Antiquities of Wisconsin I. A. Lapham
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Chapter 6


IN the geological report of Messrs. Foster and Whitney, made to Congress in 1850, we have some details of discoveries of traces of ancient mining in the copper district south of Lake Superior, and also on Isle Royale. They “consist of numerous excavations in the solid rock; heaps of rubble and earth along the courses of the veins; the remains of copper utensils, fashioned into the form of knives and chisels; stone hammers, some of which are of immense size and weight; wooden bowls for bailing water from the mines; and numerous levers of wood used in raising the masses of copper to the surface.”

Traces of mounds, constructed in the form of mathematical figures, were observed. One on the northeast quarter of section sixteen, township fifty, range thirty-nine, near a small stream, is about ten feet high, in the form of a square, flat on the top, the sides of which are fifteen feet in length. The slopes are regular from the top to the base.

From this description, and the drawing accompanying it (Fig. 30), this tumulus appears to be a regular pyramidal structure, like those within the walls of Aztalan, the temple-mounds so often found in the Southern States, and the teocalli of Mexico. We might draw the conclusion that people having the same form of worship were spread over this whole extent of country, and that those who had gone to the remote regions of Lake Superior had so much respect for their religion as to erect a small altar or temple-mound, to answer their temporary purposes while engaged in the duty of supplying the nation with copper.
Temple Mound, L. Superior.Stone Hammer of
Ancient Miners.Stone Axe, L. Superior.

The stone hammers (Fig. 31), observed in great abundance about these mines, show that the process of cutting the masses of native copper was practised then as it is now, only with tools of different materials. These seem to have been manu- [page 75:] factured on the ground, and differ from the articles of stone obtained from the mounds further south.

Among them, however, are stone axes (Fig. 32), quite similar (if we may judge from the delineation of Messrs. Foster and Whitney) to those common to the whole country; and they form another connecting link between the mound-builders and the ancient workers of the Lake Superior copper mines.

Dr. C. T. Jackson attributes these operations to the Chippewas; implying that the ancestors of the present race of Indians made the excavations, stone hammers, axes, &c.

If we assume the age of the tree found growing upon the rubbish thrown out of an ancient mine (three hundred and ninety-five years) as indicative of the epoch, or near it, when the mines were worked, it is only about double the time that the Chippewas have been known to occupy this region. The discovery of wooden levers and wooden bowls, forbid us to assign a much greater antiquity to these works. If these Indians have remained unchanged in their general habits for a period of two hundred years, it requires no aid from the imagination to suppose that they had then occupied the same country for one or more terms of equal duration; and there is, therefore, nothing improbable in the supposition that Wisconsin was occupied by the present race of Indians (if not of the same nations or tribes), five or eight hundred years ago.

The existence of wood buried in mounds at Aztalan, and other places, not entirely decayed, and the condition of the bones and other articles accompanying it, show conclusively that they could not have been deposited for a much longer period than that mentioned.

When the country about Lake Superior was first visited by French missionaries, about the middle of the seventeenth century, or two hundred years ago, copper was used by the Chippewas.

Alloüer writes (in 1666), “It frequently happens that pieces of copper are found weighing from ten to twenty pounds. I have seen several such pieces in the hands of savages; and since they are superstitious, they esteem them as divinities, or as presents given to them to promote their happiness by the gods who dwell beneath the water. For this reason they preserve these pieces of copper wrapped up with their most precious articles. In some families they have been kept for more than fifty years; in others they have descended from time out of mind, being cherished as domestic gods.”1
1 Quoted by Foster and Whitney, page 7.

Father Dublon (1669-70) says, in relation to the copper, that the Indians were shy of disclosing their knowledge of it, “so that we were obliged to use some artifice.”1
1 Same, p. 10.

If, then, these fragments of copper were held so sacred as to be kept and handed down as household gods, we may certainly allow some lapse of time for such superstitions to originate and become incorporated into the religious system of the [page 76:] Chippewas; and a comparatively slight draft upon the past, anterior to that period, will carry them back to the age of the ancient mining and mound-building.

Upon a general consideration of these investigations, we are led to the inference that the men who built the earthworks of Wisconsin, and those who first opened the Lake Superior copper mines, were one and the same people, and that they were none other than the ancestors of the present race of Indians. Differences there may have been, as we now see in tribes residing within a few hundred miles of each other; but these differences were perhaps no greater at that remote period than at present.

But to account for the presence of copper among the mound-builders, we need not resort to Lake Superior. Fragments of this metal in its pure or native condition, are very often found associated with the “drift,” which has doubtless been transported from the same region of country. Such fragments are frequently washed from the banks by rains, or by the action of the waves on the margin of the lakes. Since the settlement of the country they have often been turned up by the plough. They vary in size from the smallest fragment to twenty pounds or more in weight; and from this source probably all the copper used by the natives, other than that from mines, was derived. The chemical tests applied would not, of course, decide this question.

With regard to the ancient mines at Lake Superior, it might be questioned whether the old French missionaries and traders did not succeed in extorting from the Indians, by artifice, the secret of their locality, and then make abortive attempts to remove some of the large masses there found. In the report of Messrs. Foster and Whitney, before referred to, it is stated that Mr. Samuel O. Knapp (who first laid before the public an account of the nature and extent of the primitive mining) discovered “a mass of native copper ten feet long, three feet wide, and nearly two feet thick, and weighing over six tons. On digging around it, the mass was found to rest on billets of oak, supported by sleepers of the same material. This wood, by its long exposure to moisture, is dark colored, and has lost all its consistency. A knife-blade may be thrust into it as easily as into a peat bog. The earth was so packed around the copper as to give it a firm support. The ancient miners had evidently raised it about five feet, and then abandoned the work as too laborious. They had taken off every projecting point which was accessible, so that the exposed surface was smooth.”

Again, “in cleaning out one of these pits, at the depth of ten feet, the workmen came across a fragment of a wooden bowl, which, from the splintery pieces of rock and gravel imbedded in its rim, must have been employed in bailing water.”

Now, unless there is some mistake as to these facts, we are not disposed to attribute this work to the aboriginal inhabitants. The sleepers, levers, wooden bowls, &c., are rather indicative of Caucasian ingenuity and art. Nor do the copper knives of Lake Superior have the appearance of great antiquity. Their form indicates quite plainly the knife of the white man; although the method of attaching the handle by turning up the edges, may be of aboriginal origin. See Fig. 33, which is a half-size drawing of a copper knife from Lake Superior, presented to me by Mr. [page 77:] O. Vandyke. Arrow-points were attached in the same way (see Fig. 34), as shown by one found at Menasha, on Lake Winnebago, and received from Mr. Curtis Reed.
Copper Knife from Lake Superior. (One half natural size.)

In the immediate valley of the Mississippi the animal forms do not appear to be as numerous as on the Wisconsin and in some other localities. So far as I can learn, they extend down only as far as Apple river, in Illinois, a few miles south of the State line of Wisconsin.
Indian Arrow-head, of copper. Natural size.

There are occasional localities south of the Wisconsin river, where traces of ancient works can be seen; but the immediate bank of the Mississippi is so broken that it could not be explored without much labor and difficulty.

The works at Prairie du Chien, heretofore described (page 66), are the most extensive of any on the river; but these are too much injured to exhibit with distinctness their original forms.

Along the great dividing ridge between the Mississippi and the Kickapoo rivers, there are mounds in great numbers, Their general character is the same as that of those near the residence of Mr. Miller (Plate LI), and they may, without much effort of imagination, be classed among the birds and buffaloes, accompanied by oblong and circular mounds, This ridge may be aptly compared to the back-bone of some gigantic animal, the numerous lateral spurs, extending towards the Mississippi or the Kickapoo, representing the ribs.

The animal effigies along the ridge are usually headed towards the south or southeast. The elevation is from four hundred to seven hundred feet above the adjoining rivers. The arrangement of the strata of rock (as exhibited in the section, Plate LI) is such as to cause numerous springs to gush out on either side, not far below the summit; and that circumstance may have led to the occupancy of the ridge by so large a population, as is indicated by their works still remaining. It is now inducing settlements in the same locality by a different race of men; the prime necessities of man being alike under all circumstances. [page 78:]

Isolated tumuli exist near the waters of the Mississippi along this part of its course; and at the place where the road turns off towards Springville, at Bartlett’s Landing, is a very considerable assemblage, mostly of circular and oblong mounds, occupying the summit and sides of a narrow ridge. (Plate LII.) The river is here divided into several distinct channels, called “sloughs.”

At La Crosse there is a prairie between the river and the bluffs, which has always been a favorite place of resort for the Indian. The conical tumuli forming a row parallel with the river, manifest also the residence of the mound-builders. The materials of these works being sand, they are now much reduced, and can be discovered only upon close inspection. I could find none that appeared to have had any animal or other imitative forms.

On the immediate brink of the river are excavations bordered by embankments.Some are circular, and resemble the remains of the Indian caches; while others areof a different form, as represented in Fig. 35. Several were observed in the shape Mississippi river. Ancient Works on the bank of the Mississippi, at La Crosse. Forty feet
to an inch. of a crescent, the excavation gradually deepening from the horns towards the centre. All have the elevated ridge on the side furthest from the river; so that if these works were intended for defence, it was against an enemy from the land. They are of no great extent; many of them would not protect more than two or three persons.

Perhaps it was to excavations of this kind that Lieutenant Pike alludes in his journal (page 19), where he says: “The Sioux have a mode of defence or secretion by digging holes in the prairie, and throwing up a bank around it, into which they put their women and children, and then crawl in themselves.” The soft sandy nature of the ground here would easily admit of the employment of that kind of protection.

On the eastern border of this prairie are some very high bluffs, presenting towards the top perpendicular cliffs of limestone. On one of these, known as Gale’s Bluff we found a large crevice or cave, in which, among some loose stones and sand, were several human bones; and a skull has been taken from the same place. No bones of animals could be found. The rock above the cave is perpendicular for a great height. [page 79:]

On the south side of the entrance are some markings (Fig. 36), doubtless of aboriginal origin, possibly intended to record the virtues of the person or persons Indian Hieroglyphics, Gale’s Bluff, near La Crosse. whose remains are there deposited. The marks are on a soft, yellow, granular limestone; often mistaken by casual observers for sandstone. They are not deeply impressed, and have evidently been affected by the crumbling of the surface.

Only an occasional mound was observed along the valley of La Crosse river; and it is believed that no works of any considerable extent exist above this point on the Mississippi.

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Lapham, Increase Allen, 1811-1875.   The antiquities of Wisconsin.   Washington : Smithsonian Institution, 1855.   p. 74-79.
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