Enlightenment-era intellectuals in America loved a good, straight line. Political scientist James C. Scott has written that the period “fostered a strong aesthetic that looked with enthusiasm on straight lines and visible order.” As a young nation pushed westward, Thomas Jefferson imagined a vast landscape surveyed and divided into orderly squares, first facilitating settlement and then governance, allowing distant officials to regulate and commodify land they had never seen. So gridded streetscapes began to sprout across the American Midwest, and straight lines proliferated everywhere.
At times those lines seemed to bulldoze haphazardly across forests and prairies, suggesting urban planners at distant drafting tables utterly ignorant of local knowledge. But the placement of a gridded streetscape could tell other stories as well. An 1837 map of Marietta, Ohio, contained in the papers of archaeologist E. G. Squier, tells a rich story of Indigenous architecture, nationalist aspirations, and Midwestern pride.
Marietta, founded in 1788, was the first official settlement in the Northwest Territory, and Ohio’s first organized municipality. Its orderly and modern gridded streets run parallel to the Muskingum River, but the 1837 map emphasizes another feature of the town: its network of Indigenous mounds. A closer look reveals a grid that not only imposes itself on the landscape, but also accommodates the town’s earthworks. Early Ohio Company officials, charmed by Marietta’s “old ruins,” insisted residents find a way to preserve them. Thus, the map shows mounds adapted into public squares on one end of town, while on the other a conical hill became the historic Mound Cemetery. The town plat seems to celebrate the mounds, not erase them.
The earthworks themselves were built by Hopewell and Adena peoples, networks of Indigenous societies that had dissolved into other communities over a thousand years before Marietta’s founding. Town residents insisted that the Native people they encountered disavowed specific knowledge of the mounds, leaving the ruins – they felt – open to their ownership, and to their own interpretations.
The people of Marietta found in their town’s ancient history a useful tool. As historian Whitney Martinko writes, the Ohio Company first used the earthworks to evoke classical traditions of republicanism, giving the mounds dramatic Latin names – Capitolium, Quadranaou, Conus, and Sacra Via – and glossing them as fortifications, “symbolically link[ing] their military service to an ancient warrior civilization not unlike the Roman army.” By the first decades of the nineteenth century, knowledge of America’s landscape was becoming “central to conceptions of the nation itself,” and the study of geography was exploding in popularity. Marietta’s settlers then cast a wider gaze, finally wresting control of research on their state’s antiquities from a crowd of often-unsympathetic Eastern travel writers, and then claiming that expertise for themselves.
The 1837 map of Marietta ultimately became a plate in the 1848 volume Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, a book long celebrated as a landmark in early American archaeology, and as the very first scientific study published by the Smithsonian Institution. But its creator, Ohio geologist Charles Whittlesey, might have seen things differently. For Ohioans like Whittlesey, who carved knowledge of the United States, of Ohio, and of themselves from mounds built by Indigenous peoples they pretended had vanished, maps like this one were as much a sign of the respectability of their state’s intellectuals as an endorsement of an emerging nation’s regard for its cultural heritage.
For Ohio’s Indigenous communities, Marietta’s unusual plat signified much about how the town’s settlers imagined themselves. But the grid had always been about integrating Native ruins into frontier Ohio, not Native people. The last of Ohio’s tribal nations, the Wyandot, were removed from the state in 1843, just six years after Whittlesey created his map. That map, and the grid it depicted, were powerful. Their power, however, lay not in any pluralistic vision for Marietta’s multicultural future, but in their ability to help settlers claim the town’s landscape for themselves, and confine their sympathies for its Native peoples firmly to the past.
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“As a young nation” James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 51, 55.
“Marietta’s settlers“ Whitney A. Martinko, “‘So Majestic a Monument of Antiquity’: Landscape, Knowledge, and Authority in the Early National West,” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 16, no. 1 (2009), 32, 38, 41.