GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan has a unique connection to its Indigenous history. The Grand River Burial Mounds — commonly referred to as the Norton Mounds — are one of the few mound groups still standing across the Midwest and one of the best-preserved sites of Hopewell Indian culture.
The mounds are nestled privately along the Grand River, just a couple of miles south of Grand Rapids. Over the last 150 years, four major excavations have been performed on the Norton Mounds, unearthing Hopewell artifacts and human remains.
The Hopewell Indians emerged in the Middle Woodland Period — approximately 450 B.C. to 450 A.D. The Hopewells are considered the ancestors to the tribes Michigan knows today: the Chippewa, Odawa and Potawatomi tribes. Together, they form the Anishinabek — the Council of the Three Fires.
The digs yielded a lot of information about Michigan’s forebearers, albeit at a high cost. Today, only 11 mounds stand in their original shape. Evidence found at the Norton Mounds site and past surveys estimate the group once held nearly 50 mounds.
The Norton Mounds survived efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to expand the city of Grand Rapids and a plan in the 1960s to pave them over to make way for the new I-196 highway. They survived thanks to tireless effort by several groups and leaders, including Indigenous activist Debra Muller, the Grand Rapids Public Museum and researchers from the University of Michigan.
That is part of what makes the Norton Mounds so special: They were saved. The vast majority of historic Hopewell sites have been destroyed.
THE ‘OTHER’ MOUNDS
According to a catalog developed by University of Michigan historian W.B. Hinsdale, 1,068 mounds had been discovered across the state along with 113 other “earth constructions.” However, as of 1931, less than 5% were still standing, a figure that is even lower today.
According to Hinsdale, Newaygo County had more mounds than any other in the state with 93. Kent County has 46 mounds found in eight different groups — including ones found in Grandville, Grattan Township, Wyoming and downtown Grand Rapids.
All five of those groups were excavated by Wright L. Coffinberry, one of the leaders of the Kent Scientific Institute who also played a key role in platting expansions and road projects for Grand Rapids. Coffinberry was a self-taught civil engineer and watchmaker, but after fighting in the Civil War, he returned to one of his long-held passions: archaeology.
A collection of Coffinberry’s papers in the Grand Rapids Public Library’s Local History Center detail the expeditions he led on behalf of the KSI. He started with the Norton Mounds in the fall of 1874 and started a dig at the Royce Farms Mounds in what was then Wyoming Township. However, an early winter interrupted those plans and they were picked back up in the spring. The team also investigated three other mound groups in 1875, a group of seven mounds in Grandville and two groups in Ottawa County — one near the mouth of Crockery Creek and another in the village of Lamont.
The following year, Coffinberry returned to Lamont for a pair of digs — including a new one along Deer Creek — and started his work on the Converse Mounds, a giant group that once stood along the bank of the Grand River in what is now downtown Grand Rapids.
Unlike the Norton Mounds, which researchers believe were built by “Early Hopewells” — approximately 100 B.C. — the Converse Mounds were likely built by Hopewells centuries later.
Ironically, the mounds are named after the man who paved the way for their demise: James “Deacon” Converse. He was a capitalist from Boston who ventured to West Michigan seeking smart investments. He found one in Grand Rapids. Converse purchased a giant tract of land on the west side of the Grand River, stretching from Bridge Street south to Butterworth Street.
By the 1850s, work was well underway to prepare the land for expansion. The Converse Mounds were torn down and used as fill dirt to flatten out the land near the river.
Charles E. Belknap, a mayor, U.S. representative and Grand Rapids legend in his own right, worked on the land as a water boy when he was a child. He laid out his memories of that time decades later in a journal, estimating there were at least 60 mounds in the group.
“All of the mounds were above high water mark. Some were small, possibly 100 feet in circumference and six, eight or 10 feet high, while one on the riverbank south of Fulton near the intersection of Watson Street was at least 30 feet high and 200 feet in circumference,” Belknap recalled.
As a water boy, it was the 10-year-old Belknap’s job to bring drinking water to the construction sites for the work crews, primarily Dutch and Irish immigrants. He distinctly remembered the sheer number of human remains and memorials pulled from the mounds.
“The men, Irish and Hollanders, with pick and shovel loaded the wagons with the black soil mixed with bones of countless first Americans of whom we have no knowledge,” Belknap wrote. “The quantity of skulls and bones was so great that the Irishmen, in superstitious horror, struck, left their jobs, and were finally sent to work on other streets.”
Belknap said he would regularly collect remains and other artifacts, including silver ornaments that he would sell to local jewelers for extra money. He also described a massive memorial of arrowheads that he found.
“There must have been about two hundred pounds of these, arranged in a pile, points to the center. The pile was 18 inches in diameter and 24 inches high. I carried away about a thousand, leaving many still in the ground,” he recalled.
He also recalled a time when an Indigenous elder came to his father to try and save the mounds.
“While this work was going on, an aged Indian came to my father for sympathy,” Belknap recalled. “The whites were carting away the spirits of his forefathers. All Indians had a superstitious reverence for these mounds.”
Belknap also claimed that the mounds showed the dead were buried in an intricate manner, refuting the reports that Coffinberry made decades earlier that the burials were more akin to mass graves.
“The dead were buried in a sitting position with the backs to the center or arranged in a circle,” Belknap wrote. “When carefully uncovered, the skull and body bones were found in a heap, while the leg and feet bones were extended.”
After the 1964 excavation on the Norton Mounds, University of Michigan researchers sided with Belknap over Coffinberry, confirming most bodies were set in a specific position.
REMEMBERING THE LOST HISTORY
Whatever scraps of Hopewell history lay on the banks of the Grand will likely stay buried, but there are memorials to the structures and people that once stood there.
Ah-Nab-Awen Park sits along the riverfront between Bridge and Pearl Streets, the site of what was once an Indigenous village in the shadow of the Converse Mounds. The name Ah-Nab-Awen translates to “resting place” in Anishinabemowin.
It includes several hills carved by pathways made to resemble the mounds and a sign to highlight the 1821 Treaty of Chicago, which forced the Council of the Three Fires to surrender their land south of the Grand River to the United States and established native reservations.
A quick walk south showcases two more memorials, one for an Indigenous village and another for one of the tribe’s most respected leaders.
A tract of land now owned by Grand Valley State University was recognized as a historical site. It marks a former Odawa village called Noaquageshik. Evidence found there shows Native Americans lived in that village in the 1700s, decades before any European settlers established homes in Grand Rapids.
Near the Blue Bridge, also on GVSU property, is a 7-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Chief Noaquageshik — known as Chief Noonday to settlers. He led the Grand River Bands of Odawa Indians when settlers first came to Grand Rapids and was key to establishing working relationships between the two groups.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum — born out of the Kent Scientific Institute that worked closely with Coffinberry on the mound excavations — is now the caretaker of the Norton Mounds. A lot has changed in the time between the 19th-century excavations and today, including the museum’s dedication to maintaining the history that lives there and its ties to Michigan’s local tribes.
On Saturday, March 25, the museum is hosting a special presentation called “GR Stories: The Grand River Burial Mounds, The Place Where Our Ancestors Rest.” GRPM Anishinaabe curator Jannan Cotto hopes the community will learn more about the mounds that still exist and those that don’t, and why those sites are so special to the Indigenous community.
“We have an awareness that these were built by people that were here before us and they buried their dead,” Cotto told News 8. “But there’s cultural significance, there’s spiritual significance. It goes a little bit deeper than the way most people think about it.”
To protect the mounds, the land surrounding them is closed to the public and fencing has been installed to quell illegal dumping. The museum has also led work over the last several years to help restore the site, including stabilizing part of the riverbank to protect a mound.
GRPM has also put an emphasis on maintaining a strong relationship with West Michigan’s local tribes. The museum works to coordinate times to open the mounds to the tribes and allow their members to visit the sacred site.
In the wake of the 1990s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which banned excavations on Indigenous burial sites, GRPM has worked to return the artifacts in its collection to the appropriate tribes. The museum repatriated its entire collection of artifacts and remains collected in Michigan to local tribes in 2009 and 2010. Some materials are also in the process of being repatriated to a tribe in Alaska and one in California.
Advance tickets for Saturday’s presentation are sold out; however, the museum expects to open up some more the day of the event that can be claimed at the museum’s front desk.