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A new era for Sugarloaf Mound

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2010 - About this time last year, an extraordinary real estate deal went down in St. Louis.

To look at the advertisement, the two bedroom, two bath, white brick bungalow at 4420 Ohio Street wasn't anything flashy -- just 900 square feet on a little more than half an acre -- but it did boast "some of the most spectacular and active views of the Mississippi River and its barges."

More exceptional, though, was this brief note: "Circa: Prehistoric." That's right: Though the dwelling at 4420 Ohio was built in 1928, the site itself has history dating to the Pre-Columbian era, sometime around 1050 A.D.

That's because the property sits at the apex of what's known as Sugarloaf Mound, the last remaining Mississippian culture platform mound in St. Louis -- formerly the Mound City.

Many St. Louisans are familiar with the Cahokia mound complex across the river near Collinsville, but the Missouri side of the river, too, used to be home to more than 40 man-made mounds, since damaged or destroyed by development.

By 1904, Sugarloaf Mound was the only one that had been left intact. In 1809, it had been used as a survey landmark as the city was incorporated. In later years, its location well above the riverfront protected it from the ravages of industrialization. In 1984, the mound was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

When it went on the market in 2008, the property had been cared for by the same owners since 1962. They understood the cultural significance of their land and had kept away looters and profit-seekers. For almost a year, they waited for a new steward to emerge.

During that time, the office of Rep. Russ Carnahan reached out to the recently createdOsage Nation Historic Preservation Office. Andrea Hunter had recently been hired as the first director of the office and soon began the process of purchasing the property in the name of the Osage Nation.

The Mound Builders and the Osage

Much evidence of early Mississippian culture has been lost since its dispersal sometime before 1400 A.D. Though the civilization had thrived for centuries, with a peak population, circa 1100, of 15,000 to 20,000 people, most indications of their presence in the St. Louis area have since been erased.

The first recorded mention of the Osage dates to 1673, placing them along the Osage River, but the earlier movements of the tribe are harder to pin down. Still, by studying migration stories recorded two centuries ago, among other artifacts, archaeologists and anthropologists have come to some consensus as to the origins of the tribe.

Most data suggest that the Osage are one of five tribes that make up the Dhegiha Sioux Language Subgroup, all likely descendents of one group that first migrated down the Ohio River Valley to the Mississippi. From there, four of the five subgroups moved north, against the current, to St. Louis, where they remained for some time before continuing west and dividing further still.

By comparing cultural traits of known Osage sites, including house structure, village organization, subsistence practices and diet, and iconography, researchers have concluded that the principal population of Cahokia was Dhegiha Sioux, and more specifically Osage.

There is still debate as to whether the Osage tribe built mounds -- scholars agree they did not do so in later years, when they had moved west of St. Louis -- but other aspects of archeological sites in the St. Louis area show clear commonalities with Osage practices and culture, making them the most likely descendents of the mound builders who constructed Sugarloaf.

Today, the Osage Nation is headquartered in Pawhuska, Okla., but in recent years, the tribe has sought to reconnect with its origins in Missouri, as well as other states through which their ancestors have passed.

The Future of Sugarloaf Mound

Sugarloaf Mound is conical and oblong, made up of three, stepped platforms. It stands about 40 feet high, stretches 100 feet to the north and south, and 75 feet east to west. Archeologist Melvin Fowler of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee believes it may have once been the residence of a community leader.

Today, the mound has been divided into three properties, with 4420 Ohio Street occupying the highest point. Nothing visible has taken place at 4420 since the purchase of the property last year, but Hunter and the Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office have ambitious plans for the site.

Their ultimate goal is to purchase the lower platforms, as well, remove the houses, restore the mound, and develop it as an interpretive education center where St. Louisans can learn about their city, visitors can explore Mississippian culture, and the Osage people can reconnect with their past.

St. Louis has received a grant that will be used to establish a foundation to support the preservation plan, and, in August of this year, "we're going to start actively working on the grant in terms of getting the personnel in place to start brainstorming what we actually want to do with the mounds," says Hunter. "That will be in conjunction the tribe, myself, and the personnel in the cultural resources program in the city of St. Louis."

Other local organizations and individuals have also supported the project from the beginning, including Great Rivers Greenway District, which continues to be involved.

The team will not be doing any excavations at the site, but they may use ground penetrating radar, which is non-invasive, to confirm that Sugarloaf is not a burial mound. A priority for preservation will be stabilizing the mound.

"We don't want to rush into anything," says Hunter. "We want to make sure we do this right. We've been given this opportunity and want to make sure we make the best of it."

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez is a freelance writer.