Lewis and Clark and the Journey West
In May of 1804, William Clark, the newly formed Corps of Discovery, and Meriwether Lewis met at St. Charles, Missouri. The assembled party of forty-five included twenty-seven unmarried soldiers, a French interpreter, Captain Lewis’s beloved dog Seaman, and another group of soldiers who would accompany them to Mandan country during the first winter of the expedition.
The Missouri and Mississippi Valley area was home to thousands of mounds in prehistory. These mounds were of great curiosity to antiquarian thinkers of colonial America. Because they were believed to be more than just Native American burials, a closer investigation of these mounds was of high importance.
The first mound that the Corps of Discovery came upon was Spirit Mound, which was said by various local tribes to be haunted. According to the natives, the mound was guarded by eighteen-inch-tall little devils. Lewis thought further investigation necessary.
Jaw slack in amazement, Lewis made the following entry dated August 25, 1804:
From the top of this Mound we beheld a most butifull landscape; Numerous herds of buffalow were Seen feeding in various directions, the Plain to the N. W & N E extends without interuption as far as Can be Seen--.
After Lewis and company returned to camp, they briefly considered hiking the lands beyond Spirit Mound but decided the heat would make it dangerous. They continued upriver the next morning and never looked back. If they had ventured just a little farther, they would have crossed paths with America’s biggest pre-Columbian mystery.
The Cahokia Mounds are a gigantic complex settlement of ancient mounds that includes Monks Mound. Best known for large, man made earthen structures, the city of Cahokia was inhabited from about 700 to 1400 CE. Built by ancient peoples known casually as the Mound Builders, Cahokia’s original population was thought to have been only about 1,000 until about the eleventh century, when it expanded to tens of thousands.
At its apex, estimated between 1,100 to 1,200 CE, the city covered nearly six square miles and hosted a population of as many as a hundred thousand people. These ancient natives are said to have built more than 120 earthen mounds in the city, 109 of which have been recorded and 68 of which are preserved within the site. While some are no more than a gentle rise on the land, others reach 100 feet into the sky. A rapid decline in the Cahokian population is said to have begun sometime after 1200 CE.
By 1400 CE, the site heralded as hosting the most magnificent pre-Columbian city north of Mexico was barren. Theories abound as to what led to the seemingly catastrophic decline of the civilization, including war, disease, drought, and sudden climate change. Archaeologists scratch their heads when considering the fact that there are no legends, records, or mention of the magnificent city in the annals of other local tribes, including the Osage, Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw.
The largest earthwork at the historical site, called Monks Mound, is at the center. At least 100 feet tall, it is the largest manmade, prehistoric mound in North America. The mound is 1,000 feet long, 800 feet wide, and composed of four platform terraces. Archaeologists estimated that 22 million cubic feet of earth was used to build the mound between the years of 900 and 1,200 CE. Since then, the mound has eroded or been damaged to the point that no one knows how large the mound really was.
Even more curious than the existence and seemingly sudden disappearance of a vast culture is the surprising discovery of what appears to be a massive stone structure lying hidden below the massive Monks Mound.
On January 24, 1998, while drilling to construct a water drainage system at Monks Mound, workers hit a thirty-two-foot-long stone structure. “This is astounding,” said William I. Woods, professor of geography and courtesy professor of anthropology at Kansas University. Woods led the investigation of the mystery structure. “The stone is at least 32 feet (10 meters) long in one of its dimensions,” he wrote. “It is buried about 40 feet below the surface of a terrace on the western side of Monk’s Mound and well above the mound’s bottom.”
Woods noted that even if the structure turned out to be just a large slab of stone, it would still be a dramatic find, because the nearest source of stone was more than ten miles from Cahokia, which lies approximately twenty miles southeast of St. Louis. In fact, no stones had ever been found at the site other than those used to craft primitive tools, weapons, and artifacts.
While Lewis didn’t get to see Cahokia, he did wander into the mounds at Grave Creek. After Lewis’s vivid descriptions of these mounds in his journal and his documentation of finding brass beads in a burial site, the journal is abruptly cut off. It remains unexplained why everything in the journals of Lewis is detailed meticulously until the topic of mounds is mentioned. Then begins a series of strange omissions or missing pages. Gary Moulton elaborates:
More difficult to explain is Lewis’s lack of journal-keeping once the expedition got underway. No Lewis journals are known to exist that cover the first phase of the expedition, from May 14, 1804, until the group left Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805. This is the longest hiatus in Lewis’s writing and to historians it is the most curious gap.
Above the surface, scholars teach that the mounds are the works of the Native Americans. But below the surface another tale is emerging as a growing number of scholars come forth with evidence that points to a prehistoric civilization that predates the Native American. Did Meriwether Lewis discover evidence of advanced cultures that might have undermined the moral foundation of the planned westward expansion of the United States of America?