Saving Sugarloaf Mound in St. Louis, Missouri
by Andrew B. Weil and Andrea A. Hunter
As the oldest human-made structure in St. Louis and the last Native American Mound in what was once known as “Mound City,” Sugarloaf Mound links the present with the past. Sugarloaf is likely a Woodland Period burial mound or a Mississippian platform mound, and dates to a time when the region was home to thriving and highly advanced Native American cultures long before the arrival of European and African people.1
When the French began construction of what would become St. Louis in 1764, the future city contained possibly hundreds of mounds. While many were relatively small burial mounds situated on the bluffs overlooking navigable waterways, there was also a major Mississippian civic-ceremonial complex located just north of the Gateway Arch. The North St. Louis Mound Group included over 25 mounds systematically arranged around public plazas. This substantial site was presumably tied to two other nearby Mississippian centers: the little-known East St. Louis Mound Group and its famous relative, Cahokia (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
By the late 18th century these Mississippian cities had been long abandoned. Yet French cartographers recorded the unusual earthen structures as prominent features on the landscape. The mounds also are visible in several early representations of the city, such as John Caspar Wild’s 1840 lithograph of the city’s north riverfront. By this time, however, Missouri’s first governor, among others, used the mounds as platforms for their houses. A beer garden was placed on one and the city’s first reservoir on another. By 1875, the mounds were nearly completely destroyed.
The lone survivor is Sugarloaf. Its location at the edge of a steep bluff several miles from downtown insulated Sugarloaf from industrial and developmental pressures that swept away the other mounds. Not altogether unscathed, in 1928, a house was erected on its top. The house on Sugarloaf was occupied continuously until 2008, when the property was offered for sale.
A coalition of concerned groups and citizens, including the Landmarks Association of St. Louis and the Osage Nation, coalesced around the cause of preservation, an outcome dependent on acquisition of the mound. Consensus grew over the best possible future for Sugarloaf. Its advocates sought first to protect it and then to celebrate its significance by educating the surrounding community about the history of Native American settlement in the area.
The Osage Nation bought Sugarloaf in August 2009. They did so because of their deeply held, historic ties to the St. Louis area. This connection is revealed through tribal oral traditions and is documented in scholarly investigations. Over the years, ethnologists and historians have interpreted and published tribal oral histories pertaining to the migrations of the Osage and closely related tribes: the Kaw, Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw.2 Together these four tribes, with the Osage, make up what is known as the Dhegiha Sioux language subgroup.3
In the latter part of the 19th century, ethnologist James Dorsey collected oral histories of migration stories from Dhegiha-speaking tribal members.4 Dorsey was told that in the distant past, all five Dhegiha tribes were once one nation that lived east of the Mississippi River in the vicinity of the Ohio River. The people migrated together, until they reached the Mississippi River, where the first segregation occurred. The people descending the river were called the Quapaw, meaning “the down-stream people.” Those ascending became the Omaha, or “those going against the wind or current.”5 The ancient Omaha, composed of the Omaha, Osage, Kaw, and Ponca, traveled up river until they reached the mouth of the Missouri and they dwelled near present-day St. Louis for many years. How long they stayed in the area as one tribe varied, with each present-day tribe venturing west and north at intervals. Only when the Osage occupied southwest and south-central Missouri does the historic record of the tribe begin. Thus, for the Osage, the migration stories indicate that among the Dhegiha, the Osage inhabited the St. Louis region for the longest period of time.
From the 1920s onward, the archeological record and identity of the Osage have intrigued scholars. As recently as 1993, Susan Vehik and Dale Henning (separately) reassessed the Dhegiha origins studies. They examined current archeological data and scrutinized all lines of evidence to determine Dhegiha origins. Vehik reasoned that even given some differences between the Dhegiha tribes’ migration stories, “all of the available oral histories from the Dhegihan Sioux center on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers.”6 According to Vehik, a Dhegiha origin from the Ohio Valley accounts for the wide-ranging similarities among the Dhegiha tribes and also between the Dhegiha tribes and the Mississippi Valley Siouan, Algonkian, and even some of the southeastern groups.7 Henning came to a similar interpretation. He relied on the tribes’ own migration legends, linguistic analyses, history, and ethnohistory, and concluded that an ancestral Dhegiha locus is most likely in the Ohio River Valley with the tribes migrating west of the Mississippi River and then splitting into their respective tribes. 8
In the past decade and a half, other anthropologists and archeologists proposed a Dhegiha affiliation to the earthen mounds located in the St. Louis area. In many instances they specifically cited the Osage as the tribe with a strong association with the St. Louis/Cahokia Mississippian culture.9 Besides migration traditions, the evidence examined included: the use of mounds, house structure, village organization, war trophies, combat weaponry, subsistence practices, iconography (pottery, ceremonial objects, and rock art), religious practices, cosmology, and social structure-moiety systems with clans and bands.
The Osage people and their society governed a vast area of what is now Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The current Osage Nation Reservation is in northeastern Oklahoma, but it has been established that the ancestors of the Osage were among those who constructed the mounds in the St. Louis area, including Sugarloaf Mound and the complex at Cahokia. In a display of historic justice and bittersweet irony, the Osage Nation reclaimed Sugarloaf Mound by purchasing a significant portion of the property with assistance from the Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office and Principal Chief Jim Gray.
The tremendous amount of the Osage Tribe’s history that has been lost due to the demolition of ancestral homes, villages, and, most significantly, the mounds in the St. Louis area other than Sugarloaf is devastating. Hundreds of years were erased from the landscape. Moreover, from an Osage perspective, the mounds are sacred. Many of the earthen mounds are burial places. As with most cultures, the Osage consider it sacrilegious to disturb burial places and an unconscionable act to destroy one. Although Sugarloaf Mound may not be a burial mound, it is sacred nonetheless. The Osage, therefore, consider it an honor to protect the last mound of their ancestors in St. Louis for all of the tribes that are heirs of the Mississippian culture.
Now that the mound is secure, the intention is to remove the house and develop the location as an interpretive, educational center where the significance of Sugarloaf Mound and the full history of Mound City from the Osage’s perspective can be told. While the tribe cannot bring back what was so mindlessly destroyed, they can guide the future of Sugarloaf Mound and, with it, teach the citizens of St. Louis about where they live.
About the Author
Andrew B. Weil is the Assistant Director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis and can be reached by telephone (314-421-6474) and by email (email@example.com); Andrea A. Hunter (Osage) is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Osage Nation and can be reached by telephone (918-287-5328) and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org ).
The Osage Nation is extremely thankful to Congressman Russ Carnahan for including the Osage Nation in this unique preservation effort and allowing us a lead voice in the process. The Osage Nation also is very thankful for all of the support given to this project by Congressman Carnahan’s staff, the St. Louis preservation foundations, local archeologists, and government offices, both city and state, as well as the Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis, which donated $5000 to the preservation effort. As the first phase of preservation planning begins, the City of St. Louis has provided a grant opportunity and local Missouri Archaeology Society members are keeping diligent watch over the property. The Osage Nation is grateful for all the support shown by these agencies and individuals, Way-we-nah (which is a special version of thank you for doing something sincerely meaningful).
1. The Woodland Period encompasses the years from about 1000 BCE to 900 CE, while the Mississippian Period begins in 900 and extends through 1550.
2. Louis F. Burns, A History of the Osage People (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 3-22; James Owen Dorsey, “Migrations of Siouan Tribes,” American Naturalist 20, no. 3 (1886): 214-22; Albert Gallatin, A Synopsis of the Indian Tribes within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, and in the British and Russian Possessions in North America (1836; NY: AMS Press, 1973), 127; Francis La Flesche, “Omaha and Osage Traditions of Separation,” Proceedings of the Nineteenth International Congress on Americanists 19 (1917): 459-62; and Thomas Nuttall, A Journal of Travels into the Arkansa Territory during the Year 1819: with Occassional Observations on the Manners of the Aborigines; Illustrated by a Map and Other Engravings (1821; facsimile ed., March of America Facsimile Series 63, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966), 82-83.
3. Several linguists have studied the different Siouan language stocks and have attempted to identify the root source of the Siouan languages, including the Dhegiha Sioux. See James W. Springer and Stanley R. Witkowski, “Siouan Historical Linguistics and Oneota Archaeology,” in Oneota Studies, ed. Guy E. Gibbon (Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, 1982), 69-83. Studies such as Springer and Witkowski’s help in understanding tribal migrations across the landscape. All tribes have origin and migration stories so the close linguistically-related tribes’ stories can help us to understand the relationships amongst them all.
4. Dorsey, 211-22.
5. Dorsey, 215-16. Although all five Dhegiha tribes have migration stories and they vary in some aspects, they all agree on an eastern origin.
6. Susan C. Vehik, “Dhegiha Origins and Plains Archaeology.” Plains Anthropologist 38 (1993): 232.
7. Vehik, 246.
8. Dale R. Henning, “The Adaptive Patterning of the Dhegiha Sioux,” Plains Anthropologist 38 (1993): 253, 260-62.
9. Garrick A. Bailey, ed., The Osage and the Invisible World: From the Works of Francis La Flesche (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955), 3; Garrick A. Bailey, “Continuity and Change in Mississippian Civilization,” in Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, ed. Richard F. Townsend (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 87-91; James A. Brown, “The Cahokian Expression,” in Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, 118-19; James A. Brown, “On the Identity of the Birdman within Mississippian Period Art and Iconography,” in Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography, ed. F. Kent Reilly III and James F. Garber (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 56-106; Carol Diaz-Granados, “Marking Stone, Land, Body, and Spirit,” in Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, 143-47; David H. Dye, “Art, Ritual, and Chiefly Warfare in the Mississippian World,” in Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, 198, 203; Robert L. Hall, “The Cahokia Site and Its People,” in Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, 98-100, 102-03; Alice Beck Kehoe, “Osage Texts and Cahokia Data,” in Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms, 246-61; John E. Kelly, “Redefining Cahokia: Principles and Elements of Community Organization,” The Wisconsin Archeologist 77 (1996): 97, 106-14; John E. Kelly, “The Ritualization of Cahokia: The Structure and Organization of Early Cahokia Crafts,” in Leadership and Polity in Mississippian Society, ed. Brian M. Butler and Paul D. Welch, Occasional Papers No. 33, Center for Archaeological Investigations (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2006), 241-56; Mark F. Seeman, “Hopewell Art in Hopewell Places,” in Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, 57.