© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How St. Louis became known as 'Mound City' despite settlers razing those monuments

The site of the Big Mound Monument, center bottom, is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, next to Interstate 70 and the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge in north downtown St. Louis.
Brent Jones
St. Louis Public Radio
The site of the Big Mound Monument, center bottom, is pictured in February 2023 next to Interstate 70 and the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge in north downtown St. Louis.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville hosts about 350,000 visitors each year. Much less well-known are the sites where 27 mounds once stood on the western side of the Mississippi River, just north of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and farther west, including in Forest Park.

The mounds, carefully constructed and engineered by Indigenous people between 800-1350 CE, were destroyed by white settlers to make way for urban development during the 19th century. One monument remains in St. Louis today — Sugarloaf Mound, which is located about four miles south of the Arch between Interstate 55 and the Mississippi River.

The Sugarloaf Mound on Friday, April 14, 2023, along the riverfront near St. Louis’ Mt. Pleasant neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Sugarloaf Mound in April 2023 along the riverfront near St. Louis’ Mt. Pleasant neighborhood

In “Mound City: The Place of the Indigenous Past and Present in St. Louis,” author and historian Patricia Cleary details the history of the mounds in St. Louis, the strange paradox of local settlers claiming the moniker of “Mound City” while destroying them, and their contribution to the cultural identity of St. Louisans and Americans across the country today.

Mound destruction coincided with the active removal of Indigenous peoples from Missouri — what was once Osage, Missouria and Illini Confederation land — through coerced treaties and violence. Cleary said white settlers were faced with a conundrum: “How do you celebrate an ancient, indigenous past … at the same time that you are committing genocidal campaigns of removal against a contemporary Indigenous population?”

“There was a really horrible argument that said the mound builders were an ancient civilized people who were destroyed by the ancestors of contemporary Indigenous peoples, so that contemporary Indigenous peoples, in this framing, had the blame for destroying a civilized society,” she said. “By removing these ‘less civilized,’ contemporary Indigenous peoples, then white Americans would be able to resume the ‘mantle of civilization’ established in these areas.”

That “self-serving rationalization,” Cleary added, goes against what Indigenous historians reported at the time.

“Indigenous peoples in the early 1800s, late 1700s … were reporting to white settlers — including George Rogers Clark, William Clark's brother — about how their ancestors had built the mounds at Cahokia and elsewhere,” she said. “While Clark and some others said, ‘Yes, of course, these mounds are indigenous; there's no reason to doubt their histories’ … many white Americans discounted that knowledge.”

A daguerreotype of the "The Big Mound" is pictured circa 1854 on St. Louis' Fifth and Mound Streets.
Thomas M. Easterly
Missouri History Museum Archives
A daguerreotype of "The Big Mound" is pictured circa 1854 on St. Louis' Fifth and Mound Streets.

In her book, Cleary also details recent efforts by Native communities to reclaim Sugarloaf Mound and to restore the knowledge of Indigenous peoples’ contributions to the history and culture of St. Louis.

For Galen Gritts, a member of the Cherokee Nation and founding member of the group Alliance for Native Programs and Initiatives, change cannot come soon enough.

“I don't think that we're a multicultural sideshow to the United States. I think we're foundational to who we are, and anything that we can teach about Native Americans in the past and the present is very effective,” he said. “We didn't get the right to vote until 1924. We didn't get the right to our religion until 1978. We still serve at a higher rate than any other ethnic group — and have since the Revolutionary War — in the U.S. military. These are facts that people don't know.”

Gritts added that he’s heartened to see more willingness locally to engage with Native American culture, particularly by institutions like the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis Zoo, Washington University, St. Louis University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and University of Missouri–St. Louis.

“There's a lot of ethnobotanists, geographers, historians [and] anthropologists that are doing things,” he said. “It's exciting.”

Galen Gritts, Patricia Cleary and Osage artist Anita Fields joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss the St. Louis mounds. For more information on the mounds, conversation on the way history is taught, and advice for engaging with Native American history and contemporary culture, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or YouTube, or click the play button below.

'Mound City' explores Indigenous past and present in St. Louis

Related Event
What: “Mound City” reading with author Patricia Cleary
When: 6 p.m. July 8
Where: Left Bank Books (399 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Ulaa Kuziez, Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Stay Connected
Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.