Antiquities of Wisconsin I. A. Lapham
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Chapter 2

ANCIENT WORKS IN THE BASIN OF THE PISHTAKA RIVER.

This stream is usually called Fox River; but, to distinguish it from the numerous other rivers of the same name, it is necessary to call it the Fox River1 of the Illinois. It originates in the northeastern part of Waukesha County, and runs in a southerly direction through the western part of Racine and Kenosha counties into Illinois. It thence passes by way of the Illinois River into the Mississippi. Within the State of Wisconsin its basin covers an area of nine hundred and forty-five square miles.
1 It is said that the Indians called all rivers with numerous short bends by this name, from the resemblance of their course to that of a fox when pursued.

The ancient works in the valley of the Pishtaka extend as far down as to the place where Major Long and his party crossed it, a little north of west from Chicago. “At this point,” says the narrator, “the river has a fine gravelly bottom, and was very easily forded. On the west side we reached a beautiful but small prairie, situated on a high bank, which approaches within two hundred and fifty yards of the edge of the water; and upon this prairie we discovered a number of mounds, which appear to have been arranged with a certain degree of regularity. Of these mounds we counted twenty-seven. They vary from one to four feet and a half in height, and from fifteen to twenty-five in length; their breadth is not proportioned to their length, as it seldom exceeds six or eight feet. They are placed at unequal distances, which average about twenty yards, and are chiefly upon the brow of the hill; but some of them stand at a greater distance back. Their form appears to have been originally oval; and the slight depression in the ground observed sometimes on both sides of the mound, seems to indicate that it has been raised by means of the earth collected in its immediate vicinity. Of their artificial nature no doubt could be entertained.”1
1 Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of the St. Peter’s River, &c., I. 176. Philadelphia, 1824.

About a dozen localities are known along this stream and its branches, within the limits of Wisconsin, at which mounds have been erected by the ancient occupants of the country. Near the southern boundary of the State are a few works, as on the northwest side of Silver Lake, in the town of Salem (section eight, township one, range twenty), where there are some burial mounds; and a little north of the road (southwest quarter of southeast quarter of section five, township one, range twenty) are two oblong mounds, which, from their position, are supposed to be [page 24:] “look-out” stations. They are situated near some quite remarkable bluffs of limestone gravel, and command an extensive view of the valley towards the south, with its beautiful lake and ancient remains.

Mound Prairie, in the western part of Wheatland (township one, range nineteen), is a small and beautiful prairie lying between two line groups of lakes; and is so named from some artificial works near the centre of the prairie. We found six or eight circular mounds, and one that appeared to have been a “turtle.” They were nearly destroyed by the plough.

Near the village of Geneva (section thirty-five, township one, range seventeen), there were two turtle mounds, and several of the ordinary circular or conical form. They are situated near the lake with their heads towards the water. A road passes directly over them, and they are now (1850) nearly destroyed. Further search would probably reveal the localities of other works about these lakes.

Five miles south of Burlington (on the northwest quarter of section twenty-six, township two, range nineteen), is a solitary animal mound, with curved tail, and enlarged at the extremity, as shown in the figure. (Plate XIII. No. 1.) It is situated on a gently sloping hill side, and the road passes directly over it. It is a very unusual circumstance to find such a mound disconnected from other works; but we could not learn that any others existed in the vicinity.

On the east bank of the river, opposite the village of Burlington, is a series of mounds arranged in an irregular row along the margin of the stream. (See Plate XIII. No. 2.) The largest of the series, near the middle, is ten feet high, and fifty feet in diameter at the base. It is connected with the next by an embankment, a circumstance observed in several other cases. At the north or upper end of the series, are four oblong mounds; one with a divided extremity, or horns, as shown in the drawing. Eleven conical tumuli may yet be traced; and some others, it is said, have been removed. Persons of lively imagination might suppose this series to represent a serpent, with mouth open, in the act of swallowing its prey; the series forming a sort of serpentine row.

A little west of the village is a small inclosure of oval form, the embankment having but a slight elevation. It may have been the place of a mud-house, or some structure the decay of which has left only this evidence of its former existence. There are said to be others similar to it in the vicinity. A stone axe and a flint arrow-point were obtained here.

On the west side of Wind Lake (northeast quarter of section eight, township four, range twenty), we discovered five conical mounds, but no other works in their vicinity. Also on the west side of Muskego Lake (east half of northeast quarter of section sixteen, township five, range twenty), is a group of works represented in Plate XIV. No. 1. They consist of two parallel ridges at the extremity of a small promontory nearly surrounded by marshy grounds, and a ridge and some circular mounds on another point of land opposite. There is a remarkable excavation in the bank here, which is doubtless the work of art; but its origin and the purpose for which it was made can now only be a subject of conjecture.

These parallel ridges have been represented as the remains of a fort or fortified promontory; but a glance at the plate will show that no such object could have [page 25:] been the motive of their construction. Instead of extending across the neck of the peninsula, as in the “fortified hills,” and thus defending the approach to the position, they occupy a place near the extremity of the high land.

Proceeding up the valley of the river from Burlington, there are no remains for a distance of twelve miles. We then find those represented on Plate XV. By invitation, we took up our quarters at the house of Mr. Isaac Bailey, where it was once proposed to build a village or city, to be called “Crawfordsville.” The city was never built, and the name is only remembered by a few of the oldest inhabitants. This is the place mentioned by Mr. R. C. Taylor1 as stated in the western papers to contain a group of mounds resembling lizards, alligators, and flying dragons.
1 Silliman’s Amer. Journal of Science and Art, 1st series, XXXIV. 95.

On Plate XVI, I have endeavored to represent these monsters as they appear upon careful survey and plotting. They occupy ground sloping gently towards the river at the north and northwest, their heads pointing up hill, and their general course southwesterly. The winged mounds or dragons (three in number) appear to lead the flight or march of the other animals, and to be heralded by a host of simple oblong figures, extending nearly half a mile in the same direction. An enlarged view of one of the winged mounds is shown on Plate XVII. No. 1; and the group of oblong mounds, forming the “advance guard,” is shown on Plate XIV, No.2.

The main figure in the general group is shown on an enlarged scale (Plate XVII. No. 2), and is two hundred and eighty-six feet in length. This and the one immediately preceding it are good representatives of the kind called lizards; while the two exterior figures, having four projections or feet, are always called turtles by the most casual observer. One at the right appears to have been intended for a lizard, but is without the tail. These are from two to six feet in height.

A little north of the mounds represented on Plate XVI. is a very large one, ten feet in perpendicular height, and eighty feet in diameter at the base. Its situation is such as to command a view of the valley for two or three miles both above and below. It had been opened prior to our visit, but without important results. It has an appendage consisting of a slight ridge of earth, sixty feet long, extending from its base in a northeasterly direction. Immediately north of it is an excavation from one to two feet in depth. The earth taken from this excavation, however, would make but a small part of the large mound. South of these the ground continues to rise to a high ridge, occupied by the roads, as shown on the map, Plate XV.

As seen by the plate, many of these mounds are in a grove of timber, and have not been disturbed by cultivation. It is very much to be hoped that the good taste of the present intelligent proprietor will induce him to preserve them from destruction. This locality was doubtless one of much importance to the original inhabitants. It is protected on three sides by the marshy grounds along the margin of the river; and on the heights in the rear are several mounds, indicat- [page 26:] ing that outposts may have been guarded, so as to give warning of the first approach of an enemy.

It has been observed that among the figures represented on Plate XVI. is a lizard without a tail; and we found, on the high ground immediately south of the little village of Big Bend, two, which may be considered as turtles, with a similar deficiency. (Plate XVII, No. 3.) They closely resemble the forms described by Mr. S. Taylor.1
1 Silli. Journal, XLIV. 28, Plate v. Fig. 6; quoted by Squire and Davis, Smiths. Contrib., I. 130, Plate xliii. Fig. 5.

One of these (on the east side of the river) is apparently a group of two large and four small mounds united into one (Plate XVII. No. 4) or we may suppose the two largest united by a ridge, and the four smaller ones placed adjoining them. In each of these figures one end is larger than the other; thus indicating which was the head of the turtle. One is sixty-five feet long, and sixty-seven feet broad, measured from the extremities of the anterior projections; the other is one hundred and four feet long, and eighty-two feet broad. One, it will be observed, lies nearly north and south, and the other nearly east and west. The most southerly is the largest. May they not have been the depositories of the remains of some distinguished family, consisting of the man, his wife, and four children? We may suppose that each had a mound erected suitable in its dimensions and relative position to the dignity of the person. Thus, the father would occupy the largest, and the children the smallest of the group.

The four mounds on the border of the prairie at the south part of Plate XV. may originally have been of imitative forms, but they are now much obliterated. From these the observer commands a distant view towards the south and southwest. In digging the well near by, sticks, and logs of cedar, or tamarack wood, were found at the depth of nineteen feet below the surface.

Waukesha is the next place which seems to have been occupied by the ancient inhabitants. It was formerly known as Prairie Village or Prairieville; and being on the main road west from Milwaukee, its mounds were early brought into notice. Their general distribution and relative situation, as well as the topographical features of the locality, will be found represented on Plate XVIII. It will be noticed that they occupy three different levels: those in the lower part of the village, mostly conical, are on the lowest ground; while those in the upper part are on what may be called the second bank; and the others are on the highlands east and south of the village.

Plate XIX. represents a group of works surveyed in 1836, with the assistance of Mr. Win. T. Galley. At that time the log-house near these mounds was the only evidence of civilization in the place; and the works were uninjured by the white man, except that the large mound was made use of for a root-house, or potato-hole. The turtle-mound was then a conspicuous object; and such was its resemblance to that animal, that it was pronounced a good representation by all who saw it. The mere outline of the ground plan, as represented in the plate, fails to convey an adequate idea of this resemblance. But it is better to give the [page 27:] outline correctly, than to attempt a delineation of what may be supposed to have been intended by the builders.

On this mound was, at that time, a recent grave, protected by pickets driven on opposite sides, so as to cross at the top, as represented on the plate. The Indians had but recently left the place, and the trail leading from the river to their wigwams ran directly over two of the mounds. This turtle was then a very fine specimen of the ancient art of mound-building, with its graceful curves, the feet projecting back and forward, and the tail, with its gradual slope, so acutely pointed that it was impossible to ascertain precisely where it terminated. The body was fifty-six feet in length, and the tail two hundred and fifty; the height six feet.

The ground occupied by this group of works is now covered with buildings. A dwelling-house stands upon the body of the turtle, and a Catholic church is built upon the tail.

Another turtle, represented on the same plate, was found on the college grounds, and differs from the other in being concave on the back, as shown by the section. It is also less symmetrical.

Plate XX. represents a group of structures occupying the very high hill a little east of the town. It consists of two round, four oblong, one turtle, and one bird-shaped mound. Of the last an enlarged view is presented on Plate XXII. No. 1, with its dimensions. Its position is peculiar, on a steep hill-side, with its head downwards. The general outline of the figure, and the shape of the head and beak, leave no doubt that a bird was intended to be represented; but whether an eagle, a hawk, or any particular bird, must be left entirely to conjecture. It will be observed that this bird is but a modification of other forms represented on the same plate (Plate XXII. Nos. 2 and 3); a slight curvature of the wings, and the addition of a beak, being the only difference: and this gradual passage of one kind of mound into another is often noticeable, as we shall have occasion to show elsewhere.

The very fine group, half a mile south of the town (Plate XXI.), fortunately is upon the grounds of Carroll College; and we may, therefore, hope it will be forever preserved as a record of the past. These mounds form a quasi inclosure, and hence, like many other groups of works, have been, by casual observers, called a fort. If we were not well acquainted with works of defence in Ohio and elsewhere, which show that the mound-builders were considerably advanced in military arts, we might suppose this was intended for a rude fortification; but we can only regard it as an accidental arrangement, and not designed for any such purpose.

Much of the ground about Waukesha was, in 1836, covered with “Indian corn-hills,” or remains of their recent culture of maize. In this locality, as at numerous others, the mounds occupy the highest ground and the points of hills and other places, whence the most extensive view, both above and below, can be obtained. The town of Waukesha stands on a slightly undulating plain, surrounded by hills, forming a fine amphitheatre, which, in ancient times, was doubtless crowded, as it is now, with a numerous population.

The mound marked a on the map (Plate XVIII.) was selected for examination; much of the earth having been removed by the town authorities, so as materially [page 28:] to lessen the labor. At about two feet above the original surface of the ground, the top of a circular wall or pile of stone, about nine feet in diameter, was discovered. It was composed of loose fragments of white limestone, which exhibited evidence of long contact with the earth, by their decayed and softened exterior. The wall was interrupted on the west side. (See Section, Plate XVIII.)

We commenced the exploration by opening a trench three feet wide, beginning on the east side of the original mound, deep enough to reach through the black and mottled earth of which the mound was composed, and to the surface of the yellowish clay subsoil. Continuing this trench towards the centre, we passed the loose stone wall, and found the black earth suddenly extending down about two feet below the natural surface of the ground, and reaching the gravel below the yellow clay. Upon this gravel, two feet below the original surface, directly under the centre of the mound, and surrounded by the circular heap of stone, was found a human skeleton, lying on its back, with The head towards the west. Stones had also been placed at the sides and over the body, forming a rude sort of coffin. The bones were very much decayed, and only fragments could be obtained. The plates of the skull were too far gone to be restored.

In the left hand was a pipe of baked clay or pottery, ornamented with holes around the bowl, and also a quantity of red paint. In the right hand was a smaller pipe, cut from a soft kind of stone. They are both very small, and appear to have been articles of fancy, rather than use. At the head were found many fragments of pottery which had been crushed by the weight of the earth; these fragments were originally portions of two vessels, which had the form represented in Fig. 8. They are of the same coarse and rude materials as the fragments so frequently found on and near the surface in many localities throughout the State. The earth immediately over the skeleton was hard and black, indicating the action of fire, though no other evidence of this was discovered. Fragments of fresh-water shells (of the genus Unio1) were found with the fragments of pottery. No wood was found, nor were any vacant places noticed where it might have decayed. Another mound was opened a short distance west of the first, by sinking a shaft in the centre five feet in diameter. We soon reached burnt clay, of a yellow or reddish-yellow color, with stones almost calcined into quicklime by the intensity of the heat. Much charcoal was obtained; showing still the original pores and concentric circles of the wood, which appeared to be oak. The bones of a portion of the leg of a human being were found; but the remainder of the skeleton had evidently been consumed at the time of the interment. There had been no excavation below the natural surface of the ground in this case.
1 Apparently the Unio siliquoides of Barnes

The materials composing these mounds were taken from the surface, so that no perceptible excavations are left in their vicinity; and the whole body of the tumulus consists of black mould, with occasional spots of yellowish clay. The difference between the artificial and natural soil was quite apparent. No articles [page 29:] of ornament or use, indicating any commerce with the white race, were discovered; and we are led to the conclusion that the mound was erected before the discovery of the country. The position of the skeleton, and other indications, show conclusively that no disturbance had taken place since the interment, and that the articles obtained were the original deposits. The skeleton was, without doubt, that of the personage for whom the mound was erected.

In .one of the vases at the head of the skeleton were the remains of a shell, apparently the Unio siliquoides, a very common species in the rivers and lakes of Wisconsin. These shells are often used for spoons; and this vase probably contained a supply of food for the departed while on the journey to the spirit-land.

It is impossible to estimate, with any degree of precision, the length of time that human bones may have remained when placed two feet in the earth, and covered with a mound still retaining an elevation of four feet; but it is certain that all traces of them would be gone in a few centuries, unless they were longer preserved by peculiar circumstances. The skeletons found here were, as before stated, very much decayed; but it is believed that their antiquity could not be very great. Roots of trees had penetrated to the bones, and drawn nourishment from their mouldering remains, thus hastening their decay; and their depth (four and six feet) below the top of the mound, was not so great as to exclude entirely the effects of moisture, especially in wet seasons. It is true, the hard layer of earth and the covering of stone had a preservative influence; but, upon the whole, it is not probable that these mounds have an antiquity of many hundred years.

It is clear, then, that this was one of the latest works of the mound-builders; one that connects them with the present race of Indians; and yet its origin is, without doubt, anterior to the discovery of America. The pipes, the red paint, and the pottery, are so many circumstances connecting this mound with the recent race; while the tumulus itself is a relic of the more ancient one of the mound-builders. The progress of discovery seems constantly to diminish the distinction between the ancient and modern races; and it may not be very wide of the truth to assert that they were the same people.

It is not strange that changes should, from time to time, take place in the character and habits of a people so rude and so little advanced in civilization. Different tribes have different habits; and a stronger one may have overrun and swallowed up a weaker, and thus changed its customs and destroyed its institutions. In this way, the mode of burial, and even the religious ceremonies, may be altered; those of the conquerors being substituted for those of the conquered. History records many such events. The inhabitants of Egypt have ceased to build pyramids and sphinxes; the Greeks have ceased to erect temples: and yet, we have reason to believe that their descendants occupy the same countries. Is it more strange that the ancestors of the present Indians should have erected mounds of earth, than that the aboriginals of any country should have had habits different from their posterity? We need not, therefore, look to Mexico, or any other country, for the descendants of the mound-builders. We probably see them in the present red race of the same or adjacent regions.

Since the red men have become known to us, numerous tribes have been ex- [page 30:] tinguished, with all their peculiar customs and institutions; yet, as a whole, the Indian remains. Many tribes have been overrun by others, and have united with them as one people. Migrations have taken place; one tribe acquiring sufficient power has taken possession of lands belonging to another, and maintained its possession. In the course of these revolutions it is not strange that habits and practices, once prevalent in certain places, with certain tribes, should become extinct and forgotten.

Another fact is important in this connection. The mound-builders occupied the same localities that are now the favorite resort of the present Indians, who still often make use of the mounds for the burial of their dead. They have a kind of veneration for them, which may be the result of a lingering tradition of their sacred origin. The implements and utensils of the mound-builders were the same in many cases as those used by the recent inhabitants before their intercourse with the whites; and, as it has been quite clearly shown that the latter have in former times erected mounds of earth over their dead, we may consider such facts as tending to prove the unity of these people.

A mile and a half above Waukesha, on a very high and commanding position, are three round mounds in front of four “lizard-mounds.” (Fig. 9.) They are at the crossing of the old “Madison road,” in the southwest quarter of section twenty-six. A sentinel stationed on them could give warning to the inhabitants of the approach of any hostile force, long before they could reach the village. The “lizards,” as in most other cases, have their heads towards the south.

On the northwest quarter of the same section are also some small mounds, and one of the lizard shape. They are at the foot of the hill that borders the outlet of Pewaukee Lake. Still further, on the road (S. E. qr. of Sec. 22, T. 7, R. 19), were found the remains of another lizard mound, now nearly destroyed.

But the most remarkable collection of lizards and turtles yet discovered is on the school section, about a mile and a half southeast from the village of Pewaukee. (See Plate XXIII.) This consists of seven turtles, two lizards, four oblong mounds, and one of those remarkable excavations before alluded to. One of the turtle mounds, partially obliterated by the road, has a length of four hundred and fifty [page 31:] feet; being nearly double the usual dimensions. Three of them are remarkable for their curved tails, a feature here first observed. (Plate XXIV. Nos. 2, 3, and 4.) One of the smallest has the tail turned back by the side of the body. (Plate XXIV. No. 4.) These curved figures have another peculiarity in the obtuseness of the extremity; the end being round and flat, instead of a sharp point, as in most other similar mounds. While these have a width of about four feet at the end, others so gradually diminish in height and breadth that it is almost impossible, as before observed, to determine the precise point of termination. One has a rectangular bend at the extremity of the tail, and in each there is a change of direction in passing from the body to the tail.

The excavation, Plate IX. Fig. 6, is quite similar to those found on the Milwaukee River, in form and dimensions; except that the extremity is deflected, and it does not appear to be associated with the principal mound by pointing towards it. The oblong structure adjoining the excavation is in the most conspicuous place, and may be styled the “observatory.”

This interesting group occupies a secure position, being on a ridge flanked by marshy grounds on either side. At the remote period when these mounds were built, the marshes may have been lakes, since filled up or dried away to their present condition.1 A diligent search did not reveal any evidence of breastworks, or other means of defence, across this ridge at either end of the mounds. About half a mile off; in a northwest direction, is a very high hill (probably two hundred feet above the level of the marshes), on which are one lizard and three circular mounds. From these there is a fine view, extending over much of the adjacent country.
1 They are 260 feet above Lake Michigan, as ascertained by levelling.

It will be noticed that there are no round or burial mounds among those represented on Plate XXIII. The cemetery was in some other place, probably on the hill just mentioned. The grounds about the former are covered with scattered oak-trees, commonly called “oak openings,” and thickly overgrown with small bushes, rendering it difficult to perform the work of surveying. Such was the density of this undergrowth, that we seldom could see a mound until we were directly upon it; and we are not sure that all were detected. At the time of our visit a fire was raging through the woods about us, consuming the dry leaves and brush, and filling the air with smoke; and our clothes and persons soon became blackened by the charred bushes, nor were we entirely free from danger arising from falling trees. The peculiar noise made by the fire as it entered the marsh, caused by the bursting of the hollow stems of coarse grass and weeds, was very great.

Traces of a few other mounds were noticed at the eastern extremity of Pewaukee Lake, immediately north of the village. They were too much injured in the process of making roads, and by the dam, by which the lake has been raised four feet above its original level, to admit of their precise nature being ascertained.

No other ancient works could be found in the valley of the Pishtaka and its branches; nor could we hear of any more upon inquiry among those familiar with the localities in that part of the country.

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Lapham, Increase Allen, 1811-1875.   The antiquities of Wisconsin.   Washington : Smithsonian Institution, 1855.   p. 23-31.
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