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Louisiana's Ancient Troyville Mounds

By Will Clifton
Editor - Catahoula News Booster

Recently, I have been reading and studying the history of the Troyville Mounds of Catahoula Parish. I find myself amazed that one of the largest Native American mounds in North America once stood less than a stone's throw away from where I'm sitting.

The earliest written description of the mounds is found in the journal of William Dunbar, a naturalist, sent in 1804 by President Jefferson to explore the Ouachita River. He made the trip in a small boat, going down the Mississippi River from Natchez to the mouth of Red River and up the Black into the Ouachita.

Upon his arrival at the mouth of a stream, which Dunbar refers to as the Catahoula (Little River), he found a French settler named Heberd, whose house was built on a mound in view of several larger ones. Dunbar, not having enough time to make a close study of the group, which he planned to do the following year, had this to say about the mounds in his journal:

"At this place are several Indian mounds, being mostly covered by a thick cane break. It was difficult to examine them with due attention: There are five of the usual form placed within the angle formed by the Black River and the Catahoula, another lies beyond the Catahoula; those are oblong, about 50 yards long by 25 wide on the top, with a rapid descent about 12 feet perpendicular; there exists a sixth mound of very particular construction, the base is nearly square and consists of three stories; the proprietor, M. Heberd, thinks the whole is 80 feet high and the base covers a square of about 180 feet to each side."

Dunbar goes on to say that it is possible that the Great Mound could have been a temple for the adoration of the "Supreme Being", a monument erected to honor some great chief or simply a watchtower.

In the early 1800's the smaller of the Troyville Mounds were used by settlers, like Heberd, as bases for their houses. The tops were sheared off to create a level slab with the elevation of the mounds providing protection from high water.

During the Civil War, the Great Mound was altered by having its "summit cone" virtually cut down to provide space for a rifle pit at the top. The excess dirt was spread down the north and south slopes. The mound was so gashed and mutilated that determining the original shape proved almost impossible.

In 1883 Dr. Cyruss Thomas described the group as consisting of six mounds within an embankment. Artificial ponds and canals were also present. Some of the smaller mounds were largely destroyed. One not only was an ancient burial ground, but was also used as a modern cemetery. Part of that mound can be seen today on the grounds of the Methodist Church. The Great Mound was then 45 feet high, 270 feet long and 180 feet wide. In one of the deep gashes a layer of "charred cane one foot thick" was visible, extending into the mound interior.

In the early 1900's came the final blow of destruction. It is described by Winslow M. Walker in his book, The Troyville Mounds of Catahoula, La. Walker writes:

'The subsequent growth of the town of Jonesville resulted in a correspondingly rapid demolition of the mounds, particularly of the Great Mound, which supplied dirt to fill up the hollows and ditches from which it had been taken originally. Even dynamite was resorted to in order to hasten the process, and the dirt distributed to form a shelf or bench out to the edges of the block. Even so, a good sized hill remained which served an extremely useful purpose as a refugee camp during the floods which came between 1912 and 1927,since it was the only spot in town above the reach of the water. But the owners still regarded it as a hindrance to the development of their property and determined to get rid of it at the most favorable opportunity. The decision of the Louisiana Highway Commission to build a bridge across Black River just south of the main part of town, to join the ends of the new proposed highway, provided the longed-for chance. A long, high approach had to be built at each end of the bridge and the mound offered the most convenient and satisfactory source from which to obtain the earth needed. A contract was made with the owners to permit the removal of 21,000 cubic yards of dirt, which resulted in reducing the mound nearly to street level."

The demolition work began during the early part of the summer in 1931 and continued for about a month. Day and night shifts were employed, requiring steam shovels, horses and scrapers, along with large gangs of laborers. The hard and closely packed clay which the aboriginal builders had used in their construction was removed.

When Walker arrived on the scene, just one month after the removal process had begun, nothing was to be seen of the former Great Mound which had once stood 80 feet high and covered the better part of a block. Even the five-foot level had been scraped down until not even the outlines of the mound base could be distinguished.

Walker hints in his book that the owners of the property on which the mounds sat were hopeful of locating the lost "Natchez Treasure" during the destruction of the Great Mound. They believed that the Natchez Indians, after the massacre at Fort Rosalie, had fled Mississippi with an abundance of "treasure" and buried it in the Troyville Mound area.

I find it ironic that the futile search for "buried treasure" resulted in the total destruction of the abundant wealth of knowledge that the mounds contained in and of themselves.

Everyone has heard the term, "Hind sight is 20/20." Imagine Catahoula Parish today had the Troyville Mounds not been demolished. Think of the possibilities for the tourism industry - our own Troyville Pilgrimage. Think about the valuable Ancient American information these mounds would have provided. Our link to the peoples who lived in this and the surrounding areas would have been much more complete. At the time our forefathers felt that ready-made housing foundations and bridge ramps held more economic value than several piles of dirt. The old had to go to make way for the new. Making progress and becoming modernized is not always good. Grave mistakes are occasionally made in the process. I feel the demolition of these mounds was such a case.

I found myself becoming extremely angry while researching this story. I questioned. "How did this happen? Why didn't someone realize the importance?"

But then the answer came to me, "You never know what you have until it's gone."

Future generations will, without doubt, look back on the actions of today's society and ask the same questions. Don't let them down. Let's be aware. Let's be very careful with our judgments. Let's question our actions.

Are we making good decisions? Are we protecting our historical sites? Are we being caretakers of nature's wonders to the best of our ability?

Only time will tell.

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