Location: Across the river from St. Louis, between East St. Louis and Collinsville, Illinois
That was an unplanned blogging break! Back now with regular blogging. This is the first of two posts I will do about sites of the early American culture known as the mound builders. I confess I never learned one particle of information about the mound builders in school, or in any documentary or book until we began our research into Lewis and Clark. I had no idea such an advanced civilization existed in North America. Cahokia Mounds is a gateway to an entirely different way of understanding the history of America before Europeans arrived on the scene.
The mound builders were the ancestors of the Indians that encountered Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and other European settles and explorers. They lived in sophisticated cities that centered around large temples and public buildings constructed as monumental earthen mounds. The earliest known mound city has been located near present-day Monroe, Louisiana and dates back to around 3400 B.C. For context, this was almost one thousand years earlier than the pyramids were built in Egypt.
The greatest surviving mound city can explored today at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. It seems that about 500 hundred years ago, Cahokia was the site of one of the largest cities in the world — far larger than, say, London in the time of Shakespeare. At its peak, Cahokia was home to over 20,000 people. It would be centuries before another city of comparable size (Philadelphia) arose in North America.
But of all the people that lived in this powerful center of human industry and imagination, nothing remains today but about 80 mysterious mounds. The largest of them, called Monk’s Mound, is 100 feet high and would have been topped by an impressive temple. It is the largest such structure found north of Mexico. The mound is named after a community of Trappist monks who made their home there in Lewis & Clark’s day (in fact, one of the monks baptized little Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea). The mounds, their shapes, and their layout are believed to have been governed by an ancient cosmology that is still only dimly understood.
There is evidence that Cahokia was a walled city, and some of the stockade has been reconstructed. The inhabitants followed the sun calendar which they followed with a giant calendar, now reconstructed and called “Woodhenge.”
Cahokia is believed to gone into decline around 1300, and was abandoned before the first Spanish and French explorers arrived in the area. (The mound builders lived on elsewhere — a story that will be in the second post, coming soon.) In fact, the Indians seem to have suffered through some unknown catastrophe that left the region greatly depopulated from what it had once been. In any case, the locals really didn’t know much about their forebears who once lived in the great city, though they continued to venerate its remains.
Generations of white settlers found the mounds fascinating. Early St. Louis was nicknamed “Mound City” because there were so many Native American structures to explore. During his travels during the Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s older brother, viewed Cahokia Mounds and spoke with the Kaskaskia Indians about the complex. Clark wrote, “They say they were the work of their forefathers and that they were formerly as numerous as the trees in the woods.”
In fact, the entire eastern portion of the country hosted hundreds of mounds, which were explored by scientists and dedicated amateurs like future presidents Thomas Jefferson and William Henry Harrison. Unfortunately, the heyday of excavation and study of the mounds was short-lived. Most of them were destroyed by development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Cahokia Mounds has only been systematically studied since the 1960s, when preservationists successfully stopped a plan to build an interstate highway through it. What has been discovered includes beautiful carvings, ceremonial graves, and evidence of human sacrifice similar to that practiced at corresponding sites in Mexico.
We spent an amazing, delightful day viewing and exploring the huge mounds and learning about the life of the people who lived around them.The visitor center has excellent exhibits and a good orientation movie, along with a tape that you can use to guide you on a walking/driving tour of the great city. I suggest bringing a picnic lunch which you can eat outside or inside in a spacious break area that also contains some vending machines.
Back in St. Louis after our day at the mounds, we walked in the park that surrounds the Gateway Arch. We watched ducks and bunnies playing in the park, people of all types enjoying the Arch and the river, and a stupendous pink sunset behind the Old Cathedral. The silvery Arch reflected the colors back at the sun. It was not unlike the mounds made by the mysterious Indians at Cahokia. Both are expressions of the highest aspirations of mankind.
More great reading: