I drive back and forth between Cincinnati and Columbus a lot. Like, a lot. I-71 is like another home at this point. Every time I drive north or south, I pass the sign for Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve, and I never stop. I’m usually up against some sort of deadline, or trying to avoid rush hour in either city. There’s always some excuse.
I got tired of making excuses. On my most recent trip to Cincinnati, I decided to finally stop and take a visit.
I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked, because as usual, I procrastinated leaving as long as I could. Still, I had a couple of hours to explore the museum and a few of the trails in the Earthworks, and I’m so glad I made the stop!
A (Very) Brief History
Fort Ancient is one of many, many Native American sites in Ohio. It is a massive ancient hilltop enclosure—supposedly the largest in the world—built by the Hopewell people. It was constructed somewhere between 200 BC and 400 AD, when the Hopewell lived in the area. Fort Ancient is located next to the Little Miami River near Lebanon, Ohio. It is a beautiful area, full of dramatic hills and old forest.
The Indigenous people who lived in the area when white settlers started arriving became known as the Fort Ancient culture. This is because the “explorers” who “discovered” this place mistakenly thought that the group living at the complex at the time had built the mounds. However, excavations later demonstrated the “fort” was neither a fort nor built by the Fort Ancient people; it was built many centuries before by the Hopewell, and it is more likely that it served as a ceremonial center.
The entire plateau of the Fort Ancient area measures about 126 acres in total. Earthen walls line the edges, and range from 5 to 23 feet tall. The Hopewell, who are known across Ohio as having been master engineers, built these walls by carrying soil in baskets and dumping the soil into large piles that were shaped into mounds.
Visiting the Museum
I started my visit to Fort Ancient at the museum, which showcases centuries of Indigenous history in Ohio. The journey begins with the era of the earliest nomadic hunter-gatherers and works through the Adena, Hopewell, and Fort Ancient people.
There is a large scale model of the Fort Ancient complex, which underscores the large scope of the enclosure. There are artifacts from the Hopwell culture, which include copper and mother-of-pearl objects that they obtained from their massive trading networks, including routes north to Lake Superior and south to the Carolinas.
There is also a case of colorful flint from Flint Ridge Ancient Quarries and Nature Preserve, another very impressive Ohio History Connection site that I have visited. This beautiful Vanport flint was renowned among the ancient Indigenous peoples of the area, and it was traded extensively throughout the eastern part of what became the United States.
The museum travels through the more recent history of Indigenous groups including the Shawnee, Osage, and Miami people. These are the people who were ravaged and hunted by the white settlers as they encroached further west in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
The museum does not shy away from this bloody history. A large portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the violence enacted by white settlers on Indigenous people in the area. Prominently, a large wall displays the speech given by Chief Logan of the Cayuga people after a white militia murdered his entire family. There is an image of the massive elm tree where this speech is said to have taken place (Logan Elm Memorial is another Ohio History Connection site that I have been to). This image is accompanied by a small piece of the original tree inside a display case.
Exploring the Grounds
I made sure to visit the museum first, since I had an hour until they closed. But it was a beautiful day, and I wanted to explore the grounds a bit before I headed home.
I first took a little walk on the Stone Circle Trail, a flat, short trail right behind the museum. There are several reconstructed mounds on this walk, as well as multiple ponds and vernal pools inside the enclosure walls. These pools have formed in the pits dug by the Hopewell inside the walls. Now, they are home to many salamanders, frogs, and insects in warmer months.
I made the mistake of not wearing my actual hiking shoes on this little walk, and my sandals and feet became quite muddy. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the quiet stroll among the hickory and blooming mayapples.
I didn’t feel like I’d gotten quite enough of a hike in by the time I got back to the car. So I put on my hiking shoes and drove south towards some of the other trails. I didn’t have much time at this point, so I took a small meander along the Earthworks Trail. I admired the smooth rise of the earthen walls and their little ponds as I walked.
I made it to the observation deck, which provides a clear view to the north. From here, I could see the Morrow bridge, taking drivers on I-71 across the wide valley cut by the Little Miami River. It was a sultry, warm May day, and summer was in the air. The trees across the valley were now a thick, vibrant shade of green. I breathed it all in, the oxygen, the history, the afternoon.
I had to make it home in time to teach my evening online ESL class, and it was getting a bit late. I had to cut my visit short. I walked back towards my car, catching more glimpses of the mounds and ponds everywhere. I took off my now very muddy trail runners and exchanged them for the slightly less muddy sandals.
I drove slowly out of the park, admiring the mounds, the trees, and the golden afternoon. I took a different way back, ending up on a steep, winding road that worked its way slowly down to the river and back up again, before rejoining I-71.
I have quickly become amazed by Ohio’s Indigenous history. The construction of these mounds is so easy to overlook, until you consider the big picture. It took an enormous amount of work and coordination to construct these enclosures. It took detailed planning and skill in geometry and engineering. In our hyper-capitalist modern world, we tend to consider vertical construction as a marker of achievement, but this horizontal, patient building is a true marvel. I marveled all the way home.