Caleb Atwater (December 23, 1778 – March 13, 1867) was an American politician, historian, and early archaeologist in the state of Ohio before the field was established. He served several terms in the state house and was appointed as United States postmaster in Circleville, Ohio. He was best known during the 19th century for his History of the State of Ohio (1838), the first book-length history of the young state. It also included much natural lore.
Atwater was recognized by contemporaries as a "pioneer" in the study of the mounds or massive earthworks in the Ohio Valley; he published an account in 1820. These are now known to have been constructed by ancient Native Americans of the United States. At the time, Atwater and other early scholars developed theories of origin; he thought a culture other than ancestors of Native Americans created such monuments. He helped publicize a theory by John D. Clifford, an amateur of Lexington, Kentucky, who suggested that people related to Hindus of India had migrated by sea and built the mounds, to be replaced by ancestors of contemporary Native Americans.
Caleb Atwater was born in North Adams, Massachusetts in 1778 during the American Revolutionary War. He was the son of a carpenter and his wife, and educated at local schools. He graduated from Williams College. After failing as a schoolmaster in New York City, he studied theology and became a Presbyterian minister. His first wife Diana Lawrence died after the birth of their first child.
Dissatisfied with the ministry, the widower Atwater read the law, studying and working with a judge in Marcellus, New York. He was admitted to the state 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, founded in 1810. They had nine children together.
Atwater practiced law for six years, and gained an assured income when appointed as United States postmaster of the town. He was elected to the state legislature in 1821. Circleville was developed at a site of circular earthworks built by the ancient Hopewell culture. Initially, it was planned with streets of concentric circles to fit into the remains of the monument. The county courthouse was erected in the center circle. In the late 1830s, people decided they wanted an ordinary tow laid out on a grid pattern, and the remnants of the circular works were destroyed.
Elected to the state’s house of representatives in 1821, Atwater supported internal improvements, including legislation that authorized the Ohio and Erie Canal. It was intended to improve the waterways for connection to the Erie Canal in New York State and thereby to the major market of New York City. Atwater promoted tax-supported public schools, equal education for boys and girls, and better teachers’ pay. After several terms, he was not re-elected in 1828.
An enthusiastic Jacksonian Democrat, Atwater was appointed by President Andrew Jackson in 1829 as one of three federal commissioners to negotiate a treaty with the Winnebago Indians in Wisconsin. His trip to the western frontier stimulated his interest in Native American issues and history, and he began to study them deeply.
Atwater wrote and published books after this period. His trip to Wisconsin and meeting with Native Americans stimulated him to write about his experiences in the west: Remarks Made on a Tour to Prairie du Chien (1831), which includes an interview with the noted Sauk leader Quashquame.
A decade later he wrote An Essay on Education (1841), which contained his most mature thoughts on the subject.
During the nineteenth century, Atwater was best known for his History of the State of Ohio (1838), the first book-length history of the young state. Both Atwater's Tour to Prairie du Chien and his History contained much natural history lore as well as civil history. He also contributed articles on this topic to the American Journal of Science.
Atwater is known as one of the first researchers to undertake a serious study of the prehistoric Adena and Hopewell culture earthworks, and their associated artisan artifacts found throughout the Ohio Valley. He was fascinated by the ancient circular works found in Circleville, and studied others in the area. The Hopewell culture is now known to have flourished from 200BCE to 500CE.
In 1820 Atwater published Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States, a 160-page report in the first volume of the Transactions of the American Antiquarian Society. This account, considered the first scientific treatment of the monuments, is illustrated with woodcuts of artifacts and with engraved maps of prehistoric sites. Included is one of Circleville (Plate v), where some earthworks had been plowed under, but the city's plan had been made to conform to Hopewell circles. This circular plan was later changed in the late 1830s, and all traces of the Hopewell works were destroyed.
Although the maps were stylized and likely not too accurate, they preserve all that is known today of some other prehistoric sites since destroyed by development. Atwater’s acquaintances contributed some of the maps and their descriptions in this book.
In addition, Atwater speculated about who had built the elaborate, complex earthworks and what had happened to them. Contemporary Indians in the area had no direct knowledge of the mounds’ origins. Americans tended to consider the Indian societies as primitive and did not believe the builders of the mounds could have been part of the same culture.
Atwater had learned that John D. Clifford, a Lexington, Kentucky merchant, and his naturalist friend C.S. Rafinesque, a polymath and professor at Transylvania University, were also working on these topics. Clifford found documentation in the university library and town archives from which he built a theory about builders of the earthworks. Rafinesque identified, measured and mapped many of these sites in the Ohio Valley and developed his own theories; his manuscripts contained identification of 148 sites in Kentucky, all of which were later featured in E. G. Squier and Davis in their 1848 work on the monuments.
Clifford published "Indian Antiquities,” eight long letters in Lexington’s short-lived Western Review and Miscellaneous Magazine (1819-1820), with material from Rafinesque. He proposed a theory, more widely circulated by Atwater, that the mounds were the work of ancient people related to the Hindus of India, who had reached North America by sea. He proposed that they had built the mounds and an elaborate culture but were driven south into Mexico by the more warlike Indians who followed them (and who became known to pioneers). He died soon after publishing this material.
Rafinesque had contributed to Clifford's letters, adding that the warring Indians were ancestors to such contemporary tribes as the Lenape. He theorized that the later Indian ancestors had crossed to North America over the frozen Bering Strait from Asia.
In 1819 Atwater published a memoir of his archaeological career to date in the journal Archaeologia Americana. 
When a tepid and anonymous review of Atwater's 1820 work in the American Antiquarian Society’s Transactions appeared in the Western Review, Atwater correctly guessed that Rafinesque was its author. He was angered by what he thought was unjustified criticism. The two exchanged thoughts, and Atwater started a kind of whispering campaign against the immigrant scholar. 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).
- Squier, E.G. (1848). Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. p. 44.
- Salmon P. Chase in 1833 included a 40-page history of Ohio in his compendium 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.
- John D. Clifford, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, John D. Clifford's Indian Antiquities, edited and annotated by Charles E. Boewe, Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2000
- Boewe, Charles. 1987. “The Fall from Grace of that ‘Base Wretch’ Rafinesque,” Kentucky Review 7: 39-53.
- Boewe, Charles (Ed.). 2000. John D. Clifford’s Indian Antiquities; Related Material by C.S. Rafinesque. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN.
- Boewe, Charles. 2004. "C.S. Rafinesque and Ohio Valley Archaeology", Ancient America, No. 6. Center for Ancient American Studies, Barnardsville, NC.
- Martzolff, Clement L. (1905). "Caleb Atwater". Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications 14: 247–271.
- Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Atwater, Caleb". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
|Ohio House of Representatives|
|Representative from Pickaway and Hocking Counties
Served alongside: Valentine Keffer