“Hopewell” was the name of a white, Anglo-Saxon mound looter of Chillicothe, who supported black slavery and had similar ideas about Native Americans
Hopewell's grave, historic photo of site people outside talking together

The state of Ohio boasts some of the most astounding ancient earthworks in the world, which, before the era of pioneer destruction, included more than 10,000 burial mounds, elaborate sets of parallel embankments that together extended at least a hundred miles, effigy mounds like the famous Serpent Mound of Adams County, and enormous precise geometric earthworks in the shapes of circles, squares, ellipses, and octagons that seem like beacons to the heavens.

Indeed, the first white settlers in Ohio believed that they had come upon the ruins of a bygone lost civilization. While staying in Chillicothe, the first state capital and where some of the most extraordinary of the earthworks reside, the painter Thomas Cole wrote in 1836:

“[H]e who stands on the mounds of the West [Ohio was then the West], the most venerable remains of American antiquity, may experience the emotion of the sublime, but it is the sublimity of a shoreless ocean un-islanded by the recorded deeds of man.”

To Cole, because we have no written history of these works, they better afford possibilities for the artist’s imagination, and the white imagination has, indeed, been imposed on the Ohio mounds time and again. Thus, for most of the last two centuries, the Native earthworks of the Ohio Valley, actually built by ancestors of today’s Algonquian nations like the Shawnee, the Miami, and the Potawatomi, have been reconceptualized as the creations of Israelites, Hindus, or Vikings, or as miracles left specially by the Christian god to mark Ohio as the promised land for his white children – the actual reason why Joseph Smith brought his Mormons to resettle in Ohio, until he was chased out by law enforcement.

It was the earthworks that inspired Ohio’s brief and unfortunate state motto – “Imperium in Imperio,” Latin for “An Empire Within an Empire.” The intended reference was to the ancient imperium left as remnant in the sprawling earthworks, but even in 1866, the slogan seemed altogether too imperialistic, shall we say, and so it was dropped like a hot potato, never to be replaced except by inartistic banalities like “the Heart of it All.”

The imperialistic urge has been metastasizing under the skin of White Ohio ever since, however, and came to erupt anew with the 21st-century proposal that the nomination of a set of Ohio earthworks to the UNESCO World Heritage List be made under the name “Hopewell.” “Hopewell,” it must be realized, was never a Native tribe or culture. It was the name of one particular white, Anglo-Saxon mound looter of Chillicothe, who supported black slavery and had similar ideas about Native Americans. At a meeting in that historic showplace of black slavery – Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – where slavery was only abolished in 1962, UNESCO approved the nomination under the name “Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks” on September 19 of this year. This was appropriate in a fucked-up kind of way.

The ironies here stack up like complaints in the Elon Musk inbox. The United States and Israel together left UNESCO for a second time on December 31, 2018, after UNESCO refused to recognize Jewish heritage claims in Jerusalem. (Ponder that for more than a little while.) Israel remains a non-member of UNESCO, one of the only UN member states to not be represented in UNESCO. Though the UNESCO anti-Semitism problem was never resolved and had caused a previous US withdrawal from UNESCO between 2000 and 2005, the United States rejoined the now Arab-dominated organization in July of this year, largely under political pressure from Ohio, in order to get the “Hopewell” nomination through. The UNESCO meeting in September in Saudi Arabia served doubly to celebrate UNESCO isolation of Israel with its pesky concerns about Jews having something to do with the history of Jerusalem, and also to ratify the “Hopewell” nomination, as it ceremoniously welcomed the United States back into the fold of marking heritage sites in ways that bury Native American, Jewish, and African history.

This was all officially celebrated at “Mound City” in Chillicothe on October 14, 2023. I was there. Governor DeWine gave a speech, though, as he told me privately, he knows absolutely nothing about the genesis of the “Hopewell” name or why it was chosen to mark works that are clearly Native American. Also speaking was Glenna Wallace, chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, and tribal representatives were present from the other two Shawnee tribes, the Miami, the Wyandot, the Seneca, and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. The latter is another one of the ironies, as I will get to.

It should be emphasized that none of these tribes resides in Ohio; the Shawnee and the Miami were exiled to Oklahoma, and though these tribal representatives were brought in for the weird celebration – weird because we were asked to celebrate the name of a white mound looter whose biography went unmentioned – none of the tribes played any part in choice of the name, and all of the tribes have either opposed the name, or they have been left in the dark about why that name was chosen or what it means.

According to members of the committee that shepherded the nomination, the name was chosen and insisted upon by Brad Lepper, chief archaeologist of the Ohio History Connection (despite sounding like a dating service, this is the new name of what used to be the Ohio Historical Society), who has built his career on things he has named “Hopewell” – including what he calls “the Great Hopewell Road,” a fantasy that, in reality, was much smaller than he claims, was not a road, and has no real connection to anything that should be called “Hopewell.” Lepper has a careerist interest in that name, and now Lepper’s careerism has been projected into a listing on the World Heritage List.

It’s time then to finally explore the man named Mordecai Cloud Hopewell. (No, he wasn’t Jewish.)

For over a century, the former owner of the elaborate earthwork complex on the North Fork of Paint Creek, west of Chillicothe, Ohio, was called “Colonel Hopewell,” or “Captain Hopewell,” terms of manufactured honor. In reality, Mordecai Cloud Hopewell was no more a colonel than Colonel Sanders. He was never an officer in any army, and his service in the Civil War had been as a private in the Virginia Militia. Hopewell traveled to Virginia from his Maryland home in order to enlist at the age of 19, exhibiting his support of slavery. His grave in Chillicothe has been occasionally marked with a Confederate flag in remembrance of his “service” to the cause of the Confederacy (see above picture).

Yet this man’s name has been applied to an entire “culture” of Native Americans and often mistaken as the name of a people or tribe. The continued use of this name is simply an abomination.

The property that became the Hopewell farm had been in possession of the Scottish Clark family since early days of Ohio statehood. Squier and Davis called it the North Fork site when revealing its wonders to the general public – the name that should continue in use today. The Clarks had forbidden excavation of the mounds, out of a sense of respect for the ancient graves. But in 1889, Mr. Hopewell acquired the property, and within two years, had invited Warren King Moorehead to destroy the earthworks in the hunt for treasure. Evidence indicates that Moorehead and Hopewell may have conspired together to loot those mounds. Moorehead was a man with little higher education but as heir to the King powder fortune he had amassed the greatest hoard of American Indian artifacts in history and had the reputation as a black-marketeer in artifacts.

Using large teams of men equipped with shovels and pick-axes, Moorehead savaged the mounds on Hopewell’s farm, uncovering and stealing what has been described as the greatest archaeological treasure ever unearthed – hundreds of thousands of artifacts including elaborate copper and mica grave goods, thousands of hornstone discs (pictured above) which had been transported from a quarry in Indiana – probably used as “soul-carriers” for transporting the spirits of the dead – and ornately-inscribed human bones.

Moorehead was contracted to display his vast hoard of loot at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, the event fittingly conducted at a “White City” to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the genocide of Christopher Columbus. In so doing, the untrained Moorehead was accorded the title of “archaeologist” to make the grave-robbing look legitimate. The lion’s share of the looted artifacts remain in Chicago at the Field Museum today. Outside the gates of the White City, a lone Native American protester distributed copies of what he called “The Red Man’s Complaint.” This was the Potawatomi chief Simon Pokagon, after whom the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi has been named. You could say that the Potawatomi have been protesting the “Hopewell” name for exactly 130 years.

In order to honor the man who had made the organized thievery possible, Moorehead named his display at Chicago the “Hopewell Exhibit,” There was nothing more scientific about it than that. Moorehead was deeply racist in his belief that the mound-builders could be separated into an “advanced” white race, responsible for the sophisticated geometric works, and a “primitive” red race, responsible for the “cruder” works. Lacking formal education, Moorehead accepted the hokum legend expressed in Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon, which told of an ancient war between such peoples in the Ohio Valley. Using the authority of his new title as “archaeologist,” Moorehead designated the advanced white race “Hopewell” and the primitive red race “Fort Ancient.”  That archaeologists including Brad Lepper, who holds the same position that Moorehead held, have tried to rejigger these terms to account for contradicting evidence doesn’t change the explicit racism out of which this terminology was born.

The history of archaeological interpretation in the Ohio Valley in the 20th and 21st centuries has been the history of trying to rectify Moorehead’s grotesque errors and cover up the explicit racism of his chosen terminology. It was quickly realized that the people Moorehead identified as “Hopewell” and “Fort Ancient” could not have warred against each other, because “Fort Ancient” artifacts occurred in higher later strata. This chronology also wrecked the idea that the “Hopewell” were more “advanced” in any time sense. In fact, the people who made the artifacts that Moorehead called “Fort Ancient” were in part descendants of the same people he called “Hopewell.”  To make matters, worse, the Fort Ancient site in Warren County was found to date to the period that Moorehead called “Hopewell.”

Rather than ditch the bad terminology, archaeologists have tried to patch the system, first by inserting the “Adena” as the new “primitive” red race that had warred with the “Hopewell.”  At least the Adena name did not come from the name of a white property owner, but from the name of Thomas Worthington’s estate in Chillicothe, a name Worthington chose because of its felicitous meaning in many world languages, including Algonquian. “Adena” is a word that means ‘burial’ mound in Shawnee and Ojibwe language, making it an ideal indigenous name for the ancient civilization of the Ohio Valley.

But the Adena and Hopewell distinction has always been confused and wrongheaded, intended to imply that there were two different cultures in the valley that were in some way opposed to each other, when in reality there was one continuous Algonquian civilization deserving of a unitary name.

To cleanse the taxonomic vocabulary, the most prominent archaeologists of the Ohio Valley collaborated on a volume published in 2005 titled Woodland Period Systematics in the Middle Ohio Valley. The chapters of this book detail how the standard class names “Adena,” “Hopewell,” and “Fort Ancient Culture” (and a few others) fit none of the technical requirements as either cultures, phases, horizons or traditions, despite numerous attempts to define them as any of the four (or, indeed, as peoples). Attempts to develop coherent and supportable trait lists for Adena and Hopewell have consistently failed, except as those terms are used within small microregions. But the terms as used within one microregion, like Ross County, are incompatible with the way those same terms are used for other microregions, like the Kanawha Valley.

This led the editors, Robert Mainfort and Darlene Applegate, to recommend highly constricted use of the terms “Adena” and “Hopewell” (to within microregions) if not their abandonment, a position that should be taken as representing a consensus of Ohio Valley archaeologists. Darlene Applegate concludes her introduction to the volume by saying: “the concepts of Adena and Hopewell, as currently conceived by most archaeologists, should not be used as part of unit designation when classifying assemblages from non-ceremonial contexts or testing hypothesis about non-ritual behaviors such as settlement.” [page 18]

In other words, to enshrine the name “Hopewell Culture” on the World Heritage List is not only an affront to Native Americans and Ohioans, it is also bad science. There is no valid scientific definition of “Hopewell Culture.” The “people” called Hopewell were the same people as those called “Adena.” They merit being called by one name, and the Adena name is the logical choice – it is cognate to the word d’odem, which means “clan ancestor” in Central Algonquian languages. “Fort Ancient Culture,” on the other hand, describes no real people or culture and should be abandoned on purely scientific grounds.

Mainfort and Applegate did not envision that a nomination of eight earthwork complexes to the UNESCO World Heritage List would enshrine the lousy vocabulary of Ohio archaeologists for the sake of confusing all of humanity. But now that nomination is upon us, it is essential that the “Hopewell” name not continue to create global offense and embarrassment for the people of Ohio.

Luckily, this naming crisis affords an opportunity. Protests against the name during the decade-long nomination process were constantly met with the argument that any change of name would require withdrawal of the nomination, something no opponents of the name wanted to do. The great news is that now that the nomination has been approved, the name can be changed, and the precedent for that involves another irony. The precedent is the site of the death camp at Auschwitz, where many of my own cousins perished. It was nominated in 1979 to the World Heritage List as “Auschwitz Concentration Camp.” Survivors, many from Israel, protested that calling a death camp a concentration camp is a euphemism that fails to name the perpetrators of the crimes there. In 2007, UNESCO approved changing the name to “Auschwitz-Birkenau: German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945).” So name changes can be done.

Calling the phenomenal Ohio earthworks “Hopewell” not only fails to name the perpetrators, but it honors the very perpetrators of the crime of mound-looting. The name must now be changed to “Ancient Woodland Earthworks of the Ohio Valley,” or something similar as approved by the tribes that represent the descendants of the builders. I might suggest as a subtitle: “Looted by the White Supremacists Moorehead and Hopewell.” This would truly honor the Native cultures responsible for the earthworks and pinpoint the ongoing looting problem that plagues the Ohio Valley.

Or, we should change the state motto back to “Imperium in Imperio,” making it clear to the incoming hordes of international tourists exactly where Ohio stands; and UNESCO can certify that the Israelites built temples in Ohio but not in Jerusalem. Happy Thanksgiving!


Geoffrey Sea is a historian and writer who has long studied the Ohio earthworks and who serves as the administrator of the Adena Core Facebook Group. Adena Core can also be reached at AdenaCore@gmail.com