This past week it was my pleasure to conduct my companions, Robert
E., Ulysses, and Abe up the Great River Road.
This is an American Scenic Byway that runs up the eastern bank of
the Mississippi River in the state of Illinois. Photo:
The four of us on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
From this height the river looks like a pale blue, but it is actually
chocolate brown in color. We are seated atop a small wall made from
the local limestone.
Ulysses: She woke us up at the
crack of dawn for this escapade. Doesn't she know the war is over
and generals like to sleep late?
Father of Waters (Mississippi River):
Sacagawea: On the contrary, my general of the North, the early morning
is the best time to begin an adventure. To continue -- my people
have always called the Mississippi River "The Father of Waters"
since it is the second longest river in the United States.
Did you know the Missouri River
is the longest river in the U.S.? The Missouri River is 2,540 miles
long, and the Mississippi River is 2,340 miles long. Read
Ulysses: And it was of vital importance during
the Civil War. The side who controlled the Mississippi would win,
as I demonstrated so well at the Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi,
in July, 1863.
Robert E.: You promised not to discuss the
War on the weekends!
Abe: Gentlemen, gentlemen! Cease and desist
this unbecoming debate. Let us give Saqui our fullest attention.
Sacagawea: Thank you for your kindness, Mr.
President. As I was saying, the Mississippi is also known as "Old
Man River" and the "Big Muddy." And you are correct, general of
the North, whomever rules this river, controls the destiny of the
country -- a lesson my people never did understand. And so our world
Limestone bluffs line the river's bank at various places. Above
the town of Alton, Illinois, a very fierce monster is painted on
the side of one of these bluffs. It
is called the Piasa (pronounced pie-A-saw) Bird,
though it is also part-cat, part-deer, and part-dragon. Native
Americans who lived in the Mississippi River valley long, long before
the more modern tribes arrived in the area painted it in ancient
times. The Piasa Bird was reputed to be a man-eater. The legend
says my ancestors painted the bird on the bluff just at the junction
of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers so young braves, traveling
on the rivers by canoe, could show their prowess by shooting arrows
at the painting as they passed by it. An early French explorer,
Louis Joliet, made the first written record of the Piasa Bird in
the 1670's. Joliet even drew a copy of the strange painting in his
journal. Sadly, the original Piasa Bird was blasted away from the
rock face in the late 1800's to make way for the new road. After
an outcry from the people of Alton, the Piasa was repainted on the
remaining bluff where it is seen today. The country that is home
to Alton and the Bird is known as Piasa County. The people there
are very proud of their monster. Photo:
Postcard of the great Piasa Bird.
Abe: It looks like something out of a nightmare.
Joliet and Pere Jacques Marquette:
Continuing up the Great River Road, we came to a large stone cross
mounted on a low bluff. This cross marks the very spot where Louis
Joliet and the French Jesuit missionary, Pere (meaning Father) Jacques
Marquette first landed in the modern
State of Illinois. It is believed Joliet and Marquette were the
first Europeans to travel the Mississippi River from its confluence
with the Wisconsin River to the mouth of the Arkansas River. Of
course, my people had known about the Father of Waters for centuries.
There is a lovely statue of Pere Marquette at the state park named
in his honor. Photos:
Postcard of the statue of Pere Marquette (left). A picture of myself
in the good father's hand; he is holding a pipe of peace in the
Returning down the Great River Road, we came to the Cahokia Mounds,
another wondrous thing made by ancient
Native Americans, known to archeologists as the Mississippians.
The mounds are all that remain of an ancient city that was the capital
of the Mississippian culture from 700 to 1400 AD. Scholars estimate
this mysterious city once covered six square miles and had a population
as large as 20,000 at its peak. The populace grew corn as its staple
food in large fields that surrounded the city.
What makes Cahokia so unusual is the large
mounds, made of earth that the people constructed over hundreds
of years. Originally, there were 120 of them in various shapes and
sizes, but only 109 of them remain today. The Cahokia State Historic
Site preserves 68 of them.
mounds were thought to have been used as platforms for religious
temples, for the homes of the elite, and the largest one of all
belonged to the ruler. This huge earthwork is called Monks Mound,
and it is the largest mound north of the Aztec stone mounds in Mexico.
It is also the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the entire
New World. The height of the mound at the top of its fourth terrace
is 100 feet. On a clear day visitors can see the city of St. Louis
twelve miles away from the top. The area of the base of Monks Mound
is larger than the base area of the Great Pyramid in the land of
Egypt. It is estimated this mound alone contains 22 million cubic
feet of earth -- all of it dug by the people and carried on their
backs in large baskets! The construction took hundreds of years
to complete, and it is a wonder of geometric architecture. Photo:
Mary and me with Monks Mound in the background.
The mound is over a half-mile away from us. There is a telephone
pole in front of it that will give you the general idea of its height.
Robert E.: Being an engineer myself, I was
particularly impressed by the sheer magnitude of the undertaking.
Ulysses: You would, Robert E.! During the
War, I heard tell that your soldiers sometimes called you the King
of Spades for all the trench digging you made them do.
Robert E.: Trenches were very important for
the safety of my men.
Abe: Peace, gentlemen, after
all, it is a Saturday. Saqui has not finished her talk.
Sacagawea: In 1982, the United
Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
designated the Cahokia Mounds as a World Heritage Site for its importance
to the understanding of prehistoric North America. There are fewer
than 20 World Heritage sites in the United States, so this is indeed
a great honor.
Abe: And yet few modern Americans
have ever heard of Cahokia.
Sacagawea: Perhaps that is because
the Mississippians lived in peace. It is the battlefields that always
attract the tourists.
is sometimes called the Prairie State --
Abe: It is the Land of Lincoln!
True, Mr. President, but before there was an Abraham Lincoln, there
was the prairie -- an ocean of grass covering many states that once
was the largest grassland in the world. In Illinois alone there
was an estimated 22 million acres of prairie. Sadly, farming, industry,
and cities have all but wiped out the prairie. Nowadays, Illinois
has less than 2,300 acres of prairie left. To save these historic
grasslands from extinction, several of the prairie states, including
Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Indiana, have started a joint conservation
Illinois Department of Transportation has planted traditional grasses
and flowers along all of its major highways. These Prairie Corridors
are thriving and encouraging the wildlife that feeds on these plants.
Photos: Mary and me amid a swath of prairie
grass and flowers. The beautiful flowers are called purple
coneflowers and are at their height of flowering in late June and
July. Some of the grasses behind us will reach a height of five
Abe: I would like to point out
that in 2001, the U.S. Post Office has issued a beautiful sheet
of first class stamps depicting the flora and fauna of the prairie.
Photo: U.S. Post Office, Great Plains Prairie
-- Nature of America Stamps (Third in a Series).
Sacagawea: This is indeed true,
Mr. President, so everyone can see the beauty of the grasslands.
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