Have you heard of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site? If not, you’re not alone.
Despite its status as the most important archaeological site in North America, most people are not familiar with this lost city in Southern Illinois.
It’s suffered a myriad of indignities. For one, it’s named for a tribe that arrived centuries after its original inhabitants disappeared.
Another: its crowning achievement, a pyramid even greater than Giza’s, was named for a group that lived nearby for less time than it takes to get a college degree.
A thousand years ago it was the epicenter of civilization, and now a four-lane highway cuts through the middle of it, a highway that is ironically part of why it’s still around.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois, uniquely illustrates America’s past, both pre-Columbian and post- “discovery.”
The site, one of 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the U.S., preserves the history of a city that existed long before Columbus stumbled onto that Bahamian beach.
It tells the tale of those who built it and those who came after, from Trappist monks to a 19th century mechanic to the archaeologists who preserve their stories.
Cahokia Mounds is continuing proof that civilization on this continent did not begin with the arrival of Europeans.
History of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
At first glance, Cahokia Mounds historic site may seem like just a bunch of dirt mounds, but it’s much more than that. This planned city covered six square miles dotted with 120 earthworks, and seventy of them remain on the site’s 2200 acres.
The community began around 700AD, about the time the Chinese invented gunpowder, as a cluster of small settlements.
Over the next couple of centuries those merged to become a larger community.
By 1050 – 1150 the population had exploded to anywhere from 20,000 in most estimates to as high as 50,000 in others. To put this in perspective, London’s population was around 20,000 and the Tower of London was constructed during this period.
About a third of the inhabitants of Cahokia were immigrants, making this city North America’s original melting pot.
By 1350 they were gone. Nobody knows where they went, or why they left.
The mounds they built are the only reminder and remainder of their existence.
Some were used for religious and ceremonial purposes.
Others were used for more “earthly” reasons. Mound 72 was a burial chamber filled with five mass graves of sacrificial victims, some beheaded and others buried alive, as well as more dignified burials for the nobility.
Archaeologists also found a copper workshop and a large Woodhenge, used to mark time and the changing of the seasons.
Because the inhabitants, like most peoples indigenous to the continent, had no written language, what is known of their culture is due to the investigations of archaeologists skilled in literally unearthing its mysteries. It’s remarkable that they have as much with which to work as they do.
When the French arrived in the early 1600s they found the Cahokia tribe in the area, hence the modern name of the site. This Illini plains tribe had no knowledge of the previous inhabitants, so they couldn’t explain the mysteries or tell them who built Cahokia.
Similar mounds, found across the Mississippi River, were razed and looted to become the city of St. Louis, and now only one significant mound remains in that area.
In the early 1800s a group of French Trappist monks planted gardens on one of the terraces of the largest structure at Cahokia. This structure is now known as Monks Mound, even though the monks were only on-site from 1809 to 1813.
To call it a mound seems to do it a disservice. The base of this beast covers over fourteen acres and the pyramid rises to a height of one hundred feet.
Monks Mound contains twenty-two million cubic feet of earth – larger in volume than the Great Pyramid of Egypt – and every foot of it was carried by hand in baskets. There are four terraces, and at the top of the highest sat a structure that was fifty feet tall.
Today, you can see the Gateway Arch (which is now a National Park) in St. Louis from its summit.
In 1831 a mechanic by the name of T. Amos Hill (coincidentally) bought the tract containing the mound and built a house at the top.
When Hill built a well he pulled up not just dirt, but also human bones, pottery shards, and other evidence that the hill was man-made.
As you can imagine, the water was not exactly palatable. A Mr. Flagg recounted in a journal in 1838, published as The Far West, that the odd taste was most likely due to the fact that “the precious fluid has probably filtrated, part of it at least, through the contents of a sepulcher.”
In 1864 the tract was purchased by Thomas J. Ramey. For nearly sixty years he and his family lived on the mound, but they also protected the area.
As a member of the Illinois General Assembly, Ramey pushed for its preservation. For years he and others, most notably archaeologist Warren K. Moorehead, tried to get the area designated a park, but it wasn’t until a grassroots campaign in the early 1920s proved Cahokia’s significance that the state legislature passed a bill granting protected status.
With 144.4 acres, Cahokia Mounds State Park was born.
One of the striking things about Cahokia is that U.S. 40, or Collinsville Road, runs right through it.
Authorized in 1806 by Thomas Jefferson as the National Road, the section through Cahokia wasn’t officially completed until the 1920s, but by that time wagons, trains, and streetcars had all cut through the complex and the route was well established.
What helped to save this evidence of the Cahokia civilization and those before them was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. This legislation allowed for some of the money allocated for highway construction to be used in salvage operations for archaeologically significant sites that were in the path of progress.
In 1960, Interstates 55 and 70 were about to go right through Cahokia Mounds. Activists took advantage of those funds and discovered a series of “Woodhenges,” providing increased understanding of the historical significance of this Mississippian culture.
In 1964, Cahokia Mounds was declared a National Historic Landmark, in 1966 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1982 it became one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
Today this treasure trove of history opens the door to the past. With continued research, study, preservation, and appreciation, its forgotten secrets will be revealed for future generations to remember.
Visiting Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
The interpretive center and gift shop is closed for renovations (as of April 2023). Please check before visiting.
Visiting Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site will provide you with insights into the lives, culture, and society of the ancient inhabitants.
Climbing Monks Mound, exploring the Grand Plaza, and visiting the reconstructed Woodhenge are memorable experiences that will help you better understand the scope and complexity of this ancient city.
Tips for Visiting Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
To make the most of your visit to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, consider the following tips:
- Plan ahead: Check the site’s official website or contact the visitor center for information on hours of operation, admission fees, and any special events or programs that may be scheduled during your visit.
- Dress appropriately: Wear comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing and footwear suitable for walking and climbing stairs. The site includes outdoor trails and uneven terrain, so sturdy shoes are recommended.
- Start at the Interpretive Center: Begin your visit at the Interpretive Center to get an overview of the site’s history and significance, as well as to pick up maps and other materials that will help guide your exploration.
- Allocate enough time: Plan to spend at least 2-4 hours at the site to fully explore Cahokia Mounds.
- Self-guided tours: Take a self-guided tour using the maps and interpretive signage.
- Download the Augmented Reality App: For $4.99, you can use your phone or tablet to see what this ancient city might have looked like.
- Stay hydrated and bring snacks: Ensure you have enough water and snacks, especially during the warmer months. There are no food and beverage options on-site, so it’s a good idea to bring your own refreshments.
- Respect the site: Remember that Cahokia Mounds is an important cultural and archaeological site, so be respectful and follow any posted rules or guidelines. Do not climb on the mounds unless permitted, and stay on designated trails.
- Attend special events or programs: If possible, plan your visit to coincide with one of the site’s educational programs, workshops, or cultural events, which can enhance your understanding and appreciation of the Mississippian culture.
- Combine with other attractions: Consider combining your visit to Cahokia Mounds with other nearby attractions, such as the Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis or driving Great River Road in Illinois, to make the most of your trip to the area.
By following these tips, you’ll be better prepared to fully appreciate and enjoy your visit to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
Where is Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site?
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is located east of St. Louis, MO, in Collinsville, IL off Interstates 55-70 and 255, and Illinois 111.
- Address: 30 Ramey Dr, Collinsville, IL 62234
- Website: cahokiamounds.org
- Hours: The grounds are open daily from dawn until dusk and the Cahokia Mounds Museum & Interpretive Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm.
- Admission: Admission is free, but there’s a suggested donation of $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, $2 for children, and $15 for families.
- Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is located near the Great River Road in Illinois, near Route 66, and on the National Road.
Where to stay near Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Drury Inn St. Louis Collinsville (approx. 8 miles away) Address: 602 N Bluff Rd, Collinsville, IL 62234
This comfortable hotel offers guests a range of amenities, including free Wi-Fi, complimentary hot breakfast, an indoor pool, and a fitness center.
The Drury Inn is conveniently located near the interstate and within close proximity to several restaurants and shopping areas.
DoubleTree by Hilton Collinsville – St. Louis (approx. 8.5 miles away) Address: 1000 Eastport Plaza Dr, Collinsville, IL 62234
This upscale hotel features spacious rooms, an on-site restaurant, an indoor pool, a fitness center, and meeting facilities. Located near the interstate, the DoubleTree offers easy access to both Cahokia Mounds and downtown St. Louis.
La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Collinsville – St. Louis (approx. 8.5 miles away) Address: 6 Gateway Dr, Collinsville, IL 62234
This modern hotel provides guests with free Wi-Fi, complimentary breakfast, an indoor pool, and a fitness center. The La Quinta Inn & Suites is conveniently located near the interstate and is within walking distance of several restaurants and shopping areas.
Comfort Inn Collinsville (approx. 8 miles away) Address: 8 Commerce Dr, Collinsville, IL 62234
This budget-friendly hotel offers comfortable rooms with free Wi-Fi, complimentary hot breakfast, and an indoor pool. The Comfort Inn is located near the interstate, providing easy access to Cahokia Mounds and other local attractions.
Please note that hotel availability, rates, and amenities are subject to change. It is always a good idea to check with the hotel directly or visit their website for the most up-to-date information before making a reservation.
Want to visit Cahokia Mounds? Pin this for later!