When I began this blog my focus was on telling the stories of the communities and people that settled in this beautiful county, raised families and built communities. Milton was the first that I chose to write about, but some issues caused me to put this aspect of my overall vision for the blog on the back burner. I do intend to get back to telling the stores of who we were and how the communities began; some grew, some didn’t. But within each community there are amazing stories of men, women, bravery, hardship and joy to be told.
It came to me that in order to tell our story in the most accurate way I must go back to the beginning. To a time before trappers began coming to the area and before the Native Americans that now live in what became Wisconsin, and tell the story of The Mound Builders. This group of Ancient Americans were here before the Native American cultures we know today. They lived in and around the southern part of the state, migrating with the seasons and the available food supplies. One of the most interesting things about this group of people is that they constructed earthen mounds that were a part of their spiritual and daily lives, perhaps they were even a form of communication between the various clans somehow.
There are several questions that come to mind about the mound builders. Who were they and how did they live? What about the mounds, what were they for? What happened to them?
So who were the Mound Builders?
The Mound Builders lived in and around the midwest, including Wisconsin from about 7000B.C to 1700 A.D. This vast period of time breaks down into three groups defined by how they lived. These periods are:
- The Archaic Period – 7000 to 1000 B.C. The people of this period were mostly nomadic hunter gatherers, living in semi permanent villages that followed seasonal food sources. The mounds constructed near the end of this period were dome shaped and used for burial purposes.
- The Woodland Period – 500B.C. to 1300 A.D. This period saw a lot of change. Some of the clans settled into permanent villages and began farming. The bow/arrow and pottery had been introduced and the mounds began to take on animal shapes.
- Mississippian Period – 1000 to 1700 A.D. The biggest change in this time period is the introduction of pyramid style mounds from a culture outside Wisconsin. The villages were more organized. They had a type of hierarchy within the community.
Artifacts like arrowheads and pottery have been found that place Mound Building cultures in South Central Wisconsin to the late Woodland and Mississippian periods. They were a people in transition.
The earliest settlers of this area appear to have been a melting pot of several races and cultures migrating to this area from different parts of the American Continent. These people are considered pre Columbian because they were here long before Columbus, the Spanish or any other people that found their way here. Some may have come up from South America through Mexico and South from what would be Canada.
Two different types of mound builders found their way to the Great Lakes area and South Central Wisconsin. The first group consisted of family clans that were mostly nomadic, hunter gatherers. They made their camps near a water source and followed the seasonal migration of animals and available food. These people are the main focus of this blog.
The second group was the pyramid mound builders of the Mississippian period. While this group is interesting their culture was more formal and advanced in that they built walled communities and had a governmental and spiritual leadership hierarchy. The Mississippians also did not construct dome or effigy mounds like the ancient people of this area.
In Wisconsin, the mound builders lived from about Green Bay across to the Mississippi and down. They lived near lakes and rivers in semi permanent camps that followed seasonal food sources. Several changes in the way the mound builder lived began at the end of the Archaic Period through the Woodland Period that altered their lives, and perhaps brought on their disappearance. During this time interactions between the mound builders and tribes moving west to get away from the white people coming from Europe encouraged trade. Two big things that were gained was the use of the bow & arrow and stronger pottery. Having these two tools made a big difference in the way they lived. With easier hunting and better food storage now possible less seasonal migration was necessary and some clans settled into more permanent villages and began farming vegetables such as squash, goosefoot (Lambs Quarters) and sunflowers. Lake Koshkonong had an abundance of wild rice which drew many birds and with deer and other small game this was a wonderful place to settle. The practice of mound building could very well have been something gained during trade between other native clans such as the Hopewell or other people from across North America.
Their homes were dome shaped, covered with bark and thatch. They had a small opening giving access into and out of the structure and also had openings at the top for ventilation that could be closed when not in use.
What about the mounds, what were they for
Near the end of the Archaic period something changed in the way the Ancient Americans lived. They began to construct and bury their dead in mounds that can be found across central and southern Wisconsin. The building of mounds was a very labor intensive task. All work was done manually one basket of dirt at a time. Conical mounds were the first type built. They varied in size from a relatively small, holding one or two deceased members of a clan to mounds that were in use over long periods of time and may have held generations of deceased clan members.
At one point in time the area around Lake Koshkonong had about 13 groups with a total of about 500 mounds around it. Unfortunately with the coming of Europeans many went under the plow or were taken apart by weekend treasure hunters. Chances are that not much was found in the treasure hunts, as the mound builders did not often bury their clan members with personal items. The mounds that are left around the lake, if they still exist, are on private land and should not be approached without permission.
Near the end of the Woodland period that something changed again within the culture of the ancients and the mound builders began constructing effigy mounds. Several animal shapes have been found such as birds, turtles, bears, panthers and even human figures. These mounds were built in harmony with their surroundings. Some mounds seem to be placed where they conform to the land the best. They also appear to depict the spiritual beliefs system of the Ancient Americans. Near the higher elevations of an area bird mounds were constructed representing the upper world. The middle elevations are where bear, panther, deer and human shapes are found representing the middle world at the lower elevations, usually near water turtles and other types of water creatures can be found.
Even though there is a great deal of time between the construction of conical and effigy mounds, they can usually be found near each other. Which makes one think that these locations had significant importance and were visited frequently for ceremonial purposes.
When the mounds began to be identified there were several ideas floating around about who might have constructed them. Stories of a lost race were spread. Some even speculated that it was the Ancient Romans, Greeks or even the Aztecs. Nobody wanted to believe that it was Native Americans. Their culture was so different from anything that the Europeans knew that they couldn’t believe any Native American was capable of constructing the mounds.
It was Increase Lapham that made the connection between the mounds and the Ancient Americans. Lapham was born in Palmyra N.Y. in 1811. He went to work at the age of 13 and worked his way from a laborer to become an engineer. At the age of 25 in 1836 Lapham moved to Wisconsin and in time became Wisconsin’s first scientist. He wrote about 80 books and pamphlets on subjects covering the flora and fauna of Wisconsin. His book “The Antiquities of Wisconsin” was a study of Wisconsin’s Indian Mounds.
Any idea of what the mounds purposes could have been beyond being a burial sight is speculation. It is thought that because mounds were built in groups that seemed to have specific placements, it’s possible that they served as ceremonial places or seasonal meeting areas for clans to meet and practice their spiritual beliefs. Some evidence has been found to indicate this is the case.
In my research I found a terrific website by Andrew Khitsun which documents the mound sites here in Wisconsin. You can find that link here.
In the Rock County area there are a couple of different mounds sites. Between Milton and Fort Atkinson is the Jefferson County Indian Mounds and Train Park. Within the small park eleven mounds can be seen, both conical and effigy. There were originally as many as 72 in this group that was spread out over a mile. Whitewater has a site at 288 S. Indian Mound Parkway that is a little unusual because there is no water source of water nearby. There may have been when this group was constructed and the lake or creek dried up.
Fort Atkinson has a very rare mound, as a matter of fact it is thought to be the only remaining one like in the country. It is a Panther Intaglio. A Intaglio is a reverse effigy. Instead of building a mound up, it is dug out, like a pit. It can be found along the Rock River.
What happened to the mound builders?
This is one of those nobody really knows for sure questions. The transition from the Late Woodland to the Mississippian period brought more trade and more change. The coming of Pyramid Mound builders up from the south introduced corn and beans to the local peoples as well as a way of life that was totally different from what they knew.
The pyramid mound builders are thought to be outposts of the Cahokia people from western Illinois near St. Louis. This culture, like the mound builders of this area, had no written language so it is not known what they called themselves. At it’s peak the community was as large as six square miles and was home to as many as 20,000 people with more living outside the city. They were a melting pot of races living peacefully from various areas of the south. The Cahokia people had a well established system of government and their community was enclosed as was the community that settled on Crawfish River at what is now Aztalan near Lake Mills.
Aztalan was only inhabited for a period of about 300 years. The city was then abandoned for reasons unknown. It could be that they were driven off by mound builders native to the area, but the question remains. What happened to our mound builders? They also mysteriously disappeared.
There are a few different scenarios to consider. The first is that the two cultures merged over time and became one group. Around 1200 ad there was a cooling off period in the weather. This would have made it difficult to raise crops so perhaps they moved out of the area. A final possibility is that the mound builders were driven off by more aggressive native Americans moving west.
Perhaps the Ancient Americans were the ancestors of the Native peoples of Wisconsin, like the Chippewa, Winnebago and the Sauk. Whatever happened to them, the ancient Americans left us a legacy of their culture in the landscape we call Rock County.