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Historian Patricia Cleary Digs Into The Long-Lost Mounds Of St. Louis

This daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly shows the last of one of the final big mounds in St. Louis as it was being destroyed in 1869.
Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis

A multitude of truncated earthworks — more commonly known as mounds — once dotted the St. Louis landscape. For the ancient Mississippian people who constructed them many centuries ago, these structures were full of meaning and purpose.

The mounds also drew the interest of European newcomers to the region long after the mounds were built. But by the late 19th century, most of these sacred Native American places had been destroyed — the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois, being a significant exception. 

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Patricia Cleary, a St. Louis native who is currently working on a book about the mounds that she plans to publish leading up to Missouri’s bicentennial celebration of statehood in 2021. Cleary’s visit came in advance of her James Neal Primm Lecture at the Missouri History Museum, set for Monday evening.

Cleary discussed what she has described as “the life, death and aftermath” of St. Louis’ ancient mounds. Within St. Louis’ current city limits, only one of the mounds remains intact to this day. 

The professor of history at California State University started by giving an overview of why so many others disappeared.

“What happened was that these mounds — which were constructed in the 11th century and thereafter, around a very formal plaza with a symmetrical lining up of mounds and some [that] were really enormous, including one the size of a football field — they were gradually encroached by St. Louis,” Cleary said, “as it spread northward along the river.”

The city of St. Louis in 1764 was just three streets deep and about a dozen blocks wide, but as it grew, ancient mounds began to be repurposed as reservoirs, platforms for homes and more.

Patricia Cleary is a professor of history at California State University and a St. Louis native.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Patricia Cleary is a professor of history at California State University and a St. Louis native.

There were some early efforts to preserve them in a kind of park area, she noted, but ultimately those efforts failed in favor of property owners and ongoing development.

“[The mounds] were recognized as ancient at the time,” Cleary said, “although there were some people who up through the 1870s and beyond continued to argue that they were natural — that they were sandbars or other natural formations that had accumulated millennia before when the Mississippi [River] was in a different place.”

Even in more recent years, she noted, contemporary humans have all too often been content to mow over these ancient earthworks.

“I think people have a hard time seeing the connections between the treatment of history and the treatment of people in the present, and they also think about improvement and progress as being more important than preservation of the past,” Cleary said. “And that’s been the case not just in St. Louis but across the country and much of the world, where ancient monuments of different cultures fall to development very quickly.”

Listen to the full conversation:

Related Event
What: Mound City: The Place of the Indian Past and Present in St. Louis
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 9, 2019
Where: Missouri History Museum’s Lee Auditorium (5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112)

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 hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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