Cote Brilliante Avenue: A Modern Street with Connections to a Historic Civilization
Updated: Mar 8
Cote Brilliante is a normal St. Louis street in almost every aspect, except for its name. While there are many streets with French names in St. Louis, this one has the special distinction of being far older than the city itself. Cote Brilliante means “Bright Hill” in French, and it refers to an earthen structure built by local Native Americans between the 7th to 12th centuries, long before the arrival of the French.
The structure this name refers to no longer exists, having been destroyed at some point in the past, a sadly common fate that it shares with many similar sites in the St. Louis area. But there are over eighty local sites that have been preserved, offering a unique insight into the culture and practices of those who built them.
Mound building, as historians refer to it, was one of the cultural cornerstones of the pre-Columbian civilizations in the Mississippian Culture. It is believed that these mounds were built for cultural or religious purposes, as many of them bear signs of once housing vast structures. These are believed to have been the dwellings of their religious leaders.
The term “Mississippian Culture” is slightly misleading, as these civilizations existed far beyond the confines of the Mississippi River Valley. In fact, it was one of the more widespread pre-Columbian cultures of North America. These sites exist as far north as Minnesota and Wisconsin, and as far south as Georgia, a range of well over a thousand miles.
If you want to see an example of this interesting and vibrant culture and their impressive earthen works, you don’t have to travel a thousand miles. You don’t even have to travel fifty. For just a mere twenty minutes by car from campus, lies the largest pre-Columbian earthen work in the western hemisphere. As well as being the former site of the most populous Native American city north of Mexico.
Cahokia Mounds has been a state historic site since 1979, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982. Located in the vicinity of Collinsville, Illinois, and of course Cahokia, Illinois. It was founded around the year 700 C.E. With a population estimated to be up to 40,000, at its peak, it was larger than the city of London at the time. This immense population would also place it as almost the size of Belleville, the largest city in modern Southern Illinois
At the center of this ancient metropolis, is Monks Mound. The aforementioned largest pre-Columbian earthen work in the western hemisphere. The mound itself is over one hundred feet tall and made up of an estimated twenty-five million cubic feet of dirt. This impressive feat is thought to have been completed between the years of 900 and 1200, well within the city’s golden age. During this period, it was an immense economic force, with archaeologists finding goods and materials that originated from all over eastern North America. Including, but not limited to, the Gulf of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and even as far east as the Appalachians.
Despite their vast achievements, this era of prosperity did not last forever. By the late 1300s, the people of Cahokia had abandoned the settlement and had begun assimilating with other local tribes, leaving behind their marvels of human ingenuity.
Historians have debated what caused this exodus, but the most widely accepted theory is as follows. Due to their large and ever-growing population, the residents of the area put a large amount of stress on the land. Clearing large swaths of forests and turning them into farmland upset the delicate river valley ecosystem. This led to unseasonable flooding, damaging the city’s already precarious food supply. Archaeologists also found evidence of extensive fortifications in the area. This implies a large external threat as well, that may have contributed to the collapse of the city.
Though the mound that Cote Brilliante was named for is gone, as well as the many others that used to populate the St. Louis area, the staff at Cahokia Mounds are dedicated to preserving this site for generations to come. This is not always an easy task, as erosion has become an increasingly large problem in recent years. But Cahokia Mounds itself has existed for over a thousand years, and with the proper care and maintenance, it will be around for its 2000-year anniversary, some 678 years from now.
Cahokia Mounds offers an important look into the history of the St. Louis area. But words alone could hardly describe how amazing this site truly is. If you’re interested, I recommend visiting the site for yourself. Its free admission and proximity to campus make it a great day trip for anyone interested in history and culture.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Mississippian culture". Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Aug. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mississippian-culture. Accessed 17 February 2022.
Woods, William I.. "Cahokia Mounds". Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Feb. 2016, https://www.britannica.com/place/Cahokia-Mounds. Accessed 17 February 2022.