Antiquities of Wisconsin I. A. Lapham
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Chapter 5


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, [page 67:] (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. [page 68:]

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 (see Plate XLII, No, 1), 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 (Plate XLII, No. 2), 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 XLIII. 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. (See Plate XLII, No. 4.)

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. [page 69:]

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 (Plate XLV, 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 (Plate XLIV, 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 the passes by which the road ascends the bluffs.

The works near the centre of section seven (Plate XLIV, No. 1), 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 (Plate XLV, Nos. 2 and 3). 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 Plate XLIV, No. 2. The principal figure, in the form of a bird with a forked tail, is also represented enlarged on Plate XLVI, No. 3.

The bear is enlarged, and shown with its true proportions, on Plate XLV, No. 4. [page 70:] 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 birds (Plate XLVI, No. 3) and those resembling the human form (Plate XLII, Nos. 3 and 4), 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, is represented on Plate XLVI, No. 1. 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. (See Plate XLVI, No. 2.) 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 (Plate XLIII), 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 XLVI, No. 4, and on Plates XLVII and XLVIII. 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 Plate XLVII 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 on Plate XLVIII are about a mile north of the last, and [page 71:] 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 (Plate XLVI, No. 4). 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.

A little east of that remarkable gorge in the sandstone, known as “the Dells of the Wisconsin river,” is a small inclosure (Fig. 28), of double walls, which may have been surmounted by palisades, and have formed a sort of fort or stronghold. The breadth occupied by the two embankments is eighteen feet, and the area of the inclosure is about 45,000 square feet, affording room for about 2,000 persons.
Ancient inclosure, Dells of Wisconsin river
[page 72:]

There are also some other slight works in this vicinity, mostly oblong mounds, called breastworks by gentlemen of military associations; and there are extensive tracts of ground worked into garden-beds, or low flat ridges, as before described.

There are also some mounds at the foot of the Big Dells, six miles further up the river.

Following up the valley of the Lemonwier river, a branch of the Wisconsin from the west, the first group of works observed was near One Mile creek (section twenty, township fifteen, range four, delineated on Plate XLIX). There are six embankments of different lengths, three bird-shaped mounds with large bodies, and two small oval tumuli, all arranged on or between two sandy ridges that very much resemble ancient lake beaches. The works are arranged in a direction parallel to these two ridges; and the wings of two of the birds extend entirely across the low ground between them. On both sides of the ridges the ground descends into low marshy places of considerable extent.

The two oblong embankments situated upon the sand ridge might be supposed to be works of defence, or breastworks; but as they are of precisely the same character as the others whose position between the ridges precludes such an inference, we must, as in other cases, conclude that they were constructed for a different purpose. The ground is here occupied by the oak-openings, or a scattered growth of trees. The marshes on each side may formerly have been ponds, now filled by the accumulation for ages of vegetable matter.

At Mors creek (section seven, township fifteen, range four, east), there is a series of mounds, as delineated on Plate L. They extend along the river at intervals for two miles. The group near the mill (Plate L, No. 1), is much injured by a removal of the earth to form the dam across the Lemonwier river. It consists, as will be seen, of bird-shaped and oblong earthworks. No. 2 of the same plate is an enlarged plan of the two most perfect of these images. Upon excavating one of them, the remains of a human skeleton were found, which had been deposited in the head of the figure. These mounds are here supposed to represent men. They are upon a gentle slope or nearly level space between the river and the foot of a ridge, or second bank, which is but slightly elevated above the water of the river. Several round tumuli are found on the ridge a few rods further west.

On Plate L, No. 3, is represented a very long-armed figure, situated near Two Mile creek (about two miles above Moss’s Mill), where are others quite similar to those exhibited on the same plate, No. 2. These long arms extend quite across from the abrupt bank of the river to some marshy grounds.

In the same neighborhood is said to be a small circular inclosure (southwest quarter of section twenty-one, township sixteen, range three), and also (on the northwest quarter of section twelve, township fifteen, range three) a series of garden-beds.

Leaving the main Lemonwier river, we passed between two isolated sandstone cliffs, known as the Little Bluffs (section twelve, township sixteen, range two, east), and observed two oblong embankments, or breastworks; but they did not appear to be arranged with any purpose of defending the narrow pass between the bluffs. [page 73:]

On section nine, township sixteen, range two, east, we found an oblong embankment.; and also one called a man, with the legs expanded, but having no contraction for the neck. (See Plate L, No. 4.) Several earthworks (one of the man shape) are found on section five, township sixteen, range two, east; and a row of five oblong elevations, with but slight intervals, occupy a swell in the prairie on section four, township sixteen, range one, east.

Above these we discovered no more mounds on the Little Lemonwier. The country becomes more hilly; the valley is narrow, and the stream small; affording no suitable position for an aboriginal population.

Above the mouth of the Lemonwier, on the Wisconsin, I have no information of ancient works, except a few mounds at Du Bays, at Plover Portage, and an inclosure recently discovered and described to me by Mr. Erskine Stanbury. Fort at Iron
creek.It is spoken of as “a fort” in township twenty-one, and range seven, east, on the line between sections nineteen and twenty, seven hundred and thirty chains from the south corner of those sections. It is on the bold bluff bank of what we call Iron creek. It consists of an oblong or parallelogram, its longer axis with the direction of the stream. The walls are about the usual height, with a regular ditch or fosse all round them; and in the ditch and fort, trees from six to ten inches in diameter are now growing. From each corner a straight mound is thrown up, running off to some distance, as in the figure. The ground was covered with snow, or we would have taken a survey and measurement.


In the second volume of the History of the Indian Tribes (p. 91, Plate lii), just published by authority of Congress, is a plate representing the ancient works situated on one of the three islands in Lake Vieux Désert, the head of the Wisconsin river, accompanied by the following brief notice:

“The remote position of Lake Vieux Désert, its giving rise to the Wisconsin river, and its having a large island in its centre which fits it for the cultivation practised by the Indians, appear to have early pointed it out as a retreat and stronghold of the interior Indians. No enemy could approach it except by water, and its natural capacities for defence were strengthened by an elliptical embankment in its centre, which appears to have served as the basis of pickets. There were small mounds or barrows within the inclosure, together with some cross embankments, and two large excavations without the embankment, all which are shown in the plate. It appears to have been the most northwesterly point fortified, east of the Mississippi river. The boundary which separates Wisconsin from Michigan cuts the island into nearly equal parts.”

It is not stated when or by whom these works were surveyed. The general parallelism of the embankments with the shore of the island, and the occurrence of large pebbles in their materials, lead to the suspicion that they may be natural ridges, caused by the expansive force of ice. Such ridges are quite numerous along the banks of the smaller lakes in this climate.

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Lapham, Increase Allen, 1811-1875.   The antiquities of Wisconsin.   Washington : Smithsonian Institution, 1855.   p. 66-73.
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