Report #6 from Sacagawea: June 23, 2001



Great River Road:
Sacagawea: 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?

The 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 More.

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 changed.

Piasa Bird:
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.

Louis Joliet and Pere Jacques Marquette:
Sacagawea: 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 other (right).

Cahokia Mounds:
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.

These 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.

Illinois is sometimes called the Prairie State --

Abe: It is the Land of Lincoln!

Sacagawea: 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 movement. The 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 feet.

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). Englarged Photo and Description

Sacagawea: This is indeed true, Mr. President, so everyone can see the beauty of the grasslands.


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