Story and photos by McKenzie Caldwell
When Harvard University archaeologist Frederic Ward Putnam arrived in Peebles in the 1880s after a 13-hour wagon ride from Cincinnati, he was awestruck by the 1,348-foot long, snake-shaped mound he found there — known today as Serpent Mound.
“A lot of times when you read these old, stuffy archaeologists, you get very scientific data, but when Putnam wrote in his journals about it, it was like he had a love affair with Serpent Mound,” Serpent Mound History Preservation Manager Beth Jenkins said. “Putnam had a love for Serpent Mound, and he worried about Serpent Mound.”
According to Jenkins, Putnam had first heard of Serpent Mound through amateur archaeologists Edwin Davis, who was born in Chillicothe, and Ephraim Squier’s book, “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley,” which was published in 1848 by the then-newly founded Smithsonian Museum.
When Putnam first arrived in Peebles, Serpent Mound was located on a family farm. The farmers had been considering cultivating the effigy mound — called that because it is in the shape of an animal — into more farmland. Putnam was able to raise enough money to purchase the land, which was then dedicated as a public park.
“Putnam is the savior of Serpent Mound,” Jenkins said. “I think, if he could come back today, he would be very happy with Serpent Mound.”
Today, over 140 years after Putnam’s first visit, Serpent Mound is still a public park where the only admission charge is an $8 per vehicle parking fee. However, the effigy mound still draws far-off travelers.
“If you look at history books in places like China and England, Serpent Mound is listed in just about every history book,” Jenkins said. “It’s the world’s largest existing effigy mound. There’s nothing like it, so we tend to draw people from all over the world.”
Though the park closed temporarily in March due to COVID-19 concerns after being open for only two days, Jenkins said, in addition to Ohio residents, people from places like Ukraine and Canada visited.
But people come to Serpent Mound for different reasons.
“You have two types of people who come to Serpent Mound: the people who come up for the history — they love the Native American history side of it; and we have another group, which I’d probably classify as ‘mystics’ or ‘New Age-type people,’ who are intrigued by the site,” Jenkins said. “I think the site gets romanticized sometimes, and that has caused some problems with our Native American partners.”
Visitors remark on the mound’s energy, try to touch the mound and ask if aliens frequent the mound, though Jenkins said the latter didn’t surprise her due to the site’s appearance on the television show “Ancient Aliens.” Some visitors believe the mound has the power to heal.
It’s not new for people to speculate about Serpent Mound’s origins, however. In the early 1900s, Adams County native the Rev. Edmund Landon West wrote an 18-page pamphlet, in which he claimed that the effigy mound marked the location of the Garden of Eden. According to Jenkins, West’s claims may have led to the idea that Serpent Mound’s coiled tail is an opening to the underworld, causing local residents to believe the mound is evil.
“I’ve never had any strange experiences here. I’ve never seen an alien, I’ve never had a magical feeling come over me. I see it as a site of respect because it is,” Jenkins said. “I would like to promote the site for what it is. We don’t know a lot about Serpent Mound — that’s the mystery of Serpent Mound. Serpent Mound will always kind of be an enigma because here you have, out in the middle of the country in Peebles, Ohio, you have this 1,348-foot long snake that’s made out of earth.”
Though some archaeologists believe prehistoric mound builders created the mound to serve as something similar to a calendar, Jenkins said there’s no way to know for sure because the people who built Serpent Mound, also known as prehistoric mound builders, only left behind artifacts and effigy mounds.
Regardless, during the summer solstice, the setting sun aligns with the serpent’s head; during the winter solstice, the sun aligns with the mound’s coiled tail.
“That’s pretty amazing, to think that this was done 2,000 years ago with no measuring devices. It was all done basically just from watching the sky,” Jenkins said. “I look at it as art. To think that prehistoric man built something like that with nothing but their hands and rock and shell and baskets — it’s amazing. There are some archaeologists who believe, just from doing multiple studies on the effigy mound, that Serpent Mound may have been constructed possibly in a matter of days to a week, which is unheard of. So the question is: why?”
Jenkins may admit that Serpent Mound will always remain an enigma, but that doesn’t affect her goals as the effigy mound’s history preservation manager.
Her first season in the position may be delayed, but Jenkins is already looking toward the future. She hopes to partner with Midwestern Native American tribes to develop new programming to educate visitors about native cultures and languages.
“My goal is to always maintain the site as a Native American memorial,” Jenkins said. “We don’t educate people enough about Native Americans. We’ve forgotten about our Native American history, especially here in Ohio.”
Jenkins also wants to partner with local artisans to stock the site’s gift shop with more unique and authentic souvenirs, but she’s also passionate about expanding the park’s programming to highlight other historic facets of the park. She wants to expand programming to include not only the mound but also about the 19th century farmers who lived with the effigy before Putnam bought the property and some of the Depression-Era additions to the park, such as the park’s restroom facilities, which, according to Jenkins, were constructed from materials that came from an old church.
“We have not only the Native American stories, but we can talk about the 1930s,” Jenkins said. “This was a generation that had an unbelievable work ethic. After all these years, those buildings are still standing, and they’re beautiful. They’re historical.”
Serpent Mound has been nominated to join monuments like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal as a UNESCO World Heritage designation, something which Jenkins said could increase tourism in Adams County.
However, for residents of Adams, Brown, Highland and Ross counties, Serpent Mound has been incorporated into their routines. While foreign travelers may visit the park to glimpse the site, for many residents, the effigy mound holds memories ranging from childhood field trips to family reunions.
Jenkins herself grew up visiting Serpent Mound. In 1985, she first visited the mound with her parents as a young child.
“When I climbed up, as a young child, onto that tower and looked down upon that, it kind of took my breath. To this day, when I climb up that tower just to look at it, I never get tired of seeing it,” Jenkins said. “Maybe that’s what’s drawing people out there: there’s something about it. You can call it an energy, you can call it mysterious or peace — maybe it’s just peaceful. Maybe it’s just a reminder of what time used to be like before we had modern technology and busy lifestyles. It’s a very peaceful, beautiful place. People are more than welcome to come and take away from it what they will.”
Serpent Mound Historical Site
3850 State Route 73, Peebles