Sugar Loaf Mound: History Reclaimed

The last known Mississippian Mound in the City of St. Louis is located on a bluff above the Mississippi River at the eastern end of Wyandotte Street. Dated to the year 800, the view of the mighty river from the top of Sugar Loaf Mound would have been even more splendid in ancient times than it is today. Today you have to force yourself not to look down at metal warehouses and machinery parked at the foot of the bluff. But the river beyond remains magical, continuing to mesmerize, sustain and inspire as it has since humans first inhabited the Mississippi River Valley. According to Joan Heckenberg – the only remaining resident of Sugar Loaf Mound – deer, red foxes, coyotes, wild turkey and eagles frequent the bluff.*

Originally conical in shape with an earthen step or platform on its north side, Sugar Loaf is actually taller than it appears from Interstate 55, the lower 12 feet hidden by landfill – the remnants of houses that stood along Wyandotte Street before they were demolished for construction of a highway ramp. There is a large cave beneath the mound but the entrance to it is blocked off by the landfill. Joan and her friends used to play in part of the cave as children.

Sixty-something years ago when Joan Heckenberg and her parents came to live with her grandparents in their home on the step portion of the mound, the land that descended to Broadway was planted in peach trees and inhabited by a herd of her grandfather’s goats. Before he improved it, the house was little more than a fisherman’s hut. The highway took 485 feet of his farm.

Retired riverboat Captain Adams, who leveled the top of the mound to build the one-story brick house that will soon come down, was long dead when Joan arrived at the age of six. But she remembers well his widow, Nellie. Back in the 1930’s Nellie Adams drove a horse and buggy. Always in black, with a face “as white as a sheet” little Joan Heckenberg thought she might be a witch. Nellie Adams died around 1948 when she was in her nineties.

As a child, Joan heard “the old timers” in the neighborhood recount stories about the Osage and Pawnee using the mound for smoke signals. Her favorite story (and mine) tells that after Chief Keokuk’s oldest son fell to his death as a teenager along this bluff, smoke signals were sent for days from the step of the mound, to notify other Indians of his burial ceremony.

Last summer, on July 31, 2009, representatives of the Osage Nation announced that they had purchased Sugar Loaf Mound for restoration as a heritage site. Although excavation of the mound has been limited (one revealed that the southeast side of the cave had been used as storage for explosives during the Civil War), the Osage have made it clear that no further archaeological digging will be done on the site. Tracing their lineage to the people who built the mounds, they consider the site sacred.

What was the original purpose of the earthwork that the French and Creoles of Saint Louis called “Pain de Sucre”/”Sugar Loaf” ? Its conical shape suggests that it is a burial mound. The platform step on the north suggests that it was used for ceremonial purposes and communication (for sending smoke signals). That it provided an ideal look-out several miles into the distance is clear to anyone who’s stood on its east side facing the Mississippi and the Illinois side of the river.

What will the Osage make of Sugar Loaf Mound? “There is nothing we can do to bring back what was destroyed nor is the Osage Nation attempting to recreate a modern culture or lifestyle based on what has been set aside by our elders; but the Nation can impact what happens to Sugarloaf Mound today and can help educate Osages and the citizens of St. Louis about us and where they live,” said Osage Nation Principal Chief Jim Gray.** Preliminary plans include removal of houses and creation of an interpretive center for the remains of Sugar Loaf Mound which cover three city blocks.

I anxiously await the Osages’ stories of this mound and the area that we know as St. Louis; stories reverently preserved by their oral historians.

Although numerous man-made mounds once dotted sections of Forest Park, compared with the earthworks that made up The St. Louis Mound Group and Sugar Loaf Mound, they were much more modest in scale and design. They were surveyed and excavated in the autumn of 1901 by David Ives Bushnell, Jr. of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University before the land was graded for construction of the World’s Fair of 1904.***

The most interesting of these fell into two groups: one group of seven that stood along the summit of a ridge south of the River des Peres and a second group of nine which had been constructed on the lowland along the stream. In the judgment of Bushnell these structures were not burial mounds but the ruins of earth covered lodges. The picture that we now have suggests that although the Mound Builders’ capitol stood to the east in close proximity to the Mississippi River, the population spread as far westward as the River des Peres within today’s city limits.

* I am grateful to Joan Heckenberg for kindly granting me an interview in the fall of 2008.

** “Chief Purchases Sugarloaf Mound,” Shannon Shaw, Osage News, August 14, 2009.

**PAPERS of the PEABODY MUSEUM of AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY and ETHNOLOGY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, Vol.III-No.1, THE CAHOKIA and SURROUNDING MOUND GROUPS, D. I. Bushnell, Jr. Published by the Museum, Cambridge, Mass., May, 1905. (History & Geneaology Room, Central Bldg. of the St. Louis Public Library)

© 2010 Maureen Kavanaugh

The copy & photographs on this website are the work of Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh and may not be used without the express permission of the author. Permission to reprint may be obtained by contacting: maureen@stlouiswalkingtours.com.

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About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Commentary and Criticism, Happenings, History, Recollections, St. Louis and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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