On Memorial Day, which we recently observed, we honor those who died while serving in the U.S. military, and we often remember our own family members by visiting cemeteries and placing flowers on their graves. “The place where a man is buried is sacred to me,” the Prophet Joseph Smith said. Each cemetery forms a chapter in the history of our human past. What about burial sites from many years ago which have no visible markers and are hidden from view?
Centuries ago, the Hopewell culture flourished in central and eastern North America. Hopewell people lived and farmed along the Mississippi River, and many chose bluffs along the river to build earthen mounds to bury their dead. A group of these mounds is located along the Mississippi River north of Nauvoo. Some 40 years ago, many of the mounds were attacked by looters seeking artifacts. Later, the area became neglected, and brush, brambles, and dead trees concealed these burial spots.
Then, a few years ago Wilson and Jennice (Jenny) Curlee moved to Nauvoo and discovered the mounds. When they first walked into the area, “it was an overwhelming moment,” Jenny Curlee said. She felt they had stepped on sacred ground. “The first thing out of my mouth besides ‘Wow’ was “I wish I could take care of them.” During the next few years, the Curlees purchased property that contained some of the mounds. “One is struck by the serenity and spirituality this place evokes,” Jenny Curlee said. “It is like being in another time and place.”
Jenny and Wilson felt compelled to preserve this chapter of the Hopewellian past by keeping the area pristine and making it a retreat for visitors who appreciate nature, tranquility, and those who lived and had been forgotten. Since purchasing the land, the Curlees have spent hours clearing out brush and dead trees. The prospect of restoring the mounds seemed overwhelming--until they met Joseph Petersen, a young man from Nauvoo looking for an Eagle Scout service project.
Eagle Project Proposal
Carrie Petersen, Joseph’s mother, said that Joseph’s journey began last fall when the former owner of the land mentioned to Joseph’s father the possibility of an Eagle Scout project. Joseph’s father suggested this to Joseph who contacted the Curlees and they agreed. “Throughout the years these sacred grounds have been pillaged and vandalized,” Joseph wrote in his project proposal. “To honor the deceased,” Joseph chose to restore several mounds to their original appearance by refilling them with dirt. He noted that the beneficiaries of this project would be Native Americans of the Standing Bear Council as well as the local and surrounding communities when the area becomes a public archaeological park.
Preparation for the Project
Before Joseph could submit his proposal to the Boy Scouts of America, the local Native American Council representatives needed to approve the project. A meeting was organized; and on October 26, 2012, the Curlees, several Native American Grandfathers and Grandmothers, Joseph’s family, and other guests met at the mounds site to join in a healing ceremony to restore harmony and balance to the land and mounds before Joseph began the restoration project.
During the last fall and winter, Native American men tutored Joseph and gave him instructions to complete his project. “In following these instructions, Joseph learned more about an ancient culture and was brought into a fellowship of something he had only heard about,” Jenny Curlee said.
In addition, Joseph needed to receive permission from the State of Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and Dawn Cobb, Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act Coordinator of the same agency. According to Dawn Cobb, “this Act protects from disturbance all graves, grave markers, and grave artifacts that are over 100 years old and not located in a registered cemetery.” Prehistoric burial mounds are both a cemetery and a grave marker, and the mounds on the Curlee’s property met the criteria.
The Day of the Project
At 10:00 a.m. on Easter weekend March 30, 2013, approximately 33 people met on the bluff near the mounds to assist Joseph Petersen with his Eagle project. Carrie Petersen “was in awe to see everyone who came and gave up their holiday Saturday morning to help.”
With a cloudy sky and forecast of rain, “many prayers went up for us to accomplish the project before it rained, and that was exactly what happened,” Jenny Curlee said. “Wilson and I were the last ones off the hill when it started to rain.”
Observing Native American protocol, the participants gathered in a circle for an opening ceremony and instructions before entering the project site. Susan Stanton of the Turtle Island Council and Monica Thompson of the Hummingbird Council drummed and led the group in the Cherokee morning song, a lyrical prayer which greets the new day with gratitude to the Creator.
Larry Cooper of the Standing Bear Council told of his personal history around Nauvoo and the many years he visited this mound group and hundreds more in the Mississippi River vicinity.