Curious Louis: City’s last surviving Mississippian mound, Sugar Loaf, to be preserved this summer
Kyle Reynolds drives by St. Louis’ last surviving mound, Sugar Loaf Mound, located at 4420 Ohio in south St. Louis, all the time yet he didn’t know about its existence until he read about it online. Still baffled by its significance, he turneed to St. Louis Public Radio’s Curious Louis project to ask: What's the current situation with Sugar Loaf Mound? I know it's now owned by the Osage Nation, but what are their current plans?
On Thursday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Dr. Andrea Hunter, the director of the Osage Nation’s Historic Preservation Office, and Dr. John Kelly, archaeologist and senior lecturer at Washington University, joined the program to answer Reynolds’ questions.
Sugar Loaf Mound was made by the same Mississippian culture that constructed the Cahokia Mounds across the river in Collinsville, more than 1,000 years ago. The Osage Nation (now based in Oklahoma) consider themselves the descendants of the civilization. The Osage Nation bought the Sugar Loaf property in 2009.
Hunter said that the group had struggled to obtain finances to begin preservation efforts, but that the tribe is now preparing to move a tree sitting on the property and, this summer, will demolish the house that sits on top of the mound. She also said that next fall the tribe would invest in better radar technology that would allow them to see what lies underneath the earth of the mound without disturbing it.
Here are some of the questions we answered about the mound:
Why is it called Sugar Loaf Mound?
“It was a name applied back in the 18th century because they looked like the loaves, the way in which sugar was transported as a commodity,” Kelly said. “They looked like gum drops or loaves of sugar and St. Louisans gave the names to three mounds in the area. I refer to the one across the river by Dupo as Sugar Loaf-West and one to the northeast of Cahokia Mounds as well. [Mississippians] had a good sense of that landscape, to look and see the mounds on the landscape.”
What was it used for?
“We have had very little investigations done on the mound,” Hunter said. “Dr. Kelly has spent some time investigating the history of it, but as far as knowing exactly what it is used for it can only be compared to similar structures on the east side of the river in the Cahokia and East St. Louis area. We can only do comparisons because there have been no formal excavations at the mound.”
“We assume it is a mortuary or burial mound based on work elsewhere in the region,” said Kelly. “An individual mound like that is presumably capping the burial of an individual or other individuals at the base. That’s the model that we would use. No one has, to our knowledge, dug into it. It’s a big undertaking and unless there’s a real reason where something will be destroyed and we have no choice, we generally, out of respect to native peoples try to avoid excavation. We have to quell our curiosity and be patient and let the Osage take the lead on what they want to do with it.”
Why is preservation important?
“When we learn of our history and gather this information about where we were on the landscape and try to retrace our history and learn about such instances in the St. Louis area, it is devastating to hear and realize that we were associated with a culture that created such architecture and to know that the next wave of folks that came into that area had no respect for those mounds,” Hunter said. “Whether they understood what they were or not, it is devastating to know they were disregarded and destroyed.
What does the Osage Nation plan to do with the property?
In addition to the removal of the tree and house from the property and radar investigations, the Osage Nation has other plans to coordinate with the mound’s preservation.
“At the current time, what we’re considering is creating an interpretive center in the local area,” Hunter said. “We have different plans according to what we’re able to acquire in that region right there where the mound is located. There are a couple of other private properties north of the lot the tribe owns. Further, at the end of Ohio St., there’s a MODOT property which is currently up for sale and we’ve been in negotiations with MODOT trying to purchase that property. I’m not sure we’ll be successful, they’re asking a lot for the property.
“What we had intended to do was create an interpretive center with however much property we could acquire and use that as an education center for the local community but also for the Osage community. We periodically bring community members to the St. Louis area to bring them to the sacred sites that are associated with the tribe and we’d use it as an educational forum. We’d see it as useful if we had a center to bring them to and share our knowledge of the region.”
Where does the budget for such projects come from? How can preservation of the mound be supported?
“We only have through our tribe just a limited amount of revenue that feeds into the government,” Hunter said. “We have to seek additional sources for projects like Sugar Loaf Mound. What we’ve just recently done is work with our Osage Nation Foundation to set up a fund for Sugar Loaf Mound. If folks are interested in helping our efforts, they can contact me and we are certainly welcoming the St. Louis community to help us in this effort.”
You can contact Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other interesting information we learned:
- There were once far more than 39 mounds in St. Louis. The main group was just north of the Gateway Arch, where the Rams stadium and complex was proposed to go. That had a large burial mound associated with it that was 40 feet high and had religious significance. Although the city undertook efforts to preserve that mound as a park, efforts failed and, eventually it was torn up and hauled away for fill dirt.
- There were once 14 mounds in Forest Park. They were mapped and excavated. One group was near to the Saint Louis Art Museum. There were human remains associated with them. The other mounds were below the Art Museum where the golf course is. There is no evidence there are any others still there.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.