Archaeological digs at Cahokia Mounds

Cahokia Tools on display at Cahokia Visitor’s Center/Museum
Photo by Roseanne McKee


By Roseanne McKee

Republished with permission of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise

Last week’s article provided an introduction to Cahokia located near St. Louis, Mo. This week’s column details past archaeological digs at Cahokia.

Archaeologists at Cahokia excavated an area that had previously been used as a drive-in movie theater in the 1980s. They dug down until they reached the level of the Mississippian period over an area covering several hundred square miles. There were many houses there. When the archaeologists find something it is called a feature, such as a circular area of discolored soil that indicates a storage bin, the museum’s archaeology exhibit video narrator explained.

“At Cahokia the small arrowheads found in mound 72 … we have an idea that these materials are from an area near the Spiro site in Oklahoma — some hundreds of miles away,” the archaeologist on the museum video said, which shows Cahokia’s link to Oklahoma.

“Over the years there have been many field investigations at Cahokia, including the excavation of mound 72 and the dig that revealed Woodhenge,” the archaeologist on video said. “In the 70s a highway project led to the most massive field investigation ever conducted in this region. Many communities from Cahokia’s time were found allowing scientists to study how these smaller towns interacted with their much larger neighbors. Field investigations of a site, which occur just before a site is to be destroyed by construction, are called salvage archaeology.”

Another example of salvage archaeology is the location of the Cahokia museum itself.

“A thorough investigation of this site had to be conducted before construction of this site could begin,” the video narrator explained.

Because it is some distance from Monks Mound, the greatest mound, the excavation of mound 72 revealed information about how ordinary people lived. The careful collection and excavation was meticulous work, but necessary to increase knowledge of Cahokia, the video narrator said.

Monks Mound (mound 38) received its name from the group of Trappist Monks who lived on one of the nearby mounds, according to the Cahokia website. “The Monks never lived on the biggest mound but gardened its first terrace and nearby areas,” the Cahokia website states.

Once archaeological finds were gathered, follow-up work took place in the laboratory, which included: identifying, cleaning, labeling the fragments found and preparing them for analysis.

The archaeological remains from the dig were highly fragmented, even stone tools, the video explained. Tools, such as hoes and spears and arrowheads, were studied to determine the time period they are from and what they were used for.

Bones from the site are compared with modern animals to help identify them — for example a white-tailed deer’s bones are compared with the bones found in the dig.

Similar work takes place in the botanist lab where plants/seeds found are compared with today’s plants and seeds.

In this excavation, archaeologists learned that the diets of people had declined as their intake of carbohydrates increased over time.

The reason Cahokia began to decline sometime in the 13th or early 14th century remains a mystery. The society may also have declined over many years as Cahokia’s authority was challenged.

According to the video overview of Cahokia, “poor nutrition and disease were growing problems. Weather changes and climate, dwindling resources and a growing population or perhaps growing class warfare, conflicts within the group, or from the outside also contributed to the decline.”

Present-day archaeological digs are ongoing and so continue to reveal information about the people who inhabited the 2,200 acres known as Cahokia.

To learn more about Cahokia or to plan a trip, visit the Cahokia website at https://cahokiamounds.org/.

History: Oklahoma takes shape


By Roseanne McKee

Reprinted with permission of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise

A month ago today, May 2, was a significant day in Oklahoma history. It was the day that an Act took effect that provided the initial framework for the land in Oklahoma to be governed.

In the book “Oklahoma’s Governors, 1890-1907” guest editor LeRoy H. Fischer wrote that “on May 2, 1890, Congress passed the Oklahoma Territory Organic Act, which provided for the organization of Oklahoma Territory; from it the present state government of Oklahoma evolved.”

The Organic Act authorized the appointment by President Harrison of a governor, a supreme court consisting of three judges (who also served as district court judges), a legislature with a 26-member House of Representatives, a 13-member Council and a voter-elected delegate to Congress, Fischer said. The laws of Nebraska applied until laws were enacted.

The Act provided that all reservations in Oklahoma territory, when opened to settlement, became part of Oklahoma Territory.

The Act named Guthrie as the territorial capital, Fischer said.

The first election in the territory was held Aug. 5, 1890. Fourteen Republicans, eight Democrats and four People’s Party Alliance members were elected to serve in the House of Representatives. The Council had six Republicans, five Democrats and two People’s Party Alliance members.

Then, on Nov. 4, 1890, an election was held to choose the first territorial delegate to Congress — David A. Harvey.

The Act also “authorized President Harrison to appoint a commission to negotiate with the tribes of western Indian Territory to open their surplus lands for settlement,” Fischer wrote.

The Jerome Commission, as it was called, consisted of David H. Jerome, chair (also the former Michigan governor) Warren G. Sayre of Indiana and Alfred M. Wilson of Arkansas.

Over the next five years, the Commission negotiated with each tribe such that an individual allotment became privately owned by each man, woman and child on the official tribal rolls.

Once that had been accomplished, the surplus land was purchased by the U.S. government to be homesteaded.

A series of land runs followed — Sept. 22, 1891, creating Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties, April 19, 1892, creating six counties (Blaine, Dewey, Day, Roger Mills, Custer and Washita, but Dewey was later abolished by Constitutional Convention) and the largest land run Sept. 16, 1893 of what was known as the Cherokee Outlet, creating seven counties Kay, Pawnee, Noble, Grant, Garfield, Woods and Woodward (with others added later by Constitutional Convention).
Additionally, land was reserved for higher education institutions, and public buildings in section 13.

“In 1895, the surplus Kickapoo lands were opened to homeseekers, but so little land was available that the Kickapoos received allotments of only eighty acres each,” Fischer said.

Sooners were becoming an increasingly big problem and so an alternate lottery method was used when Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Wichita and Caddo surplus lands of more than 2,000,000 acres were opened in August 1901. A one-half section of land in each township was reserved to provide income for public purposes with additional sections in each township set aside for special purposes, Fisher said.

Land located between two rivers was given to Oklahoma Territory by the 1906 Constitutional Convention that had been part of Texas. This added 1,400,000 acres which became Greer, Harmon, Jackson and part of Beckham counties.

Smaller pieces of land became available when Congress dissolved the Ponca, Otoe, Missouria and Kaw reservations.

“The Big Pasture Reserve, made up of land in both Comanche and Tillman counties, was finally sold at auction by sealed bids in 1906,” Fischer wrote. “That same year the Osage Nation was dissolved by Congress, with each tribal member receiving over 500 acres of land.”
At that point, “all reservations west of Indian Territory — the home of the Five Civilized Tribes — became part of Oklahoma Territory by the eve of Oklahoma statehood,” said Fischer.
Those settling in Oklahoma Territory had to find ways to make a living and find enough food, and it wasn’t always easy.
Settlers bartered for basics and sold cut cedar posts to ranchers or followed the wheat harvest north.
Sod homes were common, Fischer explained.
An article by Eric Standridge on the website hubpages.com entitled “Oklahoma History: Pioneer Life in Early Oklahoma” stated that the “settlers’ first homes were very crude one-room houses build out of raw timber.” Later, they build two-story log homes, but most homes had no screens at the door. he said.
“Windows were square places left in the logs and covered with greased paper,” Standridge said, or settlers chose not to have windows at all.

The wild game settlers hunted were — wild turkey, quail and prairie chicken; wild sand plums were plentiful and so became popular for canning and drying, Fischer said.

Standridge added that settlers usually brought enough grain with them to plant crops and at wild turkeys, geese, deer and elk. Prairie chickens were also abundant, Standridge said.

According to the book “Taste of the States: A Food History of America,” pioneer women in Oklahoma invented a stew of rabbit, turnips, and flour gravy, and something called Oklahoma stew made from hard Spanish wheat and beef.

“Wild pecans were used in pie fillings, and Pioneer Pecan Pie became famous all over the states.

“Pickles and preserves were made from watermelon rinds. Watermelons originally grew on Indian farms and were later raised by settlers.”

Smoking and salting meats was essential in those days and cooking was done over an open fire in iron kettles, Standridge said. The kettles were set on tri-cornered iron holders.

“Skillets, pots and tin pans were also used and every family had a huge brass kettle in which they made their soap, apple butter, maple syrup, and rendered out the lard,” Standridge wrote.

Tallow candles made by the family provided light and garments were handmade, he said.

Oklahomans have come a long way since those early days. They stand on the shoulders of their ancestors.

The Oklahoma motto translated from Latin means “labor conquers all things” and as I reflect on Oklahoma’s past, I think it has.