Wisconsin River Effigy Mounds

Wisconsin Effigy Mounds


THE Wisconsin river is the largest stream within the State, having its source on the boundary line between Wisconsin and Michigan, in a small sheet of water known as “Lac Vieux Désert,” and running into the Mississippi at Prairie du Chien. Its general course is nearly south as far as the Winnebago portage, where it almost unites with the Neenah. At this point it is suddenly deflected towards the southwest and west. Its length cannot be less than four hundred miles, and it has an aggregate descent of about nine hundred feet, or two and a quarter feet per mile. It drains an area of about eleven hundred square miles.
The valley of this fine stream, from the Winnebago Portage to its junction with the Mississippi, may be deemed the great central seat of population at the time of the erection of the animal-shaped earthworks; at least we must so infer from their comparative abundance and importance along that valley.
The first published notice of the mounds in the valley of the Wisconsin, is in the narrative of Long’s Second Expedition, in 1823. It is there stated that “one of the block-houses of the fort (at Prairie du Chien) is situated on a large mound, which appears to be artificial. It was excavated; but we have not heard that any bones or other remains were found in it.”
Mr. Alfred Bronson, in a paper on the ancient mounds of Crawford county, Wisconsin, read before the State Historical Society, remarks that another similar one formerly existed on the prairie, now removed; but no evidences of the design of their erection were found—nothing was observed but bones, rifles, &c., of recent interment.
“One mound, standing in a group at the southwest angle of this prairie, has a base of some fifty feet, and is about ten feet high, on an eminence of about the same elevation. From its top can be seen to advantage the extensive low bottom-lands which lie between the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers; and were it not for the timber on the margin of the two rivers, their flowing currents could also be seen for some distance. This circumstance induces the belief that it was built for a kind of watch-tower, or look-out place, to watch the approach of enemies.
Traces of mounds were discovered by me (in 1852) along the whole extent of the prairie, apparently similar to others found in the vicinity; but from cultivation, and the light sandy nature of the materials, they are now almost entirely obliterated. The large round tumuli, situated along the island between the “slough” and the main channel of the Mississippi, are so near the level of the river that their bases are often washed by the floods. In 1826, at the highest known floods,  (it being eight feet higher than the high water of 1832, and about twenty-six feet above the lowest stage,) the mounds were all that could be seen of this island above the water. These were doubtless for burial, and of less age than the more elaborate works in the interior of the country.
Below the town and fort, towards the mouth of the Wisconsin, are similar tumuli, equally subject to overflow; and on the high bluffs south of that river are some look-out stations or mounds.
Advantage is taken of these elevations for the foundations of the better class of dwelling-houses, above the reach of high water; being, perhaps, the only instance in which the ancient works are rendered useful to the present inhabitants. In general it is deemed necessary to remove them as incumbrances, rather than to preserve them as matters of convenience.
Some traces of a ditch and embankment observed on the island, evidently of a military character, proved, on inquiry, to be the remains of the original American fort, that was taken by the British in the war of 1812.
It is quite clear that this interesting place has been a favorite one with all the different tribes or races of inhabitants, from the days of the first mound-builders to the present time; and the construction of a railroad (soon to be completed) connecting this point with Lake Michigan at Milwaukee, will doubtless render it one of the greatest importance.
Proceeding up the Wisconsin, the first locality requiring notice is called by the French the Petit Cap au Grés; which was visited by Messrs. Keating, Say, and Seymour, of Long’s exploring party, and of which the following account is given: “They found the bluff which borders on the Wisconsin, about four miles above its mouth, covered with mounds, parapets, &c.; but no plan or system could be observed among them, neither could they trace any such thing as a regular inclosure. Among these works, they saw an embankment about eighty-five yards long, divided towards its middle by a sort of gateway about four yards wide. This parapet was elevated from three to four feet; it stood very near to the edge of the bluff; as did also almost all the other embankments which they saw. No connection whatever was observed between the parapets and the mounds, except in one case; where a parapet was cut off by a sort of gateway, and a mound placed in front of it. In one instance the works, or parapet, seemed to form a cross, of which three parts could be distinctly traced; but these were short: this was upon a projecting point of the highland. The mounds which the party observed, were scattered without any apparent symmetry over the whole of the ridge of highland which borders upon the river. They were very numerous, and generally from six to eight feet high, and from eight to twelve in diameter. In one case a number of them, amounting perhaps to twelve or fifteen, were seen all arranged in one line, parallel to the edge of the bluff, but at some distance from it.”
The very numerous and highly interesting remains found on the banks of the Wisconsin at Muscoda, and in its vicinity, are very fully described and delineated by Mr. Stephen Taylor, to whose paper in Silliman’s Journal (XLIV, 22), and in the abstract of it in the Smithsonian Contributions (I, 128-133, Plates xlii, xliii, xliv), the reader is referred. Not having visited this locality, I have nothing to add to the ample details given by Mr. Taylor.

My investigations in the vicinity of the Wisconsin embraced Prairie du Chien, and extended about thirty miles on the north side of the river, commencing at Helena, the site of the oft described Shot-Tower. Two miles above this place (on section eight, township eight, range four, E) are some mounds; but the first of much note as we ascend the river, along the road on the north side, are those on section four of the same town , consisting of a series of oblong and conical tumuli, with one apparently leading the flight, in the form of a bird with outspread wings. These are composed of sand; and in some cases, where the road has been removed or destroyed, the wind in dry weather is fast reducing them to a level. The bird, of which n enlarged plan is given on the plate, is of the same material; and we found it very difficult to trace the exact original outline, from this cause. It may be regarded as representing a barbed spear-head or arrow-point. Were we to confine our attention to one or two of the oblong mounds on the edge of the bank, we might be led to regard them as breastworks, or parapets, for defence, and perhaps to command the channel of the river; but an inspection of the whole group shows clearly that no such purpose could have been intended.

They occupy a sandy plain, bounded by the channel of the river, or bayou, on one side, and by the bluffs on the other. The ground is covered with scattered trees, and an undergrowth of grass and weeds; but few shrubs being present.
About a mile and a half beyond, on the side of the road, is the human figure with its gigantic arms, having a stretch or extension of two hundred and eighty-eight feet (see Plate XLII, No. 3); so great, indeed, that the size of the plate adopted requires the omission of part of one of them. They are both of the same length. The body is fifty-four feet long, if we include the head and neck.
This figure stands by itself, in a valley or pass between two of the high sandstone bluffs, one of which rises immediately above the head. A small brook, a tributary of the Wisconsin, runs a little to the east and south.
From the site of this remarkable and lonely structure, the road leaves the immediate valley of the Wisconsin, and, passing a “divide,” descends into the valley of the stream called Honey creek. Towards the mouth of this creek are numerous works of great interest; the first, near the residence of Mr. Mosely, being represented on Plate.


 Unluckily the breaking-up team had, only the week previous to our visit, turned over the natural sod upon most of these works; the four figures at the southwestern part of the group only remaining uninjured. Here we found a number of forms quite different from any heretofore described. One is apparently intended to represent the human shape, though very deficient in the proportional length of the arms and legs. 

Another, and larger mound, of similar general form, stands adjacent; and it can hardly be supposed that the object of the one was very different from that of the other. Perhaps they are designed to represent a male and female.
These earth works are four feet high at the intersection of the arms, where they are highest. The arms are in a straight line, at right angles with the body. The resemblance of the latter figure, however, to some supposed to be intended to represent birds, shows that there is a gradual transition from one form to another among mounds of this kind as well as others. 
The two figures adjoining these, are presumed to represent the buffalo or bison (Bos americana). One of them was carefully measured, and the result is shown in the enlarged figure ( No. 1). 


The general contour, especially the hump over the shoulders, renders the suggestion probable. The forms are almost exactly alike, though one is slightly larger than the other. They also may be intended for the two sexes. It will be observed that the attitude is quite spirited and natural; probably representing the animals in the act of browsing or drinking.
The two quadrupeds north of the road, were too much injured by the plough to enable us to make them out satisfactorily; but they did not appear to present any new features. The long ridges (nearly a thousand feet in length) are a peculiar circumstance in this group; yet they seem to be located without design. The one with an irregular cross ridge near the top may be thought to represent a bow and arrow; or it is a cross with curved arms.
These works occupy a gentle slope, extending from the base of the high bluffs towards the marshy and springy grounds at the south. Beyond the marsh another bluff rises abruptly. The space between the bluffs only is used for agricultural purposes; and, if in possession of a warlike people, we might fancy these long ridges constructed to defend the passage leading between the bluffs, from the valley of the river below; to the interior or back country. This may have been the object of the most easterly and longest ridge or parapet; but of what use, according to this theory, were the other similar ridges, which could not have been intended for defence?
It is much to be hoped that the proprietor of the two buffalo effigies will not allow them to be wantonly destroyed. They escaped the first efforts of the plough; it will be fortunate if they always secure the same exemption.
As it is frequently important to know the relative situation of various groups of works, in order to determine their dependence, if there be any, one upon another, I have given a map (No. 1),


 showing the position of this group in respect to two others next to be noticed. Half a mile south of the space covered by this map is the Wisconsin river. The bluffs here leave the river, and extend along the west side of Otter creek; the broad plain known as Prairie du Sac, or Sauk Prairie, lying between them and the river. It will be observed that the group just described occupies one of thepasses by which the road ascends the bluffs.
The works near the centre of section seven , are on the margin of the marsh which borders the creek. Here are several oblong mounds, one of the bird form, and two anomalous images, of which drawings are given. Though they are evidently animal forms, it would be difficult for the most practised zoologist to determine the genera and species to which they should be referred. These are on ground gently sloping from the bluffs in the rear to the edge of the marsh, where there is a bank of no very great elevation.
On the east side of the creek, at the middle, commences a series of earthworks of a very interesting character, as shown on IV The principal figure, in the form of a bird with a forked tail, is also represented enlarged on 6
.
The bear is enlarged, and shown with its true proportions,  It can hardly admit of a doubt that this animal is intended, if we judge from the general form of the image.
One of these figures had apparently been cut in two by some cause since it was completed. Several excavations made in building the dam have injured or destroyed some of these works. We noticed here that the reddish earth excavated from the pits very soon lost its redness on exposure to the air, and assumed the light color of the earth found in the animal mounds. This will explain the difference in hue without resorting to the improbable suggestion that the soil has been brought from a distance. The birds and bear are on the margin of the beautiful level plain, here mostly covered with trees; a part of the great plain or prairie before alluded to.
It is to be observed, that the difference between the mounds evidently bird and those resembling the human form, is but slight; so that, strange as it may appear, it is sometimes not easy to decide which was meant by the ancient artist.
The prairie along the river, above Honey creek, gives evidence of recent Indian occupancy in the numerous irregular corn-hills, such as are now made by them. In 1766,1 and probably for a long time afterwards, it was the site of a village of the united Sauk and Fox tribes—hence, the name of the prairie. But few remains of the labors of the “ancient people,” however, were observed on this plain, until we approached its upper margin. Here we found, near the residence of Mr. Charles Durr, several parallel ridges, and a few imitative forms. One of these, with the anterior foot remarkably enlarged,  These works are near the line between sections seven and eight, township ten, range seven east.
1 Carver’s Travels (Harper’s N. Y. Ed., 1838), p. 49.


We here found a number of ridges with an angular deflection near the smaller extremity. They have about the usual height of oblong parapets and ridges, from two to four feet, and vary in length from two hundred to several hundred feet. They differ from the crooked ridge , on Honey creek, in having the deflected portion straight.
We noticed here a mound with a horn, apparently intended to represent the elk or deer; which, as night overtook us, we did not survey.
A short distance above commences a series of works surveyed by Mr. William H. Canfield, of Baraboo, and represented on Plate 7 and 8.


They are located on the slope extending from the bluffs to the river, here about two miles apart.. The ground is not level or even, but gently rolling, and the principal mounds are handsomely situated on the knolls. The little brook on is usually dry, and runs in a valley but slightly depressed below the general surface. Towards its source the ground is more level and a little marshy. The bed of the stream is a little gravelly.
The sharp-pointed ridges, some straight, and others with an angle near the extremity, and the animal with several humps on its back, are peculiar features in this group.
The works represented  are about a mile north of the last, and about midway between the bluffs and the river. The pond contains pure water, and now supplies the inhabitants of a very different race with this indispensable element.
About two miles further up the river (on section three, township ten, range seven east), is another group, of which only one figure was surveyed by Mr. Canfield  The form of the head and wings leaves no doubt that the object intended was a bird.
As this bird is represented in the act of flying, the remark of Mr. Canfield that it may be a messenger-bird carrying something, indicated by the little mound placed below the wing, as if suspended from its beak, seems quite probable. This mound is small (seven feet in diameter), a very true circle at the base, and now less than a foot in height. Perhaps the purpose is to represent the bird as bearing to the spirit-land some person whose remains were deposited in the mound.
Mr. Canfield writes that “the valley of the Wisconsin river above Prairie du Sac, for three or four miles, is completely filled with these works. It is here two miles wide, timbered mostly with black and burr oak, generally of a light sandy soil, and quite undulating, in some places hilly. There are no mounds on the prairie.”
There are scattered tumuli of various forms in and about the village of Baraboo, on the river of the same name.