“What is culture?” a diorama asks visitors at the Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site.
The answer below responds, “The culture of a group includes its organization ... and ways in which the group adapts to its environment.”
One culture still strongly invested in the traditions of Cahokia Mounds is the HeartLands Conservancy. The Mascoutah-based group is adapting to the changing metro-east landscape and declining visitorship to the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center by working to promote a handful of important regional mound centers as a National Park unit.
The group hopes its efforts will also add a layer of protection for the more than 550 mounds across the St. Louis region, many of which are on private land, according to Ed Weilbacher, director of the Mounds protection project for HeartLands. Some, like burial mounds, are already protected by Illinois law, but Weilbacher worries that others could potentially face pressure from developers.
Preservation also means profit.
The first few years after the Interpretive Center opened at Cahokia Mounds in 1989, attendance hovered around 500,000 before it tapered to 400,000, said Bill Iseminger, the assistant site manager. Later, due to budget cuts, the Interpretive Center started closing in the winter and eventually on a couple of weekdays. Attendance dipped to 300,000. In 2015, it was 280,000.
“We don’t appreciate the culture (of the Mississippians),” Weilbacher said. He hopes the new classification will spark a “rejuvenation of interest.”
Development Strategies, a St. Louis-based consulting firm, estimated that just a 10 percent increase in visitorship from the new classification of the Cahokia Mounds alone would add $2 million to the $12.2 million they already generate in the metro-east economy.
Meeting the criteria
With an estimated population of 10,000 to 20,000 people, the Mississippian culture in the St. Louis region was the largest Native American site north of Mexico. Cahokian society began as early as the eighth century and lasted until the 14th century.
Around 1050 AD, the mound-builders experienced a population boom, thanks to surpluses of corn, which was easy to store and transport. It was around this time that Monks Mound was built.
Named after French monks who built nearby and lived in the area between 1809 and 1813, Monks Mound was built over hundreds of years and today is 14 square acres. By contrast, the Great Pyramid of Egypt is 13 square acres. Of course, the Great Pyramid is much higher.
In 1215, Cahokia’s population was larger than London. Though reasons the culture disbanded remain unknown, its population was larger than any North American settlement until Philadelphia surpassed it in the 1800s.
The Cahokia Mounds became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. World Heritage Sites, designated by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, include Machu Picchu, the Statue of Liberty and Yellowstone National Park.
Discussion about turning Cahokia Mounds into a park of national significance has been around for more than a century. In HeartLands Conservancy’s current vision, the state of Illinois and the National Park Service would co-manage the Collinsville site and other mounds.
There are more than 20 types of National Park units, including monuments, military parks and memorials, like the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, better known as the Gateway Arch.
We don’t appreciate culture (of Mississippians). People equate (the mounds) to the Pyramids of Egypt.
Ed Weilbacher, mounds project director for HeartLands
No matter what the final type of park unit could be, classifying the mounds as one “raises it to a level of national significance,” Weilbacher said.
Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville would be the main site; four other sites would share affiliation, and two more would become part of a national trail that reconnects old Cahokian settlements. The other sites are in Mitchell, St. Louis, East St. Louis and Fairmont City, Dupo, and Lebanon.
A St. Louis-area National Park unit wouldn’t be the first of its kind. There are other mounds parks, including the Hopewell Mounds, a tract in southern Ohio that predates Cahokia by 1,000 years. Those five Hopewell sites are all within a 35-40 minute drive of one another by car, said Mike Johnson, a spokesman for the National Park Service’s Midwestern district.
Johnson, who used to work at the Hopewell Mounds, explained that the size and type of land of any potential park, as well as possible conflicts with local businesses, mattered less to the approval process than integrity of the sites.
In order to be considered for a National Park unit, a site “must meet criteria for national significance, suitability and feasibility” as well as offer a viable spot for management.
A 2014 HeartLands Conservancy feasibility report, assembled with the help of archeologists and Native American groups, tried to show how local mounds could clear some of those hurdles. It was optimistic about the chances of approval, but one of the challenges, Weilbacher said, is making sure there is enough land around the sites to preserve their context.
He referenced the Alamo for comparison. The building was saved, he said, but not the context. The Alamo sits in downtown San Antonio, but Weilbacher said he thought the space around it was too small, tarnishing its grandeur.
One significant mound group in Dupo, for example, is on five acres, he said, though he’d like to see the potential park around it be 50 acres.
There are 409 National Park units in the United States, 61 in the Midwest, but only two in Illinois. The Lincoln Home National Historic Site was established in 2009, and Chicago’s Pullman National Monument in 2015.
Both have spurred tourism.
“People know the quality of a National Park,” Weilbacher said.
Although it is still too early to tell for the Pullman National Monument, numbers for 2014 show that 241,264 visitors spent $13.5 million at the “gateway region,” or surrounding area, around the Lincoln Home for a total economic output $18.7 million.
409 national park units in the United States
2 national park units in Illinois
Visitor spending effects are measured by the National Park Service’s Social Science Program and the US Geological Survey.
Nationally, those agencies calculated that tourists spent $15.7 billion in local gateway regions, which are defined as communities within 60 miles of a park.
“The contribution of this spending to the national economy was 277 thousand jobs, $10.3 billion in labor income, $17.1 billion in value added, and $29.7 billion in output,” the 2014 National Park Visitor Spending Effects report stated.
Trends show sustained interest in National Park units.
Development Strategies, the St. Louis consulting firm, did not include the economic impact of any mounds other than the original Cahokia site in its feasibility report for HeartLands Conservancy; however, the firm wrote that a visitor center at the old National Stockyards could net another 40,000 to 70,000 visitors a year.
Looking at the economic impact numbers of just the Cahokia Mounds, though, 70,000 would be substantial.
With new programs, marketing the UNESCO label, partnering with other institutions, and improving the museum and trails, the firm showed that a visitorship increase of 25 percent, or 68,750 people (based on 275,000, the number Development Strategies used), to the Cahokia Mounds site would put about $940,000 into metro-east households.
Moving forward with help
Many mounds were plowed flat by farmers and covered by buildings in the 1800s, but, over time, the more curious Illinoisans have been about the mounds, the more they have worked to preserve them.
One of the earliest thorough digs was performed by archeologist Warren K. Moorehead to help settle the debate about what and how much Cahokian society left behind. Moorehead excavated several locations from 1921-27, and by 1925, Illinois designated 144 acres as the Cahokia Mounds State Park. Over the following 75 years, it became a 2200-acre site.
Mississippian mound-builders spread over the entire American southeast, but archeologists have determined four basic types based on their importance and population. Cahokia Mounds is a first-tier city. Four of the other mounds for the possible park are second-tier, or temple, cities, Cahokia Mounds’ Iseminger said.
HeartLands Conservancy believes keeping them together is important for the success of the project.
Except for Cahokia Mounds, other sites might not qualify as standalone parks, said Washington University archeologist John Kelly, a Columbia resident who has lived and worked in the area for more than 40 years and helped HeartLands Conservancy with its report. Moreover, potential visitors might not drive all the way out to just one or two parks. However, taken together as a single area, Kelly said, individual sites would have more appeal.
500,000 Number of visitors to Cahokia Mounds in 1989
280,000 Number of visitor to Cahokia Mounds in 2015
Early in his career, Kelly worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation surveying land for ancient sites ahead of the construction of Interstate 255. Official plans already avoided Cahokia Mounds, but IDOT wanted to be sure it wouldn’t damage other major sites, he said.
In the process of excavation, Kelly found about 600 ancient homes at the range site near Dupo.
Today, Kelly is a member of the Powell Archeology Research Center, which bought land in East St. Louis to protect some mounds there, but he didn’t think the group was big enough to take the next step in their long-term preservation.
That’s where HeartLands Conservancy comes in.
The Powell Center sold its land to the Archeological Conservancy, a national group, but it also supports the idea of a National Park unit and would work with HeartLands, Kelly said.
One other key ally is U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
After HeartLands released its feasibility study in 2014, Durbin, who was born in East St. Louis, requested the National Park Service to begin its own feasibility study to “ensure that the epicenter of America’s pre-Columbian Mississippian civilization will be protected ... for all to learn the story of our ancient heartlands,” he wrote.
But even if the mounds meet the agency’s criteria to be part of its system, it is up to Congress or the President to make the final decision.
The National Park Service is still preparing its report.