Welcome to Mound City!

12, December 2013

On February 14, 2014, the Missouri History Museum will commemorate the 250th anniversary of St. Louis with 250 in 250, an exhibit that tells the history of the city through 50 people, 50 moments, 50 images, 50 places, and 50 objects. Big Mound is one of the 50 places featured in the exhibit. Our volunteer, Caoimhe, took a look at the many mounds that were built in what is now the St. Louis area.

postcardMound City. Lithograph, ca. 1873. Missouri History Museum.

Welcome to Mound City, Missouri!

This lithograph, produced around 1873, shows St. Louis as it then appeared, with its long-held nickname “Mound City.” A quick scan of the image, however, reveals an unquestionably flat city, completely devoid of any mounds.

The St. Louis area was the home of many Native American peoples. The most lasting monuments that they built were the mounds—great heaps of earth expertly crafted into flat, conical, or wedge-topped shapes. Some of these were burial mounds, and some were the homes of the elites of the mound-building cultures.

As a student of archaeology in Ireland, I was fascinated by the mounds at Cahokia, just across the river in Illinois, and made sure to visit soon after my arrival in the U.S. Even with my pale skin in 100-degree heat, the climb to the top of Monks Mound, the largest mound in the Cahokia complex, was worth it for the view. Over to the west, the skyline of St. Louis, framed by the Gateway Arch, was just visible. Thinking back to how it must have looked several hundred years ago, I was struck by how the mounds, which were dotted all over the area, would have been visible from this perch, high above the plains.

When Auguste Chouteau first set his boots on the bank of the Mississippi at St. Louis, there were at least 27 mounds in the immediate vicinity, with many more throughout the area (in preparation for the 1904 World’s Fair, 16 mounds were destroyed within Forest Park alone). This quickly earned the newly founded village, and later town, the moniker “Mound City.” Throughout the 19th century, these mounds were part of the geographical fabric of the city, although they were destroyed one by one by a growing population eager for land.

moundsThe Big Mound, ca. 1852, and during its destruction, ca. 1869. Missouri History Museum.

The largest mound in this particular set of 27 (known as the St. Louis Mound Group) was destroyed in 1869. Known as both the Big Mound and Grange de la Terre (Barn of Earth), this mound was a large, oval-shaped, flat-topped mound, measuring 30 feet in height. Luckily, pictures were taken of the event, giving us a small glimpse of how monumental this mound was. Today a small rock pinpoints the location of this lost mound, at the corner of Broadway and Mound Street.

Sugar Loaf MoundSugar Loaf Mound, September 2012. Used under Creative Commons License, courtesy of Parker Botanical.

Today, only one mound remains in the St. Louis area: Sugarloaf Mound, off Highway 55. Its survival is primarily due to the private residence that was built on top of it. When the site was put on sale in 2009, it was bought by the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe now based in Oklahoma. At the time of the arrival of the Europeans to Missouri, the Osage were the dominant Natives in the area, but they were moved to Kansas and later to Oklahoma in a series of treaties with the U.S. government in the early 19th century. (An Osage ceremonial lance will be featured in the 250 in 250 exhibition.) In March of 2013, a group from the Osage Nation made their way to visit the site in St. Louis, which they plan to maintain as a sacred place for their tribe.

—Caoimhe Ni Dhonaill, MHM volunteer

For more information about the removal of Native American peoples from Missouri, see the most recent edition of Gateway, the magazine of the Missouri History Museum, available for purchase at the Museum gift shop.

Another interesting story about the Osage in Missouri can be found here.