The history behind the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Federal legislation to make Cahokia Mounds part of a new national park could soon be introduced in Congress, according to proponents of the plan.
Heartlands Conservancy, which has led the effort, has been working on the wording of the bill with the staff of U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, said Ed Weilbacher, vice president of the nonprofit based in Belleville.
The Cahokia Mounds and Mississippian Culture National Historic Park would also include ancient mounds in St. Clair and Madison counties and Sugarloaf Mound in St. Louis, the last remaining mound in the city.
“We’re getting very close to having it introduced,’’ Weilbacher said. “We’ve had really good cooperation from the congressman’s office, and they have been meeting with the Department of Interior.’’
The conservationists also have been meeting with state and local government officials and civic organizations to reaffirm their support for the proposal, Weilbacher said.
The St. Clair County Board recently voted unanimously to back the initiative. The group also has received letters of support from the city of Collinsville and the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
In May, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution, sponsored by state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, in support of a national park. The Legislature had previously supported a plan that would have named Cahokia Mounds a national monument.
Plan has bipartisan support
A site can enter the National Park Service in two ways: Most are established by an act of Congress, signed by the president into law. Or, the president can invoke the Antiquities Act and designate areas as national monuments.
National parks and national monuments are equal in status.
Weilbacher’s group had hoped that President Barack Obama would declare Cahokia Mounds a national monument before leaving office in January 2017. An executive order would have fast-tracked the process, but Weilbacher said his group is now focused on the congressional route.
“As you know, elections have consequences, and we had to re-evaluate how we might proceed,” Weilbacher said. “In talking with our elected officials, it was advised that we ought to try to seek a congressional action.’’
Cahokia Mounds is a 2,200-acre Illinois State Historic Site that protects more than 70 mounds built by the Mississippians 1,000 years ago. It was “America’s First City’’ — a hub of mounds where the ancients lived, worked and worshipped atop earthen structures. The Mississippians built “satellite” mounds all across the region, stretching west across the Mississippi River. At its peak in 1200 A.D., an estimated 100,000 people lived at Cahokia.
Weilbacher said the national park plan has the support of U.S. Reps. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, and Missouri U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City.
There is bipartisan support for the plan, Weilbacher said. He hopes the legislation will move forward before the 2020 elections.
“We’ve reached out to both sides of the aisle to make sure that everybody understands the significance of the site,’’ he said.
Weilbacher urged people who support the plan to contact their legislators.
“We have, in a way, kept people from sending letters in because we didn’t have a bill number,’’ he said. “Now, I think if you’re interested, send a letter to your congressman and say you support this effort.’’
Park would be a local, state and federal partnership
A national park would be a collaborative partnership among local, state and federal governments, Weilbacher said. Illinois would retain ownership of Cahokia Mounds.
A study published by Heartlands in 2014 concluded that a partnership between the National Park Service and the state of Illinois would be both beneficial and feasible. It has garnered support from residents, archaeologists and Native American groups, including the Osage Nation, which owns Sugarloaf Mound, Weilbacher said.
In 2018, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources signed on to the national parks plan. The department took over the administration of Cahokia Mounds in 2017 after then-Gov. Bruce Rauner dissolved the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which used to oversee the site.
Weilbacher noted that President Donald Trump has granted national monument status to a Civil War site in Kentucky. Last year, Congress created Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park in Missouri and renamed the Gateway Arch National Park.
In 1982, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized the cultural and archaeological significance of Cahokia Mounds and named it a World Heritage site. It is also a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Last year, nearly 300,000 people from 80 countries visited Cahokia Mounds.
This story was first published by St. Louis Public Radio.org. It is reprinted here with their permission. Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard