Excavation and Destruction of the Waller-Heinisch Mound

Portsmouth High School (PHS) is built upon the location of what was first known as Waller Mound, and later became known as the Heinisch Mound, the earthen structure taking its name from the land's owner. Considered as part of Group B (the Twin Horseshoe Mounds and Earthworks) at the center of the larger Portsmouth Complex, the Waller-Heinisch Mound was originally constructed along the Southwestern Parallel Embankments, which are believed to have served as a pathway for pilgrims visiting this Middle Woodland (200 BCE - 500 CE) ceremonial complex.

We owe much of the history of the exploration and ultimate destruction of the Waller-Heinisch Mound to Clara Waller, who grew up on the property where it was located. She was the daughter of George A. Waller and the niece of Francis Cleveland, an artifact collector who produced the first topographic map detailing aspects of the Portsmouth Earthworks. Clara Waller was also an author, involved in the local literary scene of Gilded Age Portsmouth.

In March of 1897, Waller published an essay on "Prehistoric" Portsmouth in the Ladies Industrial Review, which was edited by the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Young Men’s Christian Association and printed by the Times Publishing Company of Portsmouth.

In her account of the mounds and earthworks, Waller relates that the Waller-Heinisch Mound was first opened by Capt. Josiah Shackford, who is considered one of the founding pioneer's of Portsmouth. Shackford is credited with having suggested the city's name after his hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Waller writes: "Sometime between 1800 and 1815 Capt. Josiah Shackford, and a Mr. Clark, went about digging into these earthworks searching for hidden treasure, not bits of pottery, or shell, or metal upon which hinge history, but for silver and gold, and precious stones. They dug through the Waller Mound, leaving a hole which time gradually filled up, but which changed the conical shape somewhat." Clearly, the earliest of the "explorations" by Shackford and Clark were little more than looting enterprises in search of treasure, not knowledge or a deeper understanding of humanity's past in the Ohio Valley.

The Waller-Heinisch Mound survived largely intact until at least November 1886, when George Heinisch, the new owner of the property, announced that he planned to "dig down the mound and place the dirt on the rear of the lot." The Daily Times opined that "this will afford archaeologists an opportunity of looking for relics, signs and tokens of a former race."

According to Waller, "When Mr. Heinisch recently removed this mound several antiquities were found, one, a piece of pottery rudely made to represent a man's head; it was six or eight inches long. An implement was also found made of granite, highly polished and sharpened at both ends and about the size and shape of a miner's pick, save that there was no eye for the handle. When the bottom of the work was reached the remains of a hearth was discovered which showed that there had been fire upon it."

Waller’s account was essentially confirmed and expanded upon by Charles V. Wertz, with whom Waller, it should be noted, was familiar, the two having a shared his interest in the Portsmouth Earthworks. Writing in 1936, Wertz recalled speaking with the “laborers” who did the excavation and having viewed the artifacts that were taken from Mound as it was leveled.

“This mound," wrote Wertz, "has been partially opened previous to its removal, but during its removal the bones of three badly decayed skeletons were found which had been buried on an altar of burnt clay about eight feet long and four feet wide. Near these skeletons were found three very large granite celts or unproved axes, a stone carved in the form of a human face, a pocket or pit which contained eleven large thin knives or oval shaped spears, a fine clay pot decorated with circles and lines holding about a quart. Also found near this altar were parts of skeletons which had been left by the original excavators. I learned from the laborers that a great number of small beads were found mixed with the charcoal on the altar and an extra fine granite crescent shaped implement or ceremonial, also two flat slate pieces with double perforations. Without a doubt a great many relics were overlooked in the destruction of this mound.”

Writing over one-hundred and twenty-five years ago, Clara Waller emphasized the importance of the Portsmouth Earthworks and their archaeology, telling her readers: “It is by the light of a very dim torch that we invade the ‘Stranger People’s Country.’ In the total absence of all historical records … we can only follow the leading of suggestions given us by the pre-historic works which remain, and the various relics which they have been found to contain.” 

The artifacts that were recovered from the Waller-Heinisch Mound culturally date to the Middle and Late Woodland Periods, circa (200 BCE-1000 CE), which suggests a Hopewell origin, with the mound's further modification and use by Late Prehistoric peoples.

Many of the artifacts taken from the Waller-Heinisch Mound ended up in the private collection of George Heinisch, while a few others were acquired by Charles V. Wertz. In 1916, George Heinisch donated his collection to the Ohio Archeological and Historical Society in Columbus, where some eighty-eight items are preserved in their holdings. Currently, the Ohio History Connection, the successor of the original society, is not authorizing the public display of items from their Heinisch Collection. 

Thankfully, several of the Waller-Heinisch Mound artifacts from Charles V. Wertz's collection are on display at the Southern Ohio Museum and can be viewed in the Scioto Historical image gallery. Perhaps aware of these items, Clara Waller noted in her essay on prehistoric Portsmouth that “Charles Wertz, Jr. is the lucky owner of an unusually good collection of antiquities.”


"George Heinisch ... to Dig Down the Mound," Portsmouth Times (27 November 1886). 

Clara Waller, “Pre-historic: Local,” Ladies Industrial Review (March 1897). For a digital copy of Waller’s article and the complete Review see Wandering Appalachia. https://www.wanderingappalachia.org/2021/09/22/1897-portsmouth-ladies-industrial-review/

Charles V. Wertz, “Ancient Man and His Works in and Around Scioto County,” Ohio Indian Relic Collectors Society Bulletin, No. 24 (June 1950): 20-29.


The Portsmouth Earthworks Complex, a 3D Simulation by Herb Roe
A 3D Simulation of the Portsmouth Earthworks Complex. The video provides a bird’s eye view of the earthworks and mounds as they may have appeared in the Middle Woodlands Period (c.200BCE to 500CE), when the Adena and later the Hopewell peoples...
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