Travel

America's magnificent mounds

Explore mounds created by Native Americans along the mighty Mississippi River

The distinctive line of mounds is carefully and respectfully maintained. (Eaton Cote/National Park Service)
The distinctive line of mounds is carefully and respectfully maintained. (Eaton Cote/National Park Service)
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As we stood amid a few acres of blooming wild blackberry vines a bumblebee buzzed between us. We’d just walked a few hundred yards up a narrow footpath and emerged into a sunlit meadow. The field looked ordinary, but there was magical feel to it.

“To best appreciate these special places, you should listen with your ears and with your soul,” Albert LeBeau, had told us. He was right. As a National Park Service cultural resource manager at Effigy Mounds National Monument and a Lakota Tribe member, LeBeau knows. In the meadow’s stillness was the presence of long ago people.

Amid the blackberries were low mounds. More than 50 filled the meadow. None was more than a few feet tall, but their presence was humbling and we stood reflecting on Iowa’s past. We had hiked up to Malchow Mounds State Preserve near the Mississippi River’s broad flood plain, about eight miles north of Burlington. It was our third stop on a trip we called “Mounding Down the Mississippi.”

Our trip actually began years ago during trips to Effigy Mounds National Monument near Marquette. Early visits were mostly to view the enormous array of bird species that frequent its woods and marshes. The Monument’s trails offered us Iowa’s best hiking. Although we love Effigy’s wildlife and trails, we’ve become intrigued with its cultural history. We visit Iowa’s only National Monument a couple of times a year to connect with the earth and the people as we ponder the past.

Curiosity developed there, spurred us to drive the Great River Road south this spring to experience Toolesboro and Malchow Mounds in southeast Iowa and the renown Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. These visits offered an opportunity to drive through one of America’s most scenic valleys and connect with American prehistory.

Back in the 1960s, when we studied history in school, we got the impression that everything started with Columbus, who discovered bands of “savages” when his boats beached on sun drenched Caribbean islands. From there, history texts skipped a couple of hundred years to the Pilgrim’s settling in what became Massachusetts. They encountered scattered bands of native people who grew some corn but were mostly hunter gatherers. History lessons of the time incorrectly taught us that Native American society was primitive and consisted of small bands of people leading a meager existence hunting and gathering wild food. Ironically, we also were taught that the only advanced New World civilizations were the Aztecs and Mayans of Mexico and Central America.

Over the years, as we read and traveled, we questioned this misleading contradiction. Visiting the mounds turned our understanding of pre-Columbian America on end. The people who inhabited North America and especially the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, were populous, organized, inventive, energetic and sophisticated. They developed elaborate societies and sometimes lived in cities complete with suburbs. Impressive political and religious systems were supported by productive agriculture and a healthy economy that enabled a division of labor. In many ways, today’s society mimics what the ancients created centuries ago.

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EFFIGY MOUNDS

The best place for Iowans to begin a Mississippi mound tour is at Effigy Mounds National Monument in scenic Northeast Iowa’s Driftless Area. It’s visitor center provides a thought provoking introduction to the ancient people who crafted mounds on bluffs high above the river. Exhibits progress to the first Europeans descending the Mississippi River, and move onward to the establishment of modern Iowa society.

Two trails radiate out from the visitor center. One is an easy walk along a boardwalk across a marsh alive with red winged blackbirds, muskrats, herons, river otters and even sandhill cranes. It offers some of Iowa’s best wildlife viewing. The other trail is dramatically different. After exiting the visitor center and passing a mound outside its door, the trail rises steeply for about a half mile. It’s a huff and puff climb, but once up on the bluff the trail splits and levels out. One branch goes north to Hanging Rock and the other south. Both trails pass effigy mounds, many shaped like bears or birds. These give walkers an opportunity to muse in solitude about the people who once lived and labored here.

“There may once have been at least 10,000 mounds between Dubuque, Iowa, and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. We estimate that at least 90 percent of them were destroyed by modern civilization, usually by agriculture or suburban growth,” said LeBeau. “We protect Effigy Mounds because they are important. They connect us to the past.” And, we have found that appreciating our past informs us about our present day, he said.

Mounds were built over hundreds of years throughout the Mississippi River watershed and beyond. Just like for early explorers and pioneers, for Native Americans, rivers were the superhighways of the past that enabled travel and trade. So, most mounds were built near major rivers, often high on bluffs above them. And, like today, population centers were often located where major tributaries, like the Wisconsin River, enter the Mississippi.

When we asked LeBeau why these long-gone Iowans went to so much work to craft enormous animal-shaped mounds high up on a bluff he replied thoughtfully, “We’ve learned a lot about these people but for everything we learn more questions arise. What we know now is different from what we thought we knew in the 1960s. That’s part of the mystery and magic of this place. I’m an archaeologist, and I don’t have all the answers. I’m OK with that.”

In past years, archaeologists conducted traditional digs in some mounds but no more active excavation is being done at Effigy Mounds. This is partly because they are sacred places and partly to avoid damage done by digging. Today high tech ground source radar and GPS are used to reveal secrets long buried in the earth.

LeBeau offered an insight into why so much effort was taken to build mounds. “People do things to commemorate events. That’s why the Freedom Tower was built in New York City following 9/11,” he said.

“Their diversity, their size, their sheer number and their age all warrant protecting, but it goes deeper than that. By protecting the mounds, we are also protecting not just our relationship to the people who lived and died there but also to the land itself. Mounds are a tangible connection to the whole chapter of human history. To view the mounds is to see a story of people who came together to build something greater than themselves.”

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Effigy Mounds National Monument is about a two-hour drive north of Cedar Rapids and can be visited as a day trip. For those who choose to linger, many motels and restaurants dot Marquette and McGregor with others across the river in Prairie du Chien, Wis. We usually camp in nearby Yellow River State Forest. Not all mounds are alike and visiting several sites helped us better grasp prehistory.

Effigy Mounds are distinctive because many were made in the shape of animals and were crafted between 1,400 to 850 years ago. We had visited Effigy many times but traveled to three other mound sites in early May to better comprehend their significance. Starting at Toolesboro Mounds, we continued down the Old River Road to Malchow Mounds and crossed into Illinois at Burlington. We then continued on the Old River Road south to Nauvoo, Ill., and enjoyed viewing the magnificent Mormon temple, overnighting at Nauvoo State Park. The next morning, we continued south to Cahokia Mounds. After a lengthy visit, we drove home on the Avenue of the Saints on the Missouri side of the Mississippi with an overnight stop in Hannibal to enjoy Mark Twain’s town.

TOOLESBORO MOUNDS

Toolesboro Mounds National Historic Landmark is southeast of Wapello off Louisa County Road X99, which is the Old River Road. They are near where the Iowa River joins the Mississippi. Its mounds are conical and not shaped like animals. Built between 2,200 and 1,700 years ago, they predate Effigy Mounds and were used as burial sites. While standing on the side of the smaller mound, a deep sense of quiet and connection peacefully enveloped us. We thanked the spirits of the site and walked away pensively.

A small, interesting interpretive building is located near the mounds. Both are close to parking. Hiking isn’t needed to observe the distinctive mounds. Louisa County Conservation Board manages the site.

Adjoining the Mounds is the Six Littleton Brothers Memorial. It was created to honor the six Littleton brothers who died fighting in the Civil War. Theirs was the greatest loss of life known from any single family in the history of all U.S. wars.

MALCHOW MOUNDS

Malchow Mounds near Mediapolis dates from 2,100 to 1,00 years ago so are of about the same era as Toolesboro Mounds. Unlike other mound sites, Malchow has no visitor amenities other than a tiny, grassy pullout on the west side of the Great River Road. It is managed by the Iowa Historical Society.

A short, steep uphill walk brings visitors to a level clearing that holds about 58 low mounds. Although they are less visually impressive than other mounds, their secluded spot provides contemplative visitors an opportunity to let their minds filter backward to a time when the land was heavily populated by an organized society.

Toolesboro and Malchow Mounds can easily be visited on a day trip from the Corridor. Wapello has motels and restaurants for those wishing to overnight and the Louisa County Conservation board offers nearby campgrounds.

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CAHOKIA MOUNDS

No place in the Midwest proves our grade school history lessons more inaccurate than visiting Cahokia Mounds World Heritage Site in Collinsville, Ill. It is an Illinois State Historic site within sight of the St. Louis skyline and its magnificent arch — a modern day memorial.

Cahokia was a city with between 10,000 and 20,000 residents during its peak years from 900 to 1200 A.D. It had a population density approaching that of modern St. Louis and during its peak it was a larger city than London.

We started our visit at the Cahokia visitor center and learned that the site was once similar to a modern American city. Only it was 500 years before Columbus. Cahokia, or the City of the Sun, was situated in the Great American Bottom, where the Illinois and Missouri rivers enter the Mississippi River. Rivers enabled people to mount extensive trade throughout the continent. Traders brought shells from the Gulf of Mexico, copper from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and flint from the Rocky Mountains.

Cahokia was complete with suburbs and vast farm fields. Like our modern day Midwestern economy, its economy centered on corn. This wondrous grain was so productive that it yielded the 30,000 pounds of corn people ate every day. It was the basis of a diet supplemented by foraging wild plants, deer, fish and other wildlife.

“What is known as the Eastern Agricultural Complex of domesticated plants provided food for Native peoples going back at least 2,000 years,” said William Iseminger, assistant manager of Cahokia Mounds.

Many of these plants are today considered weeds but were valued at Cahokia for food, dye and medicine. They included sunflowers, squash, amaranth, maygrass, little barley, erect knotgrass and perhaps others. People had no need to feed livestock since cattle, chickens, hogs and horses were unknown before the coming of Europeans hundreds of years later. Dogs were the only domestic animals.

Productive corn enabled Cahokia residents to have a division of labor. This resulted in the development of a sophisticated political, economic and religious society that built massive mounds, stockades, an astronomical Stonehenge-like structure called Woodhenge and communications and trade systems. In many ways, it was nearly identical to a modern city.

Against a stiff southwest wind, we huffed and puffed up the 152 steps leading to the top of Monk’s Mound and gazed at the famed St. Louis Arch on the horizon. The mound is enormous. It is 100 feet tall, covers 14 acres and contains 22 million cubic feet of earth. Monk’s Mound is the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere. Lacking beasts of burden and even metal shovels, the mound was created by people digging dirt with stone tools and then carrying it in baskets to the construction site. The mound is flat topped and called a truncated pyramid that formed the base of a massive ceremonial building where the chief and priests conducted religious rituals and administrative duties. Monk’s is the largest but not the only mound at Cahokia. The area is sprinkled with ridge top, conical and platform mounds. As we paused on the top we wondered how many people it took to create the mounds, how long and how many were injured or killed in the process, and what happened to the bodies. Many questions unanswered.

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Although Cahokia is the largest and most impressive mound site, it was occupied more recently than Effigy, Toolesboro or Malchow Mounds. However, a visit to any mounds stimulates contemplation and curiosity. Questions continually pop up in the mind. How did people, in an age before machines and horses, complete such massive public works? Why did they do it? And, perhaps the biggest question is, what happened to them?

The era of mound building ended at about the same time as the abandonment of the cliff dwellings in the southwest. Why it happened is a riddle not completely understood. Climate change may have been a major factor as it caused the earth to warm and dry, forcing changes less favorable to agriculture. Overpopulation may have been a factor in the decline of mound builders, and there could have been nutritional stress as people relied too heavily on low protein corn in their diet. Change happened, but its causes are not clearly known.

“There is much we don’t know and probably will never know. I’m OK with that,” said National Park Service archaeologist Albert LeBeau.

Cahokia Mounds are within the St. Louis metropolitan area. Hundreds of hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions are located on both sides of the Mississippi River.

OTHER MOUNDS

Thousands of mounds were built over a vast portion of North America. Sadly, many were destroyed. But, others remain undiscovered. Typically, they are on high ground near rivers and streams.

Lara Noldner is bioarcheology director of the Iowa Archaeologists Office. She is charged with documenting mounds and can help a landowner confidentially determine if a high spot on land was created by Native Americans. She uses modern LiDAR technology, which helps determine if a mound is authentic without disturbing the ground by digging. She can be reached at her office in Iowa City at (319) 384-0740.

Change was not new to the Mound builders. Since the first people crossed the Bering Sea Land Bridge some 12,000 years ago, societies changed to meet the demands of different environments and changing climates. The coming of Europeans in 1492 created vast change, but the European influence on America has only been about 4 percent of the entire time our continent was occupied. The ancient people of North America thrived for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. They have much to teach us and a visit to mounds provides an inspiring and interesting place to learn.

IF YOU GO

Effigy Mounds National Monument: 151 Iowa Highway 76, Harpers Ferry, Iowa; (563) 873-3491; www.nps.gov/efmo; Visitor center open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

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Toolesboro Mounds National Historic Landmark: 6568 Toolesboro Rd., Wapello, Iowa; (319) 523-8381; LouisaCountyConservation.org; Visitor Center open 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday Memorial Day until Labor Day; Labor Day until end of October Saturdays only 12:30 to 4:30 p.m.; Mounds can be viewed any daylight hour.

Malchow Mounds State Preserve: 13 miles north of Burlington on the west side of Highway 99; No facilities; Site open daylight hours.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site: 30 Ramey St., Collinsville, Illinois; (618) 346-5161; www.cahokiamounds.org; Visitor Center open Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Grounds open daily until dusk.

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