One of America’s most mysterious archaeological sites is finally being returned to its rightful owners after 200 years. In the small town of Franklin, North Carolina, a small mound of earth can be found alongside US Highway 441. The grassy mound today stands just just a dozen or so feet high (4 meters) and occupies the space of roughly a city block. While the mound may be easily overlooked by the untrained eye, it remains one of the most unknown structures in the United States and predates even the oldest known oral histories of indigenous American peoples. Who built the Nikwasi Mound?
When the earliest European settlers encountered the Cherokee nation in what is now Western North Carolina, they inquired about the mound. Cherokee tribal elders told the explorers that the mound predates their tribe’s history and was already ancient when the Cherokee arrived. The original builders of the mound remain unknown, and it is believed the mound was once part of a sprawling tribal town which thrived around 1,000 CE. Despite the mystery surrounding the Nikwasi Mound, the Cherokee people have revered the mound as a spiritual and ceremonial place for centuries and consider it to be one of the last known structures built by their mysterious predecessors.
The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI) has worked for years to reclaim ownership of the mound and are finally poised to regain it. The Franklin City Council will soon vote to pass control of the mound to the nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative in the next few months, and the votes are expected to go in favor of the EBCI. “What this will do is allow the Cherokees — finally, after 200 years — to have some representation in the management of the mound,” Franklin Vice Mayor Barbara McRae told council members before the vote. “We have an opportunity to do something really historic, and to reverse that wrong.”
While it’s unknown who exactly built the Nikwasi Mound, it is believed that the Southern Appalachian Mississippians likely constructed it at some point nearly a thousand years ago. The Mississippian people were the predecessors to modern American Indian nations and inhabited what is now the eastern United States from the 9th century to the 15th century before European colonization.
Climate change at the end of the Little Ice Age, deforestation and overhunting, and the ensuing cultural collapse eventually brought about the decline of the Mississippian culture and the subsequent development of the Native American Indian nations and culture we know today. Because the Mississippian people left behind no writing system, little is known about this ancient culture outside of archaeological artifacts, mounds like the Nikwasi Mound, and the oral histories passed down through indigenous peoples for centuries.
Because of its sacred status, the Nikwasi Mound has never been excavated, and the Cherokee people request that no one even climb on it in order to preserve it. Who knows what mysteries lie in the earth of the mound? Luckily, we may never know. Some mysteries are worth preserving.