investigators like Squier, Davis and Whittlesey eventually revealed the fact that the builders of the mounds were, in fact, ancestors of some of the eastern woodland Indians. Whittlesey is remembered today in the application of his name to the "Whittlesey Culture" of late pre-Columbian Indians who inhabited northern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania at the time the "Fort Hill" and other Conneaut earthworks were constructed (c. 1000-1400 CE).

For a much more recent description of archaeological finds at this site, see David S. Brose et al., "Conneaut Fort: A Prehistoric Whittlesey Focus Village in Ashtabula County, Ohio" in Pennsylvania Archaeologist 46:4 (1976) pp. 29-77. Brose's 1971 excavations at Fort Hill were just one part of a wider archaeological survey conducted by Case Western Reserve University -- and his published report is merely a summary of a much more detailed "site plan." Brose found little of interest in his dig and concludes that "Conneaut Fort" was not so much a Mound-Builder fortification as it was "a base camp" from which migratory "hunting parties" went out into the surrounding woodlands to obtain food. Although he includes some brief comments regarding 19th century reports about the place, Brose says little about the other prehistoric earthworks in the area, and nothing at all about accounts of giant skeletons being found in the ancient cemetery just across the creek from the hill. However, his simply giving Whittlesey's name to a "focus" of these ancient Americans does not even begin to account for or explain the early discoveries of gigantic skeletons found along the banks of Conneaut Creek. It is obvious that the modern scientists, in their narrow investigations, have missed seeing the larger picture of the enigma the early settlers encountered at Conneaut -- the strange burial places, odd relics, and inexplicable remains of the previous inhabitants. To gain a useful perspective on these people the modern reader must turn the historical pages back to reports from the previous century.

Dr. Peet's 1878 Account of the Giants

In late 1878 or early 1879 William W. Williams' History of Ashtabula Co., Ohio appeared -- the first major publication devoted exclusively to the past years of that corner of northeastern Ohio. In that volume various accounts of the first eastern settlers and their encounters with the remains of the "Conneaut Giants" are described in some detail. For example, on page 17 can be found the following description by the local (and later widely known) antiquarian, Stephen D. Peet:

... an impenetrable mystery still hangs over... a race preceding the various tribes of Indians which history has come in contact with, and may be regarded as strictly pre-historic.... Ohio gives numerous evidences of such. a race. Here, it would seem, was the chief seat of the ancient empire... in this State two classes of works have been discovered... [in] the southern counties the works are much more massive and distinct. They are also much more complicated and mysterious in their design... the works at the north, on the other hand, are much simpler in their character, and are mainly indicative of a military race.

Ashtabula County abounds in earthworks... These works are generally situated on the banks of streams, or in such locations as to have attracted attention... [some] are works of defense, and are well chosen for this purpose.... That at Conneaut is situated on the summit of a lofty hill... which has been left by some former change of the bed of the stream... A steep ascent protects it on all sides. The only approach is up a gradual slope to the eastward, formed by the narrow strip which has been left by the wash of the waters. The height of the eminence is... about seventy-five feet... The only mark of artificial defense is found on the summit. This consists of a simple earth-wall built on the very edge of the bluff, and following closely the very line of the bluff. A ditch was on the inside of the wall, and the height of the wall may have been at one time five feet. Possibly a stockade may have surmounted it, making the inclosure doubly secure both from the natural and artificial defense. The work has been described by those who visited it at an early date. The land thus inclosed was perfectly level, and embraced an area of about two acres, triangular in shape...

A single opening to the inclosure existed, and this was approached only from the level of the stream below by a narrow pathway... The work might have served for a defense to the various tribes of Indians which inhabited the region, or it may have been the residence of the ancient people called the mound-builders. There is on the bank opposite this work, but farther down the stream, a large burial-mound, which might indicate that the occupants of this spot were of the more ancient race of original mound-builders.

This mound is beautifully situated on the very summit of the point of land where the river turns to the northward... The location of this mound was favorable as a lookout, and connected with the defense. The defense itself might have served as a signal-station, to warn against the approach of an enemy from the lake below. There are also other mounds in this neighborhood, though they are of comparatively small size. They were situated in the eastern part of the village. It is not improbable that the Book of Mormon has some connection with these mounds, and possibly may have been suggested by them. Its author, Rev. Mr. Spalding, lived in Conneaut, and the story is based on the common sentiment that the descendants of the lost tribes buried their dead in large heaps, which caused the mounds so common in this country. Their arts and sciences and civilization account for all the curious antiquities found in North and South America. This theory of the lost tribes has long since been exploded.

Dr. Peet goes on to say a little about the "ancient burying-ground" which "was situated a little west of the village" and repeats the story that it was "examined as early as 1800" by settlers like Aaron Wright. Peet only mentions in passing that these earthworks and burial ground "were found to contain human bones, some of which were of a large size." He provides no possible explanation for this necrological oddity, nor have the scientists of later years, who have described these ancient people and their "Whittlesey Culture" in some detail, provided the necessary explanations. It is obvious that the giantism evidenced in the "Whittlesey Culture" human remains was not an isolated phenomenon, occurring in a few, scattered individuals and then disappearing. This was an aspect of physical anthropology that appeared among several different late pre-Columbian "mound-builder" populations inhabiting the southern shores of lake Erie. The large boned trait continued through many generations -- probably for several hundred years -- among certain segments of those populations, at a rate seemingly far higher than what might be expected through natural, random processes. Nevertheless, there appears to be no firm evidence that the individuals who bore this strange physical trait were treated any differently in their own societies than other, less robust and tall members of their groups. The burials of these very large persons occurred among those of the less robust individuals without any recorded distinguishing features, as though they were all of a social status more or less equal.

On pages 18-19 of this history, Dr. Peet continues his article, telling a little about similar earthworks reported in neighboring Ashtabula by "Rev. Mr. Hall, the former, rector of St. Peter's church" in that town. Peet relays the following information: "In cultivating the soil in the vicinity implements have been found, and in excavating the ground for graves it is said that bones have been exhumed which seemed to have belonged to a race of giants... Mr. Peleg Sweet, who was a man of large size and full features... in digging, came upon a skull and jaw which were of such size that the skull would cover his head and the jaw could be easily slipped over his face, as though the head of a giant were enveloping his." Dr. Peet also examines the view of Charles Whittlesley, that a forgotten "white race" inhabited the region "long before the advent of the white settlers" in 1798 and thereafter. As an evidence for this theory he tells of "the discovery of an inscribed stone... near the burying-place upon the east side of the Ashtabula creek... found by the son of Peleg Sweet" in 1808, or perhaps shortly thereafter. "On turning it over it was discovered that its surface was covered with marks of inscribed letters... Roman capital letters," etc. Peet says, "It was too deeply planted in the ground to have belonged to any of the white settlers, as the discovery was within four or five years of the occupation" of Ashtabula by the pioneers.

In the 1878 history Dr. Peet also provides a lengthy and detailed account of the "Destruction of the Eries," the ancient foes of the Iroquois, who inhabited the southern shore of Lake Erie prior to the first settlement there by the Europeans. Although the writer does not specifically link the extinct Eries to their "Whittlesley Culture" predecessors, he tells of the later Indians' extermination in a romantic narrative reminiscent of some published conjectures regarding the fate of the "mound-builders" -- "A great battle was fought... in which the Eries were again defeated, and slain to a man. Their bones lie bleaching in the sun to the present day."

The 1878 history also provides some specific information on the first settlement of towns in Ashtabula county, partly contributed by the prolific pen of Stephen D. Peet. On page 131, in discussing the early days of Ashtabula town, the writer again speaks of prehistoric "burying-places" and reports of "the bones of a gigantic people" having been "exhumed from these ancient sepulchres," adding, "of the people history knows nothing." In the section on Conneaut (beginning on page 154), the historian again takes up the subject of the ancient inhabitants of the area, providing the following interesting observations:

The banks of this river [Conneaut Creek] had long been the favorite resort of not only the red man of the forest butof a prehistoric people, who, without doubt, dwelt here in the remote past. The number and character of the mounds and burying-places, the exhumation of bodies from their ancient cemeteries, disclosing the fact that their bones belonged to a race of larger size than any known Indian tribe, are proofs of the fact that here in this delightful locality there lived, in the unknown past, a numerous people, and different from any Indian tribes of which the white man possesses any knowledge. There is no other spot in the county, and probably but few others anywhere, that abounds in such striking proofs of the existence of a powerful and populous people.... The ancient people disappeared, leaving no written record which might serve to enlighten us as to who they were, whence they came, and whither they have gone. Nevertheless they have left abundant proof in their burial-place, situated a little west of the site of the old brick church, and in the character of "Fort Hill" as it is called, located on the southeastern bank of the creek and opposite to the present village cemetery, that they did once exist, and that they were a numerous and powerful people. The ancient burying-grounds occupy an area of about four acres... Aaron Wright, Esq., in 1800, made a careful examination... and found... human bones blackened with time... Some of these bones were of unusual size, and evidently belonged to a race allied to giants. Skulls were taken from these mounds, the cavities of which were of sufficient capacity to admit the head of an ordinary man, and jaw-bones that might be fitted over the face with equal facility. The bones of the upper and lower extremities were of corresponding size.

On page 157 the writer relates how, on "the night of August 11, 1812," practically the entire population of Conneaut (then called New Salem) fled from a suspected invasion of British, Canadians, and their Indian allies, and "sought refuge on Fort Hill, where amidst its ancient ruins, then covered with a dense forest, they hoped to find a place of temporary security." How land owner Nehemiah King accomodated these unexpected guests, the historian does not relate; he only says that "Within the dilapidated walls of the old fort, hid among the bushes, they passed a most uncomfortable and tedious night, momentarily expecting to hear, the yells of the savages, or to witness from the hill the conflagration of their dwellings."

Finally, on page 159 the historian gives an account of New Salem resident Solomon Spalding and his being inspired to write a precursor to the Book of Mormon, in which he attempted "to show that the American Indians are the descendants of the Jews or lost tribes," and that "They buried their dead in large heaps, which caused the mounds so common in this country. Their arts, sciences, and civilization were brought into view in order to account for all the curious antiquities found in various parts of North America." Exactly how "the Book of Mormon has some connection with these mounds," (as reported by Dr. Peet on page 17) the 1878 history does not say. The account of Spalding on page 159 appears to have been largely taken from Henry Howe's 1847 history, and may have been inserted into the later publication without any special input from Dr. Peet. Peet, it will be recalled, said that the topic of Spalding's writings "may have been suggested" by the Conneaut Creek earthworks and their strange contents, and that the "Rev. Mr. Spalding, lived in Conneaut, and the story [found in the Book of Mormon] is based on the common sentiment that the descendants of the lost tribes buried their dead in large heaps, which caused the mounds so common in this country."


Part 2: Solomon Spalding Writes About
The GIANTS of Conneaut

MARTHA D. SPALDING, the sister-in-law of the would-be novelist, Solomon Spalding, gave this interesting account in 1833: "I was at his house [Solomon Spalding's] a short time before he left Conneaut; he was then writing a historical novel founded upon the first settlers of America. He represented them as an enlightened and warlike people. He had for many years contended that the aborigines of America were the descendants of some of the lost tribes of Israel, and this idea he carried out in the book in question... disputes arose between the chiefs, which caused them to separate into different bands, one of which was called Lamanites and the other Nephites. Between these were recounted tremendous battles, which frequently covered the ground with slain; and their being buried in large heaps was the cause of the numerous mounds in the country. -- Some of these people he represented as being very large."

Although other old acquaintances of Solomon Spalding also gave their recollections of the man and his writings at about the same time that Martha gave hers, she is the only one among them who makes mention of the writer having "represented" a few of the ancient characters in his book "as being very large." For example, Solomon Spalding's widow, in 1839, confirmed much of what Martha had to say (speaking of "mounds and forts" in Ohio "of a race now extinct"), but the widow leaves out entirely any reference to "very large" characters in her husband's writings. Two questions naturally arise from a reading of Martha's statement: 1) how "large" was "very large;" did she mean "gigantic?" -- and, 2) how reliable is Martha's recollection; might she have introduced the "very large" notion mistakenly into an otherwise fairly accurate statement?

At least part of an answer may be found in the 1880 testimony of Solomon Spalding's adopted daughter, Matilda Spalding McKinstry. She says: "During the year of 1812, I was residing with my parents in a little town in Ohio called Conneaut... There were some round mounds of earth near our house which greatly interested him, and he said a tree on top of one of them was a thousand years old. He set some of his men to work digging into one of these mounds, and I vividly remember how excited he became when he heard that they had exhumed some human bones, portions of giant skeletons, and various relics. He talked with my mother of these discoveries in the mound, and was writing every day as the work progressed. Afterward he read the manuscript which I had seen him writing..."

"He set some of his men to work digging into one of these mounds"

While Spalding's adopted daughter does not exactly say that her father wrote about giant people in the novel he was then composing -- during the opening of the mound -- she clearly conveys the impression that what was found by his diggers in the "round mound of earth" influenced the content of the story he was writing. Josiah Spalding, a brother of Solomon's, is even more specific in this regard. Josiah had this to say in 1855:

I went to see my brother [in New Salem., Ohio, in 1812] and staid with him some time... He began to compose his novel... In the town where he lived, which I expect is now called Salem, Ohio, there is the appearance of an ancient fort, and near by a large mound, which, when opened, was found to contain human bones. These things gave it the appearance of its being inhabited by a civilized people. These appearances furnished a topic of conversation among the people. My brother told me that a young man told him that he had a wonderful dream. He dreamed that he himself (if I recollect right) opened a great mound, where there were human bones. There he found a written history that would answer the inquiry respecting the civilized people that once inhabited that country until they were destroyed by the savages. This story suggested the idea of writing a novel merely for amusement. The title of his novel, I think, was 'Historical Novel,' or 'Manuscript Found.' This novel is the history contained in the manuscript found.

Spalding's Mound Builder Story

As luck would have it, one of Solomon Spalding's old stories has survived and may be consulted to see if he wrote anything about the "Conneaut Giants." This untitled manuscript (now on files in the archives of Oberlin College) contains either the same tale that his brother Josiah saw in 1812, or one based upon the same setting and scenario. Solomon begins his "Oberlin manuscript" with these words:

Near the west bank of the Coneaught River there are the remains of an ancient fort. As I was walking and forming various conjectures respecting the character, situation, & numbers of those people who far exceeded the present Indians in works of art and ingenuity, I hapned to tread on a flat stone. This was at a small distance from the fort, & it lay on the top of a small mound of Earth exactly horizontal. The face of it had a singular appearance. I discovered a number of characters which appeared to me to be letters..."

Here the writer sets the introduction to his story -- on the "west bank" of Conneaut Creek -- just above the spot where the creek makes a turn to the north and from there flows directly into Lake Erie. Consultation of a a map of the area in his time shows that his own dwelling was on the east bank of the creek and that directly opposite that, on the west bank, was an ancient mound. Beyond that, upstream a few hundred yards, is "Fort Hill," the ancient fortification which is situated on what was then the property of Nehemiah King. While Solomon may have had the prominent mound on the west bank of the creek in mind when he wrote his story, it appears that the tumulus his workers opened in about 1811 was a rather smaller artificial hill, located on his own property. As for the origin of the fictional narrator's discovery of "a flat stone" inscribed with "a number of characters" that seemed "to be letters," the reader need only recall the similar mysterious inscribed stone discovered not far to the west, in about 1808, by the son of Peleg Sweet.

In giving a fictional description of the long extinct "mound-builders," Solomon says this, in his chapter 5: "As to their persons they were taller on an average than I had ever seen in any nation, their bones were large limbs strait & shoulders broad... As to their complexion it was bordering on an olive tho' of a lighter shade." So, it would seem, the novelist extended the "large" bones of a few ancient skeletons dug from the northern Ohio mounds and cemeteries to characterize an entire light-skinned nation, "taller on an average" than all others on the face of the earth. However, the author does not complete his imaginative description with these words. Later on in the story he introduces the character of Sambul King of Sciotia. This person Spalding pictures as a man of "gigantic grasp" and "gigantic body." Sambul is a "mighty" warrior with a "huge body" who fights with a "gigantic sword." Considering the fact that Spalding's fictional people were already taller than all others, Sambul must have been the Goliath of his day. Obviously the skeleton of such a man would correspond well with those of the "Conneaut Giants."

Solomon Spalding and Thomas Ashe

Solomon Spalding lived for several years at New Salem (Now Conneaut) in the far northeastern corner of Ohio, a region noted by its early settlers for a profusion of extant "Mound-Builder" earthworks and relics. Since Spalding conducted the opening of a small burial mound near his own residence on Conneaut Creek, one might think he had all the local information and experience necessary to write the opening pages of his Oberlin manuscript. At the beginning of his story Spalding provides a fictional account about his visiting a mound near the banks of Conneaut Creek, climbing to its summit, lifting a flagstone at the top, and descending down into an artificial vault where he discovers ancient relics and ancient writing. It appears, however, that Solomon Spalding preferred to copy from and paraphrase other writers rather than rely totally upon his own imagination to create fictional episodes in his own storytelling. There is good reason to believe that the would-be Ohio author copied a good deal of his fictional discovery account from the pages of an Irish traveler and writer, Thomas Ashe.

On pages 308-323 of his 1808 book, Travels in America, Thomas Ashe describes his inspection of one of several different ancient Indian mounds he visited in the then thinly settled Ohio valley. He gives an especially detailed account of how he and his helper visited a mound near the banks of the Muskingum river, climbed to its summit, lifted flagstones at the top, and descended into an artificial vault where Ashe reportedly discovered ancient relics and ancient writing. What is particularly interesting about Ashe's account is that he also speaks of "Mound-Builder" giants in his story of opening that particular mound. On pages 321-323 of his book, Thomas Ashe speculates that the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America were inclined to select for their top leaders men of gigantic stature. Although Ashe's notion may not represent a universal truth, there are occasional documented instances of the leaders or "upper classes" in certain socially stratified Indian groups possessing an extraordinary stature. See, for example, "Tomb of Giants" on pp. 64-65 of the March 2001 issue of National Geographic for a depiction of "giants" in a Moche burial in Peru.

Moche Elite Compared to Average Indian
2001, National Geographic Society

This concept, of course, is exactly what Solomon Spalding followed in his unfinished mound-builder story, wherein he tells of the huge size and mighty feats of the ancient King Sambul of Sciota. It is evident that Solomon Spalding borrowed more than a few ideas from Thomas Ashe, even though most of those same ideas must have also been current among Spalding's own friends and neighbors in frontier Ohio. Probably Spalding chose to copy Ashe so closely because the Irishman's book was a popular one, with American reprints, and a proven sales record. Had Spalding's own prosaic fiction reached the level of Ashe's descriptive narrative, he too might have produced a salable book, years before James Fenimore Cooper and other native authors created romantic American fiction.

Solomon Spalding and Iroquois Legends

Throughout his unfinished Oberlin manuscript, Solomon Spalding attempts to provide believeable observations and explanations regarding both the less civilized and more civilized Indians of the distant past. To the modern reader it is obvious that Spalding picked up a great deal of his descriptive information from the published works of his day. It is also probable that the writer obtained source material from unpublished accounts, oral traditions, and common speculation. It is likely that the writer at some point came across some of the Iroquois legends purporting to give a history of the Indians long before the arrival of the Europeans. One such probable source for Solomon Spalding's ecclectic borrowing was David Cusick's Sketches of Ancient History... The problem in linking Spalding to this fantastic collection of stories is that Cusick did write his book until 1825 and did not publish it until 1827, more then ten years after Spalding's death. Even so, it sems probable that Spalding had some access to some of the same old legends which Cusick (a Tuscarora Indian) compiled from his peoples' past. A prominent character in Cusick's book is Tarenyawagua, -- the "Holder of the Heavens." This otherworldly personage appears to have been a god or demi-god who manifested himself among the ancient woodland Indians to teach and direct them in living a proper life. Tarenyawagua gives divine laws to the Iroquois. He also performs a number of miracles for their benefit. It seems that Cusick had also heard that Tarenyawagua once informed the Indians that a certain people "beyond the great water" had killed their Maker, but that the Maker rose again after suffering that death. Although this must be a direct reference to Jesus Christ, Cusick makes no claims that Tarenyawagua was a divinity of Christ's stature. He instead presents the "Holder of the Heavens" as a man who was capable of aging and death, but also of resurrection from the grave.

The promethian Tarenyawagua was just the sort of character from ancient American pre-history that the Mormons might make good use of in promoting the belief that the Christophany related in III Nephi was an actual event. For some unknown reason the LDS apologists seem to have chosen to keep silent on Cusick's "Holder of the Heavens" and on his Indian history as well. It seems reasonable to concede that Spalding had some general knowledge of the Iroquois stories about Tarenyawagua and that he used those stories as a basis for his character Lobaska -- a great teacher and founder of the fictional religion of the Mound-Builders in Spalding's "Oberlin story." Like Tarenyawagua, Spalding's Lobaska simply disappears from human view once his work among the lesser human beings is finished. It is an additional curiosity that the heroic Alma in the Book of Mormon does the same at the end of his story. Of these two literary figures, however, Lobaska resembles Tarenyawagua much more than Alma the Elder does.

Perhaps some of the most interesting and entertaining portions of Cusick's writings have to do with ancient American giants. The writer presents stories of giants as individual Indians of great stature and also as a whole race of huge beings. His 1827 book is filled with stories of giant men and beasts and there is no reason to doubt that these have been the subjects of Iroquian legend for centuries. It is also interesting to see that Cusick couples one of his stories about giants with an account of an ancient people resembling the Mound-Builders. Probably some of the Iroquois legends are truly based upon those Indians' encounters with persons of huge size in the distant past.

Giants in the Book of Mormon?

As early as 1832 and 1833 certain persons were claiming that the Book of Mormon was based on an unpublished story written by Solomon Spalding during his 1809-12 residence in Ohio. Given the fact that his sister-in-law and adopted daughter both indicate that Spalding's writings were influenced by the idea of pre-Columbian giants, the reader might well expect to find at least some laconic references to such giants in the Mormon book -- that is, if Solomon Spalding had anything to do with the compilation of that book's story-line.

Joseph Smith, Jr., the purported translator of the "Nephite record" from which the Book of Mormon was said to have been derived, provided mentions of giants in two other of the latter day scriptures he gave to the world (in his additions to the biblical Genesis and the Mormons' unique Book of Abraham), but the "very large" characters of Spalding's known writings are largely absent from the Book of Mormon itself. What might be construed by some readers to answer for "giants" in the book are the men of "mighty stature" the text occasionally refers to. For example: "And it came to pass that his High Priest murdered him as he sat upon his throne... and his name was Lib; and Lib was a man of great stature, more than any other man among all the people" (Book of Ether) Two other examples: "And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceeding young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore I did cry unto the Lord;" (1 Nephi); "And now I, Nephi, being a man large in stature, and also having received much strength of the Lord, therefore I did seize upon the servant of Laban" (1 Nephi).

Although the Book of Mormon's character King Lib might be conjectured to be just as much a "giant" as King Sambul in Spalding's Oberlin manuscript, he does not appear to have been a member of a race of giants; nor was Nephi, the man "large in stature," who accomplished such promethian exploits as building a sea-going ship from scratch in the Arabian desert a member of a race of giants. Nephi the son of Lehi may have been a mighty man indeed, but he was not one of the Hebrew nephilim, the biblical giants descended from fallen angels. What little is said of the "large and mighty men" of the Book of Mormon provides no direct evidence of their having any conceptual or literary ties to the "Conneaut Giants" discovered in Ohio during Spalding's day.

Mormon writer E. Cecil McGavin, in his 1948 book, Geography of the Book of Mormon, makes a modest effort to link the Book of Mormon Nephites with some near relatives of the "Conneaut Giants." On page 13 of his book he reprints the following old quote:

"Cayuga County [NY] yielded a rich harvest of giant skeletons among the ancient ruins, of which we read that 'entire skeletons have been found of people of giant proportions, the skulls and jawbones of which could cover the head and face of the most fleshy person of our day.' We are told of a tradition which asserts that a destructive war was waged 'in this very section of the country, and with such fury and determination on each side that practically all of the warriors were slaughtered. Erie County has yielded a vast store of ancient monuments, including many giant skeletons, spear points, war hatchets, and other weapons that seem too large for an average sized man to wield. Bones of 'giant size' have been uncovered. Similar discoveries have been made on Ontario County, 'skeletons of an early age, including many of unusual size have been found."

Although such references help to document the fact that "mound-builder" giants were not confined to the Ohio shores of Lake Erie, they do little to help support the Mormon cause, since the Book of Mormon itself says so little about its "large and mighty men." Anecdotal citations from the family of Joseph Smith, Sr. may indicate that certain Book of Mormon Nephites or Jaredites were huge men, sitting in great thrones, wearing gigantic breastplates, and peering at hieroglyphics through monster "interpreter" diamond spectacles, but the book itself is silent regarding such reported oddities. Elder Charles B. Thompson, one of the first Mormon writers to identify the "mound-builders" as Nephites, avoided making any claims for giants among "the people whose history is contained in the Book of Mormon."

On the other hand, Mormon writer Phyllis Carol Olive strongly advocates the idea that the Book of Mormon's scanty references to huge people are directly confirmed by evidence on the ground in the northeastern United States. Relying mostly on very old reports and out-dated speculation about an extinct white master race inhabiting the Americas of prehistoric times, Mrs. Olive has produced two books promoting the belief that most of the Book of Mormon story took place in the lands around the Great Lakes and that the mound-building Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures represent the civilized people whose story is related in the Mormon book.

On pages 30-34 of her 2001 volume, The Lost Tribes of the Book of Mormon, Mrs. Olive sets forth her evidence that the Book of Mormon people were not only the "Mound-Builders," but that they were also a "large and mighty nation living in the near vicinity of the Hill Cumorah and throughout the entire mound building region -- the giant, Mound Builders so long sought for; a people who bear remarkable similarities to those described in the Book of Mormon." While all of this imaginative conjecture must be exhilarating and vindicating to the faith of those already convinced of the literal truth of the Mormon book, it is not likely to make much of an impression upon the minds of those educated investigators whom Mrs. Olive dismisses as "the academics." Since the days when Martin Harris attempted to interest "academics" like Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell and Dr. Charles Anthon in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the LDS "true believers" have continually been disappointed and frustrated in trying to convince "the learned" that the Mormon book truly came forth "out of the earth" in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The one important fact in this matter (which has evidently escaped Olive's consideration entirely) is that the occasional "giant skeletons" found among the "Mound-Builder" ruins were reported and publicized well before the first copy of the Book of Mormon was ever sold to a credulous buyer. Author David Marks reports that he was drawn to investigate the newly published Book of Mormon in 1830, due to his "curiosity" while visiting in Ohio, "to know the origin of the numerous mounds and remains of ancient fortifications that abound in that section of the country..." and due to his "having been told that the 'Book of Mormon' gave a history of them." Rev. Marks might have just as well said that he had a curiosity to know the origins of the numerous huge skeletons dug form those same mounds. And, in that case, Phyllis Carol Olive would have a ready answer: that they are the same as "those described in the Book of Mormon." However, since the curiosity of such investigators as David Marks pre-dated the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, how can the Mormon apologist answer the question, "Could not the book have been written to explain (among other things) the mounds and giants which had already aroused peoples' curiosity?"

In the case of Solomon Spalding's productions, the answer to that question is "Yes, of course -- Spalding himself admits to that at the beginning of his story." If Solomon Spalding incorporated explanations of the prehistoric mounds, finds of huge skeletons, extinct American elephants, ancient seer-stones, and other such oddities in his 1812 book, in order to satisfy the curiosity of an inquiring public, could not have some writer compiled the Book of Mormon for much the same purpose? At the very least, the fact remains that people were inquisitive about the origin of the prehistoric giant skeletons long before either book was made available to their curious readers. The modern investigator is left to conclude that if Solomon Spalding did write a good deal of the Book of Mormon -- and if his supposedly purloined "Manuscript Found" story really said very much at all about ancient American giants -- that the text published in 1830 must have been significantly changed from whatever it was that Spalding wrote in Ohio two decades before.

The Allegewi, the Nephilim, and the Nephites

While most modern historians, anthropologists, and LDS apologists (other than Phyllis Carol Olive) shy away from saying much of anything about pre-Columbian giants, "fringe archaeology" periodicals like Ancient American welcome such revisionist claims with open arms. The 36th issue of that publication published an article by Steve Quayle, entitled "Giants and Ancient North American Warfare" which resurrects the Rev. John Heckewelder's antique reports about the so-called Allegewi. According to the Moravian missionary, Heckewelder (1743-1823): "Many wonderful things are told of this famous people. They are said to have been remarkably tall and stout, and there is a tradition that there were giants among them..." Exactly who these Allegewi were and how much credence may be put into Heckewelder's accounts of them, cannot at this late date be very well established. It may be significant, however, that Heckewelder was a Moravian and that the "Moravian Hospitality Tract" separated the lands sold by Solomon Spalding in Ohio from the lands he disposed of in adjacent Pennsylvania. Whether or not Spalding and Heckewelder ever met, Spalding may well have heard of the missionary's accounts of the ancient Allegewi. Up to this point Quayle's article provides some interesting possibilities. But, beyond this, the writer offers up his speculation about the Allegewi having been a "selected group" within the "late Adena" culture of "mound-builders," a sub-race produced by "selective breeding" for "the creation of a guardian or warrior class made up of physically superior men and women." Whatever the "Conneaut Giants" were, it is very doubtful that they were an "Adena" sub-race or that they came into existence through "selective breeding" -- unless, of course, one takes into account the possibility that the ancient giants may have naturally preferred giantesses as their companions.

A series of on-line articles at the Great Serpent Mound website offer a slightly less revisionist theory than the one promulgated by Quayle. In "Holocaust of Giants: The Great Smithsonian Cover-up," the writer concludes that the prehistoric giants were a naturally occurring sub-group among certain populations of mound-building Indians -- that perhaps these were "tall, ruling chiefs and their wives." As previously mentioned by the current writer, no special evidence exists to indicate that these giant Indians belonged to any particular social group. If they did represent a "kingly" class, their physical stature might not have offered much of an advantage to them in woodland hunting and fighting. Southern Mississippian chiefs may have been carried around in fancy litters by their "stinkard" servants, but their northern contemporaries probably had to preserve their ruling privileges and positions by now and then demonstrating prowess in the hunt and on the field of battle. In their tribes, where maize cultivation had not become almost the predominent occupation of the people, a warrior's speed and agility in moving silently through the forest still counted for something. Human bodies over a certain size tend to become frail, less mobile, and subject to infirmities. The natural limits for robust hunters and warriors are probably to be found among some of the larger people of Polynesian ancestry. Even among those people, where bodily heaviness was sometimes associated with the ruling class, giantism in not recorded as offering any special advantages. The ancient American giants may just as well have been a priestly people or something like professional clowns and courtly fools. Something accounted for their continuation as a distinctive sub-group, but that "something" need not have been royal blood.

There were other sources than reports from Heckewelder and local "mound-builder" disinterments that may have reached Solomon Spalding and influenced his thinking about pre-Columbian giants. In 1705 the teeth and bones of a very large, unidentified animal were discovered near Albany, New York, inspiring the poet Edward Taylor to pen some lines about this "monster," in which he spoke of some Indian traditions concerning a prehistoric race of human giants. The connection having been made between the uncovered remains and ancient giants, the Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728) investigated the discovery and linked the teeth and bones to the biblical giants of "Mosaic history." Since Solomon Spalding came from New England (where the remains ended up) and since he lived for several years near Albany (where they were first uncovered) it is likely that he heard the old accounts of Rev. Mather identifying them as proof of the biblical nephilim. In fact, they turned out to be the remains of an extinct American elephant.

It was not until 1806 that Georges Cuvier gave the first formal description of prehistoric American elephants -- of mastodons and mammoths -- but the American scientists already knew of their existence in ages past and Thomas Jefferson speculated that the huge beasts still existed somewhere in the uncharted American hinterland. In his 1784 book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson spoke both of the "mound-builders" and of the extinct mammoths of Big Bone Lick on the Ohio. Solomon Spalding almost certainly read Jefferson's book and other contemporary speculation concerning mastodons and mammoths. Probably he also realized that the nephilim teeth that so excited Cotton Mather were actually elephant remains (see David Levin's "Giants in the Earth: Science and the Occult in Cotton Mather's Letters to the Royal Society" in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 45, Oct. 1988, p. 751-770). It is no coincidence that the eclectic Spalding mixed abnormally tall "mound-builders" and living mammoths together in the same story when he wrote his Oberlin manuscript. Whether or not he went a step beyond that and mixed Jaredite elephants, Ohio "mound-builders," and Nephite nephilim all into a subsequent piece of his writing remains unanswered -- and is probably forever unanswerable.

Epilogue: The "Whittlesey Culture" and the Conneaut Giants

Although the topic is barely mentioned in today's scientific literature, a quick browsing through various and sundry on-line offerings shows that the subject of the "mound-builder" giants remains a popular mystery, even today. Most of the web articles dealing with this topic make some mention of Heckewelder's Allegewi and Robert Silverburg's popular 1970 book, The Mound Builders. In that volume Silverburg has a little to say about the "search for a race of giant Mound Builders in the Ohio Valley" during the early 1800s (on pages 28-30) and a bit more to offer concerning "giant bones," the "evening conversations" of Joseph Smith, and "unpublished manuscripts of Mound Builder fables" (on pages 44-47). Silverburg's book does not advocate the ancient American giants claims but it has circulated that idea far and wide, when other, more scholarly writings have generally ignored the issue. But, beyond what any popular writer saying things about the Indians has ever published, it has been the county and regional histories of northern Ohio, northwestern Pennsylvania, and western New York -- published mostly during the 1870s and 1880s -- which have added continual sustenance to the memory of the "Conneaut Giants" and their counterparts. The 1884 History of Erie Co., Pennsylvania adds these historical tidbits to the pile:

Many indications have been found in the county [Erie] proving conclusively that it was once peopled by a different race from the Indians who were found here when it was first visited by white men. When the link of the Erie & Pittsburgh Railroad from the Lake Shore road to the dock at Erie was in process of construction, the laborers dug into a great mass of bones at the crossing of the public road which runs by the rolling mill. From the promiscuous way in which they were thrown together, it is surmised that a terrible battle must have taken place in the vicinity at some day so far distant that not even a tradition of the event has been preserved... At a later date... another deposit of bones was dug up ... Among the skeletons was one of a giant, side by side with a smaller one, probably that of his wife. The arm and leg bones of this native American Goliath were about one-half longer than those of the tallest man among the laborers; the skull was immensely large, the lower jawbone easily slipped over the face and whiskers of a full-faced man, and the teeth were in a perfect state of preservation. Another skeleton was dug up in Conneaut Township some years ago which was quite remarkable in its dimensions. As in the other instance, a comparison was made with the largest man in the neighborhood, and the jawbone readily covered his face, while the lower bone of the leg was nearly a foot longer than the one with which it was measured, indicating that the man must have been eight to ten feet in height (pp. 167-169).

The township histories of this particular volume contribute even more details on the prehistoric "Whittlesey Culture" mounds and burial spots in Erie Co., some of these discoveies dating back to the days when Solomon Spalding was living a few miles away, across the state line in Ohio. In fact, some accounts say that Spalding actually did a good deal of his fictional writing in Erie Co., so the remarkable discoveries made there may have influenced his thoughts just as much as the ones made a bit closer to his home at New Salem.

The great heyday of publishing American county histories petered out with the turn of the century (except in the far west, where the initial settlement history was, in many cases, still being lived out) and those written after 1900 tend to say less and less about the discovery of gigantic human bones along the southern shores of the Great Lakes. Now and then the contemporary investigator can uncover an obscure newspaper or journal article that tells the story, however. The editor of the Jefferson Gazette of Ashtabula Co., Ohio offered his readers such an account in May of 1924, titled: "The Indians and Mound Builders of Ashtabula Co." In that piece the writer, a local antiquarian and "arrow head collector," has this to say:

The early settlers of Ashtabula have gone on record that where the east side cemetery is there were over 1000 graves when they came here, laid out with some evidence of mathematical skill. A few graves were opened and in some were found skulls and jaw bones of men whose size dwarfed the men who found the graves. The graves were not those of the Indian of the last or the previous century...

In the early days settlers in Conneaut found a number of mounds. On the west side along the creek there was a great burial ground. It is said there were about 3000 graves there, laid out in some design and like the cemetery at Ashtabula the bones of the adults were exceptionally large... One of the most interesting stories arising from the old burial plot at Conneaut was the probable origin of the Book of Mormon... Rev. Spaulding, in about 1812... told that he found [a] manuscript in one of the old graves at Conneaut... A few years later it was uncovered by Sidney Rigdon, a preacher from Kirtland, Ohio, who had been prophesying that a great revelation was about to be made the chosen people at Kirtland. Rigdon conspired with Smith, father of Mormonism, to find the manuscript, which Smith did... from this scheme and the old Spaulding fraud may have come, and probably did come, the formation of the present great Mormon church of Utah.

Some on-line "Mound-Builder Giants" articles:

Revisiting the Mound-Builder Controversy
Holocaust of Giants
Giants and Ancient North American Warfare
A Tradition of Giants
Land of Giants
Giant Hominoids
Native American Dinosaur Stories
The Nephilim
Monsters From the Mound
"Nephi and the Nephilim," etc.
Nephilim = Nephites?
re: Graham Hancock's Heaven's Mirror
Nephite Stature
"Jaredites giants," etc.
"discovery of chronicle on the giants," etc.
More Evidence for the Book of Mormon
New York: A Land of Giants and Ancient Ruins
Incan Legends and the Book of Mormon
Extract from the Prophecy of Enoch (1832)
The Words of God to Moses (1851)
Gold Bible Hill Giant
Hidden Proofs of a Giant Race
Conneaut Witness Aaron Wright

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