The last remaining segment of the largest Mississippian mound in the St. Louis Group was demolished at Fifth Street (Broadway) and Mound Street in 1869.* Already broken up by streets earlier in the decade, this final blow signaled the disappearance of the western edge of the great Mississippian capitol whose center can be visited at Cahokia, Illinois in the area of downtown St. Louis.
Had it not been for a minor and fortuitous accident on the Missouri River outside of St. Louis fifty years earlier, we would have no scientific evidence or visual, for the part that what became St. Louis played in the grand design of that capitol.
In the spring of 1819 an exploratory expedition of U.S. topographical engineers under the command of Major Stephen Long left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania** with the purpose of discovering ways to make the Missouri River more navigable, a goal that two hundred years hence remains problematic.
Shortly into the Missouri River above St. Louis however, the steamboat “Western Engineer,” the first to ascend the Missouri, experienced a wreck and had to return to St. Louis for repairs. While waiting for the work to be completed two enterprising members of the team surveyed what they considered to be a remarkable collection of earthworks just north of the town. The result was the only complete survey and map ever made of the most extensive collection of Mississippian mounds on the west bank of the river – known since that time as “The St. Louis Mound Group.”
According to T.R. Peale, who came across an unpublished map of the survey in an old portfolio four decades later, when he was Chief Examiner in the U.S. Patent Office, “While this expedition was stopping at St. Louis to repair the steamer, in June 1819, the late Mr. Thomas Say, also one of the expedition, and myself made a survey of the ancient mounds then in the vicinity of the city . . . The following notes were made at the time and published by Mr. Say.”
“Tumuli and other remains of the labors of nations of Indians that inhabited this region many ages since are remarkably numerous about St. Louis. Those tumuli immediately northward of the town and within a short distance of it are twenty-seven in number, of various forms and magnitudes, arranged nearly in a line from north to south.” **
Titian Ramsey Peale was nineteen years old when he became part of Long’s expedition up the Missouri River into the Rocky Mountains. The youngest and sixteenth child of American naturalist and painter, Charles Wilson Peale, Titian would himself become a renowned artist, naturalist, entomologist and photographer. Three years before this expedition, Peale had provided drawings for Thomas Say’s AMERICAN ENTOMOLOGY, published in 1816. Thanks to Titian Peale the survey map of the St. Louis Mound Group was rescued from oblivion and published in 1862.**
Although Say and Peale made their measurements of the St. Louis Mounds with simple compass and measuring tape they are considered quite accurate. The article cited in the second footnote below proceeds with an enumeration the St.Louis Mounds, their descriptions and specifications. Among these were two mounds named by the French and Creoles of St. Louis: the parallelogramic, three-tiered “Falling Garden” and “La Grange de Terre” (“The Earthen Barn”), the largest mound in the complex and elongated-oval in shape. The latter is commonly referred to as “The Big Mound,” for which Mound Street is named.
The survey map can be found in both CAHOKIA: CITY of the SUN: PREHISTORIC URBAN CENTER in the AMERICAN BOTTOM by Claudia G. Mink and BEYOND the FRONTIER: A HISTORY of ST. LOUIS to 1821 by Frederick Hodes, Ph.D. It reveals that after moving in a line northward from the northern bastion of the stockade fence of Fort San Carlos, along the second tier of limestone bluffs at St. Louis, the St. Louis Mound Group then moved west forming an irregular circle before continuing north again.
In studying this map one begins to appreciate the vision and skill of the humans who raised these mounds. Having spent hours myself poring over this map, the erroneous statement that I made in the documentary tour I created of “Market Street, the Oldest Street in St. Louis”, that the mound complex north of today’s Laclede’s Landing consisted of fifteen earthworks, haunts me. They totaled twenty-seven, indicating a population on this side of the river in the thousands.
We may never know why the Mississippians configured the western fringe of their great capitol as they did they did nor completely understand the sacred place the earthworks they constructed played in their view of the world. We can virtually assemble the results of archaeological digs and speculate as to their significance. But that is all.
Such an enormous part of our history, those of us who inhabit this riverside prairie, has been lost to us. In order to have a full sense of our own place in history and of the future we can fashion in this place, we must restore and reconstruct in some fashion what has been lost – so that we can appreciate and learn from it; so that we, too, can dream big and not make the same mistakes that led to the demise of the Mound Builders.
“Cote Brilliante,” which stood along a present-day street of the same name and which the French called “Shining Hill” because the sun reflected off of it in such a splendid way, stood further west – outside the “The St. Louis Mound Group.”
“Pain de Sucre” (“Sugar Loaf Mound”) atop which retired river boat Captain Adams later built a one-story brick house, remains several miles south of the now vanished St. Louis Mound Group. Sugar Loaf and the mounds in Forest Park will be the subject of my last blog in this series.
* “Atop the Big Mound, at Broadway and Mound Street, 1852”, HISTORIC PHOTOS OF ST. LOUIS, text and captions by Adele Heagney and Jean Gosebrink, Turner, Publishing Company, Nashville, TN, 2007 & ST. LOUIS THEN AND NOW, Elizabeth McNulty, Thunder Bay Press, San Diego, CA, 2000.
** “Ancient Mounds at St. Louis, Missouri, in 1819”, T.R. Peale, ANNUAL REPORT of the BOARD OF REGENTS OF THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, WASHINGTON: Government Printing Office, 1862.
The portrait above of American entomologist, Thomas Say is in the public domain at wikipedia.com.
© 2010 Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh