On one of many pinnacles along the bluffs lining the Missouri River southwest of Columbia, atop the steep face of jagged rock plunging to the landing, there is an inconspicuous 10-foot lump of earth.
What appears to be a natural point in the landscape — insignificant in the swath of hills and valleys — is a burial mound, formed by human hands thousands of years ago.
American Indian burial mounds abound in mid-Missouri, especially along the blufftops of the river. Many date back 2,000 years or more to what is called the Woodland Period, from about 500 B.C. to about A.D. 900.
With developer Jose Lindner’s purchase of the former W.B. Smith Feed Mill and Hatchery property — 1,024 acres between the city and the river — government officials say city annexation is inevitable. And others say if planning doesn’t precede development, the future of the burial mounds along the blufftops is uncertain at best.
Few protections exist for the prehistoric sites. The federal legislation meant to protect them only applies to development projects that are on federal land or use federal money. State protection only applies to “known” prehistoric sites.
But without an official database, many sites only become known when construction runs into them, at which point archaeologists say the damage is generally already extensive.
Layers of history
While some city and county officials seek ways to protect the burial mounds, development creeps steadily southwest toward the water.
Boone County is home to more recorded burial mounds and other archaeological sites than any other Missouri county, with 1,300 known sites as of Aug. 31.
There are 37,000 known sites in the state, but that’s probably a small fraction of the total, said Judith Deel, an officer with the State Historic Preservation Office.
Burial mounds were typically built on blufftops overlooking rivers or streams. In some cases, mound builders saved the bones of their tribe’s dead for years until they camped in one area long enough to build a mound. As a result, some mounds contain bones and cremations from different years.
Many of these mounds have been excavated in the past, and the information gleaned from their contents has given archaeologists a picture of Missouri that dates back at least 12,000 years to the Woodland Period and earlier.
Some recent discoveries were accidental. In 1989, during a construction project along Forum Boulevard, a mound was hit. Because it was already damaged and partly exposed, archaeologists decided to excavate its contents. They found the remains of 11 people from the Late Woodland Period, about A.D. 700 to A.D. 900.
They also found a female who was about 20 years old when she died, sealed in a limestone tomb and buried in the mound. Carbon dating showed she had lived in the Early Woodland Period, between 850 B.C. and 450 B.C.
Much of what is known about the historical and archaeological record of Missouri is owed to Carl Chapman, the first person to graduate from MU with experience in American archaeology. Chapman dedicated his life to discovering Missouri’s history and prehistory.
In 1986, Chapman was researching the Rogers Shelter area in the Osage River Basin when he established what he estimated to be an 11,000-year timeline — from about 10,000 B.C. to about A.D. 1,000 — for one civilization in Missouri. The discovery is one of the longest cultural sequences found in the state.
He also uncovered a mastodon tusk near Miami, Mo., in the 1970s. Even more significant was the “flake knife” found next to it, suggesting people may have lived in Missouri at the same time as the mastodon — about 18,000 years ago.
Chapman discerned that the people of the Woodland Period were hunters and gatherers, made ornate pottery and lived in campsites near the mounds but probably didn’t grow their own food.
MU anthropology professor Todd Vanpool said that when excavations were conducted through most of the 20th century, American Indian religious rights weren’t really considered.
“With Native Americans … the unmarked graves were treated as basically abandoned property with no clear ancestry present,” he said. “And therefore, as abandoned property, archaeologists could take the bodies and do with them what they wanted to, because there was no clear ownership.”
To some American Indians, the excavations — intentional or otherwise — were sacrilegious.
“Mostly (it was) federally subsidized grave desecration,” said Lynda Means, who teaches American Indian history at Lindenwood University in St. Charles and is an elder in the Thunderbird Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes American Indian culture.
“We understand that people wanted to know, but the idea is — why don’t they dig up white people’s cemeteries?” she said.
Jane Livingston, president of the Columbia-Jefferson City area Red Fox Lodge, one of the Thunderbird Society’s four lodges, said that while some American Indians share Means’ view, others try to see the historical benefits of excavations.
“The views of the full-blood traditionalists is very harsh,” Livingston said. “They see it as an insult — the lack of caring, the lack of understanding, the way people dismissed their (religious) views as unimportant.”
However, she said, “Some people recognize it was done for educational purposes, to try to further the knowledge of the prehistory of the United States.”
But if archaeologists once considered the sites “abandoned property,” Vanpool illustrates the more recent appreciation of Indian burials.
“These resources are valuable,” he said. “It’s a limited resource; there is no way to get back a mound once it’s been destroyed, or any archaeological site once it’s been destroyed. … And the preservation of these and the mitigation of damage that might occur to them needs to be thought about before the development occurs.”
Just a few miles up Smith Hatchery Road, there is another mound — a pile of concrete and debris piled long and high where the W.B. Smith feed mill stood just months ago.
The land on which the debris is piled was bought by Lindner last year and is already being cleared.
Attempts to reach the Lindner family for this story were unsuccessful. But Stan Shawver, director of Boone County’s Planning and Development Department, said he expects Lindner to request a planned development designation once he annexes into the city, which would allow for a mixture of residential, recreational and commercial areas on the purchased land.
Having already acquired 1,024 acres just outside Columbia city limits, the developer has expressed a desire to buy land all the way to the river. Though he has faced resistance, some, like city Planning and Zoning Commissioner Jeff Barrow, think it’s only a matter of time before Columbia annexes the land lining the river.
So far, some of the burial mounds near the river have been protected by those who own the property, such as Carl and Anne Orazio. They said they have turned down Lindner’s offers to buy their property.
The Orazios say they believe in preserving the artifacts in the area, as does Clifton Duval, who also lives on the riverfront and is a member of the Missouri Archaeological Society.
“I think they should be left alone,” Duval said. “There’s surely enough earth that they don’t have to disturb their graves.”
Duval has spent countless hours walking the bluffs and searching for artifacts. He said he worries about developers pushing to the river, which he says would ruin the area and threaten the mounds.
“It’s something that we ought to guard against,” he said. “Any kind of destruction of the mounds is destroying our history.”
Carl Orazio said he believes the development at the old W.B. Smith site is already causing damage.
“I just see dirt work being done. I haven’t seen the actual machines working on it, but I see the aftermath,” he said.
The property Lindner bought is farther from the river than many of the known burials. But there’s only one more property between it and the river.
The law says construction must stop when human remains or funerary objects are discovered. But even if a developer stops upon hitting a mound, he or she may have already caused extensive damage.
In Missouri, it would be difficult for a developer to find out if sites exist on a specific property because there is no official database of known sites. The location of known sites is generally kept secret for fear of vandals.
Toward the river
It would take a minimum of four property annexations for Columbia to become a river city.
The majority of that land is Lindner’s. He can’t join the city yet because two small properties stand between his land and the city boundary; any voluntary annexation must be contiguous. The fourth property is the 139-acre riverfront piece owned by the Orazios, who have turned down offers from Lindner.
Lindner could bypass that land by acquiring a set of five plots that border the Orazios’ land on the east.
Either way, it’s close enough to have Duval worried.
“I didn’t think (development) was ever coming that far that quick,” he said. “It shocked me and everyone else around here.”
Barrow, the city planning and zoning commissioner, said the importance of protecting burial mounds is part of the reason for well-planned, low-impact development. To ensure the protection of the blufftops, Barrow said the city and county should employ more zoning tools to protect the mounds and the whole area beyond what the state regulations offer.
“We’re now in a position to fix it, and it’s easier to do it before it’s broken,” he said. “It would be wise for the city and county to start planning” before development reaches the river.
Without adequate federal and state protections for the mounds on the blufftops along the Missouri River, some in the city and county planning and zoning commissions think something should be done to preserve them. The thinking is that if the county and city worked together, protections could be implemented.
“I would like to have the commissions work together to come up with what should the area outside the city look like, what should our plan be,” said Mike Holden of the city Planning and Zoning Commission.
Barrow said overlay zoning along the river bluffs could be used, which “wouldn’t allow for clearing of trees, would limit the height of houses, maybe have a setback from the bluffs.”
Barrow points to the Les Bourgeois winery at Rocheport as an example of obtrusive and nonobtrusive development. The restaurant goes up three stories and “sticks out like a sore thumb,” he said. “But the winery — the A-frame — that’s not obtrusive at all, it blends in with the bluffs.”
Barrow said that if the city and county worked together to enact a zoning overlay, the regulations could be implemented before any development took place.
But Jerry Wade, the former chairman of the city planning commission, said the City Council stopped joint planning efforts with the county in 2003. And the City Council and its planning department won’t work outside a “fringe area” — about a mile outside city limits as of 2000 and 2001 — designated in the Metro 2020 Plan.
Meanwhile, the county planning department decided not to implement at least one attempt by a county Planning and Zoning Commission member to protect the mounds, saying that city annexation is inevitable. State law doesn’t allow for dual jurisdiction, so county regulations would be void if the area is annexed by the city.
Shawver, the county Planning Department director, also said it wasn’t a priority because state protections already exist.
Both federal and state laws lay out protections for unmarked burial mounds and other cultural resources. But there are problems with these regulations: They rarely apply practically to private developments, and the limited budget for people charged with watching over such sites makes it difficult for them to do so effectively.
Blanket protection of historic or prehistoric sites is not allowed under state law, said Deel, the State Historic Preservation officer, and general oversight and monitoring is simply not an option because of budget constraints.
According to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, for any development using federal funds, a survey must be conducted to assess the potential damage or disruption to historic and prehistoric sites.
The national Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, reinforced this requirement and added stipulations about giving already excavated bones back to American Indian tribes.
But some in the American Indian community say the intended protections are still too difficult to enforce.
The grave protection act “was passed, and it’s still almost impossible to enforce some of this stuff unless there’s lots of people pushing and shoving,” said Means, of the Thunderbird Society.
And the state law is even less concrete, Deel said. According to State Chapter 194, a developer must work with the Historic Preservation Office to avoid a site or arrange for proper excavation and reburial, but only if the site is known.
The legal catch
“The catch there is, that if it’s not known for a fact, if or if not (that) there’s burials, they may not come talk to us until they’ve already got into it and exposed human remains,” Deel said.
The definition of “known” is also problematic. There are many maps, some dating back hundreds of years, detailing burial mounds and other American Indian sites. But the state has no official and publicly accessible database of them. So even if the location of sites along the river is known by those who live there now or if there are maps of them in MU’s anthropology department, it could be difficult to accuse a developer of negligence.
It also makes it difficult for developers to know when they might be encroaching on a site.
“In most instances, especially if it’s not a recorded site, we don’t hear anything about it until either a neighbor calls or the developer themselves realize what they’ve gotten into,” Deel said.
Minnesota also faced problems protecting burial mounds but has set up a system to preserve them.
In 1976, a private developer started building a bridge on an American Indian site. In response, lawmakers extended greater protections. Now an online database of known burial sites has been created to help avoid site destruction without direct oversight. Many developers and public bodies utilize the database to check for sites beforehand because the cost of delaying construction is so high if a site is found.
Out in the open
Russ Duker, of the Boone County Planning and Zoning Commission, argues that the debate of site accessibility shouldn’t be as black-and-white as whether to develop and surrender the sanctity of the sites or mark off the entire area.
“There needs to be an allowance for some interaction with these resources,” Duker said. “We don’t want to protect them to where no one can use them. The whole reason that we have resources is so that people can access them.
“I’d like to find a way, if we could, to utilize them to a community benefit, and part of a community benefit might be having a commercial spot that we could go to on the river and enjoy the river.”
Duker added: “I would love to see a riverfront. I would love to see us exploit, if you will, the presence of this interstate highway that used to be the Missouri River, where the Indians used to come and they’ve got the burial mounds, the different archaeological sites we’ve got here in Boone County.”
Duker said that a recently passed city stream water ordinance and a similar measure proposed in the county would unintentionally but effectively eliminate the possibility of any sort of riverfront district.
He said he agrees with the ordinance in principle but thinks it’s too broad.
“All along the river or all along the stream or all along the creek should you allow commercial development? By no means,” he said. “But there needs to be some type of allowance for interaction with these resources.”
He agreed that exposing sensitive sites, such as burial mounds, to the public can increase the potential for damage to the areas, but, he said, it could also galvanize the community to protect them.
“Interaction with the resources has the potential of saying, ‘Hey, this is a great natural resource. We need to protect it.’ … So somehow or another we need to allow that interaction with these resources while monitoring it, not just prohibiting it,” he said.
Van Meter State Park in Saline County illustrates Duker’s suggestion. The park contains part of the Utz site, which is a former village of Missouri Indians. The park had been primarily a recreation area, its history mostly ignored. But in the late 1980s, officials decided to build a visitor center and to dedicate the park to the Missouri Indians.
The Utz site had been home to as many as 6,000 Missouris when Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet discovered it in 1673.
The visitor center contains a mural depicting the lifestyle of the Missouris as well as interactive informational exhibits, and the park contains what is called the “Old Fort” and multiple burial mounds.
Connie Grisier, the park’s site administrator who lives on the premises, said a gate leading to the main burial mound is locked at night. But, she said, having the sites public probably helps protect them.
“Actually having people around and then having them protected at night seems to help,” she said. “If they were secluded and people knew about them, I could see people vandalizing them.”
No native voices
Because the tribes that once inhabited Missouri were forced west to Kansas and Oklahoma, no American Indian tribes speak for the burials near the river as religious ancestral sites.
David Golden of the Otoe-Missouria tribe, now based in Oklahoma, said that without the ability to watch over the burial mounds effectively, the tribe’s efforts are now primarily focused on retrieving the remains of excavated ancestors.
“What we have done is try to (get back) the objects that have already been dug up” from previous excavations, he said. “Of course, by that time it would pretty well be destroyed. We would rather see it preserved, left alone. If the developer is gung-ho to get it developed, there should be some concern given to those (burial mounds).”
Golden said that if the whole area is to be developed, the portion of land with burials on it could be made into a park or otherwise protected to avoid or minimize damage.
“The Otoe-Missouria tribe is not against any kind of development, road building, et cetera. We’re not trying to stop anything,” he said. But “if you’re going to send out a bunch of bulldozers, everything’s going to get chewed up in the process. The position of the tribe, is we don’t want that stuff just destroyed with a backhoe, and if you send in a builder, that’s what’s going to happen because they’re building a building or a road.”
Barrow also said he isn’t absolutely against development along the river; he just wants it done in a way that’s not overly disruptive to the environment.
“One of my main concerns is that the whole river bluff area ... be protected along the river so that people traveling down the river have the same view that Lewis and Clark had,” he said.