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Eli Lilly Eli Lilly

Hoosier Connection: Eli Lilly was born and raised in Indianapolis. Through his acute interest in Native American life, as well as his philanthropic works, he has contributed to the preservation of Indiana's history and environment.

Works Discussed: Prehistoric Antiquities of Indiana, Walam Olum: The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians, Early Wawasee Days

Eli Lilly was born to Josiah K. Lilly and Lilly Ridgely on April 1, 1885, in Indianapolis. He was the grandson of Colonel Eli Lilly, founder of the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company that still bears his name today. From his grandfather and his cabin on the shore of Lake Wawasee, Lilly gained an interest in Native Americans and folklore. Lilly spent many summers at the cabin on the lake during his youth and even after he was married.

One of the defining moments in Lilly’s later years was in mid-December, 1929. He was writing to his only daughter, Evie, and told her that this year they would do something special on their trip to Lake Wawasee. He mentioned that he had been studying the history around the lake and that they were searching for Indian burial mounds. Although they failed to find any Indian mounds, the 45-year-old businessman found a new love: archaeology.

Lilly soon began to collect Indian artifacts, purchasing pieces from various collectors and dealers. Over the next several years, he amassed a collection of artifacts totaling over $20,000. The collection slowly came to a stop, though, as Lilly’s attitude changed from that of a dilettante collector to a professional student of archaeology. Through examining his own collection, he found material to write his first book, Prehistoric Antiquities of Indiana. It was published through the Indiana Historical Society, of which Lilly became a very influential and prominent member.

A Mound at Angel Mounds  Historic Site.
A mound at Angel Mounds
State Historic Site

In Prehistoric Antiquities of Indiana, Lilly discusses a variety of topics revolving around Native American life in Indiana. He lists three main patterns categorizing known mound and village sites in the Ohio Valley: “The Woodland,” “The Mississippi,” and possibly “The Hopewellian" phase.

With a basic knowledge of these patterns, Lilly describes many artifacts, some of which were excavated from mound sites around Indiana. The artifacts range from arrowheads to pottery to jewelry and help tell the story of Indiana's natural environment as it was when Native American nations thrived. Lilly goes into great detail about the Anderson and Angel Mounds sites (located in east central and southwest Indiana, respectively). It is with the knowledge and experience attained through the writing of this book that Lilly helped co-author his next book, entitled Walam Olum: The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians.

Walam Olum is based on a manuscript by natural historian and botanist Constantine S. Rafinesque. The manuscript is divided into five books, or songs, telling the story of Creation through to the time of the Europeans arriving in America. Each page contains a translation of the text, an interpretation of its meaning, and a description of the accompanying pictograph. Lilly’s specific contributions to the book are his interpretations of the pictographs. He thought that this manuscript would help prove the existence of the mound-building tribes of Indiana because of its vast references to the migration of the Delaware Indians. However, due to the controversy surrounding the authenticity of the manuscript, many scholars dismiss it as an inaccurate historical account.

One of Lilly’s other books, Early Wawasee Days, is a collection of memories, experiences, and interviews with older residents about Indiana's largest natural lake, where Lilly spent so much of his childhood. In the collection, he describes the natural history of Lake Wawasee as it was formed over thousands of years, and how it has changed since the appearance of Native Americans and Europeans:

As the outlet was lowered by the scouring action of running water, the Lake contracted until, at the coming of the white man, it was six or seven feet lower than at present. A dam at Syracuse was built in 1834 that raised the water to its present level. (5)

Control of this body of water was one source of contention that Lilly writes about. He describes how a group of farmers tried twice to “get control of the dam at Syracuse in order to destroy it, hoping, by so doing, to increase the area of their tillable land " (43). However, they were defeated with the help of Colonel Eli Lilly. In other chapters, Lilly goes on to describe many specific places around the lake, such as Dog Creek Dam and Old Fish Trap, Indian Hill, and Morrison’s Island.

Aside from his work in archaeology and writing, Lilly was a major philanthropist and believer in preservation. He used much of his income from the Eli Lilly Corporation to help fund his projects. With the help of the Indiana Historical Society and the Lilly Endowment, Lilly preserved many sites around the state that were important to the environment and the history of the state. He purchased Angel Mounds, saving it from destruction by the city of Evansville, restored Conner Prairie to a working farm for a few years, supported the restoration work of William Henry Harrison’s home in Vincennes, and contributed to the preservation work in Madison, Indiana. He also played a major role in preserving and restoring Lockerbie Square in Indianapolis, where author James Whitcomb Riley’s home was located.

Through his works both on the page and off, Lilly helped preserve the past and paved the way for others to do the same. Even after his death in 1977, he has continued to help the preservationist movement through the Lilly Endowment that still exists today.



Lilly, Eli. Early Wawasee Days. Indianapolis: Studio Press Inc., 1960.

---. Prehistoric Antiquities of Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1937.

Madison, James H. Eli Lilly: A Life, 1885-1977. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1989.

Voegelin, C.F., et al. Walam Olum: The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1954.


"Eli Lilly." http://www.indystar.com/library/factfiles/business/

"Angel Mounds." http://www.angelmounds.org/


Indiana's Popular History: Eli Lilly