• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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Merry Christmas–Monks’ Mound, Cahokia, Illinois


Monks' Mound, Cahokia, Illinois

Monks' Mound, Cahokia, Illinois

“I crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis, and after passing through the wood which borders the river, about half a mile in width, entered an extensive open plain. In 15 minutes, I found myself in the midst of a group of mounds, mostly of a circular shape, and at a distance, resembling enormous haystacks scattered through a meadow.

“When I reach the foot of the principal mound, I was struck with a degree of astonishment, not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids. What a stupendous pile of earth! To heap up such a mass must have required years, and the labors of thousands. It stands immediately on the bank of the Cahokia, and on the side next it, is covered with lofty trees. Were it not for the regularity and design which its manifests, the circumstances of its being on alluvial ground, and the other mounds scattered around it, we could scarcely believe it the work of human hands.” –Henry Marie Brackenridge, 1814

Humans have occupied the American Bottom for 8,000 years. Until 1,400 years ago their settlements were temporary, fishing and hunting camps and small communal residential sites. The Mississippian mound builders of Cahokia spread out across the American Bottom about 700 A.D. They cleared trees, burned the prairies, and built their mounds. Within two hundred years they had created a civilization based on farming.

The mound builders scattered across the American Bottom in small farmsteads of two or three families, settling on the high banks of sloughs that ran between the wetlands and bottomland forests and the prairies. They fished the wetlands, cut the forests for their buildings, and farmed the prairies. They traveled from place to place along streams like Cahokia Creek and Long Lake. They located their farms close to larger communities of a dozen or more families. At the center of each was a small, flat-topped mound, more if the community was larger. The Mississippians performed their civic and religious celebrations at the mounds. The largest settlements organized their mounds around a central plaza. The center of Mississippian settlement was at Cahokia with Monks Mound at its core. The Mississippians abandoned the American Bottom by 1500. The Cahokia Indians settled in the bottom in the late seventeenth century, not long before the French arrived in 1699.

Americans, who came to the American Bottom after 1785, named the wetlands that surrounded Monks Mound Cold Prairie. The 15,000-acre wet-mesic prairie, was dependent on rain for water, but slow to drain after a rain, with wet prairies and marshes occupying depressions. Though wet, Cold Prairie sat high enough in the landscape to avoid flooding from Cahokia Creek.

When the Corps of Engineers released its ecosystem restoration plans for the American Bottom, the engineers proposed restoring 525 acres of wet prairie around the perimeter of Monks Mound. To start they would drive stakes in the restored prairie, temporary perches for grassland birds until the grasses became established.

Text and Images, Copyright, 2008, Quinta Scott, All Rights Reserved

            Brackenridge, Henry Marie, Views of Louisiana, Reprint of 1814 edition, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, Inc., 1962, 187.

            U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, U.S. World Heritage Sites, “Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois,” http://www.cr.nps.gov/worldhaeritage/cahokia.htm; University of Illinois, Urbana, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Cyberia, River Web, Archives, “Mississippian,” http://archive.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Cyberia/RiverWeb/History/Cahokia/miss/settle.html; U.S. Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District, East St. Louis, Illinois and Vicinity Ecosystem Restoration and Flood Damage Reduction Project, 6-76, 8-23.


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