Our Favorite Sites is an occasional new feature of Historyplaces where I ask public historians to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors.
Carolyn Gilman is Senior Exhibit Developer at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Before this, she worked as a historian at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. She led the development of Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition.
If you had to choose one favorite historic site, which one would you choose and what about it interests you?
My favorite historic site is the misnamed Cahokia Mounds outside St. Louis. When I lived in St. Louis, I never tired of bringing visitors there and blowing their minds. That is because Cahokia upends our entire construction of North American history. When people stand atop Monk’s Mound, they can see that the bedrock concepts they learned about America are false.
One of those bedrock concepts is that European settlers arrived to find a new land–an untouched wilderness–in North America. True, there were scattered Indian tribes living by hunting and gathering, but they had already been decimated by disease and had never progressed beyond a nomadic stage of cultural evolution. They were what the 18th century called “natural man” and we presently call “ecologically aware” (essentially the same concept)–children of nature whose impact on the environment was so benign that they had preserved the wilderness while living in it. They did not “improve” the land like Europeans did, by farming or fencing, much less building roads and cities. Moreover, they had been living this way since time immemorial. There was no Deep Time in America, as there was in the “Old World.” There were no ancient civilizations as there were in Egypt, Greece, and Italy. There were no ruins or statues, not even any neolithic monuments like Stonehenge.
It was necessary for Europeans to believe this because it justified their actions in taking over the land. If it was a wilderness, it didn’t belong to anyone, so it might as well belong to the immigrants. It was easier for them to believe this when settlement was confined to the East Coast. But as soon as they started crossing the Appalachian Mountains, they started encountering strange things that contradicted all their assumptions. There were monumental ruins after all—stone tombs housing skeletons buried with offerings, geometric shapes drawn on the land and aligned to the sun and moon, towering pyramidal monuments bigger than the pyramids of Giza. Clearly, they were looking at the remains of a lost civilization that had risen and fallen, like Rome, but in the American midwest. (Now we know there were successive waves of civilizations and that they dated back as far as Rome.)
But did they revise their ideas about the history of North America? Not on your life. Instead, they tried to deny, explain away, and even destroy the evidence. There was just too much at stake—the entire justification for the peopling of the United States. In the 18th century they raided and destroyed the tombs. In the 19th century they seriously argued that huge pyramidal and conical structures arranged around a central plaza were natural in origin, because wandering savages were clearly not capable of building such structures. In St. Louis, the site of a major city was systematically demolished, its demise captured on silver plates by a daguerreotypist. The fact that most people today don’t know of the Deep Time of the American continent is no accident. It was a deliberate coverup.
Except for Cahokia. Evidence of this major capital city, which is estimated to have been bigger than London or Paris at the time of its heyday, managed to survive because it was located in a backwater area of the Mississippi flood plain. Only in the 1950s and 1960s did it become seriously endangered when they wanted to build a freeway through the largest pyramid in North America, and people woke up. Now it is a Unesco World Heritage site, but still suffers from ignorance and neglect. The dismissive name for the monuments—mounds—implies that all they amount to is heaps of dirt. The fact that they are sculpted, engineered, and massive is lost, until you see them.
When visitors stand on the windswept top platform of the largest structure at Cahokia, seeing for dozens of miles around, they are floored. The tens of thousands who lived there, the civil engineering accomplishments, the continent-spanning trade networks, the art, the religion, the political structures—how could this all have been erased from our consciousness?
This is how historic sites can act as evidence to change our entire conception of who we are and where we live.