Cliff Cave, also known as Indian Cave
(Archaeological Survey of MO no. 23SL895 and MO
Speleological Survey no. SLO-013), is a important historic and archaeological site
in Missouri. The cave is protected within Cliff Cave County Park, and
can only be explored by permit from the St. Louis County Dept. of Parks and
A brief description of Cliff Cave is contained in
Caves of Missouri by J. Harlan Bretz (1956:436-437).
Rock walls in the entrance of the cave were built by the
Cliff Cave Wine Company in the
1800s. One tradition about the cave is that it was used for beer storage in the early 1900s.
The large entrance area of the cave was more than
ample for a lecture by Professor Michael Fuller (red hat) during a 2003 field trip by
the Archaeological Institute of America, St. Louis Society.
Flint waste flakes embedded in the clay floor of
the entrance are evidence of Native American use of the cave before the 1700s. It is safe
to assume that Cliff Cave/Indian Cave was used during the Archaic Period
(ca. 7000 to 1000 BC) like other
caves and rockshelters in Missouri and Illinois.
The large passageways near the
mouth of the cave have been badly vandalized by spray paint. Over half of the cave floor
has been dug away by historic commercial activity and looting. Please do not hurt this cave
anymore! Do no dig in it. Do not spray paint its walls. Do not harm the bad colony. Please.
A 3 foot/1 meter water fall and associated pool of water
is located approximately
200 ft. from the entrance of the cave and exactly at the point where the passageway turns
and total darkness is encountered. Professor Michael Fuller suspects that Native Americans
would have seen this pool as the home of a Wakon (Osage, spirit being). Why? At present,
the cave stream is almost dead and supports only a few frogs and cave
isopods (Caecidotea sp). It would have supported
( Typhlichthys subterraneus) before urban pollution destroyed the
fragile habitat of the cave. The albino and eyeless lifeforms in the cave stream would have
thrived in the 3 ft. deep pool; their errie features would have been seen as supernatural
Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) and the Eastern Pippistrelle (Pippistrellus subflavus)
still use the cave. Their droppings would have provided a food resource for the cave life
living in the underground stream.
The modern forest around Cliff Cave/Indian Cave is composed of
Oak and Hickory trees. A brightly colored Sugar Maple stood out amongst the other trees during
the AIA field trip in October of 2003. The digital photographs used in this website were taken
by two members of the St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America (and also
St. Louis Community College students) Ellen Stern and Carolyn Doerre. Many thanks for the images.
Cliff Cave was the site of a tragic caving accident in 1993.
If you want to stay safe then remain
in the high ceiling portions of the cave and do not go into the crawlway passages.
A natural bridge approximately 400 feet from the entrance
is an interesting natural feature where the original phraetic tube cave passageway (above)
is separated from the
later vadose passageway (underneath). Cliff Cave has very few "typical" Ozark cave formations
such as flowstone, stalactites or stalagmites. Several portions of scalloped bedrock in this
area could be mistaken as reptilian flesh or shed snake skin. It is easy to recognize them as
natural cave features under bright flashlights, but smoking cane torches would have provided
a low level of light for prehistoric cavers and these features would have been interpreted
as manifestations of Wakon.
Map of Cliff Cave prepared in 1982 showing 4,726 feet of cave.
Provided by the Missouri Geological Survey, Rolla. Print this map off and take it with you if you
are going to visit the cave. Only visit the cave under permit of St. Louis County Parks
Map of mouth of Cliff Cave and historic walls
prepared in 1982. Provided by the Missouri Geological Survey, Rolla.
Is there an explanation for the name "Indian Cave"? The cave has 4 entrances
and literally "breathes"
(produces a mist) during extremely cold winter days. It is very likely that the Osage
and Illini people believed it to be inhabited by a Wakon (Osage, spirit being) during
the days when the mist issues from the mouth of the cave. The cave is used by bats during
certain months and some Native American traditions linked bats with the supernatural world.
It is possible that Native American rock art once decorated the walls, but that will be
hard to prove or disprove with all the modern graffiti. Professor Michael Fuller and Ranger Dennis
Hogan briefly examined some likely portions of the cave wall, but found no immediate
evidence. A thorough survey of the cave walls has not been done. Contract Professor Fuller
or the Archaeological Survey of Missouri if you know of prehistoric rock art sites.
Notes on the History of the Cave
Mississippian Period (362 to 320 million year old rocks) - St. Louis Limestone formation deposited
One theory is that the cave formed during the Ice Age which we subdivide into several time slices:
#4:Wisconsin Stage 10,000-50,000 years
Sangamon Interglacial Period 50,000-200,000 years
#3:Illinoian Stage 200,000-300,000 years
Yarmoth Interglacial Period 300,000-600,000 years - or Cave Starts Here?
#2:Kansan Stage 600,000-700,000 years
Aftonian Interglacial Period 700,000-900,000 years - Cave Starts Here?
#1:Nebraskan Stage 900,000-1,000,000 years.
A Phraetic Tub cave with subsequent vadose reworking.
7850 BC to 6170 BC - Graham Cave Dates
6580 BC to 5750 BC - Modoc Dates
2150 - 1550 B.C. Titterington Phase at Modoc
AD 1600s Osage or Illini see the cave as sacred?
AD 1700s - French fur trappers make cave into a tavern
1749 - John Baptiste D'Gamache receives cave and land in Spanish Land Grant
early 1800s - Crystal City steamboat sunk at nearby Landing
1830s - Cliff Cave Wine Company formed - masonry work in cave
1850s - Two cattle thieves used cave or band of outlaws?
1860s - Confederate soldiers rendezvous at the cave
1871 - Cliff Cave Wine Company made 3000 gallons of wine (St. Louis the Future Great City
of the World, 1871, page 81).
1879 - Cliff Cave Wine Company shut down
1898 - Cave a recreation spot for volunteer soldiers from Jefferson Barracks and they build
a saloon in the entrance.
ca. 1910 - Anheuser-Busch leased cave. Stored beer was cooled by
blocks of ice cut from the frozen river during the winter.
1920s - SpeakEasies along Cliff Cave Road. Mob dumped bodies in cave
1963 - County Police consider blasting shut the entrance at request of owner, Mr. H. Harold Pettus.
He was mad after 75 highschool kids go into cave. One 18 year old student lost for 2 hours.
August 1965 - Cave partially mapped.
1966 - Cave report filed with MSS
1981 - Cave fully mapped by Adam Marty, J. Marty, and S. Bielawski
23 July 1993 - Four counselors and 16 boys from St. Joseph's Home for Boys enters Cliff Cave.
Many groups from the home had visited the cave during the summer. This group did not have
a counselor with experience in the cave. Not enough flash lights.
2 PM Flash flood in the right hand crawlway while a small group is exploring.
Sunny day, although a flash flood warning was in effect.
Road closed sign leading to cave. Went right when they should have gone left and
crawled to the Drapery Room but never found the other entrances. Bad directions.
Foolish choices, poor judgment, tragic outcome.
Darnell Redmond (31)
Jennifer Metherd (21)
Terrill Vincent (12)
Emmett Terry (9)
Tarrell Battle (10)
Melvin Bell (10)
Gary Mahr (13) survived
[1996 Jury awards $400,000 to Gary Mahr for trauma. Terrill Vincent's mother received $100,000;
3 other families had lawsuits that they settled out of court with Catholic Charities]
13 April 1993 Two 17 year old boys get lost and find their way out of the cave.
1993 Harl and Naglich record cave for MDNR survey. Note unknown prehistoric and post Civil War.
Fuller's Theory: Called Cliff Cave because of notch in Cliff made it a landmark for river boats and canoes.
Called Indian Cave because of association with Indian Hunting parties and
possibly because of sacred stories like Mohenka shinka.
Osage (A Dictionary of the Osage Language by Francis La Flesche):
Cliff, mon'-ha stse-dse
Cave hidden among the rocks pec8nteiarakisita achipec8a
Cliff, rai8cata achipec8a
Chickasaw (Chickasaw: An Analytical Dictionary 1994:390; )
Cave, Yaaknanonka', yaakni' cholok
Choctaw (Choctaw Language and Culture 2001:182:354)
Cave or cavern, Yakni hochukbi [Yak-ni-ho-chuk-bi]
breathe, fiopa [fi-o-pv]
Osage Lunar Calendar:
March Full moon - Just doing that Moon (as spring stirs)
April Full moon - Wah-Pee "Planting Moon"
May Full moon - Little-Flower-Killer Moon (small flowers disappear)
June Full moon - Buffalo-Pawing-Earth Moon
July Full moon - Buffalo-Breeding Moon
August Full moon - Yellow-Flower Moon
September Full moon - Deer-Hiding Moon
October Full moon - Deer-Breeding Moon
November Full moon - Coon-Breeding Moon
December Full moon - Baby-Bear Moon
January Full moon - Single Moon by Himself
February Full moon - Light-of-Day returns Moon
from John Joseph Mathews book Talking to the Moon (1945)