Are the missing Etowah Mounds statues in Tennessee museums?
One of our principal suspects in this crime mystery is a Union general, who after serving as military governor of Nashville, married a Tennessee belle and became one of Nashville’s wealthiest citizens. His vast Native American artifact collection was donated to Vanderbilt University. Most of those artifacts have never been seen by the public, but the most spectacular are on display in the Tennessee State Capital Museum and the McClung Museum in Knoxville.
Our other suspect is a penniless, n’er do well Union veteran, who was hired by his cousin in the Smithsonian Institute to supervise archeological excavations at Etowah Mounds. He was later fired for not producing enough trophy artifacts, yet very quickly built one of Cartersville, Georgia’s largest 19th century buildings and soon thereafter was considered one of the town’s wealthiest citizens.
Throughout the mid-1800s, the owners of Etowah Mounds, near Cartersville, GA, rented the archaeological zone to artifact hunters for $200 a day. They also let neighbors and friends dig for free. Owners of farms near the mounds also found trophy artifacts on their lands from time to time. Very quickly, the Etowah River Valley gained a national reputation as a place to find exquisite American Indian art, in particular . . . marble, ceramic, limestone and sandstone statues.
In 1859, pioneer archaeologist Charles C. Jones, Jr. paid an extended visit to Cartersville in order to study Etowah Mounds. In his post Civil War book on the Southeastern Indians, Jones stated that many of the households along the Etowah River in Cartersville proudly displayed Indian statuary and art that was excavated locally. He commissioned an artist to draw some of the pieces.
Crime 1: Most Bartow County and Cartersville residents were opposed to secession. They raised a Pro-Union militia to help defend the United States Mint in Dahlonega. Union militia cavalry units from two neighboring counties actually guided the Union Army around Confederate defenses north of Atlanta . . . making possible the capture of Atlanta. Up to that point, the Union Army had been stalled and was suffering horrific casualties when assaulting Confederate fortifications. However, during the Atlanta Campaign the landscape of Bartow County was devastated because of several battles fought between the two large armies. The worst was to come.
Just prior to setting out on his March to the Sea, General Tecumseh Sherman ordered several regiments to initiate a terror campaign in Bartow County so that Georgians south of Atlanta would be so frightened that they would put up no resistance. There had been no Confederate troops operating out of Bartow County for four months. This was brutal terrorism in its purest form. Union troops treated families loyal to the Union or loyal to the Confederacy with equal contempt. All livestock were either taken back to camp to feed the troops or killed. All food supplies found in houses and farms were taken back to the camps. All public and commercial buildings were burned. All but one of the schools and colleges in the county were burned. The Stilesboro Academy was spared because its principal put a Masonic symbol over the entrance door. All of the county’s county seat, Cassville, was burned and never rebuilt. Most houses larger than a cabin were burned. However, all houses belonging to Masons were spared. Most of the owners of the large houses on the Etowah River that Charles Jones visited were Masons. You see, General Sherman was a Mason. His troops also spared the home there of young lady, who Sherman had wanted to marry before the war, but didn’t.
However, when the owners of the large river houses returned home, they found their homes ransacked. Anything of value had been stolen. Their priceless Etowah artifacts and statues were gone . . . probably forever.
Crime 2: John P. Rogan was an unemployed Union veteran in Bristol, Tennessee. Nevertheless, his cousin, Cyrus Thomas, who also grew up in Bristol, hired him in 1884 to be the supervising archaeologist for the excavation of Etowah Mounds. Thomas was chief archaeologist for the Smithsonian. While local laborers worked at Mound C there, Rogan free-lanced by personally excavating five mounds on the south side of the Etowah River across from Mound C, but told Cyrus Thomas that he did not find any artifacts in them. Meanwhile, reports were circulating in Cartersville, that Rogan had found many statues in burials. Rogan did send back two sets of statues to Washington, DC and also the famous Rogan copper plates. However, he was eventually fired by his cousin for not producing enough trophy artifacts.
Feeling sorry for Rogan for putting him back into poverty, Thomas re-hired Rogan to excavate the Bat Creek Mound near Cleveland, TN. However, he fired Rogan again in a few weeks for the same reason . . . not enough trophy artifacts. The Wikipedia article on Rogan is completely inaccurate. After being fired, Rogan wrote Thomas that he was returning to Cartersville because of a woman he met there. Upon arriving in Cartersville, Rogan married the woman, plus bought a house and a prime commercial lot on West Main Street. He commissioned an architect and soon built one of the largest brick buildings in Cartersville. When the multistory building was completed in 1888, Rogan became the owner of the largest mercantile store, north of Atlanta in Georgia.
As a side line, Rogan advertised in papers that “He was available to men of means, who wished to excavate Indian mounds in North Georgia.” In 1925, Rogan also helped the famous archaeologist, Warren K. Moorehead set up excavations at Etowah Mounds. Rogan obviously sold a great number of trophy artifacts from the Etowah River Valley and Bat Creek Mound to wealthy buyers in order to suddenly become a major entrepreneur in Cartersville.
Gates P. Thruston was declared a Presbyterian saint over a century ago because he was one of the wealthiest men in late 19th century Nashville and in his last years he was quite a philanthropist. However, there are some very fishy details about his early years in Nashville that Tennessee historians overlooked. For starters, Thurston had assembled quite a large Indian artifact collection by the end of the Civil War. He claimed that he had bought the artifacts from Union soldiers, working on the fortifications of Nashville . . . but did he? The reader will soon learn why that is a very pertinent question. The reader can go to Wikipedia to obtain the complete bio of Thruston. We are exploring some details left out of that article.
For the next twenty years Thruston labeled all his artifacts to be from the Cumberland Valley of Tennessee near Nashville. Then while John P. Rogan was working in Georgia and Southeastern Tennessee, Thruston’s collection exploded with acquisitions, described vaguely as being from “East Tennesee.” Bristol is in East Tennessee. By the time that Thruston donated his collection to Vanderbilt University, the collection was said to have totaled over 80,000 artifacts. No one knows for sure, because the smaller items like shell gorgets have never been totaled. And about those gorgets . . . many of them look very similar to gorgets found at Etowah Mounds over the past 150 years. Quite a few of his statues have the heart-shaped flat face style of Etowah. It’s a Mesoamerican style. However, the majority of the Thruston statues put on display have entirely different head shapes . . . suggesting they they were made by a different ethnic group.
Thruston’s military record is when things get really fishy. He was an officer in the First Ohio Volunteer Regiment. It fought in all the major battles of the Chattanooga to Atlanta campaign, including all the major and minor battles in Bartow County up to the capture of Atlanta. The First Ohio was stationed on Pumpkinvine Creek, next to Etowah Mounds during the final phase of the attack on Atlanta. Because the First Ohio was scheduled to be mustered out of service in early October 1864, it did not participate in Sherman’s March to the Sea. Instead the unit was assigned occupation duty near Cartersville and partook in the terror campaign against its citizens. In other words, of all the units in the Union Army, the regiment in which Gates P. Thruston was an officer, had by far the most opportunity to steal Etowah Mounds art. They were there at the mounds when the rush of battle was over.
(1) John P. Rogan – Guilty as charged!
(2) Gates P. Thruston – The jury is deadlocked . . . the statues above may represent an incident when a soldier claimed to dig up artifacts from near Nashville, but he actually stole them from a house in Cartersville. Alternatively, John Rogan may have told Thruston that he dug up his artifacts for sale from insignificant mound sites in Tennessee.
In our next POOF article we will show you dozens of Native American statues from Georgia and then those supposedly from Central Tennessee, and let you make your own decision.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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