Cahokia Mounds

Cahokia Mounds

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Cahokia Mounds Site Was America’s First City

For almost 25 years I drove past highway signs on I-55 announcing the turnoff for the Cahokia Mounds historic site when – ever I made the trip from Chicago to my childhood home in the Ozarks. I would hesitate, remember the five hours of driving still ahead, promise I would stop next time, and then drive on. After all, I had visited Indian mounds from Wisconsin to Kentucky. How different could Cahokia be? Little did I know that I was passing the site of the first North Ameri – can city.

From AD 800 to 1400, the site now known as Cahokia Mounds, in Collinsville, Ill., about eight miles east of down – town St. Louis, was the dominant city of the Mississippian culture, the most sophisticated prehistoric culture in the Americas north of Mexico. At its height, around 1150, Cahokia had an estimated population of 20,000 people, larger than London at that time.

The same advantages that led European settlers 500 years later to build St. Louis made the growth of Cahokia possible. The convergence of three rivers—the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois—created a rich flood plain with good soil for farming and a wealth of hunting and fishing. The network of smaller waterways that fed into these rivers made travel easy, and three sur – rounding ecosystems—the Ozark Mountains, the Prairie and the Eastern Woodlands— provided many raw materials.

The Cahokian economy was based on maize, a high-yield crop made even more productive with the introduction of hoe cultivation specialized flint hoes were distinctive to Mississippian culture. Higher yields from the land led to population increases. Towns began to form and expand, bringing more social complexity and centralized authority.

With a stable food supply, the Mississippians of Cahokia were able to support skilled craftsmen and an increased trade for materials and goods. Artifacts found at the site display fine craftsmanship: tens of thousands of shell beads, flint clay statuettes in human and animal forms, dramatic effigy bottles and bowls, and engraved copper plates. Artists had access to exotic materials traded over considerable distances: copper from the upper Great Lakes, mica from southern Appalachia and seashells from the Gulf of Mexico.

The remains of Cahokia, named after an Indian tribe who lived in the area in the 1600s, cover 3,300 acres in the flood plain known as the American Bottom. A 40-acre rectangular plaza, artificially leveled and filled, served as both marketplace and ceremonial center for the city. Flat-topped mounds were built around the plaza, which was surrounded by a two-milelong log stockade. Apparently built for defense, the stockade also was the architectural representation of a hierarchical society. The temple and homes of the elite were segregated inside the stockade, while smaller plazas and residences were clustered outside.

Cahokia was surrounded by outerlying communities that made up the “greater Cahokia area.” The remains of 120 mounds are there, more than at any other Mississippian site, made of tamped earth dug out of holes known as borrow pits. Because the Mississippians had no pack animals, laborers carried the earth in baskets on their backs, 50 to 60 pounds at a time.

Monks Mound is the largest of the flat-topped mounds at Cahokia. Named after French Trappist monks who gardened on the mound in the early 1800s, it stands at the north end of the central plaza and covers 14 acres. Archaeologists estimate that Monks Mound alone took 15 million baskets of earth to build.

The more unusual conical and ridge-topped mounds were used for burials and to mark important locations. Excavations have centered on Mound 72, which accommodated almost 300 burials. The most dramatic of these was the ceremonial burial of a man in his mid-40s who is believed to have been an early leader of Cahokia. He was laid out on a platform of 20,000 marine shell beads, arranged in the shape of a falcon—an image that appears frequently on pottery and ritual objects found in Mississippian sites.

The remains at Cahokia also include five large circles of evenly spaced red cedar posts, each surrounding a central post. These “woodhenges” appear to have been sun calendars: Certain posts align with the rising sun at the equinoxes and solstices when viewed from the center. Woodhenges may also have served as surveyor’s instruments, used to properly place new ceremonial plazas and mounds within the city. (The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has recon struct ed a woodhenge on site, and holds public sunrise services to celebrate the equinox and solstice.)

Cahokia began to decline in about 1250, shrinking in both population and area by 1400 the city had been abandoned. Excavations show no sign of epidemic, invasion or natural disaster that would account for the city’s demise. Paradoxically, scholars believe that the maize-based economy that was the foundation of Cahokia’s success was the eventual cause of its failure. Maize was more productive than native cultivated plants, but it was also more sensitive to changes in weather conditions. Moreover, yield increases led to increased populations that were difficult to support in times of crop failure. Weather patterns began to change around 1200, bringing cooler, drier summers, shorter growing seasons and local food shortages.

In the years of Cahokia’s decline, some of the settlements moved away from the flood plain to higher ground. Carbon isotope studies of human bones from the new sites reveal that maize was supplemented by a renewed reliance on native seeds and nuts. Smaller settlements with a more diversified food base had neither the ability nor the need to support Cahokia’s complex social organization. As archaeologists David Rindos and Sissel Johannessen describe it, “Cahokia didn’t collapse, it evaporated.”

The fall of Cahokia did not mean the end of Mississippian culture, however. When Fernando De Soto landed at Tampa Bay in 1539, he found flourishing Mississippian chiefdoms from Florida to the upper Tennessee River valley, with an estimated population of more than 1 million. Slowly decimated over the years by European illnesses, the chiefdoms were finally destroyed in a series of wars with the French between 1716 and 1731, more than 300 years after the fall of Cahokia.

In 1982 Cahokia was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site for its importance in North American prehistory.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.

The History of Cahokia Mounds

Cahokia Mounds dates back to A.D. 700 with first settlers known to be the late Woodland Indians. They lived in villages along Cahokia Creek where they hunted, fished and grew food. Starting at around A.D. 1000, the Mississippian culture, defined as a mound-building Native American civilization, began to come alive with highly structured communities with their own political and social systems. Because of the stable food base that was able to be developed, Cahokia Mounds began to support larger, more permanent populations. At the peak of civilization, between A.D. 1050 – 1200, it spanned six square miles and reached the estimated population of 20,000.

The mounds themselves are surrounded by mystery. What drew these people to the site in the first place? Though inhabitants of Cahokia Mounds left no written records beyond symbols written on pottery, shell, wood, copper and stone, the original 120 mounds are believed to be built for ritual, burial and elite shelter purposes. They were made from earth dug from “borrow pits” and transported in baskets on the backs of settlers to the spot of the mound. Today, the mounds still show the stages of construction including borrow pits. You can just imagine the intensive labor that went into developing these complex structures.

Of the 70 mounds and earthworks on site at Cahokia Mounds, the following are the most celebrated:

  • Monks Mound: Monks Mound is the largest structure at Cahokia Mounds and covers more than 14 acres at its base. It was home to the governing chief and was also the site of important ceremonies. Monks Mound was named after the French Trappist monks who lived nearby and farmed the mound’s terraces from 1809 – 1813.
  • Mound 72: The burial mound of Cahokia, Mound 72, once excavated, uncovered 300 ceremonial burials of mostly young women. Atop the mound, laid on a raised platform of 20,000 marine shell disc beads in the shape of a raptor bird, was a male approximately 20 years of age, laying on a bed of shell beads, with a female approximately 20 years of age underneath. Also uncovered on the site were satellite graves in three small mounds covered with a cap of soil that joins them.
  • The Stockade: The Stockade is an impressive nearly two mile-long wall that was built using an estimated 20,000 logs for protection against enemies. It also served as a barrier for the elite who lived within. Bastions or guard towers stood throughout parts of the wall at regular intervals to keep lookout against the enemy. The Cahokia mound people replaced the wall at least four times between A.D. 1175 – 1275.
  • Woodhenge: Excavations onsite at Cahokia have uncovered five partially circular sun calendars called woodhenges used to calculate the calendar and ceremonial dates. Constructed between A.D. 1100 – 1200, Woodhenge is a great example of the ingenuity of the people who settled at Cahokia, their creativity using the land and resources available, and their special interest in community ceremonies.

It’s important to note that although the mounds were named after the Cahokia tribe of the Illiniwek confederacy who arrived in the 17 th century, they were not the original inhabitants. The original name of the city is shrouded in mystery.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

On our way to St Louis for a wedding, we thought this would be an interesting diversion for an hour. We ended up staying for three hours and wished we had even more time. Previously, we had no idea that such a massive Native American settlement existed here, in the center of the country, for hundreds of years.

The museum/Interpretive Center is built to Smithsonian standards - every display, especially the diorama, is as beautiful as it is informative.

We wanted to take one of the many planned walks around the well-landscaped grounds, but only had time to ascend the largest mound (Monk’s Mound) for a beautiful view of the entire site. Signs at this mound made it possible for us to imagine what it was like to be the Chieftan living at the top.

TIP: Plan your visit better than we did. On a sunny day with mild temps, you have plenty to see and do for at least half a day.

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, near Collinsville, Illinois, is a beautiful park-like setting open daily from dawn to dusk. (800 acres of the 2,200-acres of the original site are open to the public and include the 100-foot-high Monks Mound and Woodhenge, the reconstructed ancient sun calendar.)

When we arrived, a lot of people were climbing the mounds (stairs) and probably got a much better sense of the magnitude of the urban center that once existed than we did.

Because we aren't as ambulatory as we'd like, we had to limit our visit to the Interpretive Center, which reopened in July. Luckily we were there on a Thursday - one of the days the center is open. (Check schedules ahead of time and be sure to bring a mask.) A wheelchair is available for those less ambulatory than we.

The displays and dioramas provided context and a compelling narrative that kept us hobbling along to the end. It was definitely worth the effort. Several parents brought their young children, who seemed to have a blast.

We had hoped to watch the 17-minute video tour of Cahokia Mounds, which is available for disabled visitors, but the theater was closed as part of Illinois's pandemic shutdown. We were told the video is available online.

Some other reviewers have grumbled, but we think the we think the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site does a good job of hitting visitors' differing levels of archaeological interest and understanding.

White Settlers Buried the Truth About the Midwest’s Mysterious Mound Cities

Around 1100 or 1200 A.D., the largest city north of Mexico was Cahokia, sitting in what is now southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Built around 1050 A.D. and occupied through 1400 A.D., Cahokia had a peak population of between 25,000 and 50,000 people. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cahokia was composed of three boroughs (Cahokia, East St. Louis, and St. Louis) connected to each other via waterways and walking trails that extended across the Mississippi River floodplain for some 20 square km. Its population consisted of agriculturalists who grew large amounts of maize, and craft specialists who made beautiful pots, shell jewelry, arrow-points, and flint clay figurines.

The city of Cahokia is one of many large earthen mound complexes that dot the landscapes of the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys and across the Southeast. Despite the preponderance of archaeological evidence that these mound complexes were the work of sophisticated Native American civilizations, this rich history was obscured by the Myth of the Mound Builders, a narrative that arose ostensibly to explain the existence of the mounds. Examining both the history of Cahokia and the historic myths that were created to explain it reveals the troubling role that early archaeologists played in diminishing, or even eradicating, the achievements of pre-Columbian civilizations on the North American continent, just as the U.S. government was expanding westward by taking control of Native American lands.

Today it’s difficult to grasp the size and complexity of Cahokia, composed of about 190 mounds in platform, ridge-top, and circular shapes aligned to a planned city grid oriented five degrees east of north. This alignment, according to Tim Pauketat, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, is tied to the summer solstice sunrise and the southern maximum moonrise, orientating Cahokia to the movement of both the sun and the moon. Neighborhood houses, causeways, plazas, and mounds were intentionally aligned to this city grid. Imagine yourself walking out from Cahokia’s downtown on your journey you would encounter neighborhoods of rectangular, semi-subterranean houses, central hearth fires, storage pits, and smaller community plazas interspersed with ritual and public buildings. We know Cahokia’s population was diverse, with people moving to this city from across the midcontinent, likely speaking different dialects and bringing with them some of their old ways of life.

View of Cahokia from Rattlesnake Mound ca 1175 A.D., drawn by Glen Baker (Image courtesy of Sarah E. Baires)

The largest mound at Cahokia was Monks Mound, a four-terraced platform mound about 100 feet high that served as the city’s central point. Atop its summit sat one of the largest rectangular buildings ever constructed at Cahokia it likely served as a ritual space.

In front of Monks Mound was a large, open plaza that held a chunk yard to play the popular sport of chunkey. This game, watched by thousands of spectators, was played by two large groups who would run across the plaza lobbing spears at a rolling stone disk. The goal of the game was to land their spear at the point where the disk would stop rolling. In addition to the chunk yard, upright marker posts and additional platform mounds were situated along the plaza edges. Ridge-top burial mounds were placed along Cahokia’s central organizing grid, marked by the Rattlesnake Causeway, and along the city limits.

Cahokia was built rapidly, with thousands of people coming together to participate in its construction. As far as archaeologists know, there was no forced labor used to build these mounds instead, people came together for big feasts and gatherings that celebrated the construction of the mounds.

The splendor of the mounds was visible to the first white people who described them. But they thought that the American Indian known to early white settlers could not have built any of the great earthworks that dotted the midcontinent. So the question then became: Who built the mounds?

Early archaeologists working to answer the question of who built the mounds attributed them to the Toltecs, Vikings, Welshmen, Hindus, and many others. It seemed that any group—other than the American Indian—could serve as the likely architects of the great earthworks. The impact of this narrative led to some of early America’s most rigorous archaeology, as the quest to determine where these mounds came from became salacious conversation pieces for America’s middle and upper classes. The Ohio earthworks, such as Newark Earthworks, a National Historic Landmark located just outside Newark, OH, for example, were thought by John Fitch (builder of America’s first steam-powered boat in 1785) to be military-style fortifications. This contributed to the notion that, prior to the Native American, highly skilled warriors of unknown origin had populated the North American continent.

This was particularly salient in the Midwest and Southeast, where earthen mounds from the Archaic, Hopewell, and Mississippian time periods crisscross the midcontinent. These landscapes and the mounds built upon them quickly became places of fantasy, where speculation as to their origins rose from the grassy prairies and vast floodplains, just like the mounds themselves. According to Gordon Sayre (The Mound Builders and the Imagination of American Antiquity in Jefferson, Bartram, and Chateaubriand), the tales of the origins of the mounds were often based in a “fascination with antiquity and architecture,” as “ruins of a distant past,” or as “natural” manifestations of the landscape.

When William Bartram and others recorded local Native American narratives of the mounds, they seemingly corroborated these mythical origins of the mounds. According to Bartram’s early journals (Travels, originally published in 1791) the Creek and the Cherokee who lived around mounds attributed their construction to “the ancients, many ages prior to their arrival and possessing of this country.” Bartram’s account of Creek and Cherokee histories led to the view that these Native Americans were colonizers, just like Euro-Americans. This served as one more way to justify the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands: If Native Americans were early colonizers, too, the logic went, then white Americans had just as much right to the land as indigenous peoples.

Location of Cahokia, East St Louis, and St Louis sites in the American Bottom (Map courtesy of Sarah E. Baires)

The creation of the Myth of the Mounds parallels early American expansionist practices like the state-sanctioned removal of Native peoples from their ancestral lands to make way for the movement of “new” Americans into the Western “frontier.” Part of this forced removal included the erasure of Native American ties to their cultural landscapes.

In the 19th century, evolutionary theory began to take hold of the interpretations of the past, as archaeological research moved away from the armchair and into the realm of scientific inquiry. Within this frame of reference, antiquarians and early archaeologists, as described by Bruce Trigger, attempted to demonstrate that the New World, like the Old World, “could boast indigenous cultural achievements rivaling those of Europe.” Discoveries of ancient stone cities in Central America and Mexico served as the catalyst for this quest, recognizing New World societies as comparable culturally and technologically to those of Europe.

But this perspective collided with Lewis Henry Morgan’s 1881 text Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines. Morgan, an anthropologist and social theorist, argued that Mesoamerican societies (such as the Maya and Aztec) exemplified the evolutionary category of “Middle Barbarism”—the highest stage of cultural and technological evolution to be achieved by any indigenous group in the Americas. By contrast, Morgan said that Native Americans located in the growing territories of the new United States were quintessential examples of “Stone Age” cultures—unprogressive and static communities incapable of technological or cultural advancement. These ideologies framed the archaeological research of the time.

In juxtaposition to this evolutionary model there was unease about the “Vanishing Indian,” a myth-history of the 18th and 19th centuries that depicted Native Americans as a vanishing race incapable of adapting to the new American civilization. The sentimentalized ideal of the Vanishing Indian—who were seen as noble but ultimately doomed to be vanquished by a superior white civilization—held that these “vanishing” people, their customs, beliefs, and practices, must be documented for posterity. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to excavate into a Native American burial mound, citing the disappearance of the “noble” Indians—caused by violence and the corruption of the encroaching white civilization—as the need for these excavations. Enlightenment-inspired scholars and some of America’s Founders viewed Indians as the first Americans, to be used as models by the new republic in the creation of its own legacy and national identity.

During the last 100 years, extensive archaeological research has changed our understanding of the mounds. They are no longer viewed as isolated monuments created by a mysterious race. Instead, the mounds of North America have been proven to be constructions by Native American peoples for a variety of purposes. Today, some tribes, like the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, view these mounds as central places tying their communities to their ancestral lands. Similar to other ancient cities throughout the world, Native North Americans venerate their ties to history through the places they built.

Editor's Note: The original story stated that William Bartram's Travels was published in 1928, but these early journals were actually published in 1791.

Cahokia Mounds - History

The Cahokia were an American Indian tribe indigenous to the Midwest. The tribe is extinct. Their descendants may have accompanied the Confederated Peoria to Oklahoma in 1867. The Cahokia were members of the Illinois, a group of approximately twelve Algonquian-speaking tribes who occupied areas of present Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas. Although little is known about their culture, the Cahokia were not related to the prehistoric inhabitants of the Cahokia Mounds, which are located near Collinsville, Illinois. That ancient site was named for the Cahokia who dwelled nearby during the late seventeenth century.

The Cahokia resided in present Illinois near the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers when Father Jacques Marquette visited the region in 1673. About 1700 they moved south along the east bank of the Mississippi to a site near present Cahokia, Illinois, where a Catholic mission had been established in 1699. There they joined the Tamaroa, a people with whom they had been closely allied. The two tribes combined for a total of about ninety lodges.

The Tamaroa separated from the Cahokia in 1701. The Cahokia continued living near the mission until they relocated south in 1734. French influences, especially liquor, had negatively impacted their population. It also brought attacks by pro-British tribes, who destroyed their village in 1752. The Cahokia subsequently resettled near the Michigamea, who had likewise been attacked.

The Cahokia and the Michigamea were soon assimilated by the Kaskaskia and were recognized as such by the United States in 1803. As Kaskaskia they banded with the Peoria and removed from Illinois to present Kansas during the 1830s. There, as members of the Confederated Peoria tribe, they were assigned land in northeast Indian Territory (present Ottawa County, Oklahoma) in 1867. That reservation was allotted to 153 Peoria beginning in 1889. The number of allottees who were of Cahokia descent is unknown.


Grant Foreman, The Last Trek of the Indians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946).

Frederick W. Hodge, ed., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Vol. 1 (1907 reprint, New York: Pageant Books, 1960).

Muriel H. Wright, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951).

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Cahokia Mounds - History

A Brief History of Cahokia Mounds

One can view St. Louis’s Gateway Arch from any number of point in the Metro East. Many regard the best viewing spot as atop Monk’s Mound, a magnificent earthen structure that was built by Native Americans near present-day Collinsville. Monk’s Mound, which is 1,037 feet long and 790 feet wide, is actually larger at its base than the Great Pyramid of Giza. It is the centerpiece of the prehistoric site known as Cahokia Mounds.

The civilization - builders who once lived at this site did not refer to the area as Cahokia or Cahokia Mounds. The name that these Indians called themselves is lost to history. Archaeologists refer to this particular Native American culture as the Mississippian.

Scholars remain divided concerning the genesis of the Mississippians. Some maintain that these Native Americans migrated to the area’s great flood plain, while others contend that the Mississippians were the successors to earlier cultures. We can be certain, however, that a variety of geographical factors combined to facilitate the rise of the Mississippians around 1000 A.D. The Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois Rivers created the American Bottoms, a nutrient-rich flood plain that stretches 70 miles along the Father of Waters from present-day Alton to Chester. Maize and other crops thrived in its soil. Fish, migratory waterfowl and white-tailed deer also provided food for these Indians.

The Mississippians engaged in trade with other Native American cultures, traveling vast distances along routes pioneered by earlier inhabitants, such as the Woodland Indians. The three great rivers provided natural avenues of commerce for canoes and allowed the Mississippians to reach the Upper Great Lakes, where they acquired copper, and the Gulf of Mexico, their source for seashells. Land trading routes included journeys into the southern Appalachian region with its deposits of mica. Archaeologists have found Mississippian-style pottery throughout the southeastern United States and as far north as Red Wing, Minnesota.

But does geography alone account for the rise of Cahokia? Perhaps not.

Archaeologist Timothy Pauketat in 1993 proposed a theory he called “the Big Bang,” which argued that Cahokia’s population exploded in the early eleventh century. In a span perhaps as brief as ten years, a village numbering approximately 1,000 residents expanded into a city of about 10,000. Inhabitants of the region had been growing maize for at least 200 years, so Cahokia’s dramatic growth can’t be attributed to the sudden introduction of this staple crop. Nor can the city’s role as an early American trading hub fully account for its success. What, then, is the answer?

Pauketat believes that a supernova recorded in 1054 might have inspired sudden growth of this city. He and Cahokia expert Thomas E. Emerson also note that the Zulu empire that rose and fell in southeastern Africa in the nineteenth century was forged by a single man — Shaka Zulu. They believe that the rise of a charismatic leader could well explain the flowering of Mississippian culture. The evidence for this theory surfaced in 1967, when archaeologist Melvin Fowler excavated Mound 72.

A ridge-shaped earthen structure located 1,000 yards north from the massive Monk’s Mound, Mound 72 was less than six feet high. Its grim contents, however, were anything but inauspicious.

Mound 72 contained three smaller burial mounds that held about 260 human skeletons. One skeleton was that of a man who was obviously a great leader. Archaeologists estimate that he died in his forties, an advanced age for a Mississippian. He had been placed on a bed of more than 20,000 rare white sea shells that had been shaped to resemble a falcon. The falcon’s head was beneath the leader’s head, while its wings and tail were beneath his arms and legs.

And he was not buried alone.

In a trench near this great leader, fifty-four young women were laid out in two rows. Their pelvic areas indicated that they had not borne children and, therefore, were possibly virgins. Mound 72 also held some skeletons that were missing their hands and heads, indicating human sacrifice. Some of the finger bones of other skeletons were pressed into the soil, bearing mute testimony that they had been buried alive.

In addition to these sacrificial victims, the Mississippians buried items of great value with their revered leader. Archaeologists found sheets of rolled copper, arrowheads, mica and chunky stones in mound 72.

Human sacrifice was a grim reality of life at Cahokia. Young women were ritually killed and buried on rows of white pelts or another kind of special lining. Some of these victims were fed a diet that was high in corn during the final year of their lives. Pauketat believes that they were meant to personify a corn goddess and were sacrificed to ensure a bountiful harvest.

While Fowler and his team was excavating mound 72, archaeologist Charles Bareis was uncovering a refuse pit located just a short distance from the leader’s burial site. The pit, as long as a football field and about 60 feet wide, contained the remains of many feasts which, considering the ripe berries, must have taken place in autumn. Bareis and his team were surprised to find the broken remains of religious objects previously unseen at Cahokia Mounds. Native American craftsmen had painstakingly fashioned arrowheads and human figures from quartz crystals. The refuse pit also held broken pottery, brightly-painted and sometimes inscribed with wings, eyes and strange faces that archaeologists believe might have represented ceremonial masks.

The refuse pit was closed about 1050 A.D., a date which archaeologists believe approximately coincides with the death and burial of this chief. Was he indeed the charismatic leader who was responsible for the rise of Cahokia as a great metropolis. Did the feasts cease with his death?

Archaeologists believe that the leader of the Mississippian community at Cahokia Mounds lived in a massive building atop Monk’s Mound. The building measured 105 feet long, 48 feet wide and 50 feet high — an imposing structure indeed! Still, it almost pales into insignificance when compared to the mighty mound upon which it rested.

Monk’s Mound rises in four terraces to a height of 100 feet. The Mississippians constructed it over a period of three hundred years by painstakingly scooping up basket after basket of dirt — some 19 million cubic feet of the stuff, according to archaeologists — and then carrying the baskets to the mound site. It is believed that each basket held about 55 pounds of dirt, which means that it took around 14.6 million loads to build Monk’s Mound.

Archaeologists note that it would take approximately 229,166 pick-up truck loads to transport 19 million cubic feet of soil — and this culture possessed no machinery whatsoever. The Mississippians didn’t even have horses to assist them in this backbreaking task.

Archaeologists in 1971 discovered an artifact on Monk’s Mound that underscored the Mississippians’ capacity for symbolic expression. The “Birdman Tablet” contains a depiction of a masked man with a bird’s beak, feathers and earspools. The reverse of the tablet is adorned with a snakeskin pattern. The man represents the earth world of humans, while the bird’s beak and feathers symbolize the sky. The snakeskin personifies the underworld, thereby completing the three-world symbolism of the tablet. The Birdman image is now the official logo of Cahokia Mounds.

Monk’s Mound is a staggering achievement. But it is far from being the only marvel of prehistoric engineering at Cahokia Mounds.

Dr. Warren Wittry had been studying excavation maps of the area in 1961 when he observed a series of oval-shaped pits. He concluded that these pits had once held a circle of red cedar posts, with a sunrise arc that functioned as a calendar to mark the changing of the seasons. The other posts of the sunrise arc might have identified important agricultural festivals, while non-sunrise arc posts could have aligned with stars and planets.

Further investigation revealed there to have been no less than five Woodhenge circles, all built in the same location during the period 900 A.D. to 1100 A.D. The first circle had consisted of 24 cedar posts, while the second circle had numbered 36. The third circle, thought to have been raised about 1000 A.D., had been comprised of about 48 such posts. A fourth circle had consisted of 60 posts, and an incomplete fifth circle held only 13 posts in the sunrise arc. Archaeologists postulate that this fifth Woodhenge, which would have required 72 posts to form a complete circle, had been left unfinished for the entirely mundane reason that red cedar trees were becoming scarce.

Wittry discovered a beaker fragment near the winter solstice post of Woodhenge. The beaker is inscribed with a cross that Wittry believes represents the world. The cross is inside a circle with two paths — one open and the other closed. Wittry postulates that the open path leading to the circle represents the rising sun at the winter solstice, while the closed path symbolizes that day’s setting sun.

Archaeologists reconstructed the third Woodhenge circle in 1985 to give visitors a better appreciation for the extraordinary civilization that once flourished at Cahokia Mounds. The winter and summer solstices, as well as the vernal and autumn equinoxes, are popular days to visit Woodhenge. Visitors arrive before dawn to watch the sun rise behind the winter and summer solstice posts and the single equinox post.

A vernal or autumn equinox at Woodhenge is particularly spectacular. The equinox post aligns with Monk’s Mound to the east so that, at dawn on the first day of spring and fall, it looks as though Monk’s Mound is giving birth to the sun. Since the Mississippian ruler lived in a building atop Monk’s Mound, the community’s inhabitants might have been led to believe that their chief enjoyed a special relationship with the heavenly body.

During several of my visits to Woodhenge, a visitor struck a hand-held drum, one beat every five seconds, while the sun rose behind the equinox or solstice post. It might almost have been a heartbeat — the slow, fragile heartbeat of the new season whose birth this sunrise marked.

By 1150 A.D., the Mississippian community at Cahokia Mounds had a population of about 20,000, making it larger than London. While Europe was locked in the Dark Ages, a remarkable civilization flourished at Cahokia Mounds. Until 1800, no city in the United States was as large as the Cahokia Mounds of centuries past. By 1400, however, the site was abandoned.

Archaeologists remain uncertain why this extraordinary civilization ultimately declined and vanished. A major climate change occurred about 1250 A.D., with colder temperatures leading to a shorter growing season. Perhaps crops became insufficient to support such a large population. Overhunting could have depleted the area’s animals, which would have caused a further food shortage.

The problem of garbage and human waste disposal could have posed a problem for the Mississippians. A polluted water supply would have led to disease, which might have spread rapidly through such a large population.

Yet another possibility is conflict with other Native American cultures. Archaeologists have discovered that a two-mile long stockade surrounded the central portion of Cahokia. They estimate that the Mississippians started construction of this stockade around 1100 A.D., and then rebuilt it three times over a period of 200 years. Each construction of the stockade required 15,000 to 20,000 oak and hickory logs that were one foot in diameter and twenty feet high. We can only speculate as to the stockade’s purpose, although it could well have been erected to protect the community from hostile invaders.

In any event, the Cahokia Mounds region remained uninhabited until about 1650, when a subtribe of the Illini Indians moved to the area. When the French, who colonized the region, established a settlement on the Mississippi River in 1699, they named it Cahokia, after this subtribe. A series of disputes between the French and Cahokia Indians prompted French military authorities in 1733 to remove all Indians from the vicinity of Cahokia village and relocate them to the north — where the Mississippian metropolis had once flourished. French missionaries accompanied the Indians, many of whom had converted to Christianity, and established a chapel on the first terrace of Monk’s Mound. Located at the terrace’s southwestern corner, the chapel was only 18 feet by 30 feet. Still, the tiny house of worship marked a milestone in the mound’s history. A sacred site of Native American religion was now under the domain of Christianity. A mound that had been built by Indians was now used by European-Americans.

But tragedy befell this mission community. According to an eyewitness account by a French officer stationed at nearby Fort de Chartres, a band of Sioux, Sauk and Kickapoo attacked the Cahokia Indians on June 6, 1752, killing all they encountered. With so many of its parishioners slain, the mission was abandoned.

Two centuries later, archaeologist Elizabeth Bentley found a small copper hand bell in the grave of a Cahokia-Illini woman who had been buried near the chapel site. It might have been her duty to ring the bell to summon worshipers to Sunday service, and then ring it again during Mass when the priest elevated the host and chalice.

The Cantine Mounds, as Cahokia Mounds was then called, changed hands several times after the mission’s demise. Nicholas Jarrot, a wealthy fur trader who lived in Cahokia village, purchased the site in 1799 for $66. Ten years later, Jarrot sold Cantine Mounds in addition to acreage he owned along Cahokia Creek to some Trappist Monks who had fled France during that nation’s revolution. Dom Urban Guillet, the leader of the monks, founded a new monastery that he named Notre Dame de Bon Secours — Our Lady of Good Help. He planned in time to build a huge monastic cathedral atop the massive mound that had once housed the Mississippians’ leader.

Diseases such as malaria, however, cut down almost half the monks within a few years. Crop failure and a flood further weakened the community. Our Lady of Good Help was severely demoralized by the New Madrid Earthquake of 1812. Dom Urban Guillet was nearly killed by a falling chimney, and the earth beneath the monks’ feet trembled almost daily for two months.

The monks finally gave up and sold the property. After at least two more failed attempts to establish monasteries in the United States, they returned to France following Napoleon’s defeat. But their venture had left behind one enduring legacy — the great mound was now known as Monk’s Mound.

In 1831, Amos Hill built his farm house on the third terrace of Monk’s Mound and utilized the mound for agriculture. A nineteenth- century print depicts the mound thick with corn and orchards. Archaeologists in the 1960s found the remains of Hill’s house and, in the northwest corner of the third terrace, the farmer’s grave.

An 1882 sketch of Monk’s Mound by archaeologist William McAdams also shows trees growing on the terraces, but not in the orderly fashion one would expect to find in an orchard. McAdams prepared and displayed a show called “The Stone Age in Illinois” for the geology and archaeology section of the Illinois Building at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The show was designed to support McAdams claim that “no other known Stone Age people went further than the Mound Builders of Illinois.” His presentation reached an international audience, and the study of Cahokia Mounds acquired a new importance.

Crowds from the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 often visited Cahokia Mounds. Photographs taken before and after the fair show that tourists literally denuded the site’s trees by taking leaves for souvenirs. Shortly after the fair, David Bushnell, an archaeologist at the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard, published a scholarly paper about Cahokia Mounds. Bushnell, a St. Louis native, had become interested in the mounds as a youth.

Cahokia Mounds continued to attract attention from scholars and the general public. Unfortunately, it also attracted the attention of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan, which had been federally outlawed in 1871, was reborn in 1915 during a rally at Stone Mountain, an imposing granite butte in Georgia. Its campaign against Blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants soon found a responsive audience and, by the 1920s, the organization was a force to be reckoned with. Like Stone Mountain, Monk’s Mound towered over the countryside. East St. Louis Klansmen decided that it would be an ideal location for a rally.

On the night of May 26, 1923, a huge cross atop Monk’s Mound was set ablaze to provide a beacon for Klansmen as they journeyed to the rally. Illinois had the fifth-largest Klan membership in the nation, with East St. Louis and St. Louis Klansmen numbering about 5,000. An estimated crowd of 12,000, many of them in full Klan regalia, attended the event, which meant that the Monk’s Mound cross burning drew Klansmen from outside the region. Following the rally, some Klansmen drove through the streets of nearby Collinsville, honking their horns to awaken — and, presumably, intimidate — residents.

The Klan held no more cross burnings at Cahokia Mounds, but such an event underscored the critical importance of protecting the site from further exploitation. In 1925, State Representative Thomas Fekete and State Senator R.E. Duvall, both of East St. Louis, introduced a bill calling for the state to purchase two hundred acres of land around Monk’s Mound. Although only 144.4 acres were actually purchased, it represented a first step toward preserving the site. Cahokia Mounds State Park had been born.

Archaeologists and other scholars were quick to note that 144.4 acres represented only a small portion of the original Mississippian site, which included over 4,000 acres that held 120 mounds. The park has been expanded to 2,200 acres over the years and now encompasses some 68 mounds. A world-class 33,000 square-foot interpretive center opened at the site in 1989.

Mississippian leader’s residence, monastery, fiery cross — the summit of Monk’s Mound has seen it all. Today, for visitors up to the climb, it’s the premier vantage point for surveying the surrounding countryside. The mound is a millennium older than the St. Louis Arch, which was constructed by the culture that eventually superseded these Native Americans. One can only speculate which monument will endure longer.


“Cahokia Mounds Tour Guide.” undated pamphlet published by the Cahokia Mounds Museum.

Carlton, John G. And Allen, William. “A charismatic chieftain — the ‘brother of the sun’ — may have presided over the sudden rise of Cahokia,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch December 12, 1999.

Chappell, Sally A. Kitt. Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Denny, Sidney, Schusky, Ernest and Richardson, John Adkins. The Ancient Splendor of Prehistoric Cahokia. Edwardsville, Illinois, 1992.

Dunphy, John J. “Sunrise at Woodhenge,” Springhouse Magazine (Volume 6, Number 6 December 1989).

— . “A winter dawn at Woodhenge celebrates the sun’s rebirth,” The [Edwardsville, IL] Intelligencer, January 23, 1997.

— . “The Folklore of Monk’s Mound,” Springhouse Magazine (Volume 15, Number 2 April 1998).

— . “The Folklore of Monk’s Mound, Part 2,” Springhouse Magazine (Volume 15, Number 3 June 1998).

— . “Monk’s Mound gives birth to the sun,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 20, 2000.

— . “Cahokia Mounds: America’s Lost Metropolis,” Springhouse Magazine,

Kimbrough, Mary. “Cahokia Mounds — A City That Time Remembered,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat February 5–6, 1983

Mink, Claudia Gellman. Cahokia: City of the Sun. Cahokia Mounds Museum Society, 1992.

Henderson, Jane. “ ‘Cool things’ coalesce at Cahokia,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 16, 2009.

Newmark, Judith. “The Wonder At Cahokia,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch August 3, 1986.

“Woodhenge.” undated pamphlet published by the Cahokia Mounds Museum.

Young, Biloine Whiting and Fowler, Melvin L. Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

John J. Dunphy’s latest book, Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials, includes interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, who apprehended and prosecuted Nazi war criminals after World War II.

Cahokia Mounds - History

Imagine an ancient Native American settlement where people built pyramids, designed solar observatories and, we must report, practiced human sacrifice.

These weren't the Maya or Aztecs of Mexico. This culture arose in the Mississippi Valley, in what is now Illinois, about 700 A.D. and withered away about a century before Columbus reached America. The ancient civilization's massive remains stand as one of the best-kept archaeological secrets in the country.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Welcome to the city of Cahokia, population 15,000.

North America was dotted in those days with villages, strung together by a loose web of commerce. An Indian trader paddling down the Mississippi River during the city's heyday between 1000 and 1150 couldn't have missed it.

Cahokia was the largest city ever built north of Mexico before Columbus and boasted 120 earthen mounds. Many were massive, square-bottomed, flat-topped pyramids -- great pedestals atop which civic leaders lived. At the vast plaza in the city's center rose the largest earthwork in the Americas, the 100-foot Monks Mound.

Around the great urban center, farmers grew crops to feed the city-dwellers, who included not only government officials and religious leaders but also skilled tradesworkers, artisans and even astronomers. The city was the center of a trading network linked to other societies over much of North America. Cahokia was, in short, one of the most advanced civilizations in ancient America.

Nature dictated that the settlement rise near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Geographers affectionately call the lowlands that hug the eastern bank of the Mississippi there the "American Bottom." This fertile strip was carved and flooded summer after summer by torrents of glacial melt-off 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.

As the glaciers receded and rivers shrank to their current size, the 80-mile-wide bottom was exposed. Native Americans who settled there after 700 A.D. considered this easy-to-till land prime real estate for growing corn, since they lacked the steel plows and oxen needed to penetrate the thick sod blanketing the surrounding prairie.

Cahokia arose from this mini-breadbasket as its people hunted less and took up farming with gusto. By all evidence, they ate well.

"Some people have referred to it as a Garden of Eden," says archaeologist John E. Kelly, who has researched the area for 26 years. But like other Cahokia scholars, Kelly hesitates to call it that because he knows the city's dark side.

Despite their town's size, Cahokians seemed to live in fear, building a high stockade around it to keep out the world. Also, the culture suffered an environmental debacle that probably spelled doom: It was utterly abandoned before Columbus ever set sail for the Americas.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
The earliest written records of Cahokia refer to the site after it had been vacant for 300 years. French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet missed the mounds in 1673 and reported finding no Indians in the area. French monks found Cahokia's mounds in the mid-1700s and later named the biggest one after themselves. But mystery still shrouded the site.

The Illini Indians in the region told Europeans that they did not know who had built the mounds. As late as this century, experts debated whether the mounds were the product of people or nature. In 1921, archaeologists erased all doubt, but learned little about who had built them.

To this day, no one knows the Cahokians' ethnicity, what language they spoke, what songs they sang or even what they called themselves. The name "Cahokia" is a misnomer. It comes from the name of a sub-tribe of the Illini who didn't reach the area until the 1600s, coming from the East.

Although Cahokia must have had a complex culture to maintain a sizable city and raise monuments that stand a millenium later, no one knows whether the mystery people's culture influenced surrounding cultures or simply stood alone.

The causes of the culture's demise are better understood, although researchers argue where its people went.

First, some context. Before Cahokia's rise, people had been living in many parts of North America for thousands of years, making a living as gatherers of edible wild plants and hunters of animal meat. More than 4,000 years ago, Indians in much of the current United States cultivated squash, sunflower and other plants to supplement wild foods. Between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, corn cultivation spread northward from Mexico, where the plant was domesticated.

As a corn-based economy grew in the fertile Mississippi Valley, providing a reliable food source all year, populations rose and villages grew. About 1000 A.D., Cahokia underwent a population explosion.

Along with corn, Cahokians cultivated goosefoot, amaranth, canary grass and other starchy seeds. Preserved seeds of these species have been found in excavations at Cahokia. Although the people farmed without the wheel or draft animals, corn production soared and surpluses may have been stored in communal granaries on the mounds.

To keep the growing populace orderly and, perhaps more important, to manage corn surpluses, Cahokia developed a ranked society with a chief and elite class controlling workers in lower classes. By the 1000s and 1100s, when mound-building began in earnest, Cahokia was a beehive of activity.

"It became this political vortex, sucking people in," says Timothy Pauketat, an anthropologist and Cahokia specialist at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
The rulers lived atop the mounds in wooden houses and literally looked down on others. They almost surely consolidated power the way leaders of many early societies did, not by hoarding but by giving away goods. Since there was no money, commerce was by barter.

Cahokians had an affinity for ornamentation, favoring beads made from sea shells collected more than a thousand miles away. These were traded extensively and probably exchanged to cement allegiances and to pacify outlying groups, several of which lived downriver. Gift-giving could have quelled tension between tribes and kept the peace, says George Milner, a Pennsylvania State University anthropologist.

Generosity also boosted status. Within Cahokia, such trading and gift-giving probably bought fealty. Ornamental items were passed from generation to generation. In the long run, people in and around the urban center grew up having a stake in perpetuating the hierarchy. Once the first few generations were in place, children grew up knowing nothing else.

"Social systems became entrenched," says William Iseminger, archaeologist and curator at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which includes the main plaza and 65 of the remaining 80 mounds.

Power and position were passed by birthright. The local caste system was similar to social arrangements seen later in other Native American groups along the Mississippi and to the southeast, generally called Mississippian cultures. It was even in evidence hundreds of years later when Spaniard Hernando de Soto led an army along the Gulf Coast in the 1540s. Indians in Mexico had such social systems, too, although no direct connections have been found between them and any Mississippians.

Meanwhile, Cahokia sat conveniently at the center of the trade network. It harbored a minor hardware industry, manufacturing hoes with flint blades and axes with shaped stone heads. Trade was extensive, but it's not as though armadas of canoes were streaming into and out of Cahokia.

Excavations at surrounding sites shows that the amount of Cahokian hardware dwindles steadily as one moves farther from the city, suggesting a fairly small radius of trade and few large trade missions to faraway places, Milner says. Still, Cahokia attracted copper from mines near Lake Superior salt from nearby mines shells from the Gulf of Mexico chert, a flintlike rock, from quarries as far as Oklahoma, and mica, a sparkling mineral, from the Carolinas.

Not all strangers were friendly traders, it seems. In the early 1100s, Cahokians built a two-mile stockade around their city, with guard towers every 70 feet. The first was double-walled. Three times over the centuries, it was rebuilt in single-walled fashion.

The mounds within probably were erected gradually at ceremonial gatherings over centuries. Cahokian pyramids contain various types of soil, some traceable to locations nearby. "It's like a layer cake with 30 or 40 layers," Pauketat says. Even though some years only a few centimeters were added, the final product was impressive.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Monks Mound required more than 14 million baskets of soil, all hauled by human workers. Its base covers 14 acres.

Many of Cahokia's original mounds were destroyed by modern farming, road building and housing developments. The remaining 80 mounds still hold many ancient secrets because archaeologists have dug into fewer than two dozen. Among these, Mound 72 stands as one of the grisliest archaeological finds in North America.

Under it were found the remains of a tall man buried about the year 1050. He died in his early 40s and was laid to rest on about 20,000 shell ornaments and more than 800 apparently unused arrows with finely made heads. Also in the grave were a staff and 15 shaped stones of the kind used for games.

"Clearly, some really important leader is buried in there," Pauketat says. Interred with him were four men with their heads and hands cut off and 53 young women apparently strangled. Their youth, 15 to 25 years, and the fact that they were all women, suggests human sacrifice. People that young did not die of natural causes in such numbers.

Nearby, researchers found more burials and evidence of a charnel house. In all, 280 skeletons were found. About 50 lay haphazardly in a single deep pit, as if tossed in without honor. Some have arrowheads in the back or were beheaded, evidence of warfare or perhaps a crushed rebellion.

"I would guess there were people around who weren't too loyal," Pauketat says.

Mound 72 has provoked considerable debate among anthropologists. Some say the four men without hands or heads represent the four cardinal directions on a compass. To others, the sacrifices evoke comparisons to Mayan and Aztec cultures. Some suspect that those thrown in a pit were objecting to the sacrifices.

No one knows. Mound 72 is the only Cahokian burial site excavated with modern archaeological care. About 20 other mounds were dug up in the 1920s, using careless methods and leaving few notes.

In any case, the huge number of people sacrificed to accompany a leader on his way to the afterlife is unparalleled north of Mexico. No other site even comes close.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
To be fair, however, Cahokians didn't spend all of their time building mounds, adorning themselves or sacrificing their neighbors. The digs that have taken place every summer since 1960 -- into garbage pits, along the stockade or at housing sites -- have revealed much else.

One of the most dramatic finds is that some Cahokians were astronomers. Outside the stockade, they built a ring of posts that, when aligned with an outer post, pointed toward the horizon at the exact spot on which the sun rises on the spring and fall equinoxes. Archaeologists dubbed this "Woodhenge," in deference to England's Stonehenge, also a solar calendar.

Instead of stone, Cahokians used red cedar posts 15 to 20 inches in diameter and about 20 feet long. Several woodhenges were built over the centuries, and the third 48-post ring has been reconstructed.

Aligned with the key post, the equinox sun appears to rise directly out of Monks Mound. Other posts aligned with sunrise on the summer and winter solstices. Why it was rebuilt several times is unclear. "Perhaps as Monks Mound got bigger, they had to build updated woodhenges," Iseminger speculates.

The leaders may have used Woodhenge to demonstrate their connection with the sun or some other mystic unknown, says Bruce Smith, director of the archaeobiology program and a curator at the Smithsonian Institution. "Through Woodhenge, and dealing with the sun, they could solidify their position as middlemen or arbiters and show the general populace how the sun moved, and predict it," he says.

That the Cahokians had time enough to build many mounds and several woodhenges comes as no shock to anthropologists. "You'd be surprised how much free time people had before industrialization," says Robert Hall, archaeologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Unfortunately, Cahokians' clever ways did not extend to wise environmental management.

As population grew, the ratio of people to arable land also rose. In the American Bottom, a small increase in water levels could have rendered much farmland useless. Wanton tree cutting along nearby bluffs caused unchecked erosion, making cropland too marshy for corn, Milner says. Worse, a global cooling trend about 1250, called the "Little Ice Age," may have hurt the growing season.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Deforestation required longer walks for firewood. Charred remains show that Cahokians burned oak and hickory in the early years but used energy-poorer soft woods later, a sign of problems, Iseminger says. The stockade alone required as many as 20,000 poles. Tree cutting certainly destroyed wildlife habitat. And how many deer would live near a concentration of 15,000 people, many armed with bows and arrows?

Quite possibly, dysentery and tuberculosis rose to epidemic proportions, since Cahokians apparently had no sanitary systems for disposing of garbage and human waste, Peter Nabokov and Dean Snow suggest in their book, America in 1492.

Meanwhile, city life could have grown tiresome, archaeologists say. People resent having their lives managed by others. Other Mississippian cultures developed ranked societies similar to that of Cahokia. None stayed together more than 150 years, Pauketat says.

For Cahokians, the grass evidently looked greener elsewhere. Buffalo, arriving from the West, reached areas just across the Mississippi in the 1200s and 1300s, Hall says. The choice may have been to compete with thousands of neighbors for firewood and eat corn and fish or to live differently, following the migratory buffalo and eating red meat.

All of these "centrifugal forces," in whatever combination, grew strong enough to fling people away from Cahokia over time, Smith concludes. Their society "devolved" and gradually returned to small-village life, becoming archaeologically invisible because they left too little evidence to be traced 700 years later.

By the 1200s, as the city's population and influence dwindled, chiefdoms downriver began to grow. Their threat may have been what spurred Cahokians to build the stockade, and they may have competed for trade goods that had been flowing into Cahokia.

A larger question lingers: What is Cahokia's rightful place in the history of North America? Two theories emerge, illustrated in part by the mounds.

Many Native American cultures built mounds. Until 1000, earthworks typically were burial or effigy mounds. Flat-topped temple mounds, with buildings on them, came into vogue with Cahokia. Mounds often were the village centerpiece and have become their builders' signature across time. Cahokia's mounds were bigger than the rest, but did this make them greater people?

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Some argue that Cahokians are like John Hancock, whose moment of glory came 600 years after theirs. To them, the Cahokian signature was, like Hancock's, simply bigger than the rest, but not representative of anything more advanced or creative. "I don't think Cahokia was qualitatively different" from these other settlements," Smith says. "It was the same framework of organization, writ large."

Others, including Hall, suspect that Cahokia practiced a "cultural hegemony," meaning that it had a cultural influence beyond areas it could control militarily. It likely had profound impacts on people up and down the river.

"It challenged the world view of people in the boonies," Pauketat says. "They'd come to Cahokia and . . . wow."

For Native Americans, none of whom can claim Cahokia as their own tribe, the site needs no interpretation or explanation, says Evelyne Voelker, a Comanche and executive director of the American Indian Center of Mid-America in St. Louis. "We've never questioned that somehow there is ancestry there," she says.

Voelker performs purification blessings at Cahokia when archaeologists begin a dig. She takes cedar incense -- cedar mixed with pine sap and sage -- and sprinkles it on a fire before spreading the sweet smoke with an eagle feather. "It's a prayer to beg pardon for things being disturbed," she says.

Every September, Native Americans have a celebration at Cahokia featuring intertribal dance and music. They treat the site with considerable pride and reverence.

Voelker is not big on archaeologists, saying, "I don't particularly like their line of work." But she and they share an awe of the place that once was one of the greatest cities in North America.


    - TripAdvisor traveler reviews - 43 Places
  • Elliot M. Abrams, Emergence Of Moundbuilders: Archaeology Of Tribal Societies In Southeastern Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2005).
  • E. Barrie Kavasch, The Mound Builders of Ancient North America (iUniverse, 2003).
  • Maureen Korp, The Mound Builders: Mysteries of the Ancient Americas (Reader's Digest, 1986).
  • Maureen Korp, Sacred Art of the Earth: Ancient and Contemporary Earthworks (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997).
  • Maureen Korp, Sacred Geography of the American Mound Builders (Edwin Mellen Pr, 1990).
  • George R. Milner, The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America (Thames & Hudson, 2005).
  • Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  • Robert Silverberg, Mound Builders of Ancient America (Graphic Society, 1968).
  • Susan Woodward and Jerry McDonald, Indian Mounds of the Middle Ohio Valley: A Guide to Mounds and Earthworks of the Adena, Hopewell, Cole, and Fort Ancient People (McDonald and Woodward, 1986). - here on Sacred Destinations

Cahokia (town not mounds)

Cahokia (not to be confused with the ancient prehispanic metropolis – Cahokia Mounds) was founded in 1698-99 by French priests from the Seminary of Foreign Missions. They were known as Seminarians and were not Jesuits (such as those who founded Kaskaskia). In fact, the two religious orders competed with each other for converts and position in the pays des Illinois. The Seminarians established the Mission of the Holy Family in Cahokia and the tribes they sought to engage were the Tamaroa and the Cahokia (hence the name the French town received). Cahokia (along with Peoria and Prairie du Rocher) is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the State of Illinois. And, indeed, unlike the Kaskaskia who migrated to the peninsula between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in 1703 where the town of Kaskaskia was created, the Tamaroa and Cahokia Indians were already in the area that became Cahokia by the latter quarter of the seventeenth century (i.e., before the Seminarians arrived).

It is a point of historical interest that continues the unfortunate confusion of identical names that in 1735 the Seminarians actually did establish a mission and Native American village on the broad first terrace of the largest prehispanic mound at the ancient site of Cahokia Mounds. That mound is known in the archaeological literature as Monks Mound for this reason. We do not deal the Seminarian mission atop Cahokia Mounds here but refer readers to this key reference work: The River L’Abbe Mission. A French Colonial Church for the Cahokia Illini on Monks Mound, by John A. Walthall and Elizabeth D. Benchley. Studies in Illinois Archaeology No. 2, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 1987.

Rather, here we are concerned with the French town called Cahokia. As at Kaskaskia, the mission itself sought to have the Indians living there so as to convert and acculturate them. The French settlers lived nearby in a separate village. Unlike Kaskaskia, which from its origin was nevertheless, hybrid due to intermarriage, we have the impression from the secondary literature (i.e., not the original French language documents in archives) that Cahokia was a more separated social environment.

Most of the population of French Cahokia was French Canadian by birth. The town grew as indicated by reports of visitors, in censuses, and on maps. In 1723 there may have been a few as five dwellings. There were at least 126 habitants (the agricultural settlers) by 1752. Population had grown to at least 300 by 1770. An often reproduced map by a visiting British officer and cartographer shows Cahokia ca. 1770 (below). In his definitive study of several French Colonial domestic sites, archaeologist Robert F. Mazrim of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey has detected that various original streets of French Cahokia are overlain by modern streets.

Importantly, in 1799 the Church of the Holy Family was built.
Church was constructed in the characteristic post-on-sill technique of the French heritage and that church is still standing in Cahokia. It is the longest continuous Roman Catholic community in the United States.

Today two other important buildings also remain in Cahokia: the Old Cahokia Courthouse and the Nicholas Jarrot Mansion. Use the story map to see all three locations:

Old Cahokia Courthouse. This building, as is evident from its architecture, was originally a French dwelling. It was constructed as such ca. 1740 (and thus before the Church of the Holy Family). After the Illinois territory was acquired by the British as an outcome of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the British then lost that territory to the new United States. As such, in 1793 the originally French dwelling became a courthouse and center of activity concerned with the Northwest Territory. Its greatest claim to fame is probably its association with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Between December 1803 until May 1804 they used the courthouse as the base from which to collect information pertinent to the upcoming Corps of Discovery exploration, to meet with a wide range of people, to accumulate supplies, to maintain contact with Camp DuBois (the winter camp) and as the address from which correspondence was maintained with President Thomas Jefferson (the building was also an official U.S. post office). There is an outstanding interpretive center inside the building. It is managed by the National Park Service as part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Nicholas Jarrot was an important French citizen living in Cahokia, a frontier town at the time. Lewis and Clark met him in Cahokia and it was he who let their men camp on the du Bois River (across from the mouth of the Missouri River) in the winter preceding the expedition of discovery. At the time of that encounter, Jarrot had not yet built the mansion. But he already was very wealthy as a landowner, land speculator, fur trader, lawyer, county judge – basically, he had his hand in everything happening for miles around Cahokia. The Historic Preservation Division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources describes the Federal-style mansion this way: “a two-story brick structure with a full cellar. The first floor is composed of a central hall, flanked on each side by two rooms. The second floor contains a ballroom with attached drawing room, a stair hall, and two other rooms. … In 1974 the Jarrot Mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places.” Jarrot was very pro-American and it has often been noted that he chose a Federal architecture for his home rather than the French Colonial style of the area.

We are pleased to offer an interview with Brad Winn, Site Superintendent of the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in which he covers the sites and time periods discussed on this webpage – explaining French Cahokia, the Holy Family Church, the Cahokia Courthouse and Nicholas Jarrot and his dealings with Lewis and Clark following his role in the French Period. CLICK ON THE LINK:

The seal of the contemporary city of Cahokia reflects its rich history:

Cahokia High School in Cahokia adopted the name “Comanches” for its school identity the way that the Urbana High School uses Tigers and Champaign Central High School uses Maroons (after a bear) and universities have mascots or symbolic figures to represent themselves (University of Michigan Wolverines, University of Wisconsin Badgers, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish).
The choice of name by Cahokia High School is very interesting because the Indian profile head logo (see below) reveals an awareness of the nearby eponymous archaeological site, Cahokia Mounds. The Indian name chosen – Comanche – has no bearing on any Native American people who lived in Illinois being, instead, the name of an Indigenous people of the Great Plains. Moreover, at the college level and in U.S. professional sports Native American logos/names have disappeared or been called upon to disappear (most recently, the Washington Redskins:
The Mythic Mississippi Project is supported by the University of Illinois System and our university underwent a prolonged debate – indeed, a veritable battle – over the Chief Illiniwek mascot that for eighty years represented the University of Illinois in Big Ten sports events until “retired” in 2007 as a fundamental cultural appropriation and racist stereotype. It is obvious that “Comanche” is a cherished tradition at Cahokia High School. We think that the symbol offers a basis for a meaningful multi-pronged educational lesson and for that reason include it on this webpage. We are currently preparing a lesson plan that will be offered to the high school.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Professor Helaine Silverman thanks her former student, McKenna Tutor, and her mother, Mrs. Alison Tutor, for valuable help in Cahokia.

Watch the video: Cahokia Mounds Illinois 2021 (August 2022).

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