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Sunset Hills and its Prehistoric Past

Mound Builder Indians were the first inhabitants of what is now partly Sunset Hills

In 1976, the Sunset Hills Bicentennial Committee published a booklet outlining the history of Sunset Hills. One of the chapters in the booklet concerned the earliest settlers in the area - the Mound Builder Indians

Information for the booklet was obtained through many personal interviews who shared their memories and initially began as a 3rd Grade project - and Eagle Scout project - by Scott Bessinger.

The entire history is published on the City of Sunset Hills website and can be accessed here.

The following is the chapter on Indian History, as it appears on the city's website:

Anthropologists and Archaeologists have stated that the entire Meramec River Valley is a vast dig. Artifacts have been found from its beginning to its mouth but a great concentration of finding shows us that the land around Fenton and Sunset Hills was especially popular with both Mound Builders, prehistoric, and Historic Indians.

One of the reasons for this is the two big salt springs on either side of the River. Gabriel Cerre ran a salt spring or springs in Sunset Hills. Two different sites are identified as Cerre Springs; one location at Rott and I-270 and the other location on West Watson and Weber Hill Road along the creek on Bilmeier Property. The salt spring or mineral spring by Weber Hill was still in operation in the early 1900's run by Mr. Maag. Jacques Clamorgan bought the land in Fenton containing the other big spring in 1891. This had first been owned by a Hildebrand family in 1777. Since these salt springs were the only source of salt in the area, it is logical to assume that both Mound Builders and Historic Indians would settle in the vicinity of the springs.

The main source of information has been an article written by Edwin W. Mills for the Missouri Archaeologist in 1949. His article was entitled "Some Prehistoric Sites Along the Meramec River As They Appeared Fifty Years Ago". He writes of having been interested in Indian artifacts and was quite a collector even as a young boy, interested enough to have walked and explored the area from down river by Butler Lake to west as far as the town of Pacific. This pamphlet is on file at the Tesson Ferry Branch of the County Library for you to read.

Mr. Mills tells of the Fenton Site #1. He states that the town of Fenton rests upon the remains of a prehistoric settlement of some importance. Early St. Louis history books have pictures of the two big burial mounds that were larger than the mound in the City of St. Louis at Mound Street. He describes the Indian village and workshop as extending from the high banks of the river west to Smizer Creek. Finds included teeth, fragments of bones, potsherds tempered with mussel shells, a few polished stone implements, small worked pieces of hematite, shell beads and flint artifacts. He also described a 500 pound piece of light green granite.

Crossing the river into Sunset Hills, he next describes the Sale Site #2. Judge Joseph Sale farm land now owned by Vogt and Sieveking. Here was a small burial mound. Even though the Sale family had worked the farm all through the 1800's, there was still a small elevation visible. He tells of finding teeth, bones, potsherds, flint artifacts and a large celt of the some light green granite as the one across the river.

Moving northward along West Watson Road he identifies Cerre Spring as the Schultz Site #3. In 1890 the sulfur spring emitted a brackish rivulet which cut through a bottom field and emptied into the Meramec. The flow of the spring had almost been stifled. A large prehistoric salt factory had been located at this place. Fragments of huge bowls or basins of clay tempered with mussel shell littered a field of some eight or ten acres. The potsherds were fairly uniform in thickness (about three-fourths of an inch). On the outside of the pottery fragments were impressions of woven material. When I first visited this field I could have filled a wagon box with these rough potsherds. A few had a crystalline deposit on what had been the bottom of a bowl. Evaporation hastened by boiling may have been accomplished by dropping heated stones into the saline water. Sharf noted that the Mound Builders used and manufactured salt by boiling as evidenced by the masses of large potsherds about he salt springs of Gallatin, Illinois, and near St. Genevieve, Missouri. He further commented that the later Indians knew nothing of the antiseptic and preservative qualities of salt. There was also evidence of a village site and burial ground near the salt spring. Mr. Schultz, the owner told me of plowing into graves, and the soil was charcoal-stained in places. Fragments of small pottery vessels, flint implements and an unfinished feldspar bead were found. I also found the only notched flint hoe I have ever seen form the Meramec Valley on this site. The edge of the hoe showed high soil-polish. The people that lived on the Schultz site like those of the Fenton site, used some polished stone implements and were apparently of the same culture.

This was the Schultz property now owned by Elsworth Breihan. The pasture behind the old Schultz home still yields pre-Columbian potsherds. Felicia Breihan is becoming quite a collector. Just north of this farm on Hoffman property there was a spear-manufacturing plant. The Lenz garage boasts of having an Indian buried under it. It seems that the skeleton was discovered when they were digging to lay a new concrete floor in the garage. Not wanting to disturb him further, they replace the dirt around him. It will be a surprise to someone someday when they unearth this Indian and find flashbulbs in his eye sockets.

The next site Mr. Mills describes is called The Griesedieck Site #5. About a half-mile north of the salt works on a high bench and along the east bank of the river was another cemetery consisting of two rows of limestone slab graves paralleling the stream. The Griesedieck Estate later acquired this land and the graves had not been disturbed. I know of no similar graves farther up the river. This site seems to have marked the most northern boundary of the "stone grave people's domain."

The Francis Lucas farm now owned by George Krumm and his son, Richard Krumm, sit just east of the Griesedieck property. John Krumm, George's father, came to the area in 1891 as a young man to work for Brown Orchid Farms. He brought with him an enormous interest in Indians. He walked and knew the immediate area of Sunset Hills even more thoroughly than Mr. Mills. One of his finds was a set of graves facing east toward the sunrise on the hill called "Indian Hill" or "Griesedieck Hill". In 1925 Mr. Krumm had archaeologists from Washington University examine these graves. An article in the St.Louis Post-dispatch in 1925 described the dig and carried pictures of the event. Unfortunately, there is no record of what happened to the artifacts that were removed from the ten graves and we still do not know the age of the people. There are five graves remaining, in various degrees of deterioration. They are approximately five feet long, eighteen inches deep, and two feet high, One big rock slab covered the top of the grave, the bottom and sides were lined with thin flagstones of limestone. It was a ritual for Boy Scouts of Troop 40 to spend one night on Indian Hill; you can imagine the tales that have grown up around this very special place.

Mr. Mills speculates on whether the settlement had been large or small, of brief or long duration and sums up his article this way:
"Regardless of the mysterious fate of the Indian peoples, these salt springs, probably with a much stronger flow in pre-Columbian times, were located one above and one below Fenton, which seemed to be the center of the settlements. Nearby bottomlands of fertile soil make it an ideal location. The elevation of the Fenton Site, above ordinary floodwaters and its shelter by timbered hills to the west and north, were also valuable features. Furthermore, the clear gravelly creek skirting the rear of the village furnished a never-falling supply of clear water, even when the Meramec River was high and turbid. These prehistoric people were of prodigious energy and vast industry. Their mounds, their potteries and workshops, their salt factories where tons of saline water must have evaporated and their burial grounds to which large slabs of limestone had to be dragged long distances, attest it. They must have crossed the river continually, suggesting that they used canoes or rafts of logs extensively".

The last civilizations of Indians to live here were the Historic Indians. These people did have villages and farmed but were much less industrious and much less intelligent than the great civilization of the Mound Builders. They were hard to control and quite naturally resented the intrusion of white man. While the Spaniards ruled the area they had courts for settling Indian disputes ruled over by a Syndic. Daniel Boone was a Syndic for the area north of the Missouri River. There was a Syndic of Meramec, unidentified, but early records state that five Mascoux raiders were executed for killing a man. In Clamorgan's diary he wrote that the Greater Osage and the Lesser Osage warriors were causing so much trouble it was hard to get settlers to stay in the 1790's.

The census of 1800 shows 450 members of the Missouri Tribe, in and around Fenton. Other tribes mentioned by early history books as being in the area were Delaware, Shawnee, Fox (or Renard), Sauk (Saukee or Sac), Miami, Chickasaw, Pottowatomie, Winnebago, Onondaga, Illinois, Peoria, Pawnee, Kickapoo, Koonce, Cherokee, Dakotah, Padukah and Ohio. It is believed that Pyesa, father of Black Hawk (leader of the Sauk Tribe that worked with the English), was killed at the bend of the Meramec when the Saukees raided a Cherokee camp at the foot of Meramec Highlands.

The name for the river comes from either the Indian word MAHR-AH-MEC meaning "Water of the Bitter Spring" or the Indian word MAH-AH-MAC meaning "Waters of Death". Either name would fit the river. The sulphur springs were certainly bitter and the river was well known for its dangerous whirlpools that claimed the lives of many swimmers.

Lori Scarlett May 14, 2013 at 06:33 PM
Really Interesting- wish you had included a sketch of the area or map.
Dan Barger May 14, 2013 at 09:14 PM
I'd also like to have a sketch of the area but don't know if one exists.

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