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Native Americans built pyramids in the U.S. and conducted commerce by canoe

A thousand years ago, Native Americans built a city with large pyramids in the heart of the Midwest, and used the city as the center of a vast network of commerce carried by canoe.

“They used canoes to carry furs, jewelry, ceremonial feathers, dried meat, herbs, and other valued items,” says Eric Leaper, executive director of the National Organization for Rivers, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “Their trading network stretched from Montana to Ohio.”

The ancient pyramids are now known as Cahokia Mounds, located in Illinois just east of the Mississippi River. Archeologists suspect that when the city was in its prime, the pyramids were covered with stone, but in the centuries since then, the stones were removed for use in other building projects. Today, the mounds are covered only with grass.

Native Americans also built pyramids, smaller in size, and used canoes for fishing and trading, near present-day St. Augustine, Florida. “People tend to think of pyramids as being in Central America, in connection with the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, not as being right here in the United States,” Leaper says.

“It turns out that Native Americans were in the fur trade for centuries before the arrival of Europeans,” he says. “British and French fur traders simply connected the existing Native American fur trade to new markets in Europe.”

Leaper and his colleagues recently completed a book on the development of river uses and river law, titled Public Rights on Rivers. The book is available at the website nationalrivers.org. The site also includes a “river law handout” that users can download and print.

“The same rivers that they used back then are still public rivers today,” Leaper says. “When the United States was first formed, the first act of the first Congress declared that the rivers that were navigable in canoes and similar craft must remain ‘forever free’ to the public, including the portage routes around obstructions and waterfalls. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed public rights to use rivers for canoeing, fishing, duck hunting, and walking along the banks.”
florida dugout canoe

The remains of a dugout canoe used centuries ago by Native Americans near what is now St. Augustine, Florida. Craftsmen made canoes such as this one by using fire and tools to scrape out the inside of a single large log, cut from the trunk of a cypress tree. (Public domain photo.)
florida native americans

Artist’s conception of small pyramids, canoes, and fishing in a Native American town near present-day St. Augustine, Florida, around the year 1500.
cahokia canoes

Artist’s conception of the canoes and pyramids of a Native American city that thrived around the year 1200, near present-day St. Louis, Missouri. (From the website cahokiamounds.org.)
cahokia network

Map showing the vast network of canoe trading conducted from a Native American city near what is now St. Louis, around the year 1200. (From the website cahokiamounds.org.)

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