Our Native American HiSTORY: St. Louis Mounds

April 4, 2019

View of St. Louis from Illinois, with Big Mound in the background (right)

                                                               

 

Long before French or Spanish claims of founding the area, Native Americans formed St. Louis as the center of the largest civilization north of Mexico. This stretch of the Mississippi River has long been landmarked as a place to call home, long before "Louisiana was purchased".

 

No one knows what happened to the Mississippian culture, also known as "Cahokians,"  that once called St. Louis and nearby Collinsville home around 1000 AD, but by the time our settlers got here the only thing left were their giant man-made mounds. These giant formations of dirt  were believed to have been used for burials, prestige, and religious ceremonies. 

 

(Comicly, the mounds have also been attributed to a "race of pygmy mound builders", the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, the Welsch, the Toltecs, Hindus and Vikings.)

 

 

In Forest Park alone, 16 mounds were destroyed in preparation for the 1904 World's Fair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At one point in 1819, Army engineers waiting for their steamboat, "The Western Engineer", to be repaired counted "27 mounds, of various forms and magnitudes, arranged nearly in a line from north to south" from Biddle Street north to Mound and east of Broadway, north of today’s Laclede’s Landing.

 

In the early 1800s most prominent members of St. Louis built their homes on or amongst the mounds. Later teens would use the mounds to dig caves for smoking and skipping school. But somehow, in 1868, city leadership got the idea to dismantle them, their stories and the heritage in them. 

One of the most distinctive, at Ashley and Biddle streets, was known as Falling Garden because of its three-wide step terraces facing the river.

 

A mound once situated on the grounds of the Christian Brothers College in north city (now Sherman Park) was destroyed, as was another located at Jefferson and Olive streets. 

Big Mound, about the size of a football field, and 34 feet high was the largest and northernmost of the 25 mounds downtown. 

 

1852

[Missouri History Museum]

 

Remarkably, just as it was almost completely destroyed, someone remembered to take a picture.

 

 Early 1869

[Missouri History Museum]

 

During its removal, thirty-two burials were found within in two chambers, one of which was estimated to be 25 feet below the surface of the mound.

 

 

Spring 1869

[Missouri History Museum]

 

 

Reverend Stephen Denison, who was present as the mound was destroyed, wrote this:

 

"…was found to contain a sepulchral chamber, which was about 72 feet in length, 8 to 12 feet wide, and 8 to 10 feet in height; the walls sloping and plastered, as the marks of the plastering tool could be plainly seen. Twenty-four bodies were placed upon the floor of the vault, a few feet apart, with their feet towards the west, the bodies arranged in a line with the longest axis; a number of bones, beads and shell seashells, drilled with small holes, in quantities sufficient to cover each body from the thighs to the head.” 

 

 

April 1869

[Missouri History Museum]

 

Also found in the mound were:

 

"two copper earrings still in the skull of one of the skeletons. They were about 3 inches tall and 1.5 inches wide, in the form of a “long-nosed god mask,” the nose of the face protruding 6 inches." 

 

The earrings were lost after being thrown in a janitorial closet at Washington University.  Other artifacts were donated to the Academy of Science of St. Louis in 1869, (which burned that same year).

 

Per Landmarks of St. Louis:

 

Big Mound was finally destroyed completely in 1869 and its fill ignominiously sold to the North Missouri Railroad to build track alignments. 

 

During removal, thirty-two burials were found within in two chambers, one of which was estimated to be 25 feet below the surface of the mound.  In following years, the rest of the mounds in the city were gradually and purposefully destroyed.  Mounds that once dotted the landscape all along the north riverfront fell to the grader and the shovel. 

 

A mound once situated on the grounds of the Christian Brothers College in north city (now Sherman Park) was destroyed, as was another located at Jefferson and Olive streets.  In preparation for the World's Fair, two groups of mounds (totaling 16 in all) were destroyed along the River des Peres in Forest Park.  Today, the only mound left in the Mound City is Sugarloaf.  

 [https://www.landmarks-stl.org/news/the_last_standing_mound_in_mound_st_louis_city_is_for_sale/]

 

 

And from ByGone St. Louis:

 

This sketch of the largest Native American mound built in St. Louis near the time of its demolition in 1869.  It stood at least 30 feet high, was 150 feet in length, and had three terraced approaches facing the river for religious ceremonies. At one point in the 1820s, a small resort building was constructed at the top of the mound.  Its only rival in size was the mound demolished to make way for Col. John O'Fallon's mansion in the 1850s. In 1875, ten years after O'Fallon's death, his mansion burned; it was demolished completely in 1893. The site is now O'Fallon Park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo from Switzler's Illustrated History of Missouri 1541-1877 (1879)

 

[http://bygonestlouis.blogspot.com/2010/03/big-mound-1869.html]

 

 

Recently, the marker was once again moved in preparation for the new MLK Bridge. 

 

Mound Street Marker (mound remains in background)

Mound Street Marker (mound remains in background)

 

 

  

 

Mound Street leading to Marker (river in background)

 

 

 

 

 

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