by Beth Prusaczyk
05/04/2007 - Sunset Hills residents are marking the 50th anniversary of their town, and the early settlers who made their community possible. They also are recognizing the earliest inhabitants of the territory that became Sunset Hills – the Native Americans.
An entire chapter of the recently released paperback book, "Sunset Hills: 50 Years," is devoted to the early tribes that thrived in the area. The chapter, "Indian History," notes that the sandy shores of the Meramec River were a big draw for the original residents of what became Sunset Hills.
Indian tribes flourished on the banks of the Meramec, according to Joyce Franklin, president of the Sunset Hills Historical Society and a member of the committee that helped put the 50th anniversary book together. Franklin said members from at least 18 tribes were in the area during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
She said the nearby river's name, "Meramec," comes from the tribes' languages. The Indian word "Mahr-ah-mec" means "water of the bitter spring" and "Mah-ah-mac" means "water of death."
"Both of these would fit the river through Sunset Hills because the Indians operated salt springs near the river and the river claimed the lives of many swimmers," Franklin said.
Franklin said there is evidence that the tribes were sophisticated about using the natural salt. She said pottery has been found with saline solution residue left in the bottom of the pieces. She said the tribes would boil the water and use evaporation to separate the water and salt. The tribes would then use and also barter the salt with other tribes.
A notable historical site is Indian Hill, found in north Sunset Hills along the Meramec. Franklin said a number of shallow graves were found on the hill, each covered with a large slab of rock. The actual graves were approximately five feet long and 18 inches deep. The sides and bottom of these resting places were lined with thin sheets of limestone.
Franklin said when the graves were first uncovered, the bodies were believed to come from a pygmy tribe. She said this is because the bodies appeared small, but were folded to fit the compact graves.
"They had to fold the bodies to fit the holes because they couldn't dig large graves," Franklin said. "The soil was too rocky, and this way they didn't have to dig as much."
Franklin said a team of archeologists was brought to the site in 1925 from Washington University. The scientists removed numerous artifacts from the graves, Franklin said, but there is no record of where those artifacts are today.
The site was still active years after the excavation, but by a different group of outdoor-oriented visitors. Franklin said Boy Scouts have used the general location for camping and cooking up ghost stories.
Near a former river crossing from Fenton to Sunset Hills is a small patch of farmland that still shows the evidence of Indian tribes. Franklin said the tribe that inhabited the land consisted of mound builders and despite the land being farmed for hundreds of years, a small elevation is still visible.
All the tribes have been gone for many, many years but their influence can still be seen today, Franklin said. For example, words from their tribal lexicons have been attached to geographical sites, streams and, of course, the Meramec River.
In her book, Franklin cites the Missouri census of 1800 that showed 450 members representing various tribes living in and around the Fenton and Sunset Hills area.
A few of the tribes that inhabited the area included the Delaware, Miami, Winnebago, Illinois, Dakota, and Ohio. Even the Tapawingo Golf Club in Sunset Hills gets its name from Indian origins. Franklin said the word originated with the Miami tribe and means "place of joy."
"Many Sunset Hills residents have collections of artifacts they've found," Franklin said. "I remember being able to go out after it rained and being able to find arrowheads that have surfaced on the soil."
The Sunset Hills Historical Society is currently working on marking city historical sites, including some of the sites associated with Native Americans, with pieces of pink granite that were salvaged from the old overpass at Watson Road and Lindbergh Boulevard.
For more information on local Native American inhabitants, or other Sunset Hills historical facts, pick up a copy of "Sunset Hills: 50 Years." Copies may be obtained by contacting Franklin at: firstname.lastname@example.org.