Popular images of the first Thanksgiving typically portray peaceful tableaus of Europeans and Indigenous people, chowing down in camaraderie and contentment. Whether this meal actually happened is almost irrelevant; what’s perhaps most important to remember is that before Europeans arrived in the New World, people were living here, and probably lots more than we might have thought.
In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, author Charles C. Mann challenged generally accepted population figures for North America before Columbus. Previously, native populations had been estimated to be as low as 18 million people; Mann put the indigenous population as high as 60 million. Though many met their end by sword and musket, more perished by imported diseases, and an exact death toll is impossible to determine. Mann believes that underestimating the number of those who perished during the European invasion was perhaps one way to mollify the guilt of those who felt guilt for the widespread carnage.
A tangible reminder of the vast populations that once lived in North American can be found in the material remains of massive, pyramid-centric cities in both what is now Mexico and…Collinsville, Illinois.
Cahokia is a massive complex of pyramids and smaller earthen mounds in Illinois, right across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Built around 1,000 A.D., Cahokia is believed to be the principal city of Mississippian civilization, which stretched all along the Mississippi River and was represented by many pyramid-centered communities.
The population of Cahokia has been estimated to be as high as 20,000, a little less than the population of modern day Maywood. What remains of this metropolis are a series of mounds, a reconstructed circular solar calendar, and one massive pyramid, Monk’s Mound, home to French missionaries after the indigenous population dispersed. Monk’s Mound’s base is about the size of the base of the Giza pyramid. It’s really big, but unlike Egyptian pyramids, the great pyramid of Cahokia is made of soil, and so, over time, it “slumped” and became overgrown.
During the middle of the last century, the main plaza of Cahokia became – unbelievably – the site of a housing development and a drive-in movie theater. Then the land was reclaimed and named a UNESCO National Heritage site. You can visit Cahokia year-round, and as November is Native American Heritage Month, this is a perfect time for a short drive to the St. Louis area to remember and reflect on those who once lived where we’re living now.
On Thanksgiving, many of us will be enjoying squash, corn, and beans; Indigenous people called these foods the “three sisters,” and they shared them with European colonists who, to be blunt, showed their appreciation by making their hosts history.
You could day trip to Cahokia; if you want to stay overnight, there are many options in St. Louis, once called “Mound City,” a reflection of the many gigantic mounds, bulldozed to make way for what would soon be proclaimed the Gateway to the West.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
30 Ramey Dr., Collinsville, IL 62234