Mounds, Monuments and Mysteries

Sheron Smith

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Matt Jennings saw Ocmulgee National Monument for the first time in 2000 when, as a graduate student in History at the University of Illinois, he attended an archeological conference at the prehistoric Native American site in east Macon.

“I had heard of it and probably read about it before, but seeing it was amazing,” he says. “I thought it was extraordinary to have a place like that in the middle of a city.”  

Seven years later, as a newly minted Ph.D, Jennings began his search for a teaching job in higher education. One of his interviews was at what is now Middle Georgia State University.

While he was confident he could build his academic career no matter where he landed, Macon and MGA immediately felt like the right place to be, in part because of the access he would have to what is often referred to locally as “the Indian Mounds.”

“The story of Ocmulgee National Monument hasn’t been adequately told,” Jennings says, recalling when he first saw a timeline poster of the site’s history that did not extend beyond the 1820s. “I wanted to be part of telling more of the story.”

Now, as an MGA associate professor of History, Jennings is a prominent figure in the community of scholars studying Ocmulgee National Monument as its story continues to unfold. His ongoing research includes exploring the relationship between Native American peoples and the mounds at Ocmulgee, as well as the intertwined history of tourism and archaeology at the site. He is among the voices encouraging Congress to elevate ONM to national historic park status, a promotion from “monument” that could raise the site’s visibility and pay off in tangible economic benefits for the city and surrounding region.

In January 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to expand Ocmulgee and designate it as Georgia’s first national historic park. As of late spring 2017, advocates of the status change were waiting on the Senate to act on the bill, which if passed would nearly quadruple the site’s current acreage to 2,800 and change its name to “Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park.”

“Those changes would add a layer of protection from commercial and residential development and, at the same time, pave the way for a study regarding setting aside a huge swath of green space between Macon and Hawkinsville for a variety of recreational uses,” Jennings says. “I’m not an expert in economic development, but those in the know project that within fifteen years the park and preserve could support as many as 2,800 jobs and inject millions into the regional economy.”  

What makes Ocmulgee so historically significant? Here’s how Jennings described it in his recently released Ocmulgee National Monument, one of the books in the “Images of America” series published by Arcadia:

People have called the land near the Ocmulgee River in present-day central Georgia home for a long time, perhaps as many as 17,000 years, and each successive group has left its mark on the landscape. Mississippian-era people erected the towering Great Temple Mound and other large earthworks around 1,000 years ago. In the late 17th century, Ocmulgee flourished as a center of trade between the Creek Indians and their English neighbors. In the 19th century, railroads did irreparable damage to the site in the name of progress and profit, slicing through it twice. Preservation efforts bore fruit in the 1930s, when Ocmulgee National Monument was created. Since then, people from all over the world have visited Ocmulgee. They come for many reasons, but they invariably leave with a reverence for the place and the people who built it hundreds of years ago and those who have maintained it in recent decades.

“Ocmulgee is important for many different reasons,” Jennings says. “For some people, it’s a place to enjoy a quiet walk in the woods not far from downtown, look for migrating birds or ride their bikes. I appreciate all of those uses, but for me, as a student of Native American history, the historical significance of Ocmulgee outweighs them all. Ocmulgee allows us, even forces us, to come to terms with the past. Not too many other sites can claim that. Some aspects of its past are grand and worthy of celebrating, while others may require some introspection and soul-searching.”

Asked what he considers the most fascinating aspect of Ocmulgee, Jennings says it’s impossible for him to pick just one.

“The sheer scope of human history covered by Ocmulgee is its most fascinating feature. Some of the first humans to come into the Southeast passed through. Large ancient civilizations rose at the site and dispersed. English and Native communities met and traded at the site. The expansion of the United States, ethnic cleansing, industrialization and plantation slavery all played a role there. Ocmulgee is also crucially important for understanding the history of American archaeology and the struggle to balance preservation with development.”

Jennings’s pictorial history of Ocmulgee published by Arcadia is aimed at a general audience. His academic work related to the site includes research presented in many different venues, including the American Historical Association, the Georgia Association of Historians, the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, the Southeast Indian Studies Conference and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

Including the pictorial history, Jennings has published three books on different aspects of Native American history as sole author and contributed chapters to two others. With his MGA colleague Dr. Stephen Taylor he published another Arcadia text on the history of the Macon.

One of his current writing projects, scheduled to be published by Mercer University Press in 2018, is an academic history of Ocmulgee, focusing on the moments at which significant numbers of Muscogee (Creek) Native Americans visited Macon.

The book, Ocmulgee: A New Concise History and Writer’s Notebook, will include Jennings’s history of the site along with related poetry and stories compiled by Gordon Johnston, director of Creative Writing at Mercer.

As Jennings completes his first decade at MGA, Ocmulgee National Monument remains a rich source of research and wonder for him. He avoids using the “Mysteries of the Mounds” phrase that often shows up in publications and information videos about the site but acknowledges there is plenty we don’t know about Ocmulgee.

“For a long time it was assumed that more ‘advanced’ newcomers simply displaced their ‘primitive’ neighbors, perhaps even conquered them,” Jennings says. “Recent research by various scholars indicates that a diverse, multiethnic community developed, blending some aspects of what come before and the culture of the newcomers. Cutting-edge archaeological and historical research carries the potential to deepen our understanding.”