Antiquities of Wisconsin I. A. Lapham
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Chapter 8


IT seems proper to present here some general conclusions to which the facts detailed in the preceding pages lead the mind of the inquirer, though many of them have already been expressed.

The American race is now, and probably always has been, divided into numerous distinct tribes or nations, occupying different portions of the country, and each having to some extent its own peculiar habits, customs, religion, and even language. Many of the tribes were of a roving disposition, with no fixed place of abode; while others were more permanent, only leaving their villages for the purpose of war or the chase. Since these nations have been known to us, and their history recorded, we are cognizant of numerous and important changes in the location of different tribes, and even nations. We know of tribes that have become extinct, and of others that have gradually united with their neighbors, adopting their habits, religion, and language.

We may, therefore, without assuming any far-fetched theories, suppose that a nation or tribe of red men formerly occupied the country now known as Wisconsin, whose superstitions, ceremonies, and beliefs, required the erection of mounds of earth of the various forms represented on the plates accompanying this work; and that these tribes may have emigrated, or been driven off by others having no veneration for their ancient monuments. These subsequent tribes may or may not be the same that until very recently occupied that country. They extended their cultivation over the mounds with as little feeling of respect as is manifested by men of the race who are now fast destroying them. It is quite certain that these later tribes continued the practice of mound-building so far as to erect a circular or conical tumulus over their dead. This practice appears to be a remnant of ancient customs that connects the mound-builders with the present tribes.

The extent of the ancient works in the West indicates a condition of society somewhat different from the purely savage or hunter state: for to accomplish the labor required for the completion of such large structures, it would be necessary to accumulate the means of subsistence; and this could be done only by an agricultural people, or at least agriculture must have been among the pursuits of a people capable of constructing those works. Now we know that nearly all the Indian tribes cultivate the soil to some extent; and is it not reasonable to suppose that the amount of attention devoted to that pursuit may have been greater at former times than at present? A tribe or nation may gradually change its habits in rela- [page 90:] tion to one or another class of pursuits, and yet remain essentially the same people. Again, the Indians are to a certain extent migratory; and hence we may look for the posterity of the mound-builders of Wisconsin in remote portions of the country.

Some tribes of the Dacotah or Sioux family, especially the Mandans and Aricaras (Ricaras, or Riccarees), are much more stationary and fixed in their habits than other tribes of Indians. “They cultivate corn, not only for their own use, but also enough to make it a very prominent article of trade.”1
1 T. A. Culbertson’s Journal, in 5th Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, p. 118.

Dr. Morton says: “the Osages, Minetaris, Mandans, Assinaboins, and many cognate tribes, are more or less connected with the great Sioux nation;”1 and that the Osages, Omahas, Kansas, Missouris, and Ouapans, all speak a language so nearly allied that they can severally converse with each other without an interpreter.2
1 Crania Americana , pp. 199, 200.
2 The Winnebagos are a branch of the Sioux stock. Gallatin’s Synopsis, p, 120.

It is quite probable that a more thorough knowledge of the habits, religious ceremonies, and superstitious beliefs of this great family, or group of families of Indians, would throw much, light upon the obscure subject of the mounds, and perhaps unravel the mystery of their origin and uses.

The ancient works in Wisconsin are mostly at the very places selected by the present Indians for their abodes; thus indicating that the habits, wants, modes of subsistence, &c., of their builders, were essentially the same.

If the present tribes have no traditions running back as far as the times of Allouez and Marquette, or even to the more recent time of Jonathan Carver, it is not strange that none should exist in regard to the mounds, which must be of much earlier date.

It is by considerations of this nature that we are led to the conclusion that the mound-builders of Wisconsin were none others than the ancestors of the present tribes of Indians.

There is some evidence of a greater prevalence than at present of prairie or cultivated land in this State, at no very remote age. The largest trees are probably not more than five hundred years old; and large tracts of land are now covered with forests of young trees, where there are no traces of an antecedent growth. Every year the high winds prostrate great numbers of trees; and frequent storms pass through the forest, throwing down nearly every thing before them. Trees are left with a portion of the roots still in the ground, so as to keep them alive for several years after their prostration. These “wind-falls” are of frequent occurrence in the depths of the forests, and occasion much difficulty in making the public surveys. The straight lines of the sections frequently encounter them, as may be seen by the accompanying map. (Fig. 61.)
Map showing
“Wind-falls,” reported by the Surveyors of the Public Lands. Six miles to one inch.

The amount of earth adhering to the roots of a tree when prostrated by the wind, is, under favorable circumstances, very considerable, and upon their decay forms an oblong mound of greater or less magnitude, and a slight depression is left where the tree stood. These little hillocks are often, by the inexperienced, mistaken for Indian graves. From the paucity of these little “tree-mounds” we infer that no [page 91:] very great antiquity can be assigned to the dense forests of Wisconsin; for during a long period of time, with no material change of climate, we would expect to find great numbers of these little monuments of ancient storms scattered every where over the ground.

Whether the greater extent of treeless country in former times was owing to natural or artificial causes, it is now difficult to determine; but the great extent of ancient works within the depths of the present forests, would seem to indicate that the country was at least kept free from trees by the agency of man.

Many of these tree-mounds were observed on and about the ancient works.

Another curious circumstance that may be noticed by inspection of the figures of mounds accompanying this work, is the gradual transition, as it were, or change of one form into another. Examples can be found of all forms, from a true circle, through the oval and elongated oval, to the oblong mounds and long ridges. Again, there is a succession of mounds, from the simple ridge of considerable size at one end, and gradually diminishing to a point at the other, through the intermediate forms, having one, two, three, or four projections, to the “turtle form.” In this way, also, we may trace a gradual development (so to speak) of nearly all the more complicated forms.

It is not pretended to assert that this was the order in which the mounds were erected; or that the aborigines gradually acquired the art by successive essays or [page 92:] lessons. Indeed, we are led to believe that the more complicated forms are the most ancient.

The relative ages of the different works in Wisconsin, so far as they can be ascertained from the facts now before us, are probably about as follows:

First and oldest. The animal forms, and the great works at Aztalan.

Second. The conical mounds built for sepulchral purposes, which come down to a very recent period.

Third. The indications of garden-beds planted in regular geometrical figures or straight lines.

Fourth. The plantations of the present tribes, who plant without system or regularity.

Thus the taste for regular forms and arrangements, and the habits of construction with earthy materials, seem to have been gradually lost, until all traces of them disappear in our modern degenerate red men.

The animal-shaped mounds, and accompanying oblongs and ridges, constituting the first of the above series, are composed of whitish clay, or of the subsoil of the country.1 The mounds of the second series, or burial-mounds, are usually composed of black mould or loam, promiscuously intermixed with the lighter-colored subsoil.
1 It has been observed that the diluvial or drift clays, whether red, yellow, or blue in their original beds, assume a whitish color when exposed to the sun and dried.

The animal-shaped mounds appear to be peculiar to Wisconsin; for the few obscure instances noticed in Ohio, by Messrs. Squier and Davis, can hardly be deemed an exception to this remark. They indicate a difference in the character of the people occupying these regions, but not greater than often exists between the neighboring tribes or nations.

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Lapham, Increase Allen, 1811-1875.   The antiquities of Wisconsin.   Washington : Smithsonian Institution, 1855.   p. 89-92.
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