Cahokia Mounds, at its height, was one of the greatest cities in the world. In fact, in 1250 A.D. the area was more populated than London. It was the largest city in the present-day United States until Philadelphia’s population grew to 30,000 in 1800. Come learn the story of this civilization that thrived in the Collinsville, Illinois, area.
In this area around present-day St. Louis, the Mississippian culture maintained a highly structured community with a complex agricultural and political system. They raised crops, traded with other native cultures, and created a complex mound community where public gatherings and ceremonies took place. My husband and I were fascinated when we visited on November 1 to see this history in person. Here’s why you need to go, too.
1. It’s Easy To Access
The address for the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is 30 Ramey Street, Collinsville, Illinois. You can road trip to Collinsville, fly into the St. Louis airport, or use the smaller Mascoutah, Illinois MidAmerica St. Louis Airport. However you choose to travel to Cahokia Mounds, the site does not disappoint, and it’s easy to access.
2. You’ll Enjoy The Cahokia Mounds Visitor Center
A great place to begin your journey is at the Cahokia Mounds visitor center. Right off the bat, they arm you with helpful information that can make a difference in your visit. At the visitor center, you can pick up a trail map and learn about self-guided and guided tours. Before hitting a tour, read the brochure for helpful information. You can obtain a free cassette tour at the lobby information desk. I was impressed to learn that the tapes come in 13 languages. Guidebooks in 11 different languages are available for the cost of $1.
iPod tours can also be rented for $3 each. The time you take on a trail can be long or short depending on what trail you choose. Trails vary from a very short mile or two-mile walk to a 10-mile trek. However you choose to interact with information about the mounds, note that while exploring the site, most trails are easy, but the walk up Monk’s Mound requires a 100-foot climb up 156 steps, which is more physically demanding.
We chose the short trails around the visitor center. I enjoyed the leisurely stroll imagining the history of the mounds long ago after learning so much about them inside the center.
Inside the visitor center, you’ll also find an Interpretive Center Guide offering details about the layout of the center itself. We also found a Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site brochure. An amazing quote is on the back of this brochure that tells so much about this place: “As the largest prehistoric Indian site north of Mexico, Cahokia Mounds covered about 4,000 acres and included at least 120 mounds. The State of Illinois now protects 2,200 acres of the central portion of the site and 72 of the 80 remaining mounds. The site was named a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1965, and in 1982, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Cahokia Mounds a World Heritage Site for its significance in the prehistory of North America.”
Inside the visitor center, Keith and I took time to view what life was like for the prehistoric people who lived here. Families worked together grinding corn, watching children, and doing the routine chores that it took to prepare meals and build houses. The homes were log structures on pole frames with thatched roofs. The thatched roofs were comprised of prairie grass thatching. The walls are covered with layers of woven mats. Corn seemed to be the mainstay in the food chain.
Pro Tip: When on the trails, take time to read the Interpretive Center Tract information for details.
3. The History Of Cahokia Mounds Will Fascinate You
The first Indians to arrive in the area according to the Cahokia Mounds brochure were Woodland Indians. In the Visitor’s Center, you can see how they lived in small villages along Cahokia Creek and the surrounding area, as they hunted, gathered plants, and cultivated crops.
It is interesting to note the way the mounds were used by the Mississippian culture that arrived around 1000 A.D. Note how the Mound Builders created mounds from earth dug from “borrow pits” with stone and wood tools and was then transported in baskets on people's backs. Today, borrow pits can still be seen on site when you tour.
When viewing the mounds, note that there are different types, including rectangular mounds where ceremonial buildings and residences were built and where ceremonial events took place. There were also conical and ridgetop mounds where important people were buried. The Mississippian Indians set down roots and grew crops including corn, squash, and seed-bearing plants. They supported large populations with hunting and fishing and built a permanent community. The villages and the way they live are shown in the Visitor’s Center so you can visualize when you see the mounds.
Note when you look at Monks Mound that this flattop Mound was the center of life for the Cahokia Indians. This Mound is the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the Americas. It contains 22 million cubic feet of earth. The base covers 14 acres and rises to 100 feet. Monks Mound is also famous because it was named for the French Trappist monks that lived on a nearby mound from 1809 to 1813. They farmed the terraces on the Mound. Monks Mound is the Mound that is most visible. Reach the top by taking the 156 steps to the top of the mound.
Use your map to check out another famous Mound, Mound 72. This ridge-topped mound is a burial mound that contained 300 ceremonial graves, mostly those of sacrificed young women. On top of the deposits were an elite man and woman in their 20s with marine shell disc beads formed around them in the shape of a raptor bird.
Another highlight of Cahokia Mounds is the Stockade, a log wall that was built for defense and as a social divider. A portion of the Stockade can be viewed near Monks Mound. The wall separated sacred areas, and perhaps the more elite of the groups. This wall was rebuilt four times from 1175 to 1275 A.D. It’s estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 logs were required for each wall!
Woodhenge is also an important part of the story of Cahokia. A reconstruction of Woodhenge -- wooden posts placed in the ground at specific intervals that allowed the people to mark the first day of different crop seasons -- can be viewed near Monks Mound. It includes a central observation post and 48 perimeter posts. In addition to helping determine the changing seasons, Woodhenge marked ceremonial dates.
4. Uncovering Cahokia’s Story Makes For A Memorable Trip
Cahokia’s story began to change around 1200 A.D., and by the mid-1300s, Cahokia was almost abandoned. The conclusion of the exhibition at the visitor center explains that climate change may have been one cause for the area’s population decline. Other reasons for the disappearance of the people may be depletion of resources, disease, or political changes, but it is truly a mystery.
While Cahokia is called such, note that this name is not a tribute to the mound-building Indians, but is derived from the language of the Illiniwek tribe that arrived later and lived in the area in the 1600s.
Historical records show that the mounds were first known to English-speaking European Americans as Cantine Mounds, and articles about archeological finds here were published as early as 1811. In 1844, G.W. Feathersonaugh published an illustration of Monks Mound in his book Excursion through the Slave States. Dr. Charles Rau from the Smithsonian was the first to establish evidence of the occupation of Cahokia, which he did as early as 1860.
It was not until the early 1920s that the first professional archaeologist studied the site. Through digs and earthen cores, they confirmed that the mounds were manmade, and this helped lead to site preservation and the establishment of Cahokia Mounds State Park in 1925. Overall, with all the studies done, only about 1 percent of the mounds have been studied. Continued excavations mean our knowledge about the site continues to unfold!
Come to Cahokia Mounds, and learn for yourself the story of the historic site and the fascinating culture of the people who once inhabited it. Planning a trip? See all our St. Louis and Illinois content, and for more inspiration, check out all our Ruins and Archaeology coverage.