Wisconsin Effigy Mounds

Effigy and Burial Mounds in Wisconsin
Elephant Effigy Mound.  It was the legend of Native American that the Mound Builders used the last of the Ice Age Mammoths as" beasts of burden."

    Effigy mounds are almost exclusively confined to the State of Wisconsin. We, indeed, find effigy mounds in other sections, but they are of rare occurrence. They, however, show that the same reasons, religious, or otherwise, exists in other localities, while in the area covered by the southern portion of the State of Wisconsin it found its greatest expression. This cut affords us a fair idea of effigy mounds. Here are seen two animals, one behind the other. On paper we can readily see the resemblance. Stretched out on the ground, and of gigantic proportions, the resemblance is not so marked, and some might fail to notice it at first sight. Either of those figures is over one hundred feet long, and about fifteen feet wide. With few exceptions, effigy mounds are inconsiderable in height, varying from one to four feet. These mounds have been carefully studied of late years, and there is no doubt that in many instances we can distinguish the animals represented.
We learn, then, that tribes formerly living in Wisconsin had the custom of heaping up the earth in the shape of the various animals peculiar to that section. But no effigies are found of animals that have since become extinct, or of animals that are to be found only in other lands.
Our next cut represents the famous elephant mound of Wisconsin, on the strength of which a number of fair theories have been given relating to the knowledge of the mastodon by the builders of the mound, and its consequent antiquity. It now bears some resemblance to an elephant, but we learn that the trunk was probably produced by the washing of the banks and, from the same cause, a projection above the head, supposed to represent horns, has disappeared. Taking these facts into consideration, it is quite as likely that it represented a buffalo. One writer even thinks he found a representation of a camel, but the fact is, the more these effigy mounds are studied, the more certain are we that they are representations of animals formerly common in that region.
     The manner in which they represented the various animals is full of interest to us. It has been discovered that they worked on a system. The last cut represents a group of three animals discovered a few miles from the Blue Mounds in Dane County. We notice at once a difference between the central animal, with a tail, and the other two. It will also be observed that the animals are represented in profile, with only two projections for legs. They are never separated so that we can distinguish the two front and the two hind feet. Animals so figured are the bear, fox, wolf, panther, and others. Grazing animals, such as the buffalo, elk, and deer, are represented with a projection for horns. In the last cut the other two animals are buffaloes. In various ways the particular kind of animal can nearly always be distinguished.

The preceding cut represents two elks grazing, and a fox in the distance. The long embankments of earth at one side are considered by Mr. Peet as in the nature of game drives. But we call attention to the expressiveness with which these figures are delineated. What could be more natural than the quietly grazing elks, with the suspicious prowling fox in the distance. In the cut we also see two cross-shaped figures. This was their method of representing birds, a projection on each side of a central body denoting wings. These figures are often very expressive.

     In this cut we have no difficulty in recognizing an eagle. It is represented as soaring high in the air. On the bluffs above it is a wolf effigy, and several conical and long mounds. In the cut preceding this the eagle and the hawk are hovering over the feeding elks, while in this cut a flock of hawks are watching some buffaloes feeding in the distance. This group of effigies was found on the banks of the Kickapoo River.

Our next cut represents a wild goose with a long neck and beak followed by a duck with a short neck, flying towards the lake.

Water-loving animals, such as salamanders and turtles, are represented in still another way, two projections on each side of a central figure. The next following cut represents a turtle. The tail was not always added. The salamander closely resembles the turtle, but notice the difference in the body, and still different is the cut of the musk-rat (see later). Fishes are figured as a straight embankment of earth tapering to a point.

The same system that was observed in the location of signal mounds is to be noticed in the arrangements of these groups of effigy mounds. They are not alone. One group answers to another on a distant hill, or is in plain view of another group in the valley below. Distant groups were so related, each commanding a wide extent of country, and thus group answers to group, and mound to mound, for miles away, making a complete system throughout the region.

We notice this as to the location of the mounds. When we examine the mounds themselves we observe no little skill in the way they represent the animals. They often impressed on them something more than mere animal resemblances. "There are groups where the attitudes are expressive of a varied action. Certain animals, like the weasel or mink, being seen with a bird so near that, apparently, it might be caught by a single spring; and still others, like the wolf or wild-cat, are arranged head to head, as if prepared for combat; and still others, like the squirrel or coon, are in the more playful attitudes, sometimes apparently chasing one another over hill or valley; and again situated alone, as if they had just leaped from some tree, or drawn themselves out of some den or hole."
Nor is the effigy of the human form wanting. It is found in several localities throughout the State. This cut shows us one such effigy. This was the beginning of a long train of animal mounds, presumably representing bears, found near the Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. We can not observe that any more importance was ascribed to the effigy of a human being than to that of an animal.

     In casting about for suitable explanation for the erection of these animal mounds, we find ourselves lost in conjecture as to the motive which induced these people to prepare these earthen effigies. We may be sure that it was for some other reason than for amusement, or to give exercise to an artistic feeling. Only in very few instances do we detect any arrangements which would imply that they were in the nature of defenses. In some cases the effigies are so arranged as to form a sort of inclosure, some portion of the figure being prolonged to an unusual extent and thus inclosing a space that may have been utilized for a village site. This group on the Wisconsin River illustrates this point. Here the area thus partially inclosed, is about an acre. It is a singular fact that these inclosures are almost always triangular in shape. But it is manifest that a simple earth wall would serve for defense much better than these forms. They probably were not burial mounds, as few contain human remains, and it is not yet certain that these remains were not intrusive burials. It seems, therefore that they must have been in some manner connected with the religious life of the people.

     If we examine the various groups scattered throughout the State, this belief is strengthened. It is found, for instance, in nearly every group, that some one effigy is the principal one, and is placed in a commanding position, about which the other forms are arranged. It is also thought that the same effigy is the principal or ruling effigy over a wide district. In illustration of this, it can be stated that in the south-eastern part of the State the turtle is always the ruling effigy. In any group of effigies it is the principal one. It seems to watch over and protect the others. In subordination to it are such forms as the lizard, hawk, and pigeon. Passing to the North, the turtle is no longer the important figure. It is replaced by the wolf, or wild-cat. This is now the principal form, and if the turtle is sometimes present, it is of less importance.

    So marked is the fact we have just stated that Mr. Peet says, "that sometimes this division assumes almost the character of a river system, and thus we might trace what seems to be the beginning in this country of that which prevailed on classic soil and in Oriental regions—namely, river gods and tutelar divinities of certain regions, each tribal divinity having its own province, over which it ruled and on which it left its own form or figure as the seal of its power and the emblem of its worship."
     Looking for some explanation of this, we may find a key in the known customs of various Indian tribes, and the lower races of men. It is known that a tribe of Indians is divided into smaller bands, which are called gens or clans. A gens may consist of several hundred persons, but it is the unit of organization. It takes the place of a family among civilized people. These various bands are generally named after some animal. In the beginning these names may have been of no special significance, but in course of time each band would come to regard themselves as descendants of the animal whose name they bore. Hence the animal itself would be considered sacred in their eyes, and its life would seldom be taken by members of that gens.

    The animal thus honored by the gens was, in the Indian dialect, the totem of the clan. This organization and custom we find running all through the Indian tribes. In many tribes the Indians were wont to carve a figure of their totem on a piece of slate, or even to carve a stone in the shape of the totem, which carved or sculptured stone they wore as an ornament, or carried as a charm to ward off evil and bring them good luck. We need only suppose that this system was very fully developed among the Mound Builders of Wisconsin, to see what important bearing it has on these effigy mounds.

    A tribe located on one of the fertile river valleys of Wisconsin was composed of various gens or clans. On some common point in proximity to their villages, or some spot which commanded a wide view of the surrounding country, each gens would rear an effigy of its totem, the animal sacred to them. In every tribe some gens would be the most powerful, or for some cause the most respected, and its totem would be given in the largest effigy, and would be placed in the most commanding position. In a different locality some other tribe would be located, and some other totem would be regarded as of the most importance.
      In this light effigy-mounds are not mere representatives of animal forms. They are picture-writings on a gigantic scale, and are the source of much true history. They tell us of different tribes, the clans which composed them, the religious beliefs, and the ruling gens of the tribe. Contemplating them, we seem to live again in the far-off past. The white man disappears; waving forests claim their ancient domain, and the rivers, with a more powerful current, roll in their olden channels. The animals whose forms are imaged here, go trooping through the forest or over the fertile bottom lands. The busy scenes of civilization give place to the placid quiet of primeval times, and we seem to see peaceful tribes of Mound Builders paying a rude veneration to their effigy-gods, where now are churches of a more soul-satisfying religion.
      But there is still another point to be learned from an examination of these ancient mounds. Not only are they totems of the tribes, but they were looked on in some sense as being guardian divinities, with power to protect the homes of the tribe. This is learned by studying the location in which they are placed. They occupy all points of observation. In other parts of the Mound Builders' country, wherever we find signal-mounds we find corresponding positions in Wisconsin occupied by groups of effigy-mounds, or if one only is present, it is always the one which, from the considerations we have stated, was regarded as the ruling effigy of that section. It is as if their builders placed them as sentinels to guard the approaches to their homes, to give warning of the arrival of hostile bands. This is further borne out by finding that mounds placed in such positions frequently show evidence of the action of intense fire, and so we conclude they were used as signal stations also. So we need not doubt but that the region thus watched over by these effigy-mounds, group answering to group along the river banks, or in the valleys below, was at times lit up by the signal fires at night; or the warning column of smoke by day betokening the presence of dancer.