Heart of Louisiana: Jonesville Mounds

A small north Louisiana town has decided that if they build it, the tourists will come. What they're building is a massive Indian mound, just like the one that they've lost over the last 150 years. It's an attempt to revive the rich Native American history in the town of Jonesville in Catahoula Parish.

A pile of dirt along Highway 84 in Jonesville is the only hint of something special. It's the beginning of a half-sized replica of a great mound, built here by Native Americans more than a thousand years ago.

"They settled here and they built the second tallest mound in North America," says Jonesville mayor Hiram Evans.

The great mound was 80 feet tall, as high as the crossbeam on the town's water tower. An artist's drawing, based on an archaeological survey, shows a large cone shaped mound that's part of a complex of mounds.

Local historian Bill Atkins can point out what's left of the mounds, some dating back to 400 A.D. There's one under the catholic church. A cemetery next to the Methodist church sits atop another. And at the edge of town, a mound overlooks the point where the Ouchita river, the Tensas, Little and Black rivers intersect.

"It's where four rivers come together which was their highway, our super highway at the time," Atkins said.

The town of Jonesville was originally called Troyville. But Atkins believes there is an even older name - Anilco - an ancient city visited in the 1500's by explorer Hernando Desoto.

"The rivers coming together, the pyramid step mound, this matches what Desoto's era wrote about."

Destruction of the great mound began during the Civil War.

"The Confederate troops of this area tore down the cone, they tore that out to make rifle pits," Atkins recalled.

The partial mound was used as a refuge during river floods. But the site was leveled in 1931 by the State Highway Department.

"The state came in with steam shovels and they tore the mound down and hauled it a couple hundred yards to build a bridge approach."

That 1930's bridge across the Black River is now gone, replaced by a modern high level crossing. And that gave the town a chance to reclaim its historic dirt.

"The last time this was touched it was Native Americans touching it and laying it on the great mound."

The dirt contained large pieces of cane matting and hundreds of pieces of pottery.

When work began rebuilding the mound, they discovered that modern construction techniques are no match for Native American engineering. Doing the base was easy, but trying to recreate the cone shaped top of this mound had engineers scratching their heads.

"The National Guard is sending in an engineer to help us determine what would be the best way to replicate that in modern times," Atkins said.

More than a thousand years ago, these mounds were built by hand, one basket of soil at a time. Now, a reminder of this town's past is slowly taking shape on the site of an ancient, lost civilization.

Northeast Louisiana is dotted with mounds, some of them older than Stonehenge and the great Pyramids. For more information on the ancient mounds of Jonesville, go to http://www.crt.state.la.us/archaeology/moundsguide/index.html or http://www.explorelouisiananorth.org/parishes.aspx?parish=Catahoula