Have you ever been to the Cahokia Mounds, just outside St. Louis, across the Mississippi in southern Illinois? Better yet, have you ever even heard of Cahokia? I hadn’t, until I stumbled on the place with a friend on a cross-country road trip a decade ago. Which, as a history/anthropology buff, is shocking.
If there’s a more historically, or, rather, pre-historically fascinating place in the contiguous United States, I haven’t seen it.
The Cahokia Mounds, a state historic site, was essentially the capital of the Mississippian culture, an enormous pre-Columbian city that covered at least six square miles, and at its peak roughly 700 years ago may have boasted a population of as many as 40,000 people. Let that sink in a bit.
The site is home to at least 80 massive earthen mounds, though there were likely many more, on which the builders of Cahokia erected elaborate wooden structures that have been lost to time. The largest mound, Monks Mound, named for a group of trappist monks who moved onto the earthen pyramid long after the Cahokia civilization had collapsed, was 100 feet high, covered nearly 14 acres, and was built with as many as 814,000 cubic yards of dirt, all carried to the mound by hand in woven baskets. Many more structures covered the city, all of which eventually faded away over the centuries, leaving only the mounds behind.
It was the largest civilization north of Mexico’s incredible cities, a thriving metropolis in the heart of what is today America’s Midwest, and one that little covered in a typical American history class. The first mention I’d heard of Cahokia was in St. Louis, seeing the word on a road sign indicating a place of historic interest was ahead. Boy, was it.
Wandering those mounds is a breathtaking experience. An instant connection across the centuries with a people who lived in a vastly different landscape than the current inhabitants of St. Louis do. A place of extraordinary significance that 1,000 years ago attracted travelers and traders for hundreds of miles around.
UNESCO recognized Cahokia as a World Heritage Site back in 1982, but it is, rather incredibly, not a national park.
Ed Weilbacher, who sits on the board of the Heartlands Conservancy, is, along with his colleagues at the nonprofit, trying to change that. They’d lobbied President Obama to declare Cahokia a national monument before he left the presidency. When that fizzled, the group turned to trying to convince Congress to name Cahokia a national park. They bent the ear of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and they’re on board with a partnership proposal between the state and the NPS that would designate Cahokia as a national park but allow Illinois to maintain ownership of the area.
Weilbacher hopes that President Trump and Congress will recognize the importance of the site and act to bring it within the NPS fold, especially since it doesn’t represent the federal government taking ownership of a large open area.
“The national mood is not to have large expanses of land taken up. And we wouldn’t be doing that,” Weilbacher said. “Most people think of a national park being millions of acres, and we’re not that.”
National park status would go a long way toward marketing Cahokia as a world-class destination and free up funds for the site to be promoted, sharing the fascinating story with a whole lot more people than know it now. The nature of the site means maintenance is crucial to preserving its existence. The mounds will gradually erode, but more money for careful management would go along way toward ensuring an irreplaceable bit of prehistory remains where it is.