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Great Mound was once the tallest in North America

Contributed by the Concordia Sentinel
Written by: Stanley Nelson

Will the present Department of Transportation and Development work result in new info on Troyville Indians?

While approach work to the new Black River Bridge along Hwy. 84 in western Concordia Parish has already begun, work to demolish homes on the Jonesville side of the river in Catahoula Parish began this week.

Archeologists are waiting in the background in case the eventual dirt work uncovers any bones or artifacts, particularly anything to do with the Troyville Indians, a culture which lived from about 300-700 A.D., and hunted in the forests and along the waterways of Catahoula, Concordia and other area parishes for centuries.

Great Mound was tallest in North America

Dr. Hiram "Pete" Gregory, Professor and Coordinator of Anthropology at Northwestern State University, said during its cultural height, "Troyville was one of the largest Indian communities in the Lower Mississippi River Valley from Cairo, Ohio to the Gulf. The Great Mound was the largest mound of that time."

Work to four-lane Hwy. 84 in Jonesville has already resulted in new findings. Last year excavation work was conducted in the parking lot of the old Babin Motors site along Hwy. 84. Workers with Earth Search, a company hired by the Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development (DOTD), conducted the excavation and found animal bones, two prehistoric structures, and materials including large pottery shards and matted cane. Some of the pottery vessels were partially reconstructed.

State archaeologists discussed the findings at a meeting late last year and again last month. They are continuing to investigate the new artifacts. I lived in Jonesville from 1978 to 1996, and for a four-year period lived within yards of the site of the Great Mound, which was located on the block surrounded by 2nd and 3rd Streets and Pond and Willow.

I always wondered what life during those days long ago was like for the Indians, and I've wondered what kind of town Jonesville might have been had the Great Mound not been razed in 1931 to provide dirt for the approach to the old Black River bridge in Jonesville.

When you descend the bridge in Jonesville you are traveling over dirt which was possibly sacred to the Troyville Indians for hundreds of years. How much time they spent carrying that dirt in baskets as they built a mound that once stood 80 foot high and others isn't known. But it took contractors for the state highway department only about one month that summer, long ago, to level it.

Once the new bridge is constructed, Dr. Joe Saunders of the University of Louisiana-Monroe, Regional Archaeologist for Northeast Louisiana, said the old bridge approach may one day be a prime excavation point so the treasures once thought lost might still be found.

Commonly held beliefs

Saunders says little is known today about the Troyville Indians, although there are a few commonly held beliefs about them:
They were hunters, but primarily fishermen. For 7000 years, Saunders said, fish was the primary source of food of Indians. They also ate certain plants, berries, and nuts.
Skins of animals and some plants were likely used as clothing although no clothing has ever been found linked to the Troyville Indians.
The Great Mound was likely ceremonial and in some circles it is believed that the Indians might have been sacrificial just like the Natchez. Natchez Indian were known to sacrifice their babies.
They made pottery and bowls with motifs of birds.

Why was the Great Mound built at present day Jonesville? Most likely because of the location of the rivers - the Tensas-Black, Ouachita and Little -- which provided transportation in every direction.

We learned recently that the man who sold the Great Mound was paid the grand sum of $100 for 21,000 cubic yards of dirt. The man's daughter said he sold the land because the mound blocked the sun from his house, leaving his premises in the dark much of the day.

What a tourist attraction that mound would have been today. What a precious historical site it would have been.

Early explorers made mention often times of the Great Mound. One of the first descriptions of the mounds was made by William Dunbar of Natchez, a year after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He, along with Dr. George Hunter, was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to study the Ouachita and Red rivers portion of the Louisiana Purchase.

"At this place are several Indian mounds, being mostly covered by a thick cane break," Dunbar wrote. The mounds were used by early settlers as bases for homes with the tops leveled for construction. During the Civil War, the once 80-ft. high Great Mound was used as a rifle pit by the Confederates.

But as we mentioned before, the Great Mound met its ultimate fate in the name of progress when Huey P. Long was elected governor and began his road and bridge program. The old bridge which crosses the Black River today was considered a blessing. Few cared that the approach to the bridge on the Jonesville side resulted in the leveling of the Great Mound.

Winslow Walker of the Smithsonian Institution heard about the mound leveling from an LSU geologist who happened to be traveling through Jonesville when the work began. Informed by letter with photos enclosed, Walker raced down to excavate what he could.

Saunders said Walker spent just a few days in Jonesville in November of 1931, but returned the following year for several weeks of excavation. He eventually published a 103-page booklet on his work -- work that he did not complete because of gold.

Walker wrote: "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...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."

"...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...which resulted in reducing the mound nearly to street level."

For days the people of Jonesville lived in a cloud of dust. The late Elnor Swayze remembered that mothers wrongly feared the dust caused tuberculosis and many kept their children indoors for fear of catching the debilitating disease.

Walker said, "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."

One day Walker discovered a mass burial at the so-called Magnolia Mound site, located near where the old Magnolia Motel once stood. Walker noted that the local citizenry was most interested in the find.

When the Natchez Indians fought their last battle in their war against the French north of Sicily Island in the 1700s, a legend was born that the Natchez left Mississippi with gold that they buried at Troyville.

When Walker returned the next day to the site of the mass burial -- a site he tried to secure the night before -- he was shocked to find that some local people had removed skeletons and dug about looking for the Natchez gold. Tired, disgusted and frustrated, Walker packed his belongings and left town.

Saunders, who calls the Walker report invaluable, has obtained a few dozen never-before-seen photos of Walker's excavation work. We got a glimpse of them Monday and they are outstanding.

An ULM colleague of Saunders discovered the photos while at the Smithsonian, and Saunders was able to purchase them with a grant. We hope to publish some of them just as soon as Saunders is able to obtain permission from the institution.

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