Americans don't reckon with history well, especially when it comes to the indigenous people our forefathers displaced (and worse) in order to live on this land. Growing up in New Haven County, I remember being taught a lot about the local Quinnipiacks and other Algonquin peoples who once inhabited the area — but their story always kind of mysteriously (and conveniently) faded away around the late 1700s. As I've gotten older, I've learned more about the American Indian Movement, and how recent so much of our nation's abuses of Native Americans really were. I've also learned more about the actual beliefs and capabilities of some of those indigenous nations, which hardly fit the "Noble Savage" stereotypes that are often thrown around.
About a thousand years ago, a city grew in the floodplain known as the American Bottom, just east of what is now St. Louis in Illinois. In a matter of decades, it became the continent's largest population center north of Mexico, with perhaps 15,000 people in the city proper and twice as many people in surrounding areas. A couple centuries after its birth it went into decline, and by 1400 it was deserted.
The story of Cahokia has mystified archaeologists ever since they laid eyes on its earthen mounds—scores of them, including a 10-story platform mound that until 1867 was the tallest manmade structure in the United States. They don't know why Cahokia formed, why it grew so powerful, or why its residents migrated away, leaving it to collapse. Hypotheses are abundant, but data are scarce.
Typical US history curriculums might acknowledge that Aztecs and Incans had some pretty cool cities. But there's certainly no mention of any city-like structures in the modern-day United States. On the contrary: American history justifies so many atrocities explicitly on the grounds that indigenous Americans were not "civilized" enough to build permanent settlements (as if "permanence" is a formal requirement for being "civilized").
As I now know, the remaining mounds of Cahokia are still a historic site in Missouri that you can visit. Hopefully, that means that some of that Native American history is accurately taught in some parts of the area — or at least, that history teachers acknowledge that there were actual cities in North America long before Columbus "discovered" the continent by accidentally crashing into an island in the Bahamas that shares the same tectonic plate.
Anyway. You should learn more about Cahokia if you aren't already familiar. This National Geographic piece is a great place to start.
Why was the ancient city of Cahokia abandoned? New clues rule out one theory. [Glenn Hodges / National Geographic]
Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons