Visit Alligator Mound: A Fort Ancient Effigy
Perched atop a modest hilltop in an upscale Columbus suburb overlooking Racoon Creek Valley 150-feet below, rests a more than millennium old effigy mound known as Alligator Mound. The striking earthwork is attributed to the Fort Ancient culture, which thrived in the central and southern regions of present-day Ohio, southeastern Indiana, northern Kentucky, and western West Virginia between 800 and 1200 AD, a period recognized by archaeologists as the Late Woodland period. Stretching over 240 feet, from the crest of its head to the tip of its gracefully curved tail, Alligator Mound ranks among Ohio's largest effigy mounds, surpassed in scale only by the internationally renowned Serpent Mound and the amphibian-like effigy mound found within Hopewell Culture National Historical Park's Hopewell Mound Group.
Intriguingly, despite its name, Alligator Mound does not depict an alligator but instead portrays a mythical creature known to some indigenous peoples as Mishipeshu. According to tradition, Mishipeshu was a malevolent underwater panther inhabiting the deepest parts of lakes and rivers. To secure safe passage across these waters, indigenous communities performed ritual ceremonies to appease Mishipeshu. It was believed that neglecting these rituals would result in perilous storms, ultimately engulfing and drowning those who attempted to cross the lakes and rivers. An even more horrifying scenario loomed: Mishipeshu, armed with its formidable jaws, would consume the indigenous people as they attempted to cross.
One recounted encounter with Mishipeshu narrates the journey of a group of natives who set out to collect copper from Lake Superior. Not having placated the beast, the very moment that they launched their canoe into the water, a sinister voice, emanating from the creature, enveloped them. The underwater panther pursued the group with menacing growls, vehemently accusing them of pilfering the possessions of its offspring. Following a ferocious assault by the beast, the natives frantically raced back to their village, yet regrettably, each of them suffered fatal injuries. The last among them clung to life just long enough to share the harrowing tale of their final moments before succumbing.
Upon the arrival of the first pioneers of this region, they turned to the Native Americans who were acquainted with the mound, seeking to understand its significance. By this time, these natives had no direct link to the original creators of the earthwork; rather they interpreted the site through the lens of their own cultural traditions. It is quite conceivable that when the indigenous people conveyed the representation of a hostile underwater creature, the early pioneers misinterpreted it as an alligator. As a result, the name "Alligator Mound" became firmly associated with the site.
Early archaeologists, Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis, surveyed the site for the Smithsonian Institution, and reported their findings in their 1848 publication Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Among their significant findings, they encountered a diminutive mound, its surface adorned with stones that bore signs of multiple burnings. This mound was situated between the two northward-facing legs of the effigy mound, with a graded path extending from it to the top of the effigy mound. Squire and Davis surmised that the smaller mound served as an altar, likely employed for sacrificial purposes. Today, this mound is scarcely discernible, yet a careful eye might still detect traces of the former path and mound, as illustrated below.
In 1999, an archaeological survey of the effigy mound was conducted by the Ohio History Connection. Through radiocarbon dating of a fragment of charcoal retrieved from the mound's foundation, archaeologists approximated Alligator Mound's construction to have occurred around 1,000 years ago, which corresponds with when the Fort Ancient culture inhabited the region.
There have been conjectures proposing that the site might have originally been constructed by an earlier culture, such as the Hopewell (100 BC to 500 AD) or the Adena (500 BC to 100 AD), and subsequently underwent restoration or reconstruction by the Fort Ancient culture. This hypothesis is alluring, especially when considering the proximity of the Newark Earthworks, which were built by the Hopewell, just a few miles east of Alligator Mound. However, it is important to note that as of now, no evidence has been unearthed to substantiate this theory.
Alligator Mound, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1971, offers convenient access for visitors. Located just 35 minutes to the northeast of downtown Columbus in Granville, Ohio, you can find it at coordinates 40.069886, -82.501085. Parking is allowed along the street that surrounds the mound, and there are no fees or permits required to visit. While you can walk on the hilltop surrounding the mound, please refrain from walking directly on the mound itself.