Mound City

Before the Arch became the trademark of the 'Gateway to the West,' St. Louis answered to the nickname of "Mound City." 

St. Louis' archeological heritage

"The St. Louis area has some of the best archeological sites in the country because of its location at the confluence of several major rivers."

(Joe Hart, Archaeological Research Center, quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2000)

Sugar Loaf Mound

Where once dozens of mounds dotted the St. Louis landscape, today only Sugar Loaf Mound remains.  Viewed by motorists on I-55, it rises at the foot of Ohio Street, between the highway and the river. 

A house built atop the mound in 1928 kept the mound from being scraped out of existence.

(Drawing of Sugar Loaf Mound)

While few these days could explain the origins of that name, there are still better than half-a dozen Mound City commercial listings in the local phone book.  Mounds are an important part of St. Louis's history and image.

Cahokia mounds : America's first city
William Iseminger.
Charleston, SC : History Press, 2010.
  1. Includes bibliographical references (p. [159]-174).
  2. Introduction -- Before Cahokia -- A city of mounds -- "Stupendous" monks mound -- The mysteries of mound 72 -- The grand plaza and its mounds -- Other plazas, mounds, and structures -- The intriguing woodhenges -- Defending Cahokia : the stockade/palisade -- The demise of Cahokia.
Cahokia : ancient America's great city on the Mississippi
Timothy R. Pauketat.
New York, N.Y. : Viking, 2009.
Almost a thousand years ago, a Native American city flourished along the Mississippi River near what is now St. Louis. Anthropologist Pauketat reveals the story of Cahokia, the city and its people, as uncovered by the dramatic digs of American corn-belt archaeologists.
Bootheel Man : a novel
by Morley Swingle.
Cape Girardeau, MO : Southeast Missouri State Univ Press 2007.
Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians
Timothy R. Pauketat.
Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2004.
"The ancient capital of Cahokia and a series of lesser population centers developed in the Mississippi valley in North America between the eighth and fifteenth centuries A.D., leaving behind an extraordinarily rich archaeological record. Cahokia's gigantic pyramids, finely crafted artifacts, and dense population mark it as the founding city of the Mississippian civilization, formerly known as the 'mound builders'. As Cahokian ideas and objects were widely sought, a cultural and religious ripple effect spread across the mid-continent and into the South. In its wake, population migrations and social upheavals transformed social life along the ancient Mississippi River. In this important new survey, Timothy Pauketat outlines the development of Mississippian civilization, presenting a wealth of archaeological evidence and advancing our understanding of the American Indians whose influence extended into the founding moments of the United States and lives on today."--BOOK JACKET.
Cahokia : mirror of the cosmos
Sally A. Kitt Chappell ; William R. Iseminger and John E. Kelly, consultants.
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2002.
At the turn of the last millennium, a powerful Native American civilization emerged and flourished in the American Midwest. By A.D. 1050 the population of its capital city, Cahokia, was larger than that of London. Without the use of the wheel, beasts of burden, or metallurgy, its technology was of the Stone Age, yet its culture fostered widespread commerce, refined artistic expression, and monumental architecture. The model for this urbane world was nothing less than the cosmos itself. The climax of their ritual center was a four-tiered pyramid covering fourteen acre rising a hundred feet into the sky--the tallest structure in the United States until 1867. This beautifully illustrated book traces the history of this six-square-mile area in the central Mississippi Valley from the Big Bang to the present. Chappell seeks to answer fundamental questions about this unique, yet still relatively unknown space, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. How did this swampy land become so amenable to human life? Who were the remarkable people who lived here before the Europeans came? Why did the whole civilization disappear so rapidly? What became of the land in the centuries after the Mississippians abandoned it? And finally, what can we learn about ourselves as we look into the changing meaning of Cahokia through the ages? To explore these questions, Chappell probes a wide range of sources, including the work of astronomers, geographers, geologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists. Archival photographs and newspaper accounts, as well as interviews with those who work at the site and Native Americans on their annual pilgrimage to the site, bring the story up to the present. Tying together these many threads, Chappell weaves a rich tale of how different people conferred their values on the same piece of land and how the transformed landscape, in turn, inspired different values in them-cultural, spiritual, agricultural, economic, and humanistic.

The mounds in question were constructed by native Americans about 1000 years ago.  People of the Mississippian culture shaped long-lasting earthen structures on both sides of the Mississippi River. 

Monk's Mound, covering 16 acres in Illinois, rises higher than a hundred feet, and was the largest man-made structure in North America.  West of Monk's Mound were placed the cedar poles of Woodhenge, carefully aligned to serve as an astronomical calendar. 

Both of these Mounds are part of Illinois' Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, located just eight miles from downtown St. Louis.

The site of St. Louis was dotted with smaller mounds, enough to give the city its popular name.  The greatest concentration of mounds was in the St. Louis Mound Group, just north of Laclede's Landing.  In the 19th Century, there were better than twenty mounds to be found within the city limits.

The mounds served a variety of purposes.  Archeologists have found ancient burials as well as the remains of temple structures. 

The opportunity of closely examining the St. Louis mounds is gone-they have been leveled and built over, turned into bricks, and turned into landfill. 

In the time-honored pattern of human settlement, modern St. Louis is built over the remains of its past.  Warehouses, factories, and skyscrapers rise from the very sites that were important in different ways to an earlier set of inhabitants, a millennium ago. 

Where people would look to the mounds, we now look to the Arch, but the city endures.

Article by: St. Louis Public Library staff