Introducing the Origins of Our First Field Office: the Midwest Regional Office
by Paul Gardner, Midwest Regional Director
When modern Americans think of the nation’s archaeological heritage, most probably conjure up images of the adobe ruins and cliff palaces of the Southwest. The combination of visible prehistoric architecture and dramatic landscapes can capture the imagination of anyone with even a casual interest in the past. However, in the 19th century, American archaeological interest was firmly centered on the American Midwest.
As American settlers moved westward from the Atlantic seaboard and encountered the sprawling earthworks and towering mounds that lay abandoned across the landscape, a dispute arose as to who had created them. Many believed that a lost race predating the American Indians had created the monuments, while others championed the ancestors of the modern American Indians as their makers. This “Mound-builders debate” would stimulate much intellectual effort and lay the foundation for modern American archaeology. The first book published by the United States government, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge Vol. 1, The Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, was published in 1848 and addressed the Mound-builders debate.
The very first private fund-raising effort to preserve an archaeological site took place in 1886 to protect the Great Serpent Mound, Ohio, perhaps the epitome of an enigmatic Midwestern earthwork. Early in the Twentieth Century, many of the techniques and methods of modern archaeology would be pioneered by the University of Chicago’s “Chicago Field School” as archaeologists labored to systematically investigate Kincaid Mounds in southern Illinois, and the first notable attempt to create a framework for organizing the burgeoning corpus of archaeological data was the “Midwest Taxonomic System” developed at The Milwaukee Public Museum in the 1930s. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Midwest was the crucible in which modern American archaeology was formed.
The Midwest has played a notable role in the history of The Archaeological Conservancy as well. TAC’s first acquisition was Powers Fort, a Mississippian Culture Mound and Village Center in southern Missouri purchased in 1980, the Conservancy’s first year of operation. In fact three of TAC’s first four acquisitions would be in the Midwest – Hopewell Mounds, Ohio, and Savage Cave, Kentucky being the other two. Unsurprisingly, when TAC opened its first “branch office”, it would be in the Midwest. In 1987, TAC opened an office in Cincinnati, staffed by one person, to handle all acquisition projects east of the Mississippi. Happily, the fortunes of the organization soon advanced to a point where a Southeastern office could be opened in Atlanta in 1989 and an Eastern office in 1997.
Since 1992, the Midwest Regional Office has headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. I have served as the Regional Director since 1994. Josh McConaughy has been the field representative since 2007. The region itself encompasses Ohio, the western portions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. It is made up of the prehistoric cultural regions of the Upper Ohio River, the Upper Mississippi River, a portion of the Northeastern Plains, and the Great Lakes region except for New York and Canada. TAC has created archaeological preserves that represent nearly the entire corpus of the culture-history of the region from Ice Age encampments to Nineteenth Century freed slave communities. These include portions of the Cahokia Mounds, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and two National Historic Landmarks; Silver Mound, Wisconsin, a prehistoric quarry; and New Philadelphia, Illinois, the first town in the United States to be platted and registered to an African-American. There is much work we can be proud of here in the Midwest, and always more to do.