Caleb Atwater

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Caleb Atwater (December 23, 1778 – March 13, 1867) was an American archaeologist, historian, and politician whose career is associated with the state of Ohio. He was described as a "pioneer" in the study of earthworks in the United States by contemporaries.[1]

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Early years[edit]

Caleb Atwater was born in North Adams, Massachusetts, the son of a carpenter, and educated at Williams College. After failing as a schoolmaster in New York City, he studied theology and became a Presbyterian minister. Unsatisfied with that profession, after the death of his first wife (Diana Lawrence, with whom he had a child) he studied law with a judge in Marcellus, New York, and was admitted to the bar. Instead of practicing, he entered into business and promptly went bankrupt. As a result of this failure, in 1815 he moved with his new wife (Belinda Butler) to Circleville on the Ohio frontier, where he did practice law for six years, later had an assured income as postmaster of the town, and served in the state legislature. He and his second wife had nine children. Circleville, founded only five years before the Atwaters arrived there, took its name from the circular Hopewell earthworks on which it was sited.

Political career[edit]

Elected to the state’s house of representatives in 1821, Atwater supported internal improvements including legislation that eventually made possible the Ohio and Erie Canal, and he called for tax-supported public schools, equal education for boys and girls, and better teachers’ pay. An enthusiastic Jacksonian Democrat, he was appointed by President Andrew Jackson in 1829 as one of three commissioners to negotiate a treaty with the Winnebago Indians after he lost his seat in the state legislature. These interests led to two of his books, the Remarks Made on a Tour to Prairie du Chien (1831), which includes an interview with the infamous Sauk leader Quashquame, and An Essay on Education (1841), which contained his most mature thoughts on the subject. During the nineteenth century he was best known for his History of the State of Ohio (1838), the first attempt at a history of that state.[2] Both the Tour to Prairie du Chien and the History of Ohio contain a great deal of natural history lore as well, an area in which he also contributed a number of articles to the American Journal of Science.

Archeological career[edit]

Today, however, he is chiefly known as one of the first to undertake a serious study of the prehistoric Adena and Hopewell earthworks and their associated artifacts of human manufacture found throughout the Ohio Valley. The result of this work was the 160 page report he published in 1820 in the first volume of the Transactions of the American Antiquarian Society under the title “Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States.” The account is well illustrated with woodcuts of artifacts and with engraved maps of prehistoric sites, including one of Circleville itself (Plate v) where the earthworks have long since been obliterated. Although the maps were stylized and probably none too accurate, they preserve all that is known today of other sites that also were destroyed by advancing civilization. Some of the maps of other sites as well as their descriptions were contributed by Atwater’s acquaintances.

Like others of the time, Atwater was not content merely to describe; he felt a necessity to speculate on who had built the mounds and about what had happened to those people, for contemporary Indians had no knowledge of the mounds’ origin. It happens that working about the same time from a base in Lexington, Kentucky, were two other investigators: the merchant John D. Clifford and his friend C.S. Rafinesque, naturalist and professor at Transylvania University. In the university’s well-stocked library as well as the town’s reading room he had founded, Clifford uncovered documentation supporting his own theory about the origin of the earthworks, while Rafinesque went about measuring and mapping those near Lexington. Clifford’s publication of “Indian Antiquities,” eight long letters in Lexington’s short-lived Western Review and Miscellaneous Magazine, became the source—more widely circulated by Atwater—of the notion that the mounds were the work of Hindus who originated in India, came by sea to North America, and had been driven south into Mexico by the more warlike Indians who followed them. Rafinesque added that it was the ancestors of such contemporary Indians as the Lenape who were among those latter-day Indians, and that they had crossed over the frozen Bering Strait from Asia.

He published a memoir of his archaeological career in 1819. It was published in the journal Archealogica Americana, that year.[1]


Atwater’s adaptation of the Clifford thesis was promulgated in Europe when Vicomte François René de Chateaubriand appended a translation of Atwater’s report to his Voyage en Amérique et en Italie (1828). However, when a tepid but anonymous review of the American Antiquarian Society’s Transactions appeared in the Western Review Atwater correctly guessed that Rafinesque was its author and flew into a towering rage because he thought the mild criticism of his article was unjustified. He began a whispering campaign to discredit Rafinesque, from which the reputation of the latter—especially as regards American antiquities—has yet to recover.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Squier, E.G. (1848). Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. p. 44. 
  2. ^ Salmon P. Chase in 1833 included a forty page history of Ohio in Chase, Salmon P, ed. (1833). "A Preliminary Sketch of the History of Ohio". The statutes of Ohio and of the Northwestern territory, adopted or enacted from 1788 to 1833 inclusive… 1. Cincinnati, Ohio: Corey & Fairbank. p. 9. 
Ohio House of Representatives
Preceded by
John Barr
Samuel Lybrand
Representative from Pickaway and Hocking Counties
Served alongside: Valentine Keffer
Succeeded by
Valentine Keffer
Samuel Lybrand