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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Indian Mounds: A Favorite Childhood Haunt

Many inspirations from my youth can be found in my debut historical novel, Blood to Rubies. I'd like to tell you about one of them.

The most profound part of my youth––aside from my love of reading and history––was riding my horse, Sundance, on Iowa country gravel roads and along the Des Moines River bottom exploring. I almost always rode him bareback and we explored so much near my hometown of Dayton, located in Webster County, Iowa. Old stagecoach trails, buffalo wallows, Indian mounds, an abandoned coal mine, pioneer cemeteries, abandoned barns that still had old draft horse harnesses hanging on the musty walls where they had been moldering for many decades. In an old barn, I even found a yellowed calendar from 1921. Those experiences informed my life and interest in history, especially Native American and pioneer history. And that led to my debut novel, Blood to Rubies.

One of my favorite places to explore was the winding gravel road that plunged deep down along the Des Moines River Valley. There was so much history there, including the abandoned coal mine town called Hardscrabble and the Skillet Creek Indian Mounds. That winding road through the hills also hid an old stagecoach trail that was overgrown but could still be tracked through the woods. The area was still rife with wildlife because the hills and river's shoreline were cloaked in thick forests. I saw foxes and bobcats and coyotes and eagles and huge bull snakes that were very uncommon to see in the 1970s, when DDT, farm chemicals and horrific water pollution savaged wildlife and caused a great decimation of species.



I was most fascinated by the Indian Mounds hidden in the forest. They seemed of the land, as their ancient inhabitants buried beneath had been. And my youthful imagination imagined what life might have been for them centuries, perhaps even thousands of years before.

The map shown above was developed by the Smithsonian in 1894, identifying the major Indian mound clusters in the United States east of the Missouri. You can see from the big map that Iowa was heavily dotted with them. Of course, many more were discovered after 1894. And many, many Indian mounds were simply plowed over by farmers who thirsted for fertile land. Because Iowa was largely flat prairie and was covered by the richest and deepest topsoil on earth, nearly every square mile of the state was surveyed and plotted out. Perhaps that is why so many Indian mound cluster were located.

As whites moved West across the continent, many Indian tribes were driven West. (A case in point are the Mohicans. "The last of the Mohicans"––the small numbers who remain today––now live in Wisconsin, very, very far from their original home in the Catskill Mountains along the upper Hudson River of New York State.) The land that is now Iowa saw much cultural strife, as Eastern tribes (predominantly the Algonquins, the Chippewa, Pottawattamie, Powhatans, and other peoples) moved west to the land that is now Iowa. Western tribes, too (such as the Sioux, the Dakota, the Assiniboine, the Winnebago, and others), came down the Missouri. Both influxes converged upon the largely peaceful Mound Builders inhabiting the land nestled between the continent's two greatest rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri. And running down the middle of that land was the Des Moines River, near where I grew up.


For at least 11,000 years (modern research and archeology keep moving that date earlier and earlier), Iowa and other Midwestern states were originally inhabited by various ancient peoples. About 3,000 years ago, the Mound Builders came to dominate the land of Iowa. They were an agricultural race that grew corn, beans, pumpkins and sunflowers, gathered nuts and berries, and hunted and fished for meat. They usually lived near rivers and streams and their burial mounds lined the rivers throughout the land. The tribe that lived along the Des Moines River was a subset of the Mound Builders called the Woodland people. Their culture was dominant for about two thousand years. The burial mounds that I often visited as a youth were built by the Woodland people.


The Woodland people eventually became extinct, having been absorbed or wiped out by encroaching tribes. In the midst of the Algonquins, a Dakota tribe cohabitated called the Iowas. The early French explorers, Marquette and Joliet, who navigated the Mississippi in 1673, called these Indians the "Ayouas."  Lewis and Clark, in their 1805-1806 journals, referred to these Indians as the "Ayouways."  Eventually, the name was simplified to become the Iowa.


There is a movement in North America today to recognize the inhabitants of the land we occupy in the present day. Many universities, libraries and public buildings have installed plaques recognizing what Indigenous peoples inhabited that location originally. I welcome that movement and hope that it will help educate Americans, who are generally so notoriously ignorant of history.  What I learned in my youth was that history is all around us. We need only open our minds and our hearts to it.

"Iowa Indian Mounds: My Childhood Haunts" was first published on Notes from the Frontier and Facebook on April 13, 2024.

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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