Prairiefire: The Illinois Country Before 1818
By James E. Lewis, Jr., PhD, Kalamazoo College
Seven centuries before Jackson, Illinois was home to one of the most amazing civilizations ever seen in the Americas. At Cahokia, across the Mississippi from St. Louis, a city of some five to ten thousand people had emerged at the end of the first millenium A.D. The northwestern outpost of the Mississippian culture, Cahokia was a city of flat-topped mounds, extensive trading networks, and complex political, religious, and social systems. When the American Henry M. Brackenridge visited the remains of the city in the early 1800s, he was amazed: "When I reached the foot of the principal mound, I was struck with a degree of astonishment, not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids." Surrounding this mound, which rose to one-hundred feet in elevation, were hundreds of smaller mounds and four or five large, level "plazas."
Native Americans who had visited the site two centuries earlier would have been no less amazed. After some five hundred years, Cahokia--a metropolis of thousands of people, surrounded by a once-thriving rural hinterland--had been abandoned in the late fifteenth century (just before Columbus "discovered" the New World). Southern Illinois may have been almost entirely vacated in the wake of Cahokia's collapse. The peoples who resettled the area in the mid-sixteenth century may not have known much more about the advanced culture that had once lived there than Henry Brackenridge did.