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.
He honored Joseph and offered a prayer. Others in the circle spoke, and Joseph gave instructions. Jenny Curlee told the volunteers “not be surprised at what they might feel or learn, but be aware that they will have an experience meant just for them.”
Later, Carrie Petersen shared her impressions and said, “This has been no ordinary Eagle Scout project. From the beginning of the customary healing ritual after everyone was smudged with sage to cleanse came a peculiar and powerful spirit that was unexpected. We came to a revived awareness that the desire to restore and preserve Native American history and culture is similar to ours as members of the LDS Church. We feel a connection with those who once lived where we now live.”
Restoration of Two Mounds
Dawn Cobb from Springfield, Illinois, identified many mounds on the Curlee’s property “and nearly all of them were damaged decades ago when someone dug into the tops of them, most likely in search of prehistoric artifacts. Joseph Peterson’s Eagle project began the process of repairing damage to two of the mounds.”
On the day of the project, the previous owners of the property used their heavy equipment to haul dirt to a location where volunteers could access it with wheelbarrows and buckets and carry it to the mounds. Joseph’s Native American tutors requested that the mounds be filled in by hand as they had originally been built. Joseph honored the tradition. Although he planned to repair several mounds that day, Joseph discovered how long it took to finish the first mound. Time would only permit the restoration of two mounds following these steps:
- Rake the mounds of leaves before placing ground fabric on the mounds.
- Lay the ground fabric according to state law to separate existing dirt from new dirt on the mounds.
- Fill the mounds with dirt using shovels, buckets, and wheelbarrows.
- Clear the area of tools and materials.
After the opening ceremony and smudging with sage, the volunteers headed to the project site. “We had to carry our tools, rakes, shovels, buckets, and wheelbarrows along the sides of the road, walking in the leaves because of the muddy ground from the recent snow melt and torn-up road,” Jenny Curlee said. “No one seemed to mind the mud or the chill as they focused on the higher reason they had come together. There was an air of excitement, of oneness of purpose and fellowship.”
When the group reached the project site, volunteers first raked leaves off the mounds. Then Dawn Cobb taught them “how to install landscape fabric in the holes before backfilling them with clean fill.” She explained that “landscape fabric covers the old disturbance (the looter’s pit) as a visible separation between the mound and the new fill.”
After the fabric was in place, boys and men filled buckets with dirt and carried them up the sides of the mound to dump the dirt. “The teamwork was awe-inspiring,” Jenny Curlee said. “Dawn Cobb urged them to fill in just a little more here or a little more there.”
At noon the volunteers took a lunch break with homemade chili, cookies, and Indian fry bread. After lunch they finished the first mound and started on the second one. When it was time to leave, the second mound still needed dirt to round the top, and the Curlees offered to finish it during the week. “No doubt all who picked up their shovels and other tools and buckets walked more slowly down the lane than when they came in,” Jenny Curlee said. “Tonight there will be aching backs and knees and probably deep sleep, but peace of mind and a sense of accomplishment.”
In Joseph’s final report he expressed gratitude that “everyone was willing to help. They were dressed properly, brought tools, and worked until the end of the project even though it was a holiday weekend.”
The Project’s Impact
What impact did this Eagle Scout project have on its participants?
Dawn Cobb from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency said, “Joseph Peterson’s Eagle project has a greater depth of meaning because a variety of groups were interested in helping him succeed. Everyone had the same goal – to repair the damage and to right a wrong. His project began the healing process that these mounds and the community needed. I hope that other Scouts look to this project as an example of a community working together towards a positive goal.”
Joseph’s mother observed that “Scouts from Troop 110 learned something by the service they gave and hopefully will continue to reverence that place.” She reported that even though Joseph is normally shy, he always has been service-oriented. “This experience will continue to shape the way he views himself and his ability to accomplish something extraordinary.”
Jenny Curlee noticed that “Joseph’s face almost radiated, and he looked and acted like a leader. He seemed to have grown up since we first met him last fall at the onset of the Eagle project.” She added, “As for us, we felt the Spirit radiate through the trees, on the mounds, in the faces of all who came and shared. Many remarked to us how they felt something they had not known they would feel. It was far more than an Eagle Scout project; it was service to each other, to those who built these original mounds, and to God.”
As stewards of the land, the Curlees plan to repair other mounds. One they recently restored is “turnaround mound.” “And for the first time we can walk right up to it, and it is clean and visible,” Jenny said. “Before, it was covered with brambles, honeysuckle, and dead trees. Also the trail by the children’s mound’ is almost cleaned out and looking good.” After a wet Nauvoo spring, visitors to the site were amazed to see beautiful ferns growing prolifically on the tops of mounds and no other place in the area.
Besides restoring mounds on their property, the Curlees hoped to preserve the burial sites in the future. Before Joseph began his Eagle Scout project, Dawn Cobb and a state archaeologist came to Nauvoo, identified mounds, and placed protected archaeological signs by some of them. The Curlees also requested cemetery designation, and a week after the Eagle project, the State of Illinois granted the property cemetery designation.
President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “Each of us has a small field to cultivate. While so doing, we must never lose sight of the greater picture . . . Weave beautifully your small thread in the grand tapestry, the pattern for which was laid out for us by the God of Heaven.” (Ensign, Nov. 1989)
Thanks to the Curlees’ and Joseph Petersen’s small threads, Nauvoo’s diverse history is expanding for visitors to learn more about Nauvoo’s historic past. By keeping this area pristine, individuals and families can roam through the trees, appreciate nature, and contemplate the lives and history of those who built the earthen mounds and were forgotten but can be remembered again.