Road Trip Through History: Cahokia Mounds


My Own True Love and I have put in thousands of miles over the years on I-55, the highway that leads from Chicago to Saint Louis. We've stopped at many historical sites--along the way and off the path. One of my all time favorites is Cahokia Mounds--the site of North America's first city.

Our first visit to Cahokia was an eye-opener. Between 800 and 1400 CE, when Europe was struggling to find its way out of the Middle Ages, the area around modern St. Louis was the center of a great American civilization that neither of us had heard of. How had we missed something so important? *

The Mississippian culture was the most sophisticated prehistoric culture in the Americas north of Mexico. Mississippian sites have been found from Minnesota to Florida, but the culture's heart was the settlement at Cahokia Mounds**, eight miles east of downtown St. Louis. At its height, around 1250 CE, Cahokia had an estimated population of 20,000 people, larger than London at the same time. The next North American city with a population that big was Philadelphia, 500 years later.

The Mississippians settled the area for the same reasons that European settlers built St. Louis. The convergence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers created a rich flood plain with good soil for farming and a wealth of hunting and fishing. The network of small waterways that fed into these rivers made travel easy. Three surrounding ecosystems--the Ozark Mountains, the prairies and the Eastern woodlands--provided a variety of raw materials.

Because they had a stable food supply, the Mississippians of Cahokia were able to support skilled craftsmen and trade for material and goods they could not make for themselves. Artifacts found at the site show craftsmanship well beyond the level of common household goods: stone statuettes in human and animal forms, dramatic effigy bottles and bowls and engraved copper plates of great beauty. In addition to local resources, artists had access to exotic materials traded over long distances: copper from the upper Great Lakes, mica from southern Appalachia, and seashells from the Gulf of Mexico.


The most obvious features of the Mississippian culture are the monumental earthen mounds. (This comes as no surprise, right?) Because the Mississippians had no draft animals, laborers carried the earth in baskets on their backs, 50 to 60 pounds at a time. Most of the mounds at Cahokia were flat-topped and served as the base for temples, chieftain's houses, sweat lodges, council houses and charnel houses for the bones of rulers and heroes. Monks Mound*** is the largest of these, covering fourteen acres and rising in four terraces to a height of 100 feet.**** That's roughly fifteen million baskets of earth.

Cahokia began to decline after 1250 CE, shrinking in both population and area. By 1400 CE, the city had been abandoned. Excavations show no signs of epidemic, invasion, or natural disaster to explain the city's demise. As archeologists David Rindos and Sissel Johannessen describe it, "Cahokia didn't collapse, it evaporated."

The not-fall of Cahokia didn't mean the end of Mississippian culture. When Fernando De Soto landed at Tampa Bay in 1539, he found flourishing Mississippian chiefdoms from Florida to the upper Tennessee River valley. The southeastern chiefdoms were decimated by European illnesses, but not destroyed. As late as the 1700s, the Natchez tribe of Louisiana lived in a village centered on a ceremonial plaza, with mounds at both ends and a temple containing the bones of its rulers:  Mississipian-lite.

If you're interested in American prehistory--or history in general--add Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site to your must-see list. (Don't take my word for it.  In 1982, Cahokia Mounds was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, joining the ranks of the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, and the Grand Canyon as a world-class destination.)


* The same way we missed all kinds of historical stuff. Even at their best, our schools don't do a good job of teaching us about history that doesn't lead directly to us. Luckily we have the rest of our lives to poke around and fill in the gaps.

**Named after an Indian tribe who lived in the area in the seventeenth century. We don't know what they called themselves because they left no written records. From a writer's point of view, it's a little dispiriting to realize that you can build a sophisticated culture without a written language.

***Named after French Trappist monks who gardened on the mound in the early 1800s. The danger of leaving no written records is that you get misleading names attached to your stuff.

****Roughly the height of a ten-story office building. The Great Pyramid at Giza covers thirteen acres and was 480 feet tall before erosion whittled it down.


Photographs courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site. 

Word(s) With a Past: Two Bits

One of the favorite cheers for my junior high school's football team went "Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for our team stand up and holler." It made no sense to me, but neither did football. When the rest of the Trojan fans stood up and hollered, I stood up and hollered. When they said glumly in the stands, I sat. By high school, my best friends were all in marching band, I was therefore freed of my weekend football obligation, and I knew that "two bits" meant a quarter--I just didn't know why.

Turns out the phrase has its roots in the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the river of silver that flowed from the mines of Potosí to the royal coffers in Madrid. *

In 1497, their Most Catholic Majesties** Ferdinand and Isabella introduced a new coin into the global economy as part of a general currency reform. The peso (literally "weight") was a heavy silver coin that was worth eight reales***. In Spanish it became known as a peso de ocho ****; in English it was a "piece of eight".

The peso quickly became a global currency. It was relatively pure silver, it was uniform in size and weight, and it had one special characteristic: it could be divided like a pie into eight reales. In English, those reales became known as "bits". Two bits were a quarter of a peso. After the new American Congress based the weight of the American dollar on the peso in 1792*****, "two bits" also referred to a quarter of a dollar.

Now I need to figure out what "Two in ten, let's do it again" means.

*And right back out again to pay for spices, textiles and other luxury goods in the India trade.

** Their phrase, not mine.

***The important word here is EIGHT, not reales. The story would be the same if it were eight goats, eight marbles, or eight football fans.

**** For those of you who never had to count to ten in Spanish, ocho means EIGHT.

***** Choosing to base American currency on the peso rather than the pound was a not-so-subtle way to spit in Great Britain's eye. The peso remained legal tender in the US until the 1850s.

England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty

NPG811. Artist unknown

As I may have mentioned before, I'm happily bopping around in the long eighteenth century*. In the process I'm stumbling across all kinds of stuff that makes my brain fizz with ideas. Some of it I'm hoarding. But some of it is just too good not to share

Today's case in point: Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham (1762-1820), military man, scientist, and adventurer.

Popham began his naval career in 1778, when he was only sixteen. He served in the American Revolution and surveyed the southwest coast of Africa. Unemployed and on half-pay in the brief period of peace between the American and French Revolutions, he took leave from the navy, bought a ship, and sailed to India, where he performed survey work for the British East India Company. Eventually, the EIC became suspicious about his trading activities. Popham's ship was seized and he was accused of violating the East India Company's trade monopoly, with hints that he might have been smuggling.

Once out of the Asian trade, Popham was reinstated in the navy. He rose quickly through the ranks during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, in the course of which he organized two important troop evacuations, drew up plans for the "sea fencibles" *** and for destroying the sea locks at Ostend, was named a knight of Malta by Tsar Paul of Russia, and experimented with Robert Fulton's "submarine bombs". Obviously, as one contemporary named him, "a damned cunning fellow."

Interesting as all that is, it doesn't make him markedly different from the other creative young officers who abounded in the British military during the Napoleonic Wars. **** A single achievement sets Popham apart from the pack: the creation of a code using signal flags that became the standard for British ships. Originally published in 1801 as Telegraphic Signals or Marine Vocabulary*****, Popham's system adapted traditional signal flags to a numeric code that allowed more detailed communication between ships. Its initial form provided roughly 1000 words; later improvements doubled that. Popham's code wasn't officially adopted by the British admiralty until 1812, but it was widely used by 1803. Admiral Horatio Nelson was an early adopter of the system, which he used to send his famous message of encouragement prior to the Battle of Trafalgar.

Quite frankly, it had never occurred to me that someone invented the code using naval signal flags. If I thought about them at all, I assumed that the system developed organically. Shows how much I know.



*Roughly 1688 to 1815, or 1832 depending on which historian you talk to. Sometimes centuries are an awkward time division when you're talking about historical events instead of the calendar. Of course, once you start playing with the concept of a "natural" historical division, you introduce new opportunities for disagreement. For instance, almost everyone agrees that the long nineteenth century ended in 1914 with the beginning of WWI, but different historians place the starting date anywhere between 1750 (an approximate date for the Industrial Revolution**) and 1789 (the French Revolution). The short twentieth century is a snap by comparison, 1914 to 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. But I digress. As usual. (See what I mean about the fizzing brain?)

** Talk about opportunities for historians to disagree!

*** A naval militia designed to protect the coast from invasion, and obviously the subject of another blog post

****Raising the question of how they turned into the dangerously stodgy officers who ran the Crimean War forty years later.

*****I don't know about you, but I assumed the word telegraph came into being in the mid-nineteenth system with Samuel Morse's electronic system. Wrong.