Hidden Histories

Quaker Traveler Ann Mifflin & her 'Cave of Skeletons' in 1802

Monday, 9/28/09

During the Colonial period and well within the 19th-century, as the early American pioneers plowed their land, cleared trees from property containing vast virgin forests, dug wells and explored the frontier, numerous ancient works of the former inhabitants of North America were continually brought to light in the form of burial mounds, fortifications, skeletons and mysterious artifacts.

Predominately, modern archaeology often tends to dismiss many of these discoveries as the products of an 'over-active imagination,' the result of illiterate farmers attempting to interpret remains by means of a limited education, or simply dismiss such findings and/or writings as examples of fraud, forgery, prevarication, gullibility and the material culture they discuss as being exclusively of post-European origin.

However, enough bona-fide archaeological excavations have since revealed that within this vast area from ca. 1000BC to AD 500, sophisticated cultures of the 'Mound Builders' once existed. These societies are primarily referred to in today's scientific literature as that of the 'Adena' & 'Hopewell' Cultures, whose physical remains and artifacts exist from eastern Kansas to the Great Lakes region within the Illinois & Ohio River Valleys and on into Western Pennsylvania, New York, parts of Ontario, Canada, and as even as far south as Crystal River, Florida.

Numerous written accounts exist, both published & in manuscript form, of many such remains as mentioned above, which tend to either support or contradict current scientific interpretation as to the size of North America's prehistoric population, their anatomy, physiology & ethnicity, as well as to the level of technology & industry they attained.

A bold and adventerous spirit existed in the physical frame of Philadelphia area Quaker Ann Mifflin (1755-1815), who along with a small party in 1802, desired to visit the Native-American Christian congregation of the Oneida, residing in New York, near Lake Cayuga. Central & Western New York at that time were still a 'frontier' in every sense of the word & Anne remarks how "when passing thro' the wilderness...we lay encamped on the grass, our midnight serenade being the howling of wolves and the screeching of owls..."

Not long before, both the Quakers & the Presbyterians had achieved significant success in establishing Christian-Indian communities, such as that at "Brothertown, within the Oneida reservation," described by Mifflin as "a settlement formed of the scattered fragments of seven different nations..."

Ann Mifflin, as well as being a fervent member of the 'Society of Friends,' was no doubt a curious individual also, since she found it important to relate an interesting acccount (evidently the earliest on record), of an intriguing archaeological discovery in early Western New York. Her personal narrative is located here, at 'The Historical Society of Pennsylvania,' written down within her own hand, and dated for 1803, included as part of the Logan-Fisher-Fox Family Papers, Collection #1960, Vol.11, and entitled, "Ann Mifflin's Visit to the Indians, 1802."

She relates:

"Not many miles distant are the ruins of an ancient fortification, near four miles square, with a strong wall on part of it: within it...trees grown therein, four feet in diameter, which shows its ancient date---

The Indians have adopted their present custom of burying with the dead the most valuable articles they possess...This practice seems to have been adopted before they had wholly lost the use of letters, from what appeared in a cave or sepulchre in this neighbourhood, discovered by a hunter in 1801; who observing an arch, on the top of which grew a tree above two feet in diameter, showing its antiquity; he procured hands and opened it at the side, from whence an intolerable stench for a time issued.

They discovered the skeletons of 8 persons, placed in a sitting posture, with their feet meeting each other. Their hands had fallen between their knees, & the arm bones remaining in the shoulder sockets & elbows resting on the ground, kept the back bones erect, leaning against the sides of the cave: from the size of the bones, there was four men on one side, and four women on the other, with bracelets on their arms, & other trinkets.

There were scissors of a curious workmanship...preserved from the damp & rust... and inscriptions on stones they could not understand. The bones crumbled to dust on the entrance of the air, and from the weight of the Tree on the top & side walls being taken away it soon caved in."

Ann Mifflin goes on to suggest how she had "expressed a wish these inscriptions could be procured for the Philadelphia Museum, as subjects of investigation," referring to the repository of natural curiosities and artifactual remains, on display within the building of antiquarian collector, Charles Willson Peale of Philadelphia. She also had spoken to "the friend who informed me of these matters," who had professed a desire to return to the ancient site and carry out further excavations, "digging to see what further could be procured."

Further research by the author has uncovered that Ann Mifflin's account was later confirmed, in works printed in the latter part of the 19th-century, by New York historian Theseus Apoleon Cheney, who gave other details about the above discovery of 1801, locating the tumuli in what is now, Connewango, Cattaraugus County, in south-western New York.

He states for example, that, "At the time of its discovery, the site was surrounded by primitive forest, and upon the tumulus there were growing several large trees, among them being a hemlock two feet in diameter...," and within the mound, "human skeletons, which had been buried in a sitting posture...in the form of a circle...skeletons {were} so far decayed as to crumble upon exposure to the atmosphere, but were all of very large size."

Cheney also relates how in the center of the circle formed by the eight "mouldering skeletons," stood a pestle artistically wrought from granite. This relic was placed in a perpendicular position and encircled with twenty-four flint arrows of large dimensions." He goes on to remark how at the time of his writing (in 1879), "this mound is now nearly obliterated, and the ground upon whereon it once stood is cultivated by the white man. The fields in either direction disclose large quantities of relics designed for warlike purposes which had been discharged, no doubt, during some terrible battle."

It should also be noted, that a large number of artifacts do exist, within the region described, of European origin. Yet underneath these remains are pre-Columbian artifacts resembling Colonial technology of iron & steel, but not 'intrusive' objects planted or dating to that period. Instead, these were found 'in situ,' and date to a time prior to the arrival of Europeans, though such a technology is considered to be beyond the capability of the ancient Americans.

Numerous anomalous artifacts such as alphabetic inscriptions, iron & steel objects, have regrettably been labeled by 'type,' rather than by association with the other pre-Columbian remains found within such ancient enclosures or burial mounds. This does a disservice to archaeology and to the inhabitants of ancient America who can no longer defend themselves, as to the higher technological achievements they attained, as revealed by their remains, scattered throughout North America and the New World as a whole.

Though the forests have been cleared and plows, construction sites, buildings or roads now dot the land where an ancient people once resided, fought, and died by the thousands -- luckily, there were individuals such as Ann Mifflin, who have left us vivid reminders of a unique & intriquing aspect of America's forgotten, yet rediscovered 'Hidden Histories,' as preserved at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.