The St. Louis Mound Group (23SL4) and Big Mound (23SL3)
Site 23SL3 is the former location of the largest of the St. Louis mounds, named by the French La Grange de Terre (“the Barn of Earth”) and known alternately as Peale’s Mound 27 and Big Mound. Although part of the St. Louis Mound Group, Big Mound has been assigned a separate site number, presumably due in part to its prominence and distance from the rest of the group. Centered on City Block 249 between Broadway, N. Second, Mound, and Brooklyn streets, Big Mound survived well into the 19th century suffering only minor impacts. However, the rapid expansion of St. Louis during the 1840s and 1850s led to the development and later industrialization of the area around the mound.
The St. Louis Mound Group was first described in detail by Henry Marie Brackenridge in 1814. He wrote that there was a group of nine mounds north of the village of St. Louis, located “on the second bank just above the town”. Brackenridge described the Big Mound as being located six hundred yards north of the other mounds. Big Mound was estimated to be one hundred and fifty feet long and thirty feet wide, and the flattened top was about 15-18 ft wide. The group of mounds formed a rough square border around a central plaza, with a semi-circular area on the west side formed by three smaller mounds. Brackenridge (1814:189) continued by stating “the enclosed [plaza] is about three hundred yards in length and two hundred in breadth”. The largest of the mounds in this group was known locally as the “Falling Garden” and was nearly 50 ft high, rising in three stages up the second terrace. In June 1819, Dr. Thomas Say and Titian Ramsey Peale surveyed the mound group and identified 27 “tumuli” (including Big Mound), although two of the features were probably not Indian mounds (Peale 1862; Marshall 1992; O’Brien and Wood 1998:286). Using a compass and tape, Say and Peale measured Big Mound at 319 feet long and 158 feet wide with a height of 34 feet. It was located roughly 1,460 feet north of the other mounds. The mound group was all but destroyed by the expansion of St. Louis in the mid-19th century, and no evidence of the mounds is currently visible.
An archaeological survey (Rogers and Pulcher 1987) conducted for the Army Corps of Engineers attempted to test the estimated locations of several mounds; the survey employed a map created for the Museum of Science and Natural History that attempted to place the various mounds within the city grid by simply superimposing Peale and Say’s survey map onto a modern city map. Using this map as reference, limited subsurface testing was conducted; however, no prehistoric deposits were identified. Marshall (1992) notes that the map used by Rogers and Pulcher, while providing a general location of the mound group, is not consistent with mound locations shown on other historical maps of St. Louis in the 19th century; consequently, testing was probably not done at any actual mound locations. With the exception of the Rogers and Pulcher’s survey and testing done for the Cochran Gardens site (Altizer et al. 2005), no professional testing has been done to identify either the mounds or the village associated with the mound group.
Because the St. Louis Mound Group was destroyed before professional archaeological investigations could be conducted, information on the mounds is drawn from a handful of scholarly descriptions, newspaper articles and a series of valuable daguerreotypes taken by Thomas Easterly during the 1850s and 1860s. These images document the gradual destruction of Big Mound, from 1852 to the final destruction of the mound in 1869.
In December 2008, MoDOT began testing portions of 23SL3 as part of the New Mississippi River Bridge Project. Despite the documentary evidence to the contrary, MoDOT archaeologists began testing the site on the assumption that evidence of either submound features or of a prehistoric occupation around the mound could be identified. Archaeological testing identified numerous historic features relating to the Gestring Wagon Factory, the Kupferle Foundry, and a third multi-use industrial property. In addition to these industrial properties, two other historic features of significance were uncovered: a brick clamp used by the Conrad Beck brick yard, and a substantial trash midden.
Expansive areas—both inside and outside of the estimated mound limits—were mechanically stripped, but the only prehistoric artifacts recovered came from within historic contexts, including a few ceramic sherds from inside a 19th-century cistern. The results of the testing confirm the assessment that Big Mound was completely removed by 1870, and that no evidence of prehistoric activity remains in the vicinity. Testing in other areas of the project yielded similar results.
Altizer, Valerie, Meredith McLaughlin, and Joe Harl
2005 Cultural Resource Investigations at the Cochran Gardens Hope VI Housing Development Tract, St. Louis City, Missouri. Report to KAI, from Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis.
Brackenridge, H. M.
1814 View of Louisiana: Together with a Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River, in 1811. Cramer, Spear, and Eichbaum, Pittsburgh.
Marshall, John B.
1992 The St. Louis Mound Group: Historical Accounts and Pictorial Depictions. The Missouri Archaeologist 53:43-79.
O’Brien, Michael J. and W. Raymond Wood
1998 The Prehistory of Missouri. University of Missouri Press, Columbia, MO.
Peale, Titian R.
1862 Ancient Mounds at St. Louis, Missouri, in 1819. Annual Report, Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1861, pp. 386-391.Washington, D.C.
Rogers, Leah D. and Ronald E. Pulcher
1987 St. Louis Harbor Historic Properties Reconnaissance, City of St. Louis, Missouri. Part I: Archaeological Investigations. Report to US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis, MO, from American Resources Group, Carbondale, IL.